Writing W3C content for people with disabilities

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Sabina Heggie  -  


Computer keyboard. Key shows image of person walking with stick.

Will your content suit someone with a disability?

People with disabilities can have trouble accessing web pages. Impairments in vision, hearing, reading ability, attention span and mouse control can all affect how well people can use, understand and navigate websites.

If you’re writing content for a website that’s likely to be accessed by people with disabilities, you need to think about your content with this in mind.

Your client may ask you to abide by W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) guidelines. These are guidelines developed to make web content more accessible for people with disabilities. Many government websites require this, as do health-related sites. W3C guidelines cover both content and coding, but in this article I’m just covering what you need to keep in mind as a content writer.

What do W3C guidelines mean for a content writer?

Here are some tips adapted from W3.org that will help to ensure your content conforms to the standard. Most of this is just good practice for any website. I’ve added some extra pointers (in italic) that reflect my own additional guidelines.

  • Use headings and subheadings to organise content.
  • Use simple language and formatting, as appropriate for the context.
  • Start with an H1 heading, then H2, then H3. Don’t skip over this ranking within a section of text. Don’t use more levels of headings than necessary. If you need more than H3’s, rethink the structure.
  • Write in short, clear sentences and paragraphs. (One thought per sentence).
  • Replace unnecessarily complex words and phrases with simpler ones. Avoid words with more than 5 syllables.
  • Expand acronyms on first use. For example, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Keep acronym use to a minimum.
  • Consider providing a glossary for terms readers may not know.
  • Use list formatting as appropriate.
  • Consider using images, illustrations, video, audio and symbols to help clarify meaning.
  • Use ALT tags for images.
  • Use subtitles for video content.
  • Make page titles descriptive and end with the organisation name.
  • Use link text to describe content, e.g.: Read more about WC3 copywriting tips.

Will adhering to W3C improve search engine rankings?

Some people think that adhering to W3C guidelines will improve search rankings, but Google has dispelled this myth. Hopefully this may change in the future.

Do you have experience writing W3C compliant content? If so I’d be interested in your feedback.

3 freelance copywriting jobs to avoid

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Sabina Heggie  -  

When I was  freelancing, I was often a bit too keen to tackle a challenge.

It’s painful to say ‘no’ to work, but I learned the hard way that there are some jobs a copywriter is better off saying ‘no’ to. These 3 examples are all based on real jobs that I wish I had said ‘no’ to.

1.  “I’ve never used a copywriter before but…”

A typical ‘say-no’ job starts with a phone call or email from someone you don’t know who saw your website or LinkedIn profile, and wants to brief you on writing a really urgent little job. They’ve never hired a copywriter before but they have a vague idea that you can do the concept, writing, design as well as the printing. Say no. They most likely have no idea how much they’ll need to pay to have you write and manage the job. Because you’ll be subbing out the design work and printing, you’ll carry the risk of the client not paying you or your suppliers.

Bottom line: Don’t do work for amateurs. You don’t have the resources to educate them. Don’t even waste time doing an estimate (which will probably not be accepted). Just say no.

2. “I’ve got this brilliant idea for an app…”

An entrepreneur with his own start-up company calls. He has a really great idea for a healthcare app that’s going to make squillions. He sounds so enthusiastic that you’re keen to learn more. You spend a couple of hours meeting with him and his software company trying to work out what they need and then preparing an estimate. Because it’s a start-up, you offer a discount copywriting rate. Yes, yes, he likes everything you’ve proposed, please proceed. He explains that the software company has to send it all to India to get coded in a week’s time. You promise to have the work done on time. You work late into the night to finish the first part of the job and send the copy in, requesting feedback. Nothing happens. Next day you phone and get voicemail. Hmm. The deadline looms. If you don’t keep going with the job you’re not going to make it….
This is a disaster in the making. All you can do is try and get the message through that you can’t proceed without feedback and explain that your delivery timeline depends on it. And then go and kick yourself for being dumb enough to accept it in the first place.

 Bottom line: Don’t work for start-ups – and especially not at a discount. They may have a brilliant idea but that doesn’t mean they know how to manage a team. And it’s quite likely they don’t have the cash to pay you, or anyone else who’s working for them.

