REVISION FOR WEB Mary went to the grocery store, she needed to buy milk, she had invited her friends Sally and Jerry over for breakfast, Sally and Jerry like to drink coffee with milk. Mary went to the grocery store; she needed milk. She had invited her friends Sally and Jerry over for breakfast. Mary went to the store for milk. Her friends Sally and Jerry were coming over for breakfast. Use Simple Sentence Structures Consider this long, unwieldy sentence from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident. that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If our forefathers had written this for the Web, they might have revised it to say: We hold these truths as self-evident. All are created equal. All have certain unalienable Rights. Among the rights are Strip each sentence to its cleanest components. -William Zinsser, On Writing Well • Life • Liberty • Pursuit of Happiness For printed content, readers are more likely to follow a complex thought process. With a book, for example, it’s easy to flip back a few pages to reread and absorb content. But on the Web, remember that your reader is typically in a hurry and not prone to reflection or study. The reader darts around on the page and only lands on each sentence for a moment. Short, easy sentences work best. Keep Paragraphs Short In a Basic Composition writing course, you learn how to build paragraphs of substance. Sometimes the teacher might say that one of your paragraphs is too wimpy-that it doesn’t have enough meat. The teacher might also say that the paragraph needs at least 75 words in order to say something. You are told that your paragraphs are building blocks, and you are taught to add layers and substance to each of your building blocks with details, anecdotes, examples, scenarios. dialogue, or elaborate description. If you are writing for the Web, this is one of those lessons that you can and need to unlearn. On the Web you can write paragraphs that have only one or two sentences. Just make sure that there’s a specific topic in each paragraph. Use One Topic Per Paragraph Include only one topic per paragraph in your writing to keep the content concise, well organized, and easy to group with like topics. Begin with the topic sentence and follow with information that supports that topic. When your paragraphs fol- low a simple structure, the content is easier for your readers to take in. The content is also easier for you or the site’s information architect to manage. Begin with a Strong Lead If you’ve taken a traditional writing class, you were taught to begin your paragraphs with an interesting hook, a topic sentence, and then follow it with several sentences that build to the ending sentence. The topic sentence is the only important sentence in the paragraph because it states what the paragraph s about. or Web writing, the best practice is to use a paragraph structure called the inverted pyramid (FIGURE 2.2). The inverted pyramid turns the traditional paragraph upside down. It begins with a topic sentence, which states what the paragraph is about. and then the most critical and interesting content follows. For years, journalists have been using the inverted pyramid for newspaper reporting. A big benefit of leading your paragraph with the most important information is that this is what appears before a Read More link. If you start your paragraph with generalizations, the reader will see only fluff and will most likely not click Read More. Begin with the topic sentence, the most important information.
Break Up Tangled Nouns Sentences with several nouns jammed together, creating a tangle of nouns, are hard to read and can slow down readers to a standstill. news editors create titles with nouns strung together to save space. Here’s an example: Fatal Alcohol-Related Officer Involved Shooting This type of sentence needs revision, so that the sentence is easier to ·ea::: You’ll need to add some of the smaller words, like prepositions, articles junctions, and transitions to help guide the reader. Consider the following tangled sentence and its more readable revision: NOUN TANGLE Be Wary of Trendy Terms Trendy terms are only fun to use for a fleeting moment. After that rnorne-u , =: become overused, and like a cliche, they bore the reader and give your se-:e-.::e:; a lackluster tone and quality. If you’re using a term that was trendy more :ra- s months ago, your reader might not know what you’re talking about. List Items By using lists rather than straight text, you readers to scan and take in quickly. You also break up larger chunks which can give your writing a heavier, bogged-down feeling. The following example shows a sentence with items joined by commas ••. ersus a sentence that uses bullets for a list of items. SAMPLE WITHOUT LIST REVISION FOR EASIER READING The largest fresh surface-water system on earth includes the Great Lakes: Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario, and their connecting channels. The following Great Lakes and connecting channels: • Michigan • Superior • Huron • Erie • Ontario Use Bullets for Laundry Lists If the items in a list you’re referring to have no particular sequence, use points rather than numbers. For example, if you need to list items that are spelled out of a box (FIGURE 2.1), list them with bullet points. SAMPLE BULLET POINTS The contents of the junk box spilled out to reveal a • padlock tube of lipstick Christmas ornament pen napkin ring Use Numbers for Sequences ROTATE AN IMAGE IN PHOTOSHOP 1. With Photoshop running, open the image file. 2. from the menu bar, select Image. 3. Select Image rotation at 180°. Keep Sentences Short Keep sentences brief and to the point. If you’ve written a sentence that needs more than a comma or two, rethink it. Short. simple sentences are much easier to read and comprehend online. When your readers find convoluted sentences in printed literature, they can pause, reread, and take more time to digest the meaning. It you like to use semicolons to link short sentences together, rethink this practice tor three reasons. First, punctuation marks (semicolons, colons, commas, apostrophes) are hard to read online. Second, lengthy sentences are more difficult to read. Third, your readers do not have the patience to sort out complicated meanings. Avoid ‘Run-on Sentences If you are revising a run-on sentence for printed literature, you can iotn two or more short. related sentences with semicolons. On the Web, however, semicolons are harder to see. And shorter, simpler sentences separateo by periods and spaces are much easier to read.
