THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 5, December 2002
* Introducing the A-Z of Plain Text
* When communication doesn’t #5: caught in the Web
Welcome to the last Plain Text Gazette of 2002.
It’s been a high-profile time for no-nonsense writing here in the UK, with the annual ‘Plain English’ awards exposing the worst of corporate and legal gobbledegook for public edification. We were particularly amused by a revelation in the NTK newsletter that one of the award-winners for bad writing — a corporate mission statement — was in fact created by a ‘corporate mumbo jumbo’ generator in the Dreamweaver software package. It’s encouraging to know that machines are beating us in the incomprehensibility stakes: there’s hope for real writers yet.
With this clash of person and machine in mind, the fifth in our series of ‘when communication doesn’t’ articles will look at the vexed subject of writing for the web. And for Gazetteers who signed up following Plain Text’s recent ‘Effective Writing Online’ seminar in London, don’t worry: there will be something different here.
Before this article, though, we’re going to introduce ‘The A-Z of Plain Text’, a new resource on our website for business writers. And we have a special offer for Gazette subscribers.
Have a fine festive season.
Keep it plain,
Introducing the A-Z of Plain Text
In a shameless ploy to make the Plain Text website ‘worth the detour’, we’ve added an alphabetical guide that further fleshes out our thinking on writing. With one entry for each letter of the alphabet, it’s a small resource that we hope will serve as anything from an amusing diversion to a useful reference, depending on who’s reading it. To give you a flavour, Paul Nero’s entry for clichés begins: ‘Pulling out all the stops is a cliché. Use only when referring to organists.’
Anyway, we hope you find it useful. If you haven’t already found it on the site, it’s here.
The other reason for producing the A-Z was to provide you with something in print to remember us by. If you’d like a print copy of the A-Z, which will be out shortly as a stylish A5 booklet, it’s free to all Gazette subscribers. Please email with your name and address and we’ll send one out to you.
One of our favourite ways of illustrating the value of good writing on websites is to talk about intranets, thus:
“You’ve spent 2 years and GBP 2 million to create the ultimate content management system. Your staff have reached the nirvana of ‘total relevance’ where they have precisely the right amount of information they need. But because it’s so boring and badly written, they don’t read it. The board wants to see a return on their massive investment reflected in usage statistics. You have but a tiny bit of budget remaining. What should you spend it on?”
We all know the answer, and it’s not software. Gartner estimates that USD 30bn will be spent on information management systems in 2002. The same survey reports 90% of companies still feeling overwhelmed with information. A little editorial expenditure could go a long way.
But if you can’t convince management to call in Plain Text or other editorial heavyweights to take a scythe to the content haystack, here’s some tips for getting more out of online content, in our favourite ‘how to get it wrong/right’ style.
1. How to frighten off users in four easy steps
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* Always use a ‘Flash’ introduction of at least 750k
Nothing impresses readers more than an introductory animation. Especially when it is something like a lengthy mission statement slowly disappearing, ‘Star Wars’-like, into the background to the strains of an inspirational corporate anthem.
* Make readers guess what the page is about
Web users like surprises. So don’t tell them what your company does. Keep them guessing with an elaborate series of pages explaining your ‘Vision’, ‘Mission’ and ‘Values’. If they want to find out that you are, in fact, a tractor manufacturer, then they can jolly well go and search Google.
* Let rip with literary language
People love to curl up on the sofa with a PC. So give them writing that takes time to read. Long, literary flourishes are what they want to read on web pages, with lots of scrolling before they reach your conclusion.
* Just let everyone do their thing: the web is a self-organising system!
Editorial control? Style Guides? Sounds, like, Orwellian, man. If we just, like, empower everyone to contribute their stuff, then we’ll unleash this amaaaazing creativity.
2. How to get ’em back again
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In the interest of not repeating ourselves, we have a short list of ‘writing for the web’ guidelines covering the importance of brevity, ‘scannability’, accuracy, linking and the ‘inverted pyramid’, all of which are well-documented best practice for web writing.
We’d like to add two more points to this list that don’t, in our view, get enough airtime:
* Know your audience
Who’s it for? is the first question that should be asked of any piece of business writing. On the internet and intranets it’s crucial, because the readership can be so wide. If the audience is hardcore geeks, for example, then jargon is fine. If it’s the whole company, or a demographically diverse audience, then the highest standards of writing are needed.
* Impose editorial control and style guides
The web is self-organising, for sure. Readers gravitate quickly away from badly written, inaccurate sites and towards the good ones. For example, the vicious Darwinism of the weblog world keeps the top blog-writers sharp. Within companies, and on corporate sites, editorial and stylistic control is essential to make sure that content stays on track. No amount of software will ever be able to do this.
That’s it for this issue. As always, keep your comments and suggestions coming and please pass the Plain Text Gazette on to friends and colleagues.
Paul & Paul
© Plain Text Ltd 2002 all rights reserved