3. “This job is really simple but I need it for Monday…”

Carla from the Drugs-Are-Us ad agency calls late on Friday afternoon. You like Carla but her jobs have a habit of going pear-shaped. This time she’s dropped the ball on a training program for pharmacy assistants. She sounds desperate. She needs a copywriter who can have it written in time to present to the client on Monday. You sound cautious. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, ‘It’s only a few hours’ work.’ A training program that’s only a few hours’ work? That would be a first. You agree to look at it, but explain that you’ll need to keep in close contact with her to answer any questions that crop up. No problem, she says. You quickly realise that there are some critical questions she’ll need to get answered by her client before you can proceed. You also realise that the job will have you burning the midnight oil if it’s going to be in shape for Monday. You’ll have to cancel a Sunday lunch and your dog will miss out on his trip to the park. At 10 to 5 you call Carla back, only to be told she’s already left for home. At this point you sensibly bail.

Bottom line: Be ruthless about turning down jobs that are disasters in the making. With some jobs no amount of copywriting brilliance is going to compensate for lack of time or an inadequate brief.


How to run a successful freelance copywriting business.

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Sabina Heggie  -  

What I quickly learned was that it’s one thing to be a good copywriter, and another to run a good business.

I first started working as a freelance copywriter around the time I decided to start a family. I wanted to continue working, but still be at home with my children while they were small. With a background in healthcare and professional services copywriting, it was logical for me to look at copywriting opportunities in these areas and today, most of my clients fall into those categories. Along the way I had to learn how to run a small business; something that didn’t really come naturally.

Let me share with you some of the  practical and sensible business-type things I learned that have contributed to my success in the freelance copywriting world.

Guard your reputation.
This is a small world and you’ll come across the same people over and over again. Make sure you always leave clients with the right impression; that of a professional who is enthusiastic and easy to work with. Your reputation will follow you and a positive client recommendation is one of the best and most cost-effective ways of winning new work.
Be willing to learn.
Most medical copywriters are only too keen to learn about the intricacies of a new drug or medical device so they can write about them with confidence and add to their store of knowledge. But there’s more to it than just medical knowledge. You may need to learn about how the client’s approval system works and how to use the software they employ. There may be a content management system, a desktop publishing platform or a job tracking system that you will need to interact with.
Be flexible.
While you may be drawing on a wealth of experience in providing your client with your recommended approach, they won’t always agree to go with what you suggest. When a client rejects your brilliant and potentially award-winning idea, it can be hard to take, but take it you must. You need to be flexible enough to adapt to their requirements, maintain your enthusiasm and still turn in a first class finished product. This is often easier said than done but it’s an important part of being a professional.
Be agreeable.
When a client calls with a new job, let them know how happy and keen you are to help them out. If you’re always cheerful and enthusiastic, people will enjoy working with you. Be particularly nice to the junior staff and interns who are likely to be your clients in the future. Being agreeable and likeable are powerful skills to have. (I’ve been amazed at the way clearly incompetent people are tolerated in organisations just because everybody likes them. And competent but grumpy souls are the first to be let go.) So I figure if you’re both professional and a pleasure to work with, you’re on the right track.
Forget about weekends.
In the freelance world you work when the work is there and take a day off when it’s not. This can be problematic if your family and friends don’t understand this and expect you to be available for impromptu events over the weekend. But turning around a job over the weekend can earn you lots of brownie points when your client is in a fix. I actually enjoy working on more complex jobs over the weekend because there are fewer interruptions. Some writers charge overtime for weekend or rush jobs but I don’t. I do warn a client in advance if I have a weekend commitment that will prevent me from working. Clients are usually OK with this because they normally take weekends off themselves.
If you don’t get a written brief, write your own.
Some clients are not sure what they want and expect you to fill in the blanks for them. In the past I’ve been asked to “Come up with something I can write my marketing plan around.” I don’t mind a creative or strategic challenge, but I do like to start in the right place: with a brief. When I don’t get one, I write a “reverse brief” and get it approved first. By taking the time to write a reverse brief outlining what you think they want, you can save yourself a lot of wasted time down the track.
Work out who pays the bill.
I used to find that getting paid was not normally an issue. I would submit a 30 day invoice and within 30 days a payment arrived. Not anymore! Welcome to the world of purchase orders, job numbers, approved suppliers, accountants who work only one day a week (and are often on holiday), being relegated for payment in 56 days even if you’ve agreed to 30 days, or being told you’ve missed this month’s cheque run because your invoice didn’t get processed on time. Chasing payment can be stressful, time-consuming and distracting. Very often your client has neglected to approve and pass on the invoice to Accounts. I’ve had clients who never even open my invoice until I go to chase up the late payment. Then they ask me to reconfigure the invoice to suit their internal system and add purchase order numbers. All this takes time, and time is money, so when you have a client like this, it’s worth building invoice-chasing time into the cost of the job. If you can find out who the Accounts Payable person is, phone them and ask when payment can be expected. But do it politely. Make it sound like you do this routinely and just need an answer. The Accounts Payable person is used to being asked this.

