Microcopy Writing Tips by… George Orwell?

October 14, 2021 Kevin Dabrowski

In our previous articles in this series, we’ve explained what benefits UX writing can deliver and how to lay the ground for producing convincing microcopy. Now, with all the strategic planning out of the way, it’s time to focus on the nitty-gritty – the actual how to do it.

Writing text that lives inside of digital solutions is not so different from copywriting, content-, or any other form of writing. If you have a way with words (especially know the ins and outs of writing theory), many of the UX writing tips won’t surprise you.

Just as modern screenwriting is heavily based on Aristotle’s Poetics, the basics of writing microcopy can be found in many writing guides that predate software by decades. One of these examples is George Orwell’s popular Politics and the English Language from 1946.

But still, if you want to make your microcopy good, it should possess additional traits nowhere to be found in other forms of writing.

In this article, we’ll look at both the evergreen writing rules as well as at the modern industry specifics to help you write microcopy that performs well.

 

 

 

UX Writing – Strategy and Prework

 

However, if the topic of UX writing is new to you and you just stumbled upon this piece without reading our previous articles, make sure to read the first two entries in our UX writing series before reading on.

 

Read also: What is UX Writing? (And Why You Should Invest In It)

 

Read also: UX Writing – Why You Should Define Your Product’s Tone of Voice (And How)

 

 

UX Writing – What Should Your Microcopy’s Goal Be?

 

Producing microcopy is all about making the user’s life easier. Microcopy should guide, educate, and explain.

This means that the goal of the text within your app is to inform the user WHAT they must do, HOW they must do it, WHAT WILL happen if they do it, and, additionally, WHY they should do it.

The part of what will happen – sometimes overlooked – often turns out to be vital. Imagine you’re running an e-commerce store. At every point, the customer should be aware of what stage they are at. For example, will clicking “buy now” transport them to payment detail? Or will it just move the product to the cart? If it’s the latter, will they get the chance of reviewing all their items after they give their credit card details, or is it a done deal by then?

By writing microcopy that keeps the above goals in mind, you will make sure the user feels comfortable. If they know exactly what their actions on your website or in your mobile app do, they will be more eager to buy, if you’re selling something, or to keep using our app, if retention is what you’re looking for.

Overall, by creating microcopy that does these three things proficiently, you’ll ensure:

  • higher conversions thanks to clear guidance through the conversion funnel,
  • increased confidence in the product thanks to presenting the products intent transparently,
  • building brand trust thanks to raised user satisfaction.

 

So, let’s now look at how to write your microcopy well, specifically. First, we’ll cover general writing tips, and then we’ll move on to specific UX writing good practices.

 

 

Microcopy General Writing Tips by George Orwell

 

Be Concise

 

George Orwell: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

 

A famous playwright once wrote – brevity is the soul of wit.

When you write more, people understand less. Studies show that sentences of no more than 11 words are easy to read, while those of 21 words are difficult. At 43 words, comprehension drops to less than 10%.

Being concise is one of the key writing rules, and it couldn’t be more relevant than when producing microcopy. Since the goal of the text within your digital apps is to make the life of your users easy, producing enormous chunks of text clearly isn’t the way to go.

Additionally, remember to avoid long words where short ones will do.

 

Use Active Voice

 

George Orwell: Never use the passive where you can use the active.

 

In literature, few things are more boring than passive voice. In microcopy, passive voice makes the message less clear and harder to comprehend. Use active voice instead.

 

Jargon? Please no.

 

George Orwell: Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

 

I’m sure that at least once in your life you stumbled upon a vague error massage saying something like “error 4832548#”. It’s way better if users can understand what is happening (let’s start with the fact that it’s pivotal for them to know if the error is somehow their mistake).

So, instead of error 4235, the message could just say “incorrect password”.

 

More

 

In 1946, George Orwell also suggested to never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. While this is important in literature, if you want to come off as modern and witty, using overused metaphors and expressions in microcopy isn’t the way to go either.

 

 

Microcopy Industry Tips

 

Write From the Right to the Left

 

Sentences can be oriented from right to left, where reading the beginning of it tells you what it’s about. (Maurice passed his exam after studying for 30 hours straight). They can be oriented from left to right, which means that the core of what the sentence is about is at the end. (After studying for 30 hours straight, Maurice passed his exam).

The latter is very useful when writing literature. However, from the perspective of guiding your users and making their life easier, it’s better to start with the objective.

 

For example:

To subscribe to the newsletter, fill out this box.

Rather than:

Fill out this box to subscribe to the newsletter.  

 

If the user stumbles upon the latter, they must read the entire sentence to understand what filling out the box does, which makes the text harder to comprehend.

 

Write in Present Tense

 

Instead of writing “Your login has been successful”, just say “Login successful”. Shorter. Easier to comprehend. More humane.

 

Avoid Double Negatives

 

To understand what a sentence with a double negative says, users need to decipher it first. Make their lives easier and avoid writing in double negatives.

 

Numbers Instead of Words

 

“Your passwords must have at least 7 characters” is better than “Your passwords must have at least seven characters.” Just by glancing at the first sentence, your user will likely know what they must do. With the second option, they need to read the sentence more carefully to understand it.

 

 

Breaking the Rules

 

George Orwell: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

 

To break the rules, you first need to know the rules. Now, after knowing what UX writing and microcopy are about – both strategically and practically – trust your new knowledge, but also your gut. If you feel something doesn’t sound well, write it your way, remembering that it should inform, explain, and motivate.

 

A good example is:

Tap to continue.

Instead of:

To continue, tap.

 

With such a short message, sticking to the “right way of doing it” seems unnecessary. Version one sounds somewhat odd after all, right?

 

 

Conclusion

 

Microcopy should guide your users and make their life easier. Done well, it can boost your conversion rates, your brand, and increase the confidence in the product.

Remember that the act of writing microcopy itself usually takes less time than planning it. You may come up with a hilarious error message, but if you’re writing microcopy for a hospital, maybe it’s just not the sensible way to go. However, a casual but gentle message saying that it’s a temporary website error and the user just needs to refresh might do the trick.

 

Add convincing UX writing to your product.

 

Additional sources: 
https://scandiweb.com/blog/ux-writing/
https://uxplanet.org/16-rules-of-effective-ux-writing-2a20cf85fdbf

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