Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

Classic manual on plain language: Complete Plain Words by Ernest Gowers

Cover of Complete Plain Words, Ernest Gower, 1954

The Complete Plain Words is the UK equivalent of The Elements of Style. It is the biggest-ever bestseller from Her Majesty's Stationery Office, and has never been out of print since 1954.

The first edition in 1948 was a radical call to clarity from a top civil servant. Anything written by Sir Ernest Gowers, formerly Private Secretary to Lloyd George, had the ring of authority. 

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Web accessibility: deadline for self-assessment January 2015

International disability signs, Wikimedia

Accessibility deadlines coming up soon! They apply to all Public Service departments and Non-Public Service departments in the NZ State Services.

DIA expects each department to assess the accessibility of all its websites and intranets by January 2015.

Whew! How are you doing? Are you on track?

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Design web sites for 34+ million migraine sufferers

Your website design could be triggering migraine attacks.

Is this a trivial issue? Should you care?

There's heaps of information about designing accessible web sites for people with disabilities, because for government agencies in many countries, this is mandatory.

WCAG 2.0 sets guidelines that prevent web sites from starting an epilectic seizure.

But I haven't seen anything in WCAG 2.0 about migraine sufferers, so I'm speaking up on their behalf.

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Confession: we do provide web technical writing, content strategy and web accessibility services

Today we received a very nice birthday present, one that any six-year-old would be delighted to receive:
Contented appointed to Government syndicated panel of common web services

Now we are six, we have a confession to make.

For years we have been providing many web services such as content strategy, accessibility audits, writing accessible content, and content project management.

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Diploma in Accessible Content coming in March 2012

WCAG 2.0 stamp of approval: Beast BlogWe're almost ready!

What every organization needs, if they're producing official information, is content that complies with WCAG 2.0. Even when a web site is brilliantly accessible behind the scenes, it can fail if the content fails.

WCAG 2.0 compliance is for many organizations a huge and pressing problem. When governments commit to complying with the current accessibility guidelines, every publicly funded organization is also committed.

At Contented, we are here to help! Almost cooked now is a training programme of 10 short courses, all relating to creating accessible content.

Do you want to know the moment this Diploma is ready for you? (Not long now!)

Outline: Diploma in Accessible Content

Programme: Professional development diploma; includes 10 short courses.
Study time required: For a Diploma, each learner has 3 months to complete 10 short courses and tests. Each course takes about an hour.
Course structure: A typical course includes at least 5 exercises, many working examples and an online test.
Group licence: Each group must start and complete the Diploma within 12 months. Managers can track progress online and access performance reports.

Courses in the Diploma in Accessible Content
1. Know your online audience: they're uncomfortable, stressed, searching, and in a hurry.
2. Brilliant headlines on the Web: write headlines that instantly work with people and search engines.
3. Powerful summaries for web pages: 5 types of summaries that get the message across.
4. Hyperlinks that make perfect sense: what to write instead of Click Here.
5. Using images and graphs in web content appropriately, and making them accessible.
6. Plain structure: check readability, structure documents and write concisely.
7. Plain writing: use clear words and sentences; avoid grammar mistakes.
8. Formatting web content with editing tools: avoid errors that affect search results, readability and accessibility.
9. WCAG 2.0 overview: what content authors need to know and do in order to comply with WCAG 2.0. Summary of principles and guidelines.
10. Accessible DOCs and PDFs: how content authors can create accessible DOCs, convert them to accessible PDFs, and manage legacy PDFs.

Another way to train staff writers: Enterprise Subscription to Contented

You may notice the Diploma in Accessible Content overlaps with the Diploma in Web Content. That's inevitable, because the basics of good web writing all contribute to accessible content. For best value, consider an all-inclusive enterprise subscription to all Contented courses. WCAG 2.0-compliant content is then a valuable part of a general drive to improve the quality of information in your entire organization.

Subscription numbers: You decide how many staff the subscription will cover. (Savings increase with scale.)
Subscription period: Your organization subscribes for a minimum period of one year.
Programme (18 courses): Enrolled staff can do any or all of the Contented courses during the 12 months of the subscription. That includes 10 courses in the Diploma in Accessible Content plus eight others listed below. Staff can also access new courses as they are added.
11. Editing web content: a simple, systematic and powerful system for editing content.
12. Strategic blogging: great tips on blogging with purpose and impact.
13. Writing for search engines: what content authors can do to make content findable.
14. Keywords everywhere: How to choose and use keywords in web content and elsewhere.
15. Painless grammar: key grammar guidelines and simple ways to avoid common mistakes.
16. Modern punctuation: general principles and international guidelines for correct punctuation.
17. Write the right report: plan, research, write and edit reports, alone or collaboratively.
18. Twitter for business: strategic micro-blogging, on Twitter or on the intranet.

Contact us for more information and a quote!

Image of WCAG 2.0 stamp of approval (c) Mike Cherim

WCAG 2.0 for content writers: let's be realistic

Way back when, I decided to run some articles on WCAG 2.0 for content authors. After writing 3 or 4, I figured these articles gave too much (and yet too little) information to too few. So I allowed the series to quietly fizzle out. Shortly afterwards, Alice and I started planning a complete Contented online training programme on WCAG 2.0 for content authors. (By the way, it will also cover Section 508 for content authors.)