If any of this puts you off the idea of becoming a freelance medical copywriter, don’t let it. Now that you know some of the keys to success, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Do you have advice you can share about running a freelance copywriting business? Drop me a line.

Look out for my next blog: “When to Say No to a Job”

Referencing Rx copy

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Sabina Heggie  -  

How to get all those pesky little reference numbers sitting pretty using Microsoft Word

One of the most finicky and frustrating jobs you face as a medical writer is adding references to your copy document. You can do it manually, but if you have a dozen references, it’s too easy to lose track of them, specially at the end of the day when you’re hoping to catch the bus home.

Then, when the client makes changes to the copy — adding, deleting or swapping paragraphs around — all your references have to be renumbered.

Here’s an example of a job with a number of references, where using Word’s endnote and cross-reference functions saved me lots of time.

So I wrote a guide which I share with other writers and here it is: 

Sabina’s foolproof guide to referencing RX materials


Every claim you make in promotional materials for  an RX drug must be referenced. References can go in the middle of a sentence, or at the end. If they’re at the end, put them after the full point.

Putting references into ads, sales aids and brochures is easy once you know how. Using the Microsoft Word endnote and cross-reference features is by far the best way to do it as it enable updates to be made easily and accurately.

By using these features, your references are automatically renumbered each time you add, delete or move one.

It also enables you to accurately cut and paste references between documents at the click of a mouse.


  1. Click where you want to insert the reference number.
  2. In the Insert menu, click Footnote. The Footnote and Endnote box will appear.
  3. In the Footnote and Endnote box, click Endnote, (this makes the reference appear at the end of the document instead of at the bottom of each page).
  4. Click Options.
  5. In the Options box change the number format from i, ii, iii to 1,2,3.
  6. Click OK on the Options box. Click OK on the Footnote and Endnote box. (From now on all footnotes in the document will appear as endnotes with the numbering 1,2,3 etc).

Your cursor will now have automatically moved to end of the document at the point where you insert the reference details. Insert the details. To return to the place you were in the document, double click on the number at the beginning of the reference text and it will take you back there.

When you’re putting more than one reference into a piece of text, add a comma between each one.


Cross-references are used when you want to refer to the same reference in more than one spot in the document.

  1. In the Insert menu, click Cross-reference.
  2. In the Reference type box, click endnote.
  3. In the box headed ‘Insert reference to’: select Endnote number (formatted).
  4. In the box headed ‘For which endnote’ click the reference you want inserted in the document.
  5. Click Insert.
  6. Click Close.

To put in more than one cross-reference, add a comma between each one.


References renumber themselves automatically every time you add or delete one.

Cross-references don’t automatically renumber themselves until you print. If you want to see the renumbered cross-reference before you print, do the following:

  1. Select the cross-reference (or the whole file, using Command A)
  2. Hit the F9 key.


Reference text at the end of a document is normally tiny type (Endnote text). To make the proofreading job easier, I suggest you change this to the same size as the text of your document.