The following example illustrates pompous versus plain English. NOT PLAIN ENGLISH REVISED AS PLAIN ENGLISH The extemporaneous discourse communicated by Shannon was acknowledged with approbation. Shannon gave an impromptu speech that was well received. OBJECTIVE CONSIDERATION In his article “Politics and the English Language,” included in A Collection of Essays (Mariner Books,.1970), George Orwell ·tells us that English is in a bad way. He takes a verse from Ecclesiastes; which is written plainly, and rewrites it in what he calls modern English. Avoid Idioms An idiom is a phrase or expression that is inherent to a particular culture, region, or people. The problem with idioms is that they don’t often translate across cultures and regions. Take the following expression: it’s as easy as falling off a log. If you know this expression, you understand that something is quite easy. Comparable expressions you might use include: • It’s a piece of cake. • It’s a no-brainier. • There’s nothing to it. • It’s like taking candy from a baby. • It’s as easy as pie. • No sweat. All of these expressions are idioms. If you were to translate, word for word, it’s as easy as tailing off a log ‘into another language. You should avoid such idiomatic phrases because they are too much trouble for your readers to understand. Spell Out Acronyms If you love acronyms, you might get a citation by the AAAAA (American Association Against Acronym Abuse). All kidding aside, don’t use an acronym unless you are absolutely sure that your readers will whiz past it without a second thought. Most of us know that 24/7 stands for 24 hours/7 days a week. But do you know what 24-D stands for? You’d probably have to look this one up. It is an acronym for 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid. The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter- ’tis the difference between the lightning bug· and the lightning. -Mark Twain
Get to Know Your Audience Once you have a general idea of who your audience is and have made a list of specific members of that group, you’ll have many ways to get to know your audience better. If you are writing about a subject that is near and dear to your heart, you’ll have a huge head start on who your readers are and what topics they will like. Here are a few suggestions to gather information: • Ask questions (phone, email, text, etc.). • Attend events (tradeshows, competitions, forums, etc.). • Watch TV and YouTube interviews of more famous people. • Read biogs or news stories. Sometimes, however. you might be tasked to sr te tor a group that you don’t know well. Let’s say, for example, that you’ve just began working in a biomedical company and you are tasked to write instruction guides for pharmacists. You know that you need to focus only on pharrnacists in hospitals. Not those working in other environments. • Meet with pharmacists at their workplace. Take notes of the space, the furniture. any equipment, the color, the smells. • Ask questions. What is a typical day like? What are the biggest concerns? What are the roadblocks? What are typical scenarios for tasks? • Read literature targeted for this group. • Talk to others who interact with this group. Does the company have a customer service department? • Volunteer to work for customer service or provide another service for the group. The main idea is to interact. ask appropriate questions, and obtain information to better identify your readers and know their interests. issues, and needs. Show and Tell Writers’ books often advise you to show, don’t tell. That means that instead of making general statements or providing an overview statement, you should provide a close point of view and paint a picture with details. The following example illustrates telling versus showing. TELLING SHOWING Jeff likes chocolate. Jeff bit into the chocolate bar, closing his eyes and sighing as the dark sweetness melted on his tongue. With Web writing, the best technique is often to show and tell. If you only describe detail after detail, readers have to work harder to discern the meaning. If you just tell, the content is flat and more abstract. Use Specific Concrete Nouns Use specific concrete nouns to help your readers paint detailed pictures in their heads. An abstract noun cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. whereas a concrete noun can. Transportation is an abstract term, whereas motorcycle is concrete. To truly draw in your readers, use the specific concrete nouns that they will relate to and like. If your readers are bikers who like Harleys, the specific concrete noun that you use might be Fat Boy. Compare the following abstract, concrete, and specific concrete nouns. ABSTRACT CONCRETE SPECIFIC CONCRETE • Time • Fear • Bravado • Clock • Dog • Tree • Cuckoo clock • Chihuahua • Maple Use Plain Terms Use terms that are easy to understand and quick to read. Writing in plain English means that most of the words in your sentences are no longer than three syllables and that all of the words are comprehensible without a dictionary or lawyer by your side.
