Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Writing for the Web

Lisa Fleming
Brian Lieb
Hennepin County Public Affairs Department

Plain language

Resource: http://centerforplainlanguage.org/

Plain Writing Act of 2010 “The law requires that federal agencies use "clear Government communication that the public can understand and use."”

Plain language is a process that involves focusing written communication on the needs of the intended audience. With everything you publish, your audience should be able to:

Find what they need - Key information isn’t buried in confusing layout or lost in paragraphs of text

Understand what they find - Text doesn’t rely on jargon and passive sentence structure

Use that information to meet their needs - Readers can accomplish their goal – apply for a program, find a phone number

Objective language - no jargon

Scannable layout - headings, outline style

Concise text - Get to the point

Effective Writing

Resource: www.hennepin.us/writingguide

Use a style guide.

Step 1: Define your goal

Have it clearly in your mind - take a minute to think about it. Be specific.

Step 2: Consider your audience

Who are you talking to? What’s their reading level? How do they like to get information? How do I get the info to them? What are their priorities? Time? Necessity? Short is almost always better - almost always expands your audience. Tone - how will it affect your audience?

Step 3: Prep work

Don’t start writing cold. Create an outline using keyword. “Here’s what I’m going to cover.” Then you can start filling in your outline anywhere that’s easiest for you.

Step 4: The first draft

Create concise sections. Fill in the outline

Step 5: Editing

Very important.

Tips to improve your writing

Avoid acronyms and jargon

Unless you are writing for co-workers, your audience won’t know what they stand for. Use jargon where appropriate, but make sure.

Use a full description, then use terms like the program or the library in subsequent references. You could also use some sort of work around - the county’s education initiative instead of the acronym or the confusing name of the program.

Omit needless words

 Each of the following sentences is stronger without the words in italics.

• “In order to avoid common errors, take the time to use a style manual.”

• “During the course of this meeting we will discuss the principles of effective management.”

Don’t trust modifiers

 Each of the following sentences is stronger without the word in italics.

• “This effectively limits our ability to respond quickly.”

• The general consensus is that we have a real problem with modifiers.”

Voice – active is usually preferable to passive

• Passive – “My first week in St. Paul will always be remembered by me.” (Remembered (action) by me (subject))

• Active – “I will always remember my first week in St. Paul.” (I (subject) remember (action))

• Passive – “When the F1 key is pressed, help information is shown.” (When pressed (action) by you (subject), information is shown (action) to you (subject))

• Active – “Press the F1 key to see help information.” (You (subject) press (action) and see (action))

Lists and coordinate ideas should be in parallel form

Make all the parts of the sentence agree and make sense. Divide into little sentences, and if they don’t all agree change it.

• Not good: “She is capable, experienced, and often works until late at night.” (test – She is capable. She is experienced. She is often works until late at night.)

• Good: “She is capable, experienced, and hard-working.” (test – She is capable. She is experienced. She is hard-working.)

Use action verbs rather than nominalizations (nouns as verbs)

• Nominalization – “Make a revision in this sentence.”

• Action verb – “Revise this sentence.”

• Nominalization – “This report gives an analysis of the problem and determines a solution.”

• Action verb – “This report analyzes the problem and solves it.”

Effective writing activity

On your own, rewrite the sentences below by correcting the errors (needless modifiers, passive construction, use of acronyms, etc.).

1. The decision was made by the committee.

The committee made a decision.

The committee decided.

2. The FBI agent gave CPR to the CEO of the HERC.

The FBI agent gave CPR to the CEO of the Greek hero Hercules.

Discussion of acronyms here: unanimously decided that FBI and CPR were OK. CEO might depend on the circumstances. HERC unacceptable to a wider audience.

3. It is a true, well-known fact that the more you practice, your skill will improve greatly.

It’s a fact that the more you practice, the better you’ll get.

Practice makes perfect.

4. Our goals were to collect information, analyzing the significance of the facts, and that appropriate recommendations would be made.

Our goals were to collect information, analyze it, and make recommendations.

5. Please refer back to my previous email on the subject and give me your personal opinion.

Please give me your opinion on the email I sent you recently.

6. The Manager gave an analysis of the issue that was very unique.

The manager’s analysis of the issues was … unique.

Editing 101

Resource: www.hennepin.us/writingguide

Why is it important to edit?

Editing your text is an essential final step in the publication process: even Nobel Prize-winning authors have editors.

Two important kinds of editing are:

1. Editing for purpose

This kind of editing is to make sure the writing accomplishes its intended goal and is as understandable and user-friendly as it can be.

Get distance - put it away for a while and come back to it later.

Look at it as a whole. Does it make sense?

Does it do what you want it to do? Will it make happen what you want to happen? Can refine the goal if necessary.

Now nitpicking stuff - repetition, unnecessary language - be efficient, love does not equal appropriateness - kitten drowning - get rid of parts that aren’t relevant.

Pay special attention to how piece begins. Get your intention across with the first sentence.

2. Copy editing – for errors in style, grammar, punctuation, spelling

Get a second set of eyes - have someone read it who hasn’t read it before.

Look it up in a style guide if you’re not sure.