Commas between reference and cross-reference numbers need to be in superior characters like the reference numbers. To do this:

  1. Select the references and their comma/s.
  2. In the Format menu, (or using the Formatting Palette) select Font.
  3. Select Superscript.

(Sometimes you will need to do Step 3 twice because the first time the numbers will un-superscript themselves to match the commas).


Sometimes when you update a document you will see a warning that says “Error: Bookmark not defined.” This means you have left a cross-reference in the document that no longer has its original reference attached. You need to check what has happened to your original reference.

If you move around chunks of copy with references and cross-references attached, the references should renumber themselves automatically. The cross-references may not update themselves automatically but see above to renumber them.


This is really cool. To save re-typing the same references in more than one document, select the reference number in the text of the original document. Copy and paste the number into the new document. The reference automatically comes too and sits in the correct place at the end of the document . . . . . brilliant!


Custom menuDo yourself a favour and set up a new customised toolbar with all the commands you need at your fingertips. Use the Customise command in the Tools menu. It will save you heaps of time in the long run.

←Here’s a screenshot of the one I use.

…and if all this sounds like too much bother, don’t despair, just call Sabina on 0418 744 465 and I’ll do it for you!


Snail mail in the age of email.

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Sabina Heggie  -  

Direct mail vs. emailWhy post?

In this article I explain the benefits of posting a letter to your customers rather than emailing them. It also gives you some great tips on how to get your letter opened and acted upon.
 It’s targeted at small to medium sized businesses.

Mailing a letter to your potential customers is a great way to get your sales message in front of them.

You’re probably thinking, “But it’s so much quicker and cheaper to email them!”

Well that’s exactly why posting a sales letter can be a better idea than sending an email. By posting your customer a letter in this email age you’re  saying: “I’m so sure you’ll be interested in what I’m offering that I’m investing time and money in writing to you.”

I’ve noticed that even my internet service provider – who, of course, knows my email address – posts me sales letters advertising their special deals.

By sending a letter, you can be more confident that your message will be read and acted upon – that’s if you go about it the right way.

And the evil cynic within also figures it’s harder to unsubscribe to posted letters than to emails.

So how do you get the best bang from your buck with a sales letter?

The biggest hurdle with a sales letter is getting it opened. If it has to go past a receptionist who has been instructed to bin all sales materials you have a real problem. And even if it goes straight to the customer, they may take one look at the envelope emblazoned with your logo and do the same.

Over the years I’ve learned some simple strategies that you can use to give your letter the best chance of being, opened, read and acted upon:

1.         Be mysterious

If your envelope doesn’t reveal that it’s a sales letter, you’ve got a better chance of it at least getting opened. So unless you have a really irresistible offer, leave the envelope blank. Just put it in a plain, good quality envelope with no logos or anything so it doesn’t look like a sales letter.

The sender address can be just an address (no name) in tiny type on the back.

Your potential customer will then feel obliged to open the letter to find out what’s inside.

2.         Hand write the name and address

If your mailing list is small, hand writing the envelope is a practical and effective way to increase the opening rate of your sales letter. It helps if you can also hand write the return address on the back, but a printed return address, minus your business name, will do.

3.         Put a stamp on it

A proper stamp, as opposed to a franked stamp can further increase the opening rate of your sales letter by making it look more like a personal communication.

How to get your letter read and acted upon

Now that they’ve opened it, what can you do to maximise the chances that they’ll read and act upon it?

In a well-written sales letter every word is carefully crafted to make the message clear and succinct. At the end of the letter  clearly state why the reader needs to act now. Explain what they need to do next. Give them only one or two options for responding, not a long list.

Here’s a sample of  two direct mail campaigns I wrote for Australian Conservation Foundation.

Other tricks

Of course there are lots more tips and tricks to writing effective sales letters. There’s issues like: Should it have a PS? Should I have a special letterhead printed? Should I sign it by hand? Should I keep it to one page? Should I enclose a reply paid card, a faxback, a brochure or a business card?


That’s where I can help.

I can help you weigh up the cost-effectiveness of using snail mail or email for your next sales campaign, and I can help you with the copywriting and strategy that will get the best response, whichever one you go with.