Our concern is always for the so-called content author: this peculiar label. (Or content writer, same people.) We don't mean dedicated writers of web content: they know who they are, and being a content author is part of their identity. We mean the hundreds of thousands—no, millions!—of employees who happen to write stuff that happens to be made, stored, filed and distributed electronically.

Meet the front-line writers
Let's call them the front-line writers. They're precious people working in the trenches, or rather at their desks.

  • They write stuff at work every day.
  • They don't think of themselves as content authors.
  • They do not understand HTML or CSS.
  • They are not familiar with Styles or metadata.
  • And yet everything they write has to pass accessibility tests, whether as a Word or Writer document, PDF, web content or intranet content. (Yes, even government intranets are supposed to comply with WCAG 2.0 in some countries. This has huge implications.)

So who was ever going to read my articles on WCAG 2.0 for content authors? Heaps of lovely clever people (like you) with a special interest in web content: but no front-line content authors, I think.

What front-line content writers need
They need the skills to write content that's usable, accessible and findable, and a certain amount of technical understanding. They will only learn what they need to know when their manager organizes training for them. They are far too busy to volunteer!

Realistically, affordable, scalable training in WCAG 2.0 for content authors is where we see the greatest need. At present, there's plenty of training available—excellent training, no doubt. But we think most of the WCAG 2.0 training is directed at workers higher up the content food chain: content strategists, web teams, web developers,content managers, content editors, IT staff and so on.

Trained people go forth into the world and create wonderfully accessible web sites.

But accessibility is only as good as the content. And that old hairy mammoth is still in the room: inaccessible content.

That's a problem Contented has always aimed to solve, on a big scale, big time—but at a small cost. Is that your problem too? We'd love to help you.

One article in the doomed series

Struggling with WCAG 2.0 Accessibility Guidelines for content authors

A Contented course on WCAG 2.0 for content authors looked like a piece of cake at first—after all, the information is all readily available in 159,800 easy words. Why would that prove difficult?

We believe there's a need for a quick, practical course in WCAG 2.0 for government employees who—at least sometimes—write stuff that is published on a web site or intranet. For example, by the end of 2012, all Australian government web sites are required to comply with WCAG 2.0 to level A. And there's no way most web teams have time to tidy up accessibility in the truckloads of content now being published by staff.

So Contented has undertaken to write this course. And we will. As always, our course will be in plain language that non-technical government employees can understand.

But as you probably know, WCAG 2.0 has tried so hard to future-proof its guidelines that they are sometimes incomprehensible. Slightly weird terms are used that are intended to cover all possible technologies. While this goal may be laudable, the resulting generic terms are not plain language. For example, maybe browsers will be obsolete in 10 years time, so WCAG 2.0 tries not to mention them, and instead says something like this:

Success Criterion 4.1 Maximize compatibility with current and future user agents, including assistive technologies.

Our job is to:

  • disentangle the sentence
  • decipher the jargon
  • figure the meaning
  • deduce any implications for non-IT staff who produce web content
  • translate the implications into plain language.

If this guideline means that web pages must be correctly and validly coded, it doesn't obviously affect most government content authors—for example, an HR manager publishing a procedure through a web content management system. However, it's appropriate to remind content authors to do a few relevant things that will make the web team's job simpler.

  • They should use templates correctly, putting the right items in the right fields. (Some content authors are highly creative about the way they use templates, and that's bad for accessibility.)
  • They should use WYSIWYG buttons very conservatively. (I'm assuming most content authors do not understand HTML.)
  • If content authors are expected to enter metadata, they should do this correctly.

I was sad to see the previous WCAG 1.0 plain language guideline disappear, requiring 'the clearest and simplest language appropriate for a site's content.' (It's now an advisory technique, not critical to success.) Now, the only requirement is at the third highest level, AAA, a level of accessibility that is rarely expected and will virtually never be fully achieved. And it states:

When text requires reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level after removal of proper names and titles, supplemental content, or a version that does not require reading ability more advanced than the lower secondary education level, is available.

That 41-word sentence, by the way, has a Flesch Reading Ease Score of 0.0, which means nobody—but nobody—would find it easy to read. Another test, the Flesch Kincaid Readability test, found you'd need 24.86 years of schooling to comprehend the sentence.

Strictly interpreted, this guideline is very odd.

  • If a page was accidentally written in a style too obscure for its intended audience, that's OK, as long as you provide a second version that is easy for its intended audience. Example: voting instructions.
  • If a page was deliberately written for readers at a high reading level, then you need to provide a second version that is easy for a 13-year-old to understand. Example: a research paper for astro-physicists.

Don't worry: we will succeed in writing a great course on WCAG 2.0 for content authors. We will interpret the guidelines in a commonsense way, and give thoroughly practical advice about compliance. Difficult things are usually more fun, we reckon. And you can find the full and authoritative version of WCAG 2.0 elsewhere.

That said, I must say this version is easier to comprehend than the first published WCAG 2.0. For example, Guideline 3.2 was heavy on abstract nouns:

Make the placement and functionality of content predictable.

Now, thank goodness, it's in plain English:

Make Web pages appear and operate in predictable ways.






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