Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Remove an unnecessary word

Sentences in your web writing should be short - preferably no more than 20 words. This will make them far easier to read and has more impact.

If you're facing a mammoth 40-word sentence you'll probably need to rewrite it completely. Try reading it aloud and summarising the concept to yourself -then writing down your summary.

But if your sentence is about 25 words long, try removing just one unnecessary word. For example:

'Recognising the work of schools that support other schools and make an invaluable contribution to system leadership nationally through their collaborative work.'

How about removing 'their'? Or 'nationally'? Or changing 'that support' to 'supporting'?

You can even get together with a colleague and swap - remove a word from each other's sentences. It may become the latest craze in the office!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Using a house style guide

It's always billed as a bit of a task - 'using a house style guide'. I'm not sure why: surely it should make life easier. It takes away indecision and time spent wondering which format or spelling would be best.

We've done our best to make SSAT's editorial standards an easy-to-access document. The PDF format has a clickable index and links throughout, and all style rules are listed alphabetically. Still, I think any house style document takes a bit of getting used to.

If you're using a style guide for the first time, here's a few tips to get started.
  1. Skim the whole document once to familiarise yourself with the layout.
  2. While you're skimming, pick out one style issue you learn for the first time. Write it down on a Post-it note.
  3. Think of the one style rule you always need to check, or can never remember. Look it up and write down what you find.
  4. Identify 3 style issues that most affect your own work. Look them up and write them down too.
  5. Your Post-it note should now have 5 rules on it. Stick it somewhere visible on your desk as a handy guide.

Remember: using editorial standards makes our writing more consistent, helps the organisation to appear more professional and can save you time!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Read it aloud

Quick tip of the week: read aloud everything you write.

It's easy to get carried away with a sentence you're typing, and forget about punctuation. Try reading aloud to make sure you don't run out of breath mid-sentence; if you do, it's too long! You'll also hear whether what you have written has a good rhythm, and no 'hard' words or tongue-twisters that will hold up the reader.

Listen to the voice you read in, too. If you put on a funny voice, the chances are you're not comfortable with your writing and it isn't 'natural'. Try to write how you'd speak, and the words will flow a lot more naturally and will be easier to read.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Start from the left

Quick tip of the week: make your pages fit the 'F-pattern'.

This isn't a scary diet from the seventies! Readers of English scan web pages in an F-pattern, mainly concentrating on the left-hand edge. Their eyes dart across to read the title or headline, then again when something draws them in. So the pattern resembles a large capital F drawn on top of the page. See Nielsen's site for some eye-tracking results demonstrating this.

Bearing this in mind, put your important things on the left. Start headings with the important words, front-load each bullet point with key messages and align decorative images to the right. Do everything you can to catch those eyes as they scan down the left margin.

If you have one sentence you don't want users to miss (book online now, get more support, download a free copy, etc) put it at the top-left of your page.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Use fewer words

I read a very funny quote in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin last week: "Never use several words when one will do. That's my motto, that's my axiom, that's what I always say".

Comedy word-play aside, it's good advice for the web. Fewer words is almost always better. Don't say: "There is no doubt that the vast majority of parents care about their children and what happens to them at school". Change it to: "No doubt most parents care about what happens to their children at school". The important bit of the message is still the same.

The fewer words you write, the more chance the reader will read every one. If you tempt readers to skip words, they may miss your important message.

If you're having trouble putting this into practice, let me know.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Good wording for links

Quick tip of the week: give the links within your text a makeover and make them earn their keep!

In-line links (ones within the page rather than on a menu) are important because:
  • they catch a reader's eye as they scan the page
  • visually-impaired users may have a screen reading tool which 'announces' link text aloud
  • search engines spider them to rank pages according to its content.
For all of these reasons, meaningless and generic text such as 'click here', 'this link' or 'more' is a waste of a good resource. You've got a good chance to use some of your content's key words here, and to grab a user's attention.

So, when confronted with 'To find out more about the programme, please click here', take the following actions.
  1. Banish the meaningless phrases and make the important bits the link itself.
  2. Don't bother being polite - it's a waste of words and makes the content sound as if it's asking for a favour.
  3. Don't waste words telling users that a link is a link and describing what to do with it.
  4. Mention the key words related to the link's destination.
  5. Make the link an active call to action.
You'll end up with 'Find out more about the Diploma support programme'. More informative, more succinct and more eyecatching.

Please let me know if you find these tips helpful and whether you thinks it makes a positive difference on your pages.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Put the important stuff first

Quick tip of the week: start your web pages with all the important information.

You can do this by:
  • starting with a few lines summarising the rest of the article
  • using a bullet point list at the top to cover the key points
  • putting all calls to action right at the top (eg 'buy now', 'book online')
  • listing important dates and prices before the lengthy description.
If your readers are in a hurry, get distracted halfway through or don't realise there's more to see, they won't miss the bits most important to them, and to you!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Consider the reading age

Nobody wants hard to read web copy, so why does it still exist? And how can we improve it?

The SSAT is an august and established organisation in the education sector. I think this means we often produce complicated and over-formal writing.

Our brand guidelines state that we should be open, approachable and friendly. Formal, hard-to-read web content does not enhance this image, so I spend a lot of time rewriting copy for the web.

I learnt a technique to help with this on a training course. It's based around the reading age you aim at. Web copy should aim lower than printed text; even adults aren't comfortable with complicated text when they're online. We read a screen differently to a book and spend less time working out tricky words or sentence structures. Typical users are in a hurry and scan for easy-to-read chunks of text.

The best way to deal with this is always to bear in mind the basic principle: fewer syllables plus more sentences.

Take a sample of 100 words and count the sentences. Then count the syllables. The fewer syllables and the more sentences the better. After a while you don't even need to count - your mind automatically looks for ways to replace long words with short ones, and to break up sentences.

Give it a go - choose some web copy and start counting, then work out how you can improve it. Do it now before you forget, and it will soon become automatic!

Friday, 17 July 2009

Informative and effective headlines

I've recently found a new and fascinating challenge at work. Our new page templates have very prominent news feature boxes which require short, snappy and informative headlines. I don't think we currently write the kind of headlines we need for this and I've been considering what we need to do to be ready.

In a freak coincidence, I received an alert from Nielsen's alertbox the very week I'd started to ponder this! The alert talked about the BBC's website and how effectively its editors write headlines every single day. Of course, this made me feel even more inadequate!

It's true though: on any given day a glance at the BBC's news homepage will give you a snapshot of what's going on without even having to click through further. In an average of 5 words per headline, that's a fairly effective job of editing.

So how can I use this information? First of all I'm reviewing 'titles vs headlines'. I think in most cases on SSAT's website we use titles and keep the same wording regardless of where these titles appear (on the page itself, in a list of links, as a featured story). I'm starting to edit these according to where they appear, so that the wording is different for an actual headline.

I'm also planning to use the BBC as an example (again) in some web writing workshops; perhaps a 'guess the story' game! Each of us can choose a story from SSAT's site and write a headline in 5 words, then see if others can accurately guess the story's content. I'll keep you posted on how well it goes.