Blog: Content writing and content strategy insights

5D Writing: workshop for ALGIM Web Symposium

ALGIM (Association of Local Government Information Management) 2010 Web Symposium is on 3-4 May in Wellington.

Alice and I are preparing a workshop for the Symposium, and thought we'd share our concept of 5D writing with you. All will become clear on the day!

5D Writing: Transport your staff from filing cabinets to the 5th dimension

Unlike words on paper, web words do not stay in one place: they operate in five dimensions.

Today, staff have an obvious responsibility to make information accessible, usable and above all findable.

We’ll whisk you through the five dimensions of web content on a trip from silverfish to wormholes. We'll show examples of local government web content to inspire and explain. We distil the demands of content writing into a few core skills with maximum impact, shrinking the distance from filing cabinets to hyperspace. Stop your web content from vanishing into a black hole, gain support for your web project, and win time for your real work instead of patching up badly written web content.

Every day we talk with web managers who face these kinds of problems. We're always looking for a new angle to help content authors too, because some struggle!

We have a soft spot for web managers and content authors working for local and regional authorities. The public has high expectations which the authorities are legally bound to deliver, but some have tiny budgets.

ALGIM will present the results and rankings of its annual web audit at the Web Symposium. This is always a highlight. The websites of the 85 local authorities throughout New Zealand are audited against established government web guidelines. The aim is to raise awareness and standards of online service.

We're looking forward to the Symposium, where we'll learn heaps and hope to offer some useful solutions.

Image of the 5th dimension from


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



Web headlines transform all business documents

It's not just web pages that benefit from proper web-style sub-headlines. As far as I'm concerned, proper means sub-headlines of 4-10 words that summarise the next chunk of information. They improve practically any business document.

I have just read two short editorial reviews of some web content. Both are supposedly written as friendly letters, supposedly structured for the benefit of the client - a branch of the Cats Protection League.

One has web-style sub-headlines, so that the client instantly gets the gist of all the main points:

Home page: a fresh, fast hub
Adoption: simple, clear and logical
Bequests: just three steps!
Formatting and punctuation: minor changes

The other review sticks doggedly to old-style generic headings, so that skim-reading tells the client nothing. These labels merely indicate where a certain type of information is located. Spare me.

Legal issues



Paperclips beat myrrh (usually)

The content of presents and web pages have much in common.

  • Shiny red wrapping with a holograph pattern attracts the greedy eye. (A professional design provides a worthy wrapping for good content.)
  • Sticky tape holds the wrapping firmly. (The web page is held together unobtrusively.)
  • A label bearing your own name is reassuring. (Personalised content is appreciated on Amazon pages.)
  • But it's the parcel content(s) that really interests us. (Ditto for a web page.)

Elsie wrapped a present for baby Jesus, and put it under the tree. The wrapping was more sellotape than paper, and with a 3-year-old's wisdom she gave him one green paper clip.

On the Web, some of us are certainly hunting for golden content, but as daily fare, myrhh and frankincense are somewhat overrated. Nine times out of ten, what we want from a web page is more like a paper clip: functional, usable, small and plain.

From tomorrow I'll be holidaying in Mapua, Nelson, for a week or so and probably won't post much in January. (You wouldn't read it anyway, would you?) Meantime I hope your holiday season is full of good things, such as relaxation and wrapping paper. Time enough for paper clips in 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



Don't put the Web in a glasshouse

Mark Ottaway, Managing Director, Nielsen//NetRatings, New Zealand, hammered this point during his presentation on Internet metrics and trends at the TUANZ Business Internet Conference (21 November 2006).

In fact he said it three times. I wonder why? Could it be something people cannot and will not hear?

'Don't put the Web in a glasshouse. The Web is not special. It's not new: it has been around since 1989. Don't hand web sites over to the IT department and wash your hands of them. Web sites are an important, integral, normal part of business.'

That's what we have been saying about web content for quite some time...

'Don't put web content in a glasshouse.'

Business writing is web writing. Business writing is web writing. Did you hear that? I'd better say it again. Business writing is web writing. Your business depends on your ability to communicate online.