Why Great Writing Matters Online

writing matters

Quality of writing matters online and off.

A recent and somewhat shocking post over at Skelliewag attempts to convince web writers that quality writing, good grammar, and spelling do not matter online.

In a post titled, “Why Great Writing Doesn’t Matter Online,” Skellie declares that web writers do not need to adhere to the same level of standards as other writers.

While the Internet is notorious for its lack of great writing, and for its abundance of low quality content and complete disregard for good grammar, there is no need to encourage producing anything less than one’s best writing – especially when someone is paying you for your work. And let’s face it, the better your writing, the more it’s worth.

Forget About Great Writing

Here are a few statements pulled from Skellie’s post:

  • People don’t read online. Nor do they scan.
  • Good writing, clever writing, beautiful writing — all of these things are unnecessary in the creation of great web content.
  • Clarity is the only necessary characteristic of good web writing.
  • Good ideas will shine through ‘bad’ or just ‘OK’ writing… Good writing can’t save bad ideas (or a lack of ideas).
  • In truth, though, truly bad writing is rare.
  • Average writing abilities are more than enough to write great web content. Average ideas are not.
  • Shelf The Elements of Style. You don’t need it.
  • Your readers aren’t looking for great writing — if they were, they’d look inside a broadsheet newspaper, a well-loved magazine or a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

Who Needs Good Grammar?

In other words: Hey everyone, since the Internet is already so jam-packed with inferior writing, why bother putting out great writing? Just be average. Here on the web, that’s more than enough.

As I read this post, I found myself in a complete state of disbelief. I was literally speechless, and it was all I could do to muster up a comment in response. Turns out I need an entire post to respond in a manner that I feel is adequate. It’s unfathomable that a person who has set herself up in a leadership role advising bloggers and other web professionals, and who offers professional writing services, would publicly declare that great writing — online or anywhere else — is unnecessary. Since Skellie shows more skill in writing than the average blogger, the post was especially hard to digest. In fact, I had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1st.

Perhaps I simply operate from a different set of ethics, a different philosophy. I believe in encouraging people to be the best they can be, to constantly grow and consistently improve. Can an average writer become a huge success? Of course, but an above average writer has far better chances and will enjoy a better level of credibility and respectability. Does web writing have its own special set of rules? Yes, of course. Every type of writing, whether it’s fiction, technical, or copywriting, has its own style and standards. But writing is writing, and for it to be considered great, online or off, it has to be a lot more than just clear.

Here’s what I think:

Great Writing Matters and Good Grammar Does Too

  • People do read online. They also scan.
  • Clever and beautiful writing is not a requirement for any type of great writing. Sometimes, simple and direct gets the job done. Whether it’s web content or an erotic romance novel, great writing is great writing. Period.
  • There are very few writers who have truly immaculate grammar. People with good grammar skills and flawless spelling are called editors. Still, anyone who calls herself a writer should have a firm grasp on spelling and grammar, and should understand that poor spelling and grammar can alter the meaning of an entire concept. Don’t believe me? Read Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Hell, just read the back flap.
  • All good writing requires clarity. A writer’s duty to her readers is to make sure that her words make sense. However, clarity alone does not make for good web writing. There are sites with pages and pages of information about products and services. There are blogs about every subject under the sun (including literature), and there are millions of articles, essays, and even books being written and published online. Saying that web writing only needs to be clear is like saying all I need in a car is good gas mileage. It’s just wrong. I need that and a whole lot more.
  • If writing is bad, or just average, good ideas will not always shine through. There are plenty of readers (I among them) who will click away as soon as it becomes apparent that the quality of the writing is poor. This is one of the reasons that many people believe that the web as we know it is going to collapse under its weight of low quality content.
  • Conversely, good writing can and has saved many bad ideas. Readers like to be entertained, so if a writer has a humorous, witty, or sarcastic voice, there’s a good chance that she’ll build up a decent sized readership regardless of the ideas that are presented.
  • Truly bad writing is prevalent all over the web. It’s everywhere and it’s annoying. The good news is that this gives average or good great writers an edge.
  • Average writing abilities produce average web content because average writing is… well, it’s average. Can you succeed with average writing? Yes you can, but the content is and will always be average, no matter how much money you make from it. If you have a truly stellar idea, you’d be smart to publish it in a truly stellar writing style. Don’t have the chops? Hire a writer or an editor.
  • Do not shelve The Elements of Style. Keep it handy, and add to it: The Chicago Manual of Style and The Gregg Reference Manual.
  • There are two types of readers: those who care about good writing and those who do not. Here’s the thing: if you produce great writing, you can appeal to both types of readers. But if your writing is sub-par, you’re only playing to half the crowd.

