Where does a style guide fit in your process?

When I hear the phrase “style guide,” I immediately think of content, not web sites. I realize that web sites contain content, but the style guides mentioned in this article (“Where Style Guides Fit Into Process“) speak to the design of the web pages in the web site that displays the content. Just goes to show you that context is everything.

In any event, the different diagrams showing where style guides fit in your process could easily be applied or considered for the editing process. Here are the four places that this article proposes a style guide can fit into a process:

  • The Sidelines
  • The Dictator
  • The Hippie Colony
  • The Exhaust

From an editing perspective, I think we can omit the exhaust from consideration or even the realm of possibilities. The Hippie Colony might exist as you first create your style guide, but I would bet that it morphs into one of the other two. Yes, I think most style guides are either “on the sidelines” acting as a reference for sticky or tricky points of style or are “the dictator” driving every decision that you make as an editor. Perhaps these don’t really fit perfectly, but it did make me stop and think about how I use style guides more as a reference point and not as a dictator as I complete my editing. Maybe we need one like “the Partner in Crime” where it is not hanging out on the sidelines, but is also not screaming like a dictator, but helping out all along the way.

Update, April 27, 2015, 4:30pm: Ran across this article on “Digital style guides” that I wanted to connect to this post for future reference.

Posted in Copy editing | 1 Comment

Concise, precise interface copy

Sometimes a tweet says all that needs to be said:

This is such good advice. I love that it was given in fewer than 140 characters. (I originally thought that “agin” was purposefully abbreviated, due to the character restriction, but it turns out his tweet is only 128 characters, and it appears to be a typo. If only Twitter would let you edit Tweets!)

In writing up my own blog post, I went and viewed this tweet, and looked at the responses or replies that it received. I’m so glad I did, because I was treated to this lovely reply that included a link to an even lovelier article:

The article, “On Writing Interfaces Well by Jonas Downey,” cited in this tweet is spot on. It has a similar message about editing interface text for conciseness, but it adds in my favorite compatible attribute of conciseness: preciseness.

I must quote from Downey’s conclusion, because it bears repeating:

Quality writing is hard work that takes time, but it’s worth it. Accumulated across your entire website or app, consistently good writing will help reduce your users’ confusion, and your customer support burden to boot.

Posted in Content Strategy, Technical Editing, Writing | 1 Comment

On being an effective editor…

I was going to just retweet this tweet from @ArrantPedantry about the latest blog post from @johnemcintyre:

However, the conclusion of the blog post (“It’s a crotchet, it’s a superstition, it’s a shibboleth, it’s a fetish“) warrants me writing a blog post of my own. The title alone intrigued me as he played with words, with words to describe an editor’s emotional attachment to certain style rules. Before I go any further with my own musings, please go read his blog post, all the way to the end (skim some of the middle, if you have to), and then come back here for my thoughts on it all.

First, let me embed in a block quote his amazing conclusion:

But being an effective editor, establishing clarity and precision instead of mechanically applying rules, some of them imaginary, means examining authorities, examining evidence, examining oneself.

I’d like to explore the three examinations he calls for to be an effective editor:

  • Examine authorities: Who is mandating the style rule? Who is stating that it is a rule to be followed in the first place? For me, the ultimate authority is the reader (the user), and style rules will be broken in the name of clarity and precision for that reader.
  • Examine evidence: What precedence is there for having this style rule? What is the history behind the usage or guidance for that rule? For me, this means being more of a linguist, more of a descriptivist, and letting the history and evidence of use guide my decision to follow or not follow a style rule.
  • Examine oneself: How many editors can step outside of their personal pet peeves, or personal preferences, to recognize their own role in applying style rules to a text? We must take our own emotions out of it. We must take our own egos out of it. As Socrates said “an unexamined life is not worth living.”
Posted in Copy editing, Technical Editing | Leave a comment

It’s all content marketing? Say what?

I am an editor of technical content that is published on a site targeted to developers; I like to say that it is written by developers for developers. Our site also includes downloads and communities, where developers can interact with our technology with other developers who are using that technology. Never have I ever (no, not the drinking game, folks) thought of what we do as content marketing.

I ran across this article, All Content is Marketing, and I’ve read it a few times now. It suggested that blogging, webinars, and eBooks were obviously marketing, but that FAQs and Docs (among others) were not typically seen as marketing (where I fell), but the author quickly cried BS to that. The author defines these odd (yes, that’s my word) levels of quality of technical content: functional, comprehensible, usable, enjoyable, and motivational. It’s this last level of quality that clearly shows the author is a marketer, and why all content is (or should be) marketing content in his eyes.

