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Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Mark Twain’s excellent 19th century guidelines for writing on the web

We just don’t rant like we used to. Sure, there have been some good ones recently, but we have lost the art of being angry and highbrow at the same time – a skill that gives the rant a deliciously icy, brutal feel. For example, when you read something like Mark Twain’s 1895 rant about the rules of fiction, the current crop of angry that comes across our Twitter feeds feels a bit Mickey Mouse.

One of Mr. Twain’s specific complaints in the aforementioned rant is about the rules of good dialogue in fiction. As I read through it, I realized it provides a scarily perfect contrast to the language used on many web sites today:

[When] the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

That’s unfortunately not what most of the web sounds like – but this paragraph from 1895 contains some of the best guidelines we have for effective web writing. Web site and application copy should:

  • Not sound robotic.
  • Use words that two¬†people would use in everyday conversation.
  • Not be gibberish words strung together to sound fancy, but mean something to normal¬†people.
  • Not just exist to fill up space, but have an identifiable purpose for being on that page and in that context.
  • Be relevant to the flow the user is currently in.
  • Be interesting and help tell the story.

It would seem that Mark Twain was one of our first (and best) web Content Strategists.