I’d like to note that great writing and great content do not always equal success. Achieving success involves many additional factors, such as marketing, networking, and more than a little luck. Poor quality writing has earned millions of dollars for many a writer but producing great writing means having standards and creating something that you can be proud of, regardless of how much money it makes.

And let’s face it, quality has longevity. Do you want to be a disposable writer? Web writers need to do exactly the opposite of what Skellie proposes. I for one, am tired of the way that traditional writers and journalists look down on blogging and other types of web writing as sub-standard. I’m not interested in being a B movie. I want to be a blockbuster, an Oscar winner, and you should too. So instead of shelving your grammar guides, and settling for being average, reach for the stars and be the best writer you can be.

After all, bloggers are writers too.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


34 Responses to “Why Great Writing Matters Online”

  1. --Deb says:

    Ack! Whaaaa? I’m going to head over there to read her post, but just on the basis of your recap, I’m beating my head against my keyboard. I’ll concede that clarity is most important if you’re trying to inform, but as you say, clarity IS good writing. I’m wondering what, exactly, Skellie considers “good” writing? I find good writing on the web all the time, and don’t waste my time on the blogs that are badly written–I don’t care how good their ideas are!

  2. Amy Derby says:

    I followed your link to read her post. I actually agree with a good part of what she says. I don’t like it, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was true.

    You don’t HAVE to be a good writer to write for the web. People who can’t string a sentence together get jobs writing for the web. I’ve landed on those sites, and they’re terrible. It’s nauseating to think someone actually got paid to write it. But the fact is, they did.

    Do I lower my own standards just because some other inferior writers are able to find work without having any skill or professionalism? No. But that doesn’t change the fact that I could probably get plenty of work even if I sucked as a writer.

    You make some really good points that I also agree with. I’m just saying I don’t totally disagree with her.

  3. Rhett Soveran says:

    Hell yes! Melissa you are beautiful! I love this post. I couldn’t have said it better myself–if I had read Skellie’s post I might have, but it would have just been a string of swears and language that is quite ignorant.

  4. Just because you CAN write poorly on the web and still be “published” (even if published in this case means “posted on your own or a free hosting platform”) doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

    I also click away from a site or blog as soon as I realize that the writing is poor. I can deal with a few mistakes here and there, but not hear and they’re, and not consistently.

    Thank you for this post, and thank you for what you do, day in and day out, to support grammar and spelling and general writing goodliness for those of us who care (a.k.a. the future idea-getter-acrosser leaders of the world).

    A. Caleb Hartley

  5. Amy Derby says:

    Melissa, I agree with you there. I’m not sure these types of people need any encouragement to do what they’re doing though.

  6. @Deb, That’s pretty much the same reaction I had. Skellie’s a sharp writer and her advice is usually really insightful but this time… I don’t know. I just can’t agree with her because I feel very strongly about being good at what you do, or at least trying to be good/great.

    @Amy, You don’t have to be a good writer to write anything at all. I’ve read novels straight off the bestseller list that had weak stories, boring characters, poor grammar, and even questionable spelling. It’s all about marketing. However, there’s a difference (a BIG difference) between simply saying that a lot of writing on the web is mediocre (or downright awful) and actually encouraging people to publish and produce average or sub-par writing.

    @Rhett, Thanks, I knew you’d like this one 😉

    @A. Caleb, Some writers aren’t so good at grammar but they tell a bewitching story, others don’t have the knack for plots, but their language is so intriguing, their work is still engaging. In truth, I think that there is room for any writer who brings something valuable to the table. I’m not a stickler for great grammar or perfect spelling, because there’s much more to great writing, but I do feel that we should always try to be good at what we do. And blogging is writing, no matter what anyone says.

  7. Deb says:

    Qualifier: I tend to be ambiguous where Skellie and her take on things is concerned.

