Use strong headings to lead readers to your content

Listicles, articles or blog posts that include a numbered list of “things,” get more readers. People love lists. They are scannable, they are memorable, and they are sharable. Perhaps one reason people go to these listicles is because they often have strong headings.

The Nielsen Norman Group (NN/g) recently published the listicle, “Headings Are Pick-Up Lines: 5 Tips for Writing Headlines That Convert.” When my Twitter feed presented this article title itself (and its link) as the tweet, I quickly clicked to go read more.

I’ll let you go read this article to get the 5 tips, but I’ll summarize them in my own words here:

  1. Headings need to stand on their own. They should communicate something to the reader in and of themselves.
  2. Be specific, and use user-centric language.
  3. Avoid idioms, and limit jargon. Know your audience, so that you know what language will communicate easily with them. (Of course, the title of their article used “pick-up lines,” which seems idiomatic to me?)
  4. Be concise. SEO suggests less than 55 characters, including spaces!
  5. Put important keywords first.
Posted in Copy editing, Information Architecture | Leave a comment

Receiving editing…it’s like love

The title of this blog post is a partial quote from the article, “The Better Angels of Our Writing: Good copy editors can save us from ourselves” by Rachel Toor. Here is the full quote (paragraph):

My experience of receiving editing, both substantively and line by line, is that it’s like love. Good copy editors see me not just for who I am but for who I want to be, and they help me get there. They point out what I do well, but they also notice my tics and bad habits and try to break me of them.

Throughout this article, she extols the benefits of having a good copy editor, one who is not rigid in her application of style rules but passionate about helping the writer put out a great, accurate, and readable product. She provides great book reviews of books written by great copy editors, from whom she uses as models for all us copy editors. These copy editors are humble while taking great pride in their work; they admit that they make the same mistakes they often correct in the authors that they support.

In our Technical Editing Fundamentals course that Linda Oestreich and I teach, we encourage editors to be a “partner in crime” and provide editing comments that writers are happy to apply and learn from, because they know that we editors are on their side.

Have you hugged your editor today? Happy editing everyone!

Posted in Copy editing | 2 Comments

10 basics every communicator needs

I follow a large number of copy editors in my Twitter feed. So, I often see articles about journalism, as a majority (perceived, not actual) of copy editors work in a journalism field. I suppose the definition of journalism is changing, and so the field is also changing. In any event, I ran across this article, “10 basics today’s journalists need,” and found it to apply to most communicators today. Because most communicators publish their communications out on the Internet, it really can apply to more than just journalists.

This article starts with the following graphic image of the 10 basics:

I have mentioned, quite incessantly actually, that communicators must know their audience. Levin presented this list “in no particular order” but I would put “know your audience” right up top. As a matter of fact, I think I will present these 10 basics in the order of importance (all of them are important, don’t forget) that I feel is needed for communicators today. I will make my own comment after the basics.

  1. “Know your audience.” Always, always, always.
  2. “Stay adaptable.” Technology changes every day; you have to be able to keep up!
  3. “Clean your copy.” You can’t be so fast that your content is low-quality; poor quality content will put you out of work.
  4. “Produce content on multiple platforms.” We no longer communicate with just words – our audience wants info-graphics, videos, or info embedded in apps.
  5. “Learn basic coding.” Knowing a little bit of the down and dirty will help you work and play well with others on your team. In the age of mobile apps, your message needs to be part of the app, or needs to take advantage of how it all gets coded to be presented.
  6. “Keep it under 140.” Concise and precise is the mantra here. Blurbs become tweets, and tweets include URLs, so knowing how to summarize your content in fewer than 100 characters (including spaces!) is key these days.
  7. “Engage on social media.” I resisted this for the longest time, but now I love being out on LinkedIn and Twitter, and writing these blog posts to keep me adaptable (see #2) and to keep me involved with other experts in my fields of interest.
  8. “Master math.” Yes, it’s true, we all use math every day. (That’s a quote from a TV show called Numbers.) With big data comes data analysis, or what’s the point of collecting all the data in the first place. Also, the author mentions spreadsheets, and spreadsheets are often all about the math. Make math your friend. (I love spreadsheets, and use them every day in my job.)
  9. “Understand the economics.” To keep your job, and prove your value, you have to understand the business and economics of your company.
  10. “Build your brand.” This is all about “having a following” and bringing traffic to your company. I think this is really just old fashioned networking, and getting your name and your work out there. I put it last because if you do good work and get yourself out there even just a little, your “brand” just happens organically.

I hope you enjoyed this post. I really enjoyed writing it. I took the past few months off (due to a series of summer vacations close together), and I hope to get back into the swing of writing blog posts once a week. I had managed to post twice a week for awhile at the start of the year, but I think I’ll aim for once a week from now on.

Posted in Content Strategy, Copy editing, Writing

Design Thinking… a few principles from 3 stories

I watched 3 different videos about design thinking last week. Here are the key ideas or principles that I took away from these videos:

  • Keep it simple (John Maeda, Josh Reich)
  • Be honest (John Maeda)
  • Embrace the audacity of hope (John Maeda)
  • Collaborate wildly and build on the ideas of others (David Kelley, pioneer in the Design Thinking field)
  • It’s all about having empathy for our users (David Kelley)
  • Must really listen to our users (Josh Reich)
  • Keep asking why (the 5 whys) – (Josh Reich)
Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture

When is Video the Answer (and When Isn’t It)? by Ken Circeo

Yesterday, I attended the STC Technical Editing SIG sponsored Webinar titled “When is Video the Answer (and When Isn’t It)?” given by Ken Circeo, a senior video producer at Microsoft.

