The Doctor is IN!

Maybe I do know what I know: Enduring principles for writing for both web and print

In my August newsletter, I shared my angst about whether what I teach in my technical writing classes is really informed by research or is simply based on instinct. My headline read: “How do I know what I know?” (My 8-year-old grandson saw that headline and said, “You just know what you know, Grandma! At least, I do.” Oh, to be always as self-assured as an 8-year-old!)

Fortunately, I’m no longer in angst because I have just read Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works, Second Edition, by Ginny Redish, a fellow Fellow of STC. I had not read the first edition because of the book’s subtitle; I don’t write web content for a living nor do I usually teach people who write web content. However, my editor suggested reading Redish’s material on personas, and I got hooked on the whole book.

Ginny’s book confirmed that most of my cherished language beliefs do have a solid research foundation, at least for web readers. I recognize that there are differences between web and print-based reading, but I believe that most of the web principles that Ginny shares will generalize to the printed page as well (this may be an intellectual leap that we could argue).

Here are three principles from Ginny’s book that I also love to teach:

  1. Using color is problematic for at least two reasons: Some readers have color deficiencies, and colors carry cultural connotations that you might not be able to predict (pp. 50-52).
  2. Don’t center text, even in table columns, because centering violates the reader’s need for alignment (pp. 59-60).
  3. Readers seeking information look first at your first paragraph and then at the first words of list items (p. 139), so put the “bottom line on top” (i.e., lead with the most important information).

Although I do agree with most of Ginny’s points and practices, a few left me wondering:

  • She argues in favor of “turning sentences into more visual forms, like lists and tables” (p. 62), and I concur; but I wonder why she lowercases the first letter of each listed point. This practice contradicts what I see in almost all lists in technical writing today (again, I don’t know if any research argues one way or the other).
  • She recommends sans serif typefaces for both web and print-based text (p. 62). I’ve always taught that sans serif is best for web writing, e-mail, and slides, but serif is best for print-based text. I was fascinated to read that the research that claims that serif typefaces are better for sustained reading (print-based text) is now more than 60 years old. Ginny claims that “research on web content has not shown a consistent winner between serif and sans serif for either reading speed or comprehension.” However, her assertion that “preference almost always favors the familiar sans serif fonts [for the web]” is not as definitive as I would like.

Despite these minor concerns, I’m glad that I have studied Ginny’s book―it’s packed with excellent tips and persuasive case studies and makeovers. Above all, I found myself reinforced by her underlying principle: Before writing anything for any audience, always imagine a conversation with the reader:

  • What do they think?
  • What do they know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What will they do with the information?

I don’t need research to tell me that this consideration of my audience’s wants and needs is valid―it’s just compassionate common sense.

And I’m glad that I had to rethink my assumptions: I had made an assumption that I didn’t need to read Ginny’s book because it was framed to help web writers. It turns out that most of her principles apply to the kind of writing that I do teach, and I wish I had read it earlier.

Could you make a $70 million mistake?

Ten years ago today (June 19), the Associated Press reported that “A comma in the wrong place of a sales contract cost Lockheed Martin Corp. $70 million” (from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, June 19, 1999).

Later that year, on September 30, 1999, preliminary findings about the disintegration of the Mars Polar Lander indicated that the disaster was caused by poor communication: One team used English units while the other used metric units for a key spacecraft operation.

These two incidents have one common thread:

Communication errors can cost businesses and taxpayers a lot of money.

That’s why I was frustrated to read the blog post “Good grammar might derail your career.” The blogger claims that it doesn’t matter if you use the right form of “its” or “it’s”: Just let the reader figure it out. Further, the author insists: “Why do we need to spend our brain power learning the rules of grammar if it is not interesting to us? Why not focus on what we like?”

This reminds me of a letter I recently received as a board member of our homeowners’ association. Because the board was contemplating a smoking ban in public areas of our condo grounds, we asked our owners to share their thoughts with us. One young smoker said:

“I do not wish the scents and the smoke of burning tobacco to build up and to linger inside. Smoking inside my home or in another enclosed space would cause me, by default, to inhale far more smoke and for a much longer period of time than smoking outside subjects me to…I recognize that other people, especially non-smokers, would not want tobacco smoke drifting into their home; for that matter, I don’t want it inside my own home either! …complainants have a very simple, direct solution available [when I am smoking on my deck]: shut the door or window.”

I think this smoker’s startling conclusion that everyone else must adapt to his smoking behavior is similar to the blogger’s demand that the reader should figure out what the writer means. The smoker demands that neighbors retreat indoors and shut their doors and windows so he can smoke at will. The blogger wants the reader to substitute the right words and put in the appropriate punctuation because she doesn’t want to do this work herself.

Both arguments annoy me. Now it is MY job to avoid secondhand smoke by sweltering in a hot condo with no breeze possible? To punctuate someone else’s writing? Such poor writing will cause me to derail at the error and have to backtrack to correct the sentence, then read on. That takes more of MY time, and quickly, I will give up because it is so irritating.

I believe that the writer is always responsible for the message–all of it. If I want readers to understand and act on my writing, I must give them a quality document that they can read in the shortest possible time and can comprehend instantly. If I’m sloppy with my language, the best outcome I can expect is that readers will eventually stop reading my text. The worst outcome is that my errors may actually cost money, or worse, lives.

(The responses to the blog mentioned above seem mostly critical of the blogger’s position. And, by the way, we voted unanimously to ban smoking in common areas of our property.)