    If it’s taken as “don’t have to be quality writer to write for the web” that is essentially true and any of us can find numerous examples. Does that mean everybody should succumb to writing in a non-quality style or manner? No. And why would a generally perceived quality writer promote non-quality writing by other web authors. Sounds suspect in my estimation. And yes I am currently in a skeptical frame of mind of late.

  8. --Deb says:

    It’s that whole “aiming for the lowest common denominator” thing that irks me, I think. Everybody gets gold stars! Everybody gets a trophy! Everyone gets a part in the school play!

    Where’s the reward for making an effort? It’s hard enough to get people to try their best as it is….

  9. @Deb (Gs Cottage), That’s why I was so taken aback by the post… At first I thought it must be saying simply that average writing is all that’s required on the web, because that certainly is true. But a more careful reading reveals that the post actually encourages lower quality writing and argues that average writing produces great web content. I’m sorry, but average is average. It is not great, not on the web or anywhere else. My feathers are so ruffled!

    @Amy, Interestingly, most of the comments on Skellie’s post are in disagreement with the ideas that she’s putting forth. But you’re right, there are people who will forge ahead and never strive to be better, just settling for whatever comes their way.

    @Deb (Punctuality), Couldn’t agree with you more! And while it’s true that there’s a place for average writers (and nothing at all wrong with being average), I’m just confounded by the idea of encouraging people to not put forth considerable effort (i.e. using Strunk & White) or be the best writer they can be. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, but I’m not even going to go there…

  10. Jed says:

    Hi Melissa!

    First time to visit your website, great article! I enjoyed reading it.

    I discovered your site via a mutual friend, Jaden from Screenwriting. I also operate a website and we have been doing quality control of sorts and yes, a lot of visitors took notice of bad grammar and misspellings. I think a lot of today’s bloggers are not aware of how important good grammar is, probably because they think visitors only scan their posts and never bother reading them carefully. Page views and regular traffic rules, and article quality take second priority, if at all.

    I take my time in reading articles and would find it annoying when there are lots of errors and misspellings. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think many of you feel the same way as I am. The WWW is full of crap, that’s why websites come and go, they cannot sustain readership, those who are quite serious with the reputation of their sites try to do what is necessary in order for visitors to visit again, not only because they enjoyed visiting the site, but because they feel whoever manages the site is serious and conscious of his/her reputation.

  11. Melissa,
    I agree that all writers should strive to be the best we can be. There are differences in style between various genres of writing, but web content should be as well-written as novels or magazine articles or poetry.

  12. Sharp Words says:

    I’m too scared to go and read the original article in case it ruins my day… but I wholeheartedly agree with you, Melissa, that there’s no reason why writing done for the web can’t be good (or even great) writing. I’ll persevere with badly-written websites/blogs if the content is good or can’t be found anywhere else, but I’m unlikely to visit again otherwise.

  13. @Jed, Hello and welcome! When you say the www is full of crap, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Will it ever change?

    @Lillie, The thing about writing is that there are tons of ingredients that make a piece good or great. Clarity is one of them, but there is so much more. Very few written works have every single ingredient for greatness. Different combinations of those ingredients are what works. Sometimes the grammar is weak but the story is so compelling it doesn’t matter. Other times the idea is lame but the writing is so riveting, nobody cares. Good writing is just not cut and dry.

    @Sharp, Nothing to be scared of! It’s an interesting article and worth reading. Skellie is actually a very good writer, despite the fact that I, and many others, disagree with the ideas she’s putting forth in this particular post.

  14. Alright, I’ve been trying to write something here for about 4 hours now, and honestly, I can’t. Every time I think about what Skellie’s post encouraged and promoted, it upsets me.

    Writing MATTERS. If we continue to lower our standards and continue to encourage absolute ignorance and illiteracy in the name of having brilliant ideas, the Internet will become a stupid, useless place that most educated people won’t have any interest in reading. I’m all for simple clarity and avoiding arTEESTic literature on the Internet (come on, it takes hours to read), I can’t say that bad writing and poor grammar is a standard to strive for.

    The fact that Skellie herself – a GOOD writer – goes ahead and promotes what she did disturbs me even more.

