Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

100 banned words cause an uproar

In Britain, the Local Government Association published a list of 100 words that public bodies should not use if they want to communicate effectively. That was on National Plain English Day, 11 December 2007. (I know, I'm slow but I get there.)
See the full list ... and the interesting explosion of comments that resulted. Besides those who got the point, you may note just a whiff of defensiveness in the air.

The cartoon is attached to a posting on TalkingBizNews blog.

At last a new book for content writers

Yay! My new book Better Business Writing on the Web is here! Actually, it's already selling like the proverbial hot cakes.

My previous book for content authors was Web Word Wizardry. Huge changes have happened since I revised that in 2001 for Ten Speed Press.

In 2001 I wrote for individuals, often small business people designing their own sites and mainly concerned with search results. Since then other books have been published for the individual designer-writer, journalist and sales copywriter.

Left out of the loop were content authors who have no control over site design or architecture. Typically, they are salaried employees who simply write for work, without training. They use a CMS or publishing tool to publish their own documents on a web site or intranet. They are busy. They have no idea how to adapt their writing for the web. Their number is legion, now that content publishing is the responsibility of subject experts on the staff.

This book is dedicated to:
Everyone who ever wrote an advertisement, agenda, annual report, chart, discussion document, form, graph, instruction, law, letter, memo, manual, marketing document, newsletter, mission statement, news releases, news story, pamphlet, policy statement, procedure, promotion, proposal, presentation, report, RTF, schedule or specification.

And then the boss said, "We've decided to put this on the intranet." (Or web site.)

The other audience is of course the web developers and managers who battle against a tsunami of terrible content. Someone who certainly knows told me:

The US government estimates (because no one actually KNOWS) that it has more than 400 million pages of content. I'll bet that a) 50% of it is seldom, if ever, used, b) 25% is redundant or actually contradicts other government content, and c) 80% is so poorly written that the intended readers can't possibly comprehend what we intend and/or can't find what they want/need.

What's a poor content manager to do? For this audience I have identified the few key skills that make an exponential improvement to online content, and included chapters on writing for government, academic, commercial and intranet sites. Naturally, Web 2.0 has its own chapter and also pops up elsewhere. Even more important, I discuss how to short-circuit the production of bad content, starting with mass cost-effective training.

Buy one copy for yourself, then buy more for your organisation



Our arsenal of professionalism

Let me share a couple of sentences from an old-fashioned, brand new novel I have just finished reading, The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart. These words speak to all technical writers, web designers and other professionals. They speak to me. Possibly they even speak about me.


As he did so, Guillaume Ladoucette slowly opened the narrow drawer above his stomach and took out his rubber and stapler. Silently, he placed them on top of the desk in the hope of seducing his customer with his arsenal of professionalism.

The narrow drawer above Guillaume Ladoucette's stomach reappears a couple of times with its contents (the drawer contents, not the stomach contents). So do a number of little refrains that make the book echo like a villanelle.

For example, this conversation occurs between almost every combination of villagers. Perigord may be so ugly that not even the English will live there, but at least everyone has a walnut tree:

'No thanks,' replied Stephane Jollis who had his own to get rid of.

This is just the ticket when you are looking for something giggly and feather-light to read.

The Matchmaker of Perigord by Julia Stuart. Doubleday.

P.S. In case you wondered, this is a British book, so rubber means eraser.



Writing tip: Write 1, 2, 3. Numbers in plain language and legal prose

Writing tip: write numbers in digits (1, 2, 3) rather than words (one, two, three) unless you have a strong, specific reason to do the opposite.

In legal prose it is traditional to write every number twice, first in words, followed by the same number written in digits enclosed in brackets:
That sentence contained twenty-five (25) words.
Easy as one (1), two (2), three (3).

A student commented on legal prose, especially: "that three (3) bit. Like we never see numbers as words?? Why would that ever be clearer?"

Well, there is a reason, no doubt. In a legal document, numbers are less likely to contain mistakes if they are written twice—or at least the mistake will be obvious.

Words are the traditional way to write numbers in a document, but digits leap off the page and grab our attention. They use a different visual language, so they stand out in a sea of ABC words.

But I agree my correspondent: in most cases, outside of legal prose, one version of a number is enough. And online, digits win.

Jakob Nielsen has confirmed this: It's better to use '23' than 'twenty-three' to catch users' eyes when they scan Web pages for facts, according to eyetracking data.