Photographer Scott Kelby states in the beginning of The Digital Photography Book (Peachpit, 2007) that he is writing the book as though you, the reader, and he are out in the field on a photo shoot. You are asking him questions, and he is answering them, throughout the book. It’s this conversational style, easy to read and understand, that helps makes his digital photography books so popular. Sound Like You, Only Better Your writing style should feel like something you would say if you could edit yourself while talking. The written conversation sounds more scripted. You need to distill the phrases so you don’t repeat words, so you’ve chosen the most precise terms, and so the sentences flow together well rather than chopping along in fits and starts. You don’t want the conversation to sound like small talk, like chit-chat. or as though you just got out of bed and answered the phone. You need to cut out all the uhs, ers, and ahems. You need to omit all the backpedaling and floundering you speak when you’re trying to find your footing in the topic. The following example illustrates small talk versus a distilled style. SAMPLE SMALL TALK REVISION Hey dude. Yo. How’s it hangin’? Man, what an awesome adventure! Still can’t believe I spent a whole month in India. It was wild! I spent the month of May exploring Rajasthan, India. Write with an Attitude As you are writing about any topic, walk into it like it is Buckingham Palace and you own the place. A timid, self-effacing tone will turn off your reader. The following example illustrates a timid style versus attitude. SAMPLE TIMID SENTENCES REVISION WITH ATTITUDE Well, I think that being an artist and making money is a difficult issue that can be hard to work out. It seems like some artists are OK with the whole commercialism thing, and I believe it works out” tine tor them. Ansel Adams thrived on his commercial adventures. Take a walk in a public place or find a comfortable place to sit in a park or coffee shop. Listen in on the conversations you hear. Take notes. When you have enough material, take the time to rewrite the conversations in a conversational but distilled style. Use Precise Terms Use words that best represent your meaning. Using precise language involves not only enhancing your vocabulary so that you know the exact terms to use, but understanding the vocabulary that your audience is familiar with. If you are talking to car enthusiasts and want to mention a bouquet of flowers, it’s probably enough to use the term “roses” when describing the flowers. However, if you are writing for the American Rose Society, you would mention a more specific name. For a white rose. you might mention a John F. Kennedy or a Queen Mary II. French writer Gustave Flaubert is famous for his first novel, Madame Bovary (Viking Adujt, 2010), written in 1~56. He is also famous for coining the phrase le seul mot juste, vt.hichmeans the one right word. Flaubert claims that he spent nights pacing the floor, agonizing over the one right word. Keep Verbs Active Sometimes vague or non descriptive verbs slip into your writing when you use: • Passive voice • Instances of the verb “to be” • Instances of other dull verbs, such as “do” or “got” For more detailed information on how to avoid passive voice, see Chapter 11, “Writing Instructions.” While you’re editing your work, identify those places where you’ve pumped up weaker verbs with adverbs. Delete them and revise weak sentences with strong verbs that clearly show the action. The following example illustrates a sentence with weak verbs versus strong verbs. SAMPLE WITH WEAK VERBS REVISION Mary was late, and she was running to her class to do her talk tor the students. Late, Mary raced to the classroom to speak to the students. MClkc: Sure Your Content Matters Impress readers, or they’ll move on. If you write about topics that are the equivalent of humdrum daily routines, like brushing your teeth or eating breakfast. you need to step away from the keyboard and re-envision what topics inspire you. What are your passions? What motivates you? What is it that you care deeply about? The key to ensuring that your Web content has clarity, spark, and meaning is to understand yourself and to understand your audience. Who Is Your Audience? When someone asks you who you are writing for, there’s a temptation to say, “Everyone!” Everyone will be interested in this particular topic. But this is not a good idea. If you try to meet everyone’s needs, your content will be too broad and too general. It won’t have a clear drive, solid organization, or inviting details. The most exciting topic for an octogenarian will most likely not work for a tween. Neither of these age groups is likely to have an interest in how to clean an oven or find a nanny. If you’ve been to Toastmasters or taken a speech class, you’ve learned that it’s best to gear your talk toward one person or a group of people in the audience rather than the multitudes. It’s the same way with developing Web content. When you have in mind a particular person or group, the language, the details, the organization. the examples, the anecdotes, and the other parts of your content fit the expectations and tastes of someone rather than no one.