So, this led me to research some definitions of content marketing:

  • From the Content Marketing Institute: “Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.” (Emphasis mine.) This article also says that content marketing is “communicating with your customers and prospects without selling.”
  • From Wikipedia: “Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain customers. This information can be presented in a variety of formats, including news, video, white papers, e-books, infographics, case studies, how-to guides, question and answer articles, photos, etc.”

Perhaps the secondary purpose of our content might be content marketing, or perhaps our technical content might be used as a means to the end (and thus considered content marketing material). Noone really wants to be marketed to, but developers especially I think. They are impatient readers of content, itching to get back in their code, itching to get back on task, and don’t really want the “fluff” of the “call to action” that marketing might push into our technical content.

In my mind, I think our technical content is most often written to the developer who has already bought our product or technology, and so “marketing content” is something different or separate. I think I can see how high quality technical content (how-to information) might be used along side of other marketing content, and therefore be seen as just another type of marketing content, but ultimately that is not the primary purpose of our content.

Another article was included in my Google search results as I tried to understand this idea of content marketing. It was a Forbes article, “Ways Content Marketing is Going to Change in 2015“. This article certainly supports this idea that “Content is King” and is at the heart of any good marketing campaign or solution. This article doesn’t suggest that technical content is created for marketing purposes, but that technical content is used in the marketing process. Am I splitting hairs? Maybe so, but as a technical communicator, I put my users first and the users’ goals second, and so my audience and my purpose is not to “attract and keep customers” (that’s the marketer’s goals).

Returning to the original article (All Content is Marketing) that sparked my musings on content marketing, the author actually includes some good guidelines for improving written content in an online web world:

  • Include meaningful images, whenever possible.
  • Include headings and subheadings throughout.
  • Keep your paragraphs short.
  • And, speaking of length, the Goldilocks principle wins: Not too short, not too long, but just right for achieving clarity of your message.
Posted in Content Strategy | 5 Comments

Simplicity, redux

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about simplicity, and how it often takes more time and effort to make a simple product. So, only a couple of months later, I find myself musing on simplicity once again, but this time how product designers define and use the concept of simplicity.

Simon spends much of his article explaining why simplicity is not about fewer features. The old adage, “less is more,” just doesn’t cut it as a way of defining simplicity. He quotes other designers as they struggle to create simple product designs, but I like where he got to and what he said in his own words:

Simple is contextual. Simple is culturally dependent. Simple, in every facet of the word, is subjective.

The best way to decrease complexity in our designs is to regularly observe how people interact with our products and services; so as to constantly challenge our inherent assumptions about what we believe might be simple.

Simple writing is not about fewer words or fewer sentences; simple writing is about the right words, in the right order, and for the right reader!

Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture

7 Key Ideas from Information Anxiety, as summarized by Doug Hoft

This blog post that summarizes Richard Saul Wurman’s classic book, Information Anxiety in a list of key ideas is priceless. While I am sure that I could find this classic book at a library or even on Google Scholar, I loved having it summarized so excellently in this blog post by Doug Toft: “Rereading ‘Information Anxiety’ — Seven Ideas That Still Make a Difference.” I was going to call out a few of his ideas in my own blog post, but I think I’ll just send you over to his blog post instead. I do love the blogosphere.

Posted in Information Architecture, Writing

Prototype your words

Jerry Cao in his article, How Words Are the Foundation of Interaction Design, comes to the very valid conclusion, in this technical communicator’s humble opinion, that good designers need to include the words in our wireframes and prototypes. As we iterate and test our designs, we should iterate and test the words that will play a key role in our users’ feelings about our product.

Cao includes a venn diagram (it seems like the thing to do these days), showing content at the center of our design work:
Venn diagram showing the overlap among information design, interaction design, and sensorial design, with content overlapping all three designs

Cao then includes two lists about the importance that words play in our designs. The first list is presented from the designer’s point of view — words as greeting, words as navigation, words as an action, words as a services. As an example of words providing a service, he uses error messages, and presents an awesome new way to think about how to design and present error messages to fit your overall tone and design. The second list is presented from the writer’s point of view, or at least helping the designer think like a writer to help come up with the best words to use. For every interface label, and for every piece of text in the interface, ask these questions: who will read it? when will they read it? what do they need to know? what’s the next step? what’s the format? and what’s the best tone?

In the final slide or info graphic in the article, I found two fascinating statistics quoted:

  • Just by changing the words (…), we saw an increase in paid signups of nearly 30%.
  • Professional copy led to 35% increase in social shares.

Words matter. Prototype your words!

Posted in Content Strategy, Information Architecture, Writing