Rewriting content for large websites and intranets

Don’t let your project drown in a sea of crappy content

  • By Kathy Wagner
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  • Jul 22 2019
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  • Categories: Articles

I have this beautiful vision of designing content in a way that makes it easy to evolve and improve over time. Unruly content gets weeded out regularly, new content fits established standards, and content is never allowed to grow old and out-of-date in public. Nobody ever needs to worry about rewriting content on a massive scale.

It’s a lovely idea, and definitely something to plan for, but probably not the reality if you’re redesigning a large site that began with thousands of pages of dense content a decade ago and has been growing organically ever since. If you’re working on this kind of project, you’ll likely need a complete overhaul: platform, content organization, and the on-page content itself.

Rewriting content is often the hardest part of the project. For large sites, it can be time consuming and expensive. It’s sometimes difficult to see the need or cost/value relationship of rewriting the content when there are other projects that have more visibility and executive buy in, such as upgrading the technology platform or making the content easier to find. But that doesn’t mean that rewriting the content is not important, or even critical, to achieving your strategic goals.

What rewriting content means for your project

Rewriting content is more than simply rewriting the words on the page. Other aspects of the rewriting phase include: 

  • Aligning page content to new content types and page structures.
  • Refocusing the content on one topic or one audience per page.
  • Adhering to brand standards for messaging and tone of voice.
  • Adhering to customer or employee experience standards for clarity, accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity.
  • Applying appropriate metadata to pages and content components.
  • Identifying cross-linking opportunities and applying linking standards.
  • Identifying on-page image requirements.
  • Following and evolving writing and usage standards and guidelines.

Why rewriting is so important

The quality of the on-page content directly impacts the quality of your user’s experience. It’s not good enough for people to simply find the content they need; they also need to be able to read it, understand it, and act on it quickly and easily. And, for information-rich sites, getting to the on-page information is the reason why most users go the site in the first place.

Reviewing every page of content, and rewriting as needed, is the only way to ensure that content meets new structural, usability, and branding needs. In fact, without a thorough review and revision process, you can be fairly certain that it won’t meet your strategic or design requirements. Old content will meet old standards, or no standards. New standards require revised content.

If your content is dense, filled with complex terminology or sentence structures, or packs too much information on one page, then it’s not providing the best experience for the user. If there’s no consistency in structure and metadata, then your ability to be operationally efficient and scale your content efforts are limited.

Do you really need to rewrite the content?

The short answer is that if people are going to read it, then you should probably rewrite it, for all of the reasons listed above. The good news is that people don’t need as much content as you think they do.

You do not need to rewrite:

  • Content that you will not be moving to the new site, as identified in your migration audit.
  • Timely articles or other content that’s only relevant and useful for a specific period of time. For example, news articles, corporate reports, meeting minutes, or blog posts that were published in the past year or so may need to be moved to the new site, but you do not need to rewrite them.
  • Content that already aligns to the new standards for structure and design, brand voice, plain language, and other quality criteria.

It may not be feasible to rewrite all of the content that should be rewritten. In that case, focus on high-priority content first and lower-priority content last or not at all.

High-priority content includes content that:

  • Supports primary user tasks and topics of interest.
  • Impacts people’s safety.
  • Is frequently used and viewed.

Risks and limitations associated with rewriting content

The biggest risk associated with rewriting content is that people underestimate the time and cost needed, and overestimate their in-house capabilities in terms of skill and availability. Too often, organizations will assign content back to their “owners” to rewrite as they have time. But these content owners never have the time, and rarely have the skill, to effectively rewrite content to new standards.

It’s important to realistically budget for rewriting the content up front, and have that cost approved as part of the overall project budget.

Rewriting content is time consuming, especially if you have many dense pages, content that duplicates other information elsewhere on the site, or content that needs to be split into multiple pages in order to meet new standard requirements. If the writing is filled with technical jargon not appropriate for the audience, it will take longer. It’s important to take some time during your migration audit to get a sense of content complexity and resource requirements for the rewriting. You may be able to estimate four hours per detailed content page. Then again, it may be ten.

For large sites that require extensive rewrites, rewriting is often the most costly, but beneficial, part of the project.

How to rewrite content for an information-rich site

Before you get started: 

  • Have a clear content strategy vision, guiding principles, roadmap, and budget commitment that includes rewriting content. 
  • Do a content migration audit to determine which content needs to be rewritten, if any new content needs to be written to fill in any gaps, and a sense of resourcing needs. 
  • Draft a plan for getting the content done. Include which resources you’ll use, how many are needed, which technology to use, and the estimated cost and timeline. 

To effectively rewrite a substantial amount of content: