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Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works

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"Redish has done her homework and created a thorough overview of the issues in writing for the Web. Ironically, I must recommend that you read her every word so that you can find out why your customers won't read very many words on your website -- and what to do about it." -- Jakob Nielsen, Principal, Nielsen Norman Group "There are at least twelve billion web pages out there. Twelve billion voices talking, but saying mostly nothing. If just 1% of those pages followed Ginny's practical, clear advice, the world would be a better place. Fortunately, you can follow her advice for 100% of your own site's pages, so pick up a copy of Letting Go of the Words and start communicating effectively today." --Lou Rosenfeld, co-author, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web On the web, whether on the job or at home, we usually want to grab information and use it quickly. We go to the web to get answers to questions or to complete tasks - to gather information, reading only what we need. We are all too busy to read much on the web. This book helps you write successfully for web users. It offers strategy, process, and tactics for creating or revising content for the web. It helps you plan, organize, write, design, and test web content that will make web users come back again and again to your site. Learn how to create usable and useful content for the web from the master - Ginny Redish. Ginny has taught and mentored hundreds of writers, information designers, and content owners in the principles and secrets of creating web information that is easy to scan, easy to read, and easy to use. This practical, informative book will help anyone creating web content do it better. Features * Clearly-explained guidelines with full color il

Table of Contents

  1. Copyright
    1. Dedication
  2. Foreword
  3. Acknowledgments
  4. 1. Content! Content! Content!
    1. People come to web sites for the content
    2. Web users skim and scan
    3. Web users read, but...
    4. They don’t read more because...
    5. What makes writing for the web work well?
      1. Good web writing is like a conversation
      2. Good web writing answers people’s questions
      3. Good web writing lets people “grab and go”
    6. Introducing Letting Go of the Words
      1. It’s about writing and design, not technology
      2. It’s full of examples
      3. It’s based in a user-centered design process
      4. You can start the process in several places
      5. You can jump around in the book
      6. You can join our web community
        1. Summarizing Chapter 1
  5. 2. People! People! People!
    1. We all interpret as we read
    2. Successful writers focus on their audiences
    3. Seven steps to understanding your audiences
    4. 1. List your major audiences
    5. 2. Gather information about your audiences
    6. 3. List major characteristics for each audience
      1. Key phrases or quotes
      2. Experience, expertise
      3. Emotions
      4. Values
      5. Technology
      6. Social and cultural environments
      7. Demographics
    7. 4. Gather your audiences’ questions, tasks, and stories
    8. 5. Use your information to create personas
      1. What information goes into a persona?
      2. How do personas work with a web team?
    9. 6. Include the persona’s goals and tasks
    10. 7. Use your information to write scenarios for your site
      1. Scenarios tell you the conversations people want to start
      2. Scenarios help you understand all types of users
      3. Everything on your web site should fulfill a scenario
      4. Scenarios can help you write good web content
        1. Summarizing Chapter 2
  6. 3. Starting Well: Home Pages
    1. Home pages – the 10-minute mini-tour
    2. Identifying the site, establishing the brand
    3. Setting the tone and personality of the site
    4. Helping people get a sense of what the site is all about
      1. A useful home page makes it instantly clear what the site is about
      2. A useful home page is mostly links and short descriptions
    5. Letting people start key tasks immediately
      1. Put forms people want right away on the home page
      2. Make sure the forms are high on the page
      3. Put Search near the top – where site visitors expect it
      4. Don’t make people fill out forms they don’t want
    6. Sending each person on the right way, effectively and efficiently
      1. Use your site visitors’ words
      2. Don’t make people wonder which link to click on
    7. Putting it all together: A case study
    8. Building your site up from the content – not only down from the home page
      1. Summarizing Chapter 3
  7. 4. Getting There: Pathway Pages
    1. Most site visitors are on a hunt – a mission – and the pathway is just to get them there
    2. People don’t want to read a lot while hunting
    3. A pathway page is like a table of contents
    4. Sometimes, short descriptions help
    5. Marketing is likely to be ignored on a pathway page
    6. The smoothness of the path is more important than the number of clicks (within reason)
      1. Don’t make people think
      2. Keep people from needing the Back button
    7. Many people choose the first option that looks plausible
    8. Many site visitors are landing inside your site
      1. Summarizing Chapter 4
  8. 5. Writing Information, Not Documents
    1. Breaking up large documents
      1. Think “topic,” not “book”
      2. Break web content into topics and subtopics
        1. Divide web content by time or sequence
        2. Divide web content by task
        3. Divide web content by people
        4. Divide web content by type of information
        5. Divide web content by questions people ask
    2. Deciding how much to put on one web page
      1. How much do people want in one visit? How connected is the information?
      2. Am I overloading my site visitors? How long is the web page?
      3. What’s the download time?
      4. Will people want to print? How much will they want to print?
    3. PDF – yes or no?
      1. Should you rely on PDF files for your web content?
      2. When might a PDF file be appropriate?
      3. When is a PDF file not appropriate?
        1. When people don’t want the whole document
        2. When people want to read from the screen
        3. When your audiences are not comfortable with PDF files or with downloading software
      4. When accessibility is an issue
      5. Three more reasons for not using PDFs
        1. PDF files are optimized for the printed page
        2. Acrobat Reader works differently from browsers
        3. PDF files are usually paper documents – not written in web style
      6. In some cases, offer both versions
        1. Summarizing Chapter 5
  9. 6. Focusing on Your Essential Messages
    1. Six guidelines for focusing on your essential messages
    2. 1. Give people only what they need
    3. 2. Cut! Cut! Cut! And cut again!
    4. 3. Start with the key point. Write in inverted pyramid style
    5. 4. Break down walls of words
    6. 5. Market by giving useful information
      1. All sites sell – products or themselves
      2. The web is primarily a “pull” technology; marketing specializes in “push”
      3. Take advantage of “marketing moments” – market after the visitor is at least partially satisfied
    7. 6. Layer information to help web users
      1. Layering from a brief description to the full article
      2. Layering from an information page to more on other web pages
      3. Layering from part of the page to a short explanation
      4. Layering in innovative ways
        1. Summarizing Chapter 6
  10. 7. Designing Your Web Pages for Easy Use
    1. Fourteen guidelines for helpful design
    2. 1. Make the page elements obvious, using patterns and alignment
    3. 2. Consider the entire site when planning the design
      1. An e-commerce example
      2. An information site example
      3. Plan a consistent design across the web site
      4. Understand the process that moves from plan to launch
      5. Integrate content and design from the beginning
    4. 3. Work with templates
    5. 4. Use space effectively. Keep active space in your content
      1. Understand passive space and active space
      2. For your web content, focus on active space
    6. 5. Beware of false bottoms
    7. 6. Don’t let headings float
    8. 7. Don’t center text
    9. 8. Set a sans serif font as the default
      1. The old research on paper
      2. The new research on the web – no winner for reading speed or comprehension, but people prefer sans serif
      3. Choose an easy-to-read sans serif
    10. 9. Think broadly about users and their situations when setting type size
      1. Set the default large enough for your site visitors
      2. Adjust your content so that you can use large enough type and get your message into the space you have
      3. Let people choose their own text size
      4. Make all the text adjust, not just the main content area
    11. 10. Use a fluid layout with a medium line length as default
    12. 11. Don’t write in all capitals
    13. 12. Don’t underline anything but links. Use italics sparingly
    14. 13. Provide good contrast between text and background
      1. Keep the background clear so that the text is readable
      2. Keep the background light and the text dark
      3. Use light text on a dark background sparingly
    15. 14. Think about all your site visitors when you choose colors
      1. Think about the cultural meaning of colors
      2. Check your colors to avoid problems for color-blind users
    16. Putting it all together: A case study
      1. Summarizing Chapter 7
    17. Interlude: The New Life of Press Releases
      1. The old – and ongoing – life of a press release
      2. What has changed?
      3. How do people use press releases on the web?
        1. Story 1: Press release as summary
        2. Story 2: Press release as fact sheet
        3. Story 3: Press release as basic information
        4. Story 4: The press call up
      4. What should we do?
      5. Does it make a difference?
      6. What would the difference look like?
  11. 8. Tuning Up Your Sentences
    1. Ten guidelines for tuning up your sentences
    2. 1. Talk to your site visitors. Use “you”
      1. Be consistent; don’t mix nouns and “you” when talking about the same person
      2. Use appropriate nouns to talk about others
      3. Use the imperative in instructions
      4. Use “you” rather than “he or she”
    3. 2. Show that you are a person and that your organization includes people
      1. If you are blogging, “I” is fine
      2. If you are writing your own articles, “I” is fine
      3. If you are writing for an organization, use “we”
      4. Sometimes, it’s okay to talk about the organization by name
      5. For questions and answers, use “I” and “you” for the site visitor, “we” for the organization
    4. 3. Write in the active voice (most of the time)
    5. 4. Write simple, short, straightforward sentences
      1. Very short sentences are okay, too
      2. Fragments may also work
      3. Even in very serious writing, busy web users need sentences they can understand easily
    6. 5. Cut unnecessary words
    7. 6. Give extra information its own place
    8. 7. Keep paragraphs short
      1. On the web, a one-sentence paragraph is fine
      2. Lists and tables may be better than paragraphs
    9. 8. Start with the context – first things first, second things second
    10. 9. Put the action in the verbs, not the nouns
    11. 10. Use your web users’ words
      1. We all read the simple, short, common words faster
      2. Consider your broad web audience
    12. Putting it all together
      1. Summarizing Chapter 8
  12. 9. Using Lists and Tables
    1. Nine guidelines for writing useful web lists
    2. Six guidelines for creating useful web tables
    3. 1. Use lists to make information easy to grab
    4. 2. Keep most lists short
      1. Short (5–10 items) is necessary for unfamiliar lists
      2. Long may be okay for very familiar lists
    5. 3. Format lists to make them work well
      1. Eliminate the space between the introduction and the list
      2. Put a space between long items
      3. Wrap lines under each other, not under the bullet
    6. 4. Match bullets to your site’s personality
      1. Work with colleagues to establish the personality to use for bullets
      2. Don’t make people wonder if the bullets have more meaning than they do
    7. 5. Use numbered lists for instructions
    8. 6. Turn paragraphs into steps
    9. 7. Give even complex instructions as steps
    10. 8. Keep the sentence structure in lists parallel
    11. 9. Don’t number list items if they are not steps and people might confuse them with steps
    12. Contrasting lists and tables
    13. 10. Use tables when you have numbers to compare
    14. 11. Use tables for a series of “if, then” sentences
    15. 12. Think about tables as answers to questions
    16. 13. Think carefully about what to put in the left column of a table
    17. 14. Keep tables simple
      1. Thinking about table width
      2. Thinking about table length
