What Writers Can Learn from Great Fiction
It’s only right that a blog post about fiction and online writing should start with ‘once upon a time.’ After all, not only fiction authors tell stories. Sure, as UX writers we might sprinkle our sentences with CTAs instead of metaphors, but like the most carefully crafted tales, there’s more to UX text than meets the eye. Enough to fill a first chapter? Maybe. But can we replicate the power of a blockbuster page-turner in our online text? Let’s start at the beginning…
01. The first line
When I was at school, I remember our earnest English teacher dedicating a whole lesson to the importance of first sentences, starting (of course) with Austen:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Is there a writer out there who wouldn’t want to replicate the mischievous pull of this famous first line? Drawn in, we quickly become Austen’s confidants, keen to find out more. Just as Austen’s tone hints at hushed, one-on-one chats in late eighteenth century drawing rooms, UX writers, too, should remember who we’re writing for: the individual user, sitting in front of a screen.
At Wix, this means considering the user’s state of mind and level of experience, from professional web designers to total beginners. As a writer for Wix’s photography products, I have to ensure that our features are just as comprehensible to amateur photographers as they are to professionals.
A good beginning sparks our imagination and draws us into a curious new world. In the age of the millennial, opening lines have become more important than ever. Words fight for attention against distractions and app notifications, and in the story of a user’s website experience, if the homepage text doesn’t grab them, they’ll simply close the page. While there’s no doubt that some visitors will stick around thanks to catchy phrases and clever wordplay, others may need more than a pun to feel truly at home. This is where ‘Setting’ comes in:
02. Setting the scene
“When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.” – Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
At the beginning of Murakami’s dreamlike bestseller, we find ourselves in a warm, inviting home. With the spaghetti already boiling and good company to entertain us, we won’t be leaving anytime soon. So how do we apply this hook to UX text? Imagine that your website was a real place. What would it look like? What sort of atmosphere would there be? What would be the first thing you’d notice?
UX text, when done right, can set the scene.
It can draw users in, encouraging them to explore, play and feel at home. Done badly, it can drive them out, like a novel that’s heavy on words but light on substance, left to gather dust on a shelf. At Wix, we keep our setting consistent by meeting regularly as a team of UX Writers, peer editing, and by maintaining and updating our style guide. We also work closely with Wix’s marketing, knowledge base and localization writers, joining forces as the Writers’ Guild.
When it comes to setting, fiction writers have long been aware that by observing our own surroundings, we can get closer to the truly believable. Online, we can do this by exploring what’s out there. Which websites enthrall us and direct us where we want to go and which get us reaching for the ‘X’? Noticing the minute details of what makes online spaces so comfortable – or uncomfortable – can help us to create our own user-friendly experiences. As William Faulkner put it:
“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
03. Tell a story
Once you’ve got your site visitors on board, keep them interested with a fascinating story. No one wants to click a dead link or be greeted with a sudden ‘Page Not Found’ instead of the contents of their shopping basket. Sometimes blips are unavoidable, so plan for undesired plot twists with suitable text to soften the blow, before sending users on to their next chapter. An error page can be a useful opportunity to engage your users with a quirky phrase, or to reassure them they’re in good hands, with clear, explanatory text. Remember that while plot twists are a fiction writer’s best friend, in UX text there should only be happy surprises.
In fiction, the main character usually has a problem to solve or a challenge to complete. Similarly, your user has a clear intent–a goal they want to achieve, whether it’s finding out information or purchasing a product. Are your directions enough to get them there? Think Charles Dickens rather than James Joyce. Long, poetic sentences may be beautiful, but they fall short when it comes to getting from A to B. Put yourself in your user’s place. Observe yourself as you’d observe your protagonist. Ask yourself what you would do next, and then prepare your user with the right directions.
04. The closing
All stories must come to an end, whether they fade away gently or finish with a bang. The same cannot be said of UX text. When it comes to conclusions, UX writing is less like a novel and more like those Choose Your Own Adventure books we read as children, where every decision led to a new page and more choices. We made our own plot and if we didn’t like how it ended, we could just go back and try another route. Given the choice today, most would rather preserve the magic than find out exactly how it worked. We were engrossed in that world and, even better, we ruled it.
As UX writers, it’s up to us to preserve the magic of the worlds we create. The best creative writing is believable because it’s true. No matter how fantastical or surreal their stories, masterpieces of fiction have something real resonating between the pages, some truth about human nature or ourselves. If we can bring that humanity into our online stories and use our imagination to create something familiar, then we can be sure our users will find their happily-ever-afters.
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Ilana Conway, UX Writer at Wix