Many organisations (especially universities) have satisfactory support systems for those who create or manage web content. Indeed, some are superior to the support for 'ordinary' work writers. And there's the rub: online writing is separated out as special, unusual, not part of mainstream business writing at all.
Online writers are identified as part of a specialised web community. But I doubt they see themselves that way, because most everyday writers are not technically minded. They are simply people who write stuff for work.
The struggle is to convince staff that everyday business writing is, de facto, web writing. Certainly, content writers need to be wooed and won, but not in a way that implicitly differentiates web writing from other business writing. After all, the principles of web content writing (concise, skim-readable, objective) are valuable for nearly all business writing.
In a Contented organisation, a majority of staff would identify themselves as potential writers of online content, and so they web-proof their documents in advance. It happens every day: you write a report never dreaming it will be put on the intranet then ouch, your boss decides to do just that. There it is, either looking ridiculous because it wasn't written for the intranet or perfectly OK, because you followed a few simple principles.
Traditionally, all guidelines for web sites and intranets have been combined in one predominantly technical web style guide. That is still necessary for the team that manages and maintains sites. But content writing is more likely to improve if the regular company style guide is founded on guidelines for web content, and not just as an add-on. Web style should be the default style. After all, if every document starts with a clear descriptive headline and summary, is skim-readable and written in plain language, then the document is both well written and virtually web-proofed.
Trapping web content guidelines in a glasshouse will only help individual writers of new web content. It cannot improve the print-based documents that often need to be uploaded, nor raise the general standard of business writing.
Nick Besseling outlines a process for developing web and intranet guidelines using a wiki. Obvious benefits are avoiding the 'style nazi' label, and getting staff involved and committed to standards—everywhere an issue, notoriously so in universities. Wikis were born for this.
Wiki your web and intranet guidelines
Intranet Design Annual 2007 from the Nielsen Norman Group contains this startling statement:
Intranets are definitely getting bigger. Across the first three Design Annuals (2001-2003), the average intranet contained 200,000 pages; across the three most recent Annuals (2005-2007), the average intranet contained 6 million pages.
The 10 best intranets of 2007 trained their content contributors of course: you can't win this contest with garbage content. But how do you train that many content contributors? Answer: with Contented.
Content Contributor Training: Increasingly, companies not only encourage content contributions, but also make it incredibly easy for people to post content. To that end, companies provide content training for new contributors, ongoing instruction, and simple interfaces so users can post and edit with minimal training.
It strikes me that the Web 2.0 phenomenon includes the publishing tools associated with content management systems and learning management systems. They're up there with the other social software tools. Just like blogs, podcasts, social bookmarking sites, social networks, wikis, games and widgets, the templates used by the winning intranets promote collaboration, involvement, and decentralisation of authority. The job of writing and publishing online content is now shared by many staff, and central control of content has largely been relinquished.
How could it be otherwise, when the 'average'* intranet has 6 million pages?
* Average among the intranets that made it on to the Nielsen Norman top ten in 2007.
Maybe you thought universities were a little slow to recognise the value of podcasts, given the popularity of iPods with students? Jimmy Ruska has listed his top 10 (+ 15) podcasting universities, starting with Stanford (134 lectures and 3 complete courses), University of California at Berkeley (56 courses) and Purdue. Courses are free to the general public as well as students. They supplement regular learning, showcase professors and courses, and give us all a buzz. I suspect this shortlist hardly scratches the surface. Let's not forget Canterbury University has started along this track.
Top 10 university podcasts according to Jimmy Ruska
QWICKIT is based on this premise: you can double the usability of web content by teaching writers just four things. This week my students have demonstrated that this super-streamlined approach worksâ€”brilliantly.
My online students have just one week's study to get the message. For the paper Professional Writing and Editing, they have to write a feature article, a proposal and three pages of web content as well as copy-editing another student's work. That means they get only one lecture on writing web content.
Naturally I focus on the big four: writing correct headlines, summaries, links, and plain language. To check their work, students can use a few quick tests for quality web contentâ€”for example, the 3-second test and the ID test. (The tests are also part of QWICKIT.)
Here's my meticulous statistical analysis of the resultsâ€”well, OK, my overwhelming impression. Bingo! The vast majority of my students' web content is vastly superior to the vast majority of content I have seen on any intranet.
I'm not saying they all scored an A+. But hey, using the same standards, I would grade most of the genuine intranet content I have seen as D or E, no joke. Few students had written online content before, yet nobody failed, and mostlyâ€”they got it! They did it! They wrote usable content!