    So while I’d love to write all the reasons why I think this her post is so wrong, I won’t. Maybe it was a ploy at writing something controversial to get hits, traffic and links, but to me, it just fell flat.

    I also noticed she hasn’t replied to anyone’s comments anywhere after the first initial one or two. While I know she’s busy, bloggers shouldn’t dish out poor ideas like that and then just run off.

    Personally, I’ll just keep writing my good writing and shine because of it.


  15. @James, I hear you. Also, I think there’s a difference between being an arTEEST snob and just an artist. I knew one arTEEST who hated anything mainstream, period. Even without giving it a chance. There was a definite air of arrogance and resentment. But plenty of people regard their writing as art without getting all uppity about it. It takes all kinds. I don’t want to be an arTEEST but I’d sure like to be an artist, to paint pictures with my words.

  16. At this point, I am just feeling bad for Skellie. My post airing tonight will address dealing with negative feedback — hope she reads it; might make her feel a little better.

    That said, I disagree strongly with what she wrote and already put my 2 cents on her site.

    Skellie’s writing is great, which is why most of us (readers of her blog) were so shocked she was condoning bad writing.

    Writing is my greatest life passion. Reading is one of my happiest joys. When they are well done, nothing gives me greater pleasure. That post was a slap in the face.

    The sites I like take their content and their writing serious.

    I will never be a fan of low-quality uneducated sub-standard lazy writers.

    When I go to Europe, the average French or German knows more about American politics, geography, and the English language than the average American, it is truly embarrassing!

    Never encourage ignorance or being average.

  17. @Jaden, I feel horrible about what I’ve written here because it’s a pretty negative review and I’d much rather focus on positive. But it needed to be said. I feel very strongly about this, and I feel that web writers need to step up their game, not pursue mediocrity. The Internet is growing increasingly competitive, and great writing is an asset that shouldn’t be undervalued or written off as mere content. In fact, I’m growing tired of how the phrase “web content” is being used. Right now, it translates as “filler” in my mind. Ack, I feel another post coming on.

  18. inspirationbit says:

    Hi Melissa. I followed the link from Rhett’s post on this subject. Really glad to see that there are people whose reaction to Skellie’s post was completely the opposite to some of the comments on Skellie’s blog (e.g., you’re an inspiration, thank you).

    You know, sometimes I think that’s what some prominent bloggers want to turn the rest of us into – an average blogger, mediocre writer, so that they can continue ripping the benefits from it and shine.

  19. inspirationbit says:

    well, I wouldn’t go that far claiming myself to be a writer just because I blog, but that shouldn’t stop me from improving my writing skills and trying to get better at it with every published post. And definitely I shouldn’t go urging others to stop worrying about their writing skills because they don’t matter.

  20. @inspirationbit, Rhett and Lee are up to some good stuff over there at Epiblogger. My theory is a little different than yours. I think a lot of bloggers do not consider themselves writers and therefore claim that great writing is not necessary online. I’ve even seen outright statements saying that “bloggers are not writers.” Well if they’re not writers, then the writing doesn’t have to be very good, right? To me, the bottom line is that if you write, and especially if you publish, you are a writer, regardless of the medium.

  21. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Melissa, Just found your blog via Robert Hruzek’s Blogapalooza. Fantastic! Companies often wonder why their websites don’t perform. Seldom do they think it might have something to do with the quality of the writing.

    • Hi Brad, I agree! Good writing is essential, in my opinion. I believe that some bloggers and writers may get away with poor grammar if their writing is incredibly entertaining or contains compelling information that you just can’t get elsewhere, but in general, it’s our duty as writers (and/or bloggers) to try being good at what we do.

  22. John Clise says:

    Writing online…doesn’t need to follow grammar, spelling and good standards…I am so horrified I will probably have nightmares tonight. Even a grocery list should be complete with proper spelling. You never know who might see it.

  23. I’m 57. I attended a social networking / new media conference in Greensboro, NC in October known as ConvergeSouth. Most of the attendees were under 45. Many of the 30 somethings and 40 somethings were previously print or television media folks, and still appreciated the importance of good grammar and such. A discussion developed about a set of standards for bloggers. It was at this time that the 20 something crowd began to let their feelings be known about etiquette, spelling, grammar, etc. Interestingly, the discussion focused not so much on the value of good grammar and proper spelling, but the “freedom to do what you want” without restrictions. Much to my surprise, it was more of a philosophical discussion, as opposed to a pragmatic discussion. I got the impression that many recognized the value of proper spelling and good grammar, but didn’t want someone suggesting or telling them to do it, or being required to it.