There are many good editing resources. Some easy-to-use guides include:

Hennepin County Writing Guide (hennepin.us/writingguide)

Yahoo! Style Guide (styleguide.yahoo.com)

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (www.bartleby.com/141/)

AP Stylebook; must subscribe online or purchase book.

Editing Activity

Edit this text for purpose and style. Group exercise.

Recommendations for Traffic Safety

It’s January, and with the beginning of the new year come thoughts of ways we can improve ourselves. Have you ever thought about if you could take the bus to work instead of driving in your own car or truck by yourself?

When more people ride the bus that means there are fewer cars on the road, and that means less traffic jams and people will not be as stressed out. If people would not take out their cell phone in the car, there would be fewer accidents, too.

If you want to consider trying to ride the bus to work, go to the website http://www.metrotransit.org on the internet to get help.

Air pollution is very important to lots of people. If we didn’t drive in cars by ourselves, that means there would likely be less air pollution.

34.62% of Library employees ride the bus to work.

Another way you can help is to carpool.

Result after editing:

Don’t Drive – Ride!

There are a lot of benefits to taking the bus:

• Read, text, and work during your commute

• Less money

• Less stress

• Less traffic congestion and air pollution

Join 35% of your colleagues by taking the bus. For more information go to www.metrotransit.org.

Writing for the web. 

Resource: Hennepin.us/weblearning

On the web, less is more

The average user spends just 2 to 3 seconds scanning a web page before deciding if what they want is on the page.  If they don't think it is, they leave.  If your key information is buried in paragraphs of text, it likely won't get found.

How to decide what to put on your website

1. Identify your primary audience.

2. Find out what your audience wants.
    In any chunk of info, most people are interested in the same few pieces of info - 3 or 4 key things. Figure out those key things and make them very visible. Ask around to find what those 3 or 4 things are. Link to additional info on another page, or upload a document.  

3. If most users don't need it; delete it.
    Majority rules -- ask yourself:  Do the majority of site visitors really want or need this information?  If the answer is no, then don't put it on the website. 

The web is not a print piece; it’s very different.

The public holds public sector websites to a higher standard than private sector websites. We’re spending their tax dollars - they want to make sure that their money is being spent well.

Key is to understand how people read websites. People look at websites in an F shaped pattern. Headers need to guide - give pertinent info in the headers. People skim.

The right side of the page is a dead zone because that’s where people expect to see ads.

People don’t look at the photos online. In print, photos are the first thing people look for.

Readers bounce around the website. Headings need to guide the reader and allow them to scan the content through the headings.

Scannable layout improves usage. Scannable = outline.

If your page extends significatnly beyond the bottom of the screen (more than 2.5 full scrolls), consider breaking up the content into a main page with one or more linked subpages.

How to write content:

Try starting from scratch instead of editing a print document – might very well be easier and take less time. Can be really difficult to edit down an existing text to work well on the web. Pull out the main points of the document, create an outline, and fill it in.

1. Write concise text - only write what you need.

2. Determine key message - goes on top.

3. Break up text into small sections - short paragraphs. No minimum length. Have it be as long as you need to get your point across and make sense. Bite-sized chunks.

4. Headings. Don’t need headings on everything, but need enough to provide scannability. Don’t make them cute. Label the info chunks. Guide the readers. Make it intuitive.

5. Edit. Edit. Edit. Reedit even if you’re borrowing text – it needs to work in this context. Also paste can go wrong. Also programs change things willy-nilly.

6. Run spellcheck again. This is painless, and makes such a difference.

Other tips:

Bulleted lists can be very effective. They might very well be better than narrative.

Add images if they contribute to the message. Don’t use gratuitous images. It’s all info, and off-message content is a distraction.

Statistics are becoming less and less convincing. Try storytelling using the stats instead. The Frameworks Institute - they work on reframing issues using storytelling rather than statistics.
If your page extends significantly below the bottom of the screen, might want to break it up into multiple pages. Often appropriate. If not, don’t. General rule at Hennepin County is 2.5 clicks in the scroll bar = 2.5 screens/pages. Web consortium agrees. Attached files are a possibility.

Avoid dead ends. Need to have a way to navigate between the pages in a cluster. You don’t know where the user is going to appear from. If they you’re your page through search, they bypass the home page altogether. Navigation must be site wide.

Consider a template. Allows multiple people supplying content to get closer to consistency in content and voice. Hennepin County uses fields in a word document which they distribute to various county departments, which also allows them to create web content more easily.

Use a style guide.

Most people under 40 use search to find pages within a website. Most over 40 use navigation. Texas.gov is primarily search.

Use headings to divide content logically - audience, subject, etc.

Plain language improves access for low-skill English readers.

Benefits of well-written web content

Research by Jacob Nielson, the preeminent expert of website usability (the ability of site visitors to find, understand, and use information):

  • Using objective language (write facts, not opinions) increases usability by 27%
  • Having scannable layout (headers, bullets, text in small chunks) increases usability by 47%
  • Writing concise text (make it as short as possible) increases usability by 58%


Help people find your web content

Search engines focus primarily on titles, key words, descriptions, and the first line or two of body text to help users find content.  When crafting text for these fields, use simple terms that users are likely to know.  Avoid jargon and acronyms.

Melissa @ Central

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