Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

How to Edit FAQ Pages

If customers ask certain questions so often that your company requires a dedicated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, the answers should be so obvious that they write themselves, right?

Not quite.

Creating a user-friendly FAQ page can take a lot of work—and, frankly, I think it’s kind of fun. In fact, for a while I was known as the de facto “FAQ person” on our content team because I like revising them so much. They allow me to get my hands dirty; with FAQs, I get to rearrange sentences and phrases wholesale, cut deadwood, and put myself into the place of the reader to ask questions. Then, when the stakeholders provide feedback on my changes, I get to go to town and create something useful, organized, and correct.

In short, working on an FAQ list can be an editor’s dream. Plus, since the content in question is so customer focused (and since most organizations that create FAQS have the good sense to realize that customer satisfaction leads to more money), FAQ documents involve a lot less ego than other forms of content. You can put all the bloated corporate jargon you want into a Mission Statement page, but a truly useful set of FAQs will keep the bloat to a minimum.

However, you may need to edit a few sets before you get the hang of it. In this article, I’ll discuss the lessons I’ve learned from editing several FAQ documents for a large Canadian telecom company, and the ways in which FAQs compare to other types of copy.

Use Common Editorial Sense

First off, don’t get too frightened of the whole concept of an FAQ. Good FAQs should follow plain language guidelines, including:

  • Addressing the reader directly by using the words youyour, and yours
  • Avoiding jargon wherever possible
  • Using simpler words and grammatical structures to convey complex ideas
  • Using the active voice
  • Sharing information in a conversational way

Structural editing principles also apply to editing FAQs, just as with other documents.

I’ve also found that the workflow for FAQs is similar to the workflows for other types of documents that I’ve worked on in the same environment: after going through a few rounds of revision with stakeholders, I then send the file to our legal department for a quick once-over, after which it goes to the translation department.

Discuss only a single important concept per question

When substantively editing copy, you have probably learned that you shouldn’t cram multiple ideas or concepts into a single paragraph—or have probably given the same recommendation to the authors you’re working with. This advice holds true for FAQs. However, instead of restricting ideas to separate paragraphs, restrict them to separate questions.

For example, the FAQs that I edit often involve informing customers about changes in the company’s TV and telephone services, or telling them how to take advantage of a new product or service. In such instances, it’s more reader friendly to have questions that address each of the following topics individually:

  • Who is eligible to get a new service or device upgrade
  • How to register for the new service
  • How much this new service or device will cost
  • How long it will take for the upgraded service to be rolled out across an entire area or city

This advice sounds straightforward, but there’s an important corollary to remember, which is…

Make sure you answer the right question and clearly display the relevant info

A few years ago, I edited an FAQ document about reserving a new smartphone in advance of its official launch date. The original draft of the FAQ asked the following two questions in sequence:

  1. How much will the reserved device cost?
  2. Will my $XX reservation fee be returned to me?

There were two big problems here. The first is that Question #1 was asking the wrong thing—the FAQ document was meant to discuss the process of reserving a device, and product pricing is technically independent of the reservation process.

The second problem is that Question #1 didn’t mention a reservation fee at all, even though it should have—the reservation fee, and its associated amount, were first mentioned only in Question #2, and mentioned in such a way that it assumed the reader already knew about the fee!

When I realized this, I created an entirely new question from scratch to address this issue, and made a comment about my decision for all of the stakeholders involved to review. The final version of the FAQ ended up having this sequence of questions instead:

  1. Will I be charged anything when I reserve my device?
  2. How much does it cost to reserve a device?

Even though I created a new question from scratch, this was still a benefit to the FAQ document as a whole; because of my revisions, the revised document with the new question was still shorter than the ambiguous, obfuscatory original.

Keep an eye out for repetition

Sometimes FAQ documents can be several pages long. One of the risks of this is that the longer the document, the higher the likelihood of repeating your answers from one question to another. Your Subject Matter Expert may state in the answer to Question #8 that customers can call the help line to find out if their account has been suspended, and not remember that this information was also mentioned in Question #3.

In such cases, most project managers or SMEs I’ve worked with are happy to merge the two answers together or delete the repetitive answer entirely. Like most types of web content, brevity counts, and your colleagues will probably welcome any way to reduce the word count without sacrificing clarity.

Make the content fit your company’s voice/brand

The company that I work for has two major brand identities. One brand is geared towards mainstream users. The other is geared to a younger, Millennial demographic. As a result, I often have to look at two FAQ pages at once that contain the same information but are written in very different styles for very different audiences.

This means that when I edit these FAQs, I have to make sure that the content I revise is not only factually correct, but also tonally correct. We might refer to “customer care representatives” in one document, while in another document, we might call the same types of workers “customer service rockstars” instead.

Basically, what this means is that your FAQs should not be the philosophical equivalent of cardboard — functional but completely boring and non-descript. Instead, think of your FAQs as a lush meadow — inviting and comfortable to visitors.