    • Kids these days! In writing, there is much room for creativity and “doing what you want,” especially in poetry. And artists of all kinds (including writers) have always taken liberty with language, so it sounds like the younger generation is keeping up with tradition in their own way.

  24. missy says:

    Ha! I agree with Skellie! To some, grammar is important only because it gives people a little boost of superiority when they pick out another person’s error. I, too, used to buy the notion that good grammar is a sign of intelligence, and he who does not know the difference between your and you’re is a true idiot indeed. Nonsense. The only true, steadfast, hardcore rule about language is that it’s constantly changing. No need to cling to old notions that you must be stuffy and perfect to be heard (or read).

    Fight your grammar fight, friends. I’ll be txting my friends, typing U instead of you, LOL’ing over OMG’s and having a ball embracing the tidal wave of change happening in written language all over the world. Good grammar is useful, but it ain’t the be all, end all of all great writing everywhere.

    • Good grammar is not a sign of intelligence. In fact, good or poor grammar says very little about a person’s level of intellect. It is, however, an indication of craftsmanship. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer, a doctor, or a salesman. In any field, there is a curve of craftsmanship. If you want your work to be average or sub-par, that’s entirely up to you. My problem with Skellie’s post was not its accuracy. Of course you can be a mediocre writer and become successful. That’s true in any field. Success often comes from ambition rather than skill. My problem with her article is that it supports average or lazy writing rather than promoting the idea that writers can strive for excellence. As for texting, that’s an entirely different matter. Using shorthand in text messages with your friends is wildly different from using it in professional writing.

  25. missy says:

    One more thing: I read Skellie’s post in its entirety. Ya lost me with the long windedness and overly wordy explanations. Better than good grammar is clarity. Even better than clarity is brevity. The web is a big big place and if your ideas aren’t all that interesting, no amount of perfect grammar is going to save you from the resounding click that is the reader moving on to something else.

    • I’d prefer to lose readers to my long windedness than to risk losing them because I’m too lazy to type y-o-u instead of y-a. Good luck with your writing.

      • missy says:

        My point with the “ya” was that it wasn’t remotely correct and yet the meaning was clear…

        As for Skellie’s article, I didn’t notice that it said, “Be a bad and lazy writer!” My impression was that she was encouraging would be writers to go for it and to not become overly stressed that the grammar isn’t perfect.

        Many people want to write but don’t, partly because they’re afraid they’ll make a mistake. I took that article as a, “Let loose, people! Write away! Get your ideas out there and if you’re interesting you’ll find readers.” When I’m looking at blogs and websites with no editorial board, I give the author a break if a few mistakes are made. I truly do not care if someone ends a sentence with a preposition as long as it makes sense.

        Sorry about my second post. It was more harsh than it needed to be. I just really agreed with Skellie…

        • Missy, we’re actually very much in agreement. While I appreciate good grammar and strive for it in my own writing, I am not a stickler about it. Also, I often remark on the benefits of breaking the rules (which is effective only if you know which rules you’re breaking and why). I don’t like to see anyone give up something they want to pursue for fear of making a mistake. I believe that if you want to do something, you should go for it. But I also believe in craftsmanship and I tend to admire people who work at their craft. I think you and I just had different takes on Skellie’s article. It’s all good.

  26. CJ McKinney says:

    Good post! It’s interesting from these comments how many people think that grammar doesn’t matter — that it’s just a set of stuffy rules that let people feel superior. And yes, grammar can be misused that way. But craftsmanship — a command of the tools of your trade — really does include a grasp of the rules that help us put words together in meaningful ways. The other misconception about grammar that I see from the comments here is that it’s static and outdated. Yes, some rules are, and to use living language is to embrace the flow of changes in it. But as I tell my writing students, if you wouldn’t meet your prospective boss unshaven and in your pajamas, you don’t want to let sloppy language and poor grammar speak for you either. And online, your words are the only part of you that people will ever see. Bad writing on the net really harms all writing on the Net.