How to Write Great Microcopy

  • Be clear, concise, and useful
  • Use consistent wording
  • Create a microcopy framework
  • Be conversational
  • Use humors and idioms carefully
  • Highlight your brand’s character
  • Be wary of word translations
  • (Almost) always use active voice
  • Use the passive voice (sometimes)
  • Provide context
  • Assume your user is smart
  • Keep it scannable
  • Write short paragraphs an sentences
  • Don’t overuse contractions
  • When to use sentence case
  • When to use title case
  • Capitalize proper names & terms
  • When to use “Your”
  • When to use “My”
  • Keep ’em calm
  • Refer to the user
  • Identify interactive elements
  • Start with verbs
  • Prompt action
  • Motivate action
  • Set expectations
  • Instruct action
  • Show progress during action
  • Give feedback after actions
  • Use constructive feedback model
  • Avoid destructive feedback
  • Create positive moments
  • Pair visuals with words
  • Be consistent with imagery
  • Use familiar words and phrases
  • Spell out numbers up to nine
  • Reassure users with social proof
  • Pick the right moments
  • Test and improve
  • Think: “How can I improve your life?”

h/t The Product Person.

I have no doubt this is good advice for “microcopy”, which seems to be the text involved with software interactions. But, I think there is an interesting contrast to advice offered in posts like “English Split Composition“. Is “microcopy” good writing outside of writing human/computer interactions in software? Is it “good” writing, in other contexts? When you think of someone like Ernest Hemingway, initially disciplined by the telegraph, that turned into his style, can taking that further into “microcopy” lead to good communication or even good art?

English Split Composition

“English is a language built mostly out of two others. Much of it was created out of the language of invaders who came to Britain around 450 ad from Anglia and Saxony (in what we’d now call northern Germany). About 600 years later the French invaded and brought their language with them, too; it was derived from Latin. The new French competed with Old English, and the outcome was a language—modern English—built out of both.

Often words with similar meanings from the two languages were both turned into English words, such as make (Saxon) and create (from French), or need (Saxon) and require (from French). So in English you can say almost anything with two kinds of words: short, simple ones with Saxon origins, or fancier ones that come from Latin.”

-Ward Farnsworth, “What Did Lincoln Know About Language That We Don’t?” Reason.com. June 22, 2020.

Words We Don’t Have

“Language and culture are inextricably linked. The words that exist (or that we make) form our language, and hence, are definitive of our culture. This place explores words that are unique to dialects or non-English languages, with an aim to examine what these words might illuminate about their cultures (and ours).”

WordsWeDontHave.com

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) on StarDict on Ubuntu/Debian

So, after reading “You’re probably using the wrong dictionary,” I thought I would give installing Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913) on a Debian-flavor of Linux a try and write it up the process and some observations of its use.

Installation on a Debian-flavor of Linux is straight-forward:

$ sudo apt-get install stardict
$ cd Downloads
$ wget https://s3.amazonaws.com/jsomers/dictionary.zip
$ unzip dictionary.zip
$ cd dictionary
$ tar -xvjf stardict-dictd-web1913-2.4.2.tar.bz2
$ cd stardict-dictd-web1913-2.4.2/
$ sudo mv *.* /usr/share/stardict/dic/
$ stardict

This launches the main application. There is also a mini-window that can be moved to where you like and then you can use it with other applications by highlighting text. Here’s a screenshot of this article:

When you highlight a word, it will automatically be searched for and displayed in the mini-window.

Entries include pronunciation, etymological origin, related words, definition and an example of usage, often from literature. I can imagine this being a very useful tool. It might be worth checking if my writing from this date changes in an appreciable way and whether it is an improvement or not.

Better Thought Technology 

“Technological innovation, in the conventional sense, won’t help us slow the publishing process back down. Slowing down requires better thought technology. It requires a willingness to draft for the sake of drafting. It requires throwing away most of what we think because most of our thoughts don’t deserve to be read by others. Most of our thoughts are distractions—emotional sleights of the mind that trick us into thinking we care about something that we really don’t—or that we understand something that we really don’t.”

—Eddie Smith, “From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography.” Practically Efficient. October 13, 2017.

Pretty good overview of the history of mathematical typography.

Crimes Against English: Adulting

Every new generation contends with the no longer relevant advice of the previous generation. After World War II, a booming economy made lifetime jobs with pensions the norm. But, by the time Generation X was born, corporate downsizing, off-shoring and the creation of the 401(k) in 1978, made many of the beliefs of the Boomer generation irrelevant to the contempory workplace. Still, Generation X were called “slackers” both because the environment was different and seeing the materialism of their parents did not bring them happiness, they brought in different values.

I think a similar dynamic is in play with the term: “adulting”, which implies the “[husband/w]ife; children; house; everything. The full catastrophe.” Notions of needing to work 9-to-5, car payments, home ownership and so forth are as out of step with the modern work environment as believing in lifetime employment and pensions. Yet, this standard, which is just as bad as the materialist and consumer values of the Boomer generation, is how younger people — albeit in a seemingly joking manner — are encouraged to think of themselves, a social gaslighting designed to birth an imposter syndrome in the young. So, the use of the term is a bit of a crime against the language — being an adult has nothing to do with mortgages, but it’s really an example of the bad ideas mass culture propagates that harm everyone that comes into contact with them.