Here are my notes, which my team found rather useful, so I thought I’d share them all with you, my faithful blog readers. I present them as my general takeaways and my golden nuggets, of which I only had one golden nugget.

General takeaways:

  • Video is not always the answer.
  • Video appeals to multiple learning styles (see, hear, & do)
  • Video almost always scores higher than text; it delights them more… but only if it answers their question
  • Video has come to be expected; much higher demand for it as it becomes more ubiquitous (thanks, YouTube!)
  • More low quality video out there, because anyone can shoot and upload video; must distinguish ourselves by producing high-quality video
  • Ask this one question: what problem are you trying to solve? it is the only question that matters; audience does not matter!
  • Developers want a different kind of video than administrators do, and that managers do, etc. (see, audience does matter!)
  • The context matters, too; where you embed it or include it (such as in an installation process, as an animation of where to find a feature)
  • When should you NOT use video? when procedures are short & simple, or when procedures are long & complex; Goldilocks anyone?
  • Level of detail is important
  • Shorter the better; ideal time? 2 mins, 48 secs (he said that time as a joke, before he said: “as short as possible”)
  • Never “force” a video; no video for video sake
  • Skip the background music; most users don’t notice it
  • Try to solve the problem with other ways first (redesign the UI, write a procedure, etc), and only after other avenues explored do they create a video
  • Deliver video alongside of other docs; video doesn’t replace other docs, but supplements it
  • Uses .mp4 format, standardizes on it for its reduced file size
  • Spend the most time on the script, and get that right before you start on the actual animations, graphics, and video production.

Golden nugget:

His final concluding slide provided the golden nugget of the 1-hour session.

Here are the 5 types of videos that he’s found most useful:

  1. First run — the hook — like our author intro videos?
  2. Getting started — introduce —
  3. What’s new — reveal
  4. Overview — simplify something complex, simplify complex concepts
  5. How to — show or demonstrate how to do something
Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture

Three design theories

This week, Meredith Davis of the NCSU School of Design (go Wolfpack! I’m a NCSU alumni, forgive me), gave a “lecture” to us at work, speaking about the interdisciplinary nature and the changing nature of design. I am going to attempt to summarize the three views of design theory that she presented, but I will start with a huge caveat that I might really butcher her message with what I took away from her presentation. (I did do some Googling, and I found these three articles or resources that echo some of what I summarize below: Mapping the Field of Design, Part 1; Design, Where Do We Go Next?, Part 2; and What is Interaction? Are There Different Types?)

The first design theory focused on artifacts. Most people in the general public hear “design” and they think of artifact-based design: objects, spaces, messages from the real world (furniture design, fashion design, or other industrial design objects). The artifacts are not released until they are “almost perfect.” She listed IBM and Apple as pioneers in good artifact design.

The second design theory was interaction design. This is focusing on the user behavior and the interactions that we have objects or systems. It is the tools, or simulations, or the performance of the system. She once again mentioned Apple as a pioneer in good interaction design (iPod, iPhone, etc). Here, the products are released with the idea that they are “good enough for now,” and with the intention of planned updates to come along soon, as you refine the design. Most design work today is in this space, focusing on interaction design.

The third design theory moved into conversations. This design focuses on services, platforms, or communities. It talks about forming relationships between designers, producers, and users, who become ultimate fans and a key part of the communities. Here, design focuses on the services and community aspects, such as the Apple Store, and how interconnected it is to the site, the community, and so on. The entire service experience. She also mentioned Amazon as being a pioneer in designing a conversation.

Davis spoke to leaving artifact driven design behind, and instead push ourselves to even move into and beyond interaction design into designing true user experiences by focusing on creating conversations.

Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture

Minimalism: Do more, read less, help users with errors

John Carroll is the father of minimalism, an instructional design theory, which has been widely applied to technical communication of all kinds.

Having read both of Carroll’s books on the subject (The Nurnberg Funnel: Designing minimalist instruction for practical computer skill (1990) and Minimalism beyond “The Nurnberg Funnel”, I have summarized the core minimalism principles this way. Users want to:

  1. Do more
  2. Read less
  3. Get help with errors

To help our users accomplish these goals, we really have to know our users. This is a common theme to many of my blog posts, that is in support of any other guidelines or principles we might take from Carroll’s minimalism theory. To help our users do more, read less, and get past any errors, our minimal, focused content must encourage action and exploration.

To know what is necessary, what is useful, or what needs to be done, we must know our users. Every choice we make – from individual words, to the design of web pages, to architecting our content – must be made with a clear knowledge of our users. Every theory or guideline really does begin with knowing our users. Minimalist documentation is not only about what to include or exclude, but it is also about ensuring that what you do include is the most appropriate content for your users. Minimalist writing does not always mean using fewer words—it means using just the right words at the right time.

Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture, Uncategorized