Deciding when to use digits or roman letters for numbers never was straightforward. The Australian Style Manual devotes 15 pages to the issue! Nielsen suggests guidelines for web writing that differ from traditional writing style:

  • Write numbers with digits not letters, even when they're first in a sentence.
  • For big numbers, combine the two, as in 24 billion.
  • Spell out numbers that don't represent facts.

I like that. But it is never going to be entirely simple.

For example, take the phrase Write 1, 2, 3. Strictly speaking, that should be one, two, three, because those numbers don't represent facts. But the topic of this blog post is the use of digits, not just word-numbers. So I want 1, 2, 3 to stand out even though the numbers are not facts or data. Fiddly reasoning, case by case.

Also, we should make an exception for the numbers one (1) and zero (0) in isolation. The digits don't stand out because they look like an el (l) and an oh (O).

The new write-digits rule for online content will keep writers on their toes. And it's no use saying this rule only applies to online content. Mountains of documents are published both online and on paper. It's absurd to think we will have two versions of each, one for print and one for the web or intranet.

No way are we going to create two inconsistent versions of documents, one for the Web (which can be printed and converted to hard copy) and one for hard copy (which can be published online). My rule of thumb: write what works on the Web and it will work just as well on paper. So watch me use 1, 2, 3 as the default way of writing numbers, on purpose, from now on.

Style guides will need changing. And sooner or later, web rules must rule.

Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox on writing numbers, 16 April 2007

Why don't adults write better?

Writing is a weak area in the Student Outcome Overview 2001-2005: Research findings on student achievement in reading, writing and mathematics in New Zealand schools. This report aggregates and analyses results from a number of ongoing studies. The picture is quite complex, but one subject gets this stern comment:

'Writing is an area where New Zealand students could do better.'

Yet in reading and mathematics, our students achieve at a high level compared to other countries.

The United States National Commission on Writing has noted that US businesses spend more than US$3 billion on remedial writing training for staff. And their May 2006 report on Writing and School Reform states:

'Writing, education's second "R", has become the neglected element of American school

Is writing so hard to teach, compared with reading and mathematics? I don't know, but I did a bit of snooping and found a few clues on the excellent English Online web site. The Ministry of Education holds copyright to all the material so the content has authority.

English Online has a bunch of units for teachers to use. Now, whatever the requirements of NCEA (National Certificate in Educational Achievement), the NCEA writing units are biased towards literary essays, creative writing and formal academic writing.

Yet most people will never be strong in creative writing or earn their living writing formal academic-literary essays. Instead they are expected to write readable, correct emails, reports, memos and intranet content in their daily work. That's what writing means to the majority of people.

I have no solution. As a poet, I'm hardly going to knock the joys of literature. But my post-graduate students express relief and amazement when for the first time they learn about such things as the writing process and plain language. After years of schooling and years in the workplace, many had never been taught how to write: they had only been told what to write.

Student Outcome Overview 2001-2005
National Commission on Writing
English Online



Tackling things at last

The Stern Report warns that the world has 10 years to tackle climate change, or face a global recession costing about $10 trillion. This certainly has woken up the politicians. As a result, today I had a Major Language Moment. I caught Helen Clark on TV3 news talking about energy efficiency, sustainable land use, biofuels in petrol, and so forth. Then she uttered these immortal words:

'All of these things have to be tackled.' I nearly fell off my chair.

For the last 10 years, every news broadcast has featured at least one person - and not just politicians - talking about 'addressing the issues'. How vague. How non-committal. How pompous. How remote. How utterly unconvincing are those weasel words, 'addressing the issues'.

Addressing... writing a name and address on an issue shaped like an envelope? Saying 'Greetings, o ye issues! Let us have a pointless little meeting'? Whether talking or writing, addressing is not exactly an energetic verb.

And issues... issues are not problems or crises, let alone things. They are abstract topics of esoteric academic interest. Professors can debate them for years. They never go away.

Together, 'addressing' and 'issues' create a cool, undemanding, cerebral concept. They absolve the speaker from actually solving problems. They are a comfortable refuge for people who have no taste for action.

But today Helen Clark blew away all self-protective ambiguity and uttered that grunty rugby word, 'tackled'. Sure, her verb was passive, so perhaps someone else is destined to do the tackling. But I have no trouble picturing our prime minister hurling herself at these 'things', determined to bring them down, and fast.

With the change from weasel words to action verbs, plain language took over, physical, active, and convincing. Oh please, may Helen's words influence our nation. And may she resist the temptation to relapse.

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