If writing and editing web content in general is something that you’re still nervous about, it helps to remember that many of the philosophical concerns behind good editing are the same no matter what the medium. However, if this article has given you a hankering to learn more about web content and content strategy in general, I highly recommend the following two books:

This article is an updated version of one I wrote that was previously published by Corrigo in 2016.

What Taco Bell Can Teach You About Bad Business Copy

taco_bell_bad_business_copyDo you know what your business copy says about you? Not what you think it says, but what it actually says?

What if you want to look professional and competent but your business copy is secretly undermining you? Would you be able to see what you’re doing wrong?

Many don’t. But some do, and they know how to use language to appeal to different demographics. That’s why I found this recent article about the copy that Taco Bell uses on its menus so fascinating.

Quick recap: Dan Jurafsky, the author of The Language of Food, sat down with a writer for Mother Jones and compared two menus side-by-side. One menu was from Taco Bell, and the other was from U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s new upscale spinoff . Not surprisingly, the two menus have radically different copy based on what markets they’re targeting.

The upshot? Many of the things that Taco Bell does are things that you shouldn’t apply to your own business copy. Let’s look at a few.

Too many descriptive words

One of the first things that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu uses a lot of descriptors like “fresh” and “fluffy” in its copy:

“So there’s all of those adjectives and participles,” he says. “‘Fluffy. ‘Seasoned.'” That’s one thing that’s common on cheaper restaurant menus — as if the restaurant feels the need to try and convince its diners of the quality of the food. A fancier restaurant, he explains, would take it as a given that the diner expects the eggs to be fluffy and the pico de gallo to be freshly prepared.

“Notice the word ‘flavorful,'” Jurafsky says. “The cheapest restaurants use these vague, positive adjectives. ‘Delicious.’ ‘Tasty.’ ‘Scrumptious.’ Wonderful. Again, more expensive restaurants take all that as a given.”

In contrast, the menu for U.S. Taco Co. is more spartan:

“What the really upscale restaurants these days are doing is just listing their ingredients. They don’t say “and” or “with.” It’s just a list.”

You’ve probably read more than your fair share of fluffy, meaningless writing yourself: adjective- and adverb-stuffed text talking about how “amazing” or “innovative” some product or service is, rather than what it actually does and letting the thing in question speak for itself.

Too many options

Another big thing that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu had far more items on it than U.S. Taco Co.’s did:

There are dozens, if not hundreds of items. “The very, very fancy restaurants, many of them have no menu at all,” Jurafsky says. “The waiter tells you what you’re going to eat, kind of. If you want, they’ll email you a menu if you really want it.”

One of the first things I learned when starting out as a freelancer was to focus on a few things and do them well. How many times have you met someone at an event and heard about the dizzying variety of services they offer, some of them completely unrelated to each other?

Focusing on complementary services or sectors is fine — but do any more than two or three, and you’re beginning to look unfocused at best, and desperate at worst. In fact, that’s why this year I narrowed my focus even further to just writing and editing, letting the WordPress side of my business go.

The little things count

A third thing that Jurafsky noticed in both menus was their differing attitude towards Spanish. Here’s Taco Bell:

…. the word “jalapeño” is missing its tilde — the little squiggle over the “n” that signifies a “nye” pronunciation in Spanish words. Jurafsky isn’t sure whether the missing “ñ” is linguistically meaningful, but keep it in mind, because it will become important when we look at U.S. Taco Co.’s menu.

In contrast, here’s U.S. Taco Co.:

“There are more unusual Spanish words on this menu,” he [Jurafsky] says. Taco Bell has “burrito” and “taco.” Everyone knows those. But “here we have ‘molcajete’ and’cotija.’ Every item has at least one Spanish word. And there’s the “ñ” in jalapeño!

A single letter may be trivial, but it means a lot — in this context, it shows one restaurant trying to be more authentic (a loaded word, I know) than the other. On top of that, the more upscale menu is using more obscure words — it’s trying to be a bit more culturally diverse. (Though honestly, considering Taco Bell is the parent company, I’m trying not to read too much into this.)

What does this mean for you or your business?

These lessons can be boiled down easily because they follow well-known rules of good business copy:

  • Don’t fluff up your copy. Stick to concrete details — nouns and verbs, what your product contains and what it actually does — and cut the meaningless puffery.
  • Know what you’re doing and do it well. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
  • Get the little details right because people will notice.

More importantly, what does not following these rules mean?

It means you look cheap. There’s no other way to put it.

Think about the content mills that charge writers only one or two cents a word. Those writers have to keep their heads above water, which means that they can’t afford to spend time writing copy that’s concrete and well-informed if they have to meet a certain word count — it’s much faster for them to slip in filler words “really” and “quite” to put them over the top.

If you don’t value your business enough to invest in clear, concrete writing, then you’ll probably attract customers with a similarly cavalier approach to value and price. When it comes to your business, is that really the impression you want to give?