    18. 15. Format tables on the web so that people focus on the information and not on the lines
      1. Don’t put thick lines between the columns or between the rows in a table
      2. Don’t center text in a table
        1. Summarizing Chapter 9
  13. 10. Breaking Up Your Text with Headings
    1. Good headings help readers in many ways
    2. Thinking about headings also helps writers
    3. Don’t just slap headings into old content
    4. Twelve guidelines for writing useful headings
    5. 1. Start by outlining your content with headings
    6. 2. Ask questions as headings when people come with questions
      1. Make them the questions people come with
      2. Think conversation. Ask the question from the site visitor’s point of view
      3. Keep the questions short
      4. Consider starting with a key word for fast access and accessibility
    7. 3. Give statement headings to convey key messages
    8. 4. Use action phrase headings for instructions
    9. 5. Use noun and noun phrase headings sparingly
    10. 6. Put your site visitors’ words in the headings
    11. 7. Exploit the power of parallelism
    12. 8. Don’t dive deep; keep to no more than two levels of headings (below the page title)
    13. 9. Make the heading levels obvious
    14. 10. Distinguish headings from text with type size and bold or color
    15. 11. Help people jump to the topic they need with same-page links
      1. Put same-page links right under the page title
      2. Don’t put off-page links where people expect same-page links
      3. Don’t put same-page links in the left navigation column
      4. Link headings as you move from paper to web
    16. 12. Evaluate! Read the headings to see what you have done
      1. Summarizing Chapter 10
    17. Interlude: Legal Information Can Be Understandable, Too
      1. Make the information legible
      2. Make sure your legal information prints well
      3. Use site visitors’ words in your headings
      4. Avoid technical language
      5. Avoid archaic legal language
      6. Apply all the clear writing techniques to your legal information
  14. 11. Using Illustrations Effectively
    1. Illustrations serve different purposes
      1. Picture of exact item
        1. Think about what aspects people want to see
        2. Make sure your words match what happens
        3. Make sure the larger pictures are clear
        4. Think about other situations in which pictures or diagrams would help people
        5. Help people make connections between information on paper documents and fields on online forms
        6. When the picture is a book or magazine cover or printed brochure, think about whether the link between print and web is necessary
      2. Picture to illustrate concept or process
        1. Comparing sizes
        2. Understanding dimensions and ratios
        3. Showing a process
      3. Chart, graph, map
        1. Consider combining maps with lists
        2. Keep it simple. Let your web users choose how much to see
        3. Write key message titles for charts and graphs
        4. Follow principles of good data reporting
      4. Mood picture
        1. Make sure that the photos evoke the mood you want
        2. Think of your global audience
    2. Nine general guidelines for using illustrations effectively
    3. 1. Don’t make people wonder what or why
    4. 2. Choose an appropriate size
      1. Make sure small pictures are clear
      2. Don’t use so much space for pictures that critical content gets shoved down or aside
    5. 3. Use illustrations to support, not hide, content
    6. 4. In pictures of people, show diversity
      1. To represent your organization, show diversity, but be truthful
      2. To represent your site visitors, think broadly
      3. Test, test, test
    7. 5. Don’t make content look like ads
    8. 6. Don’t annoy people with blinking, rolling, waving, or wandering text or pictures
      1. Don’t let text roll
      2. Don’t change content while people are on the page
      3. Don’t let animated animals, birds, butterflies, and so on, roam the page
      4. Weigh the trade-offs for animation carefully
    9. 7. Use animation where it helps – not just for show
    10. 8. Don’t make people wait through splash or Flash
      1. Splash pages waste people’s time
      2. You wear out your welcome by welcoming people too much
      3. People want to control their online experiences
      4. Videos at the beginning are roadblocks for some people
    11. 9. Make illustrations accessible
      1. Make the alt text meaningful
      2. For purely decorative graphics, use empty alt text
        1. Summarizing Chapter 11
  15. 12. Writing Meaningful Links
    1. Twelve guidelines for writing meaningful links
    2. 1. Don’t make new program and product names into links by themselves
    3. 2. Rethink document titles and headings that turn into links
    4. 3. Think ahead. Match links and page titles
    5. 4. Be as explicit as you can in the space you have – and make more space if you need it
    6. 5. Use action phrases for action links
    7. 6. Use single nouns sparingly; longer, more descriptive links often work better
    8. 7. Add a short description if people need it – or rewrite the link
    9. 8. Make the link meaningful – not Click here, not just More
      1. Click here is never necessary
      2. More isn’t enough
    10. 9. Coordinate when you have multiple, similar links
    11. 10. Don’t embed links if you want people to stay with your information
      1. If people are just browsing, embedding may be okay
      2. But if you don’t want people to wander off in the middle, put links at the end, below, or next to your main text
    12. 11. If you use bullets with links, make them active, too
    13. 12. Make both unvisited and visited links obvious
      1. Use your unvisited link color only for links
      2. Show visited links by changing the color
        1. Summarizing Chapter 12
  16. 13. Getting from Draft to Final Web Pages
    1. Think of writing as revising drafts
    2. Review and edit your own work
      1. Read what you wrote
      2. Check your links
      3. Check your facts
      4. Put your web draft away; don’t post it yet
        1. Why let the writing rest?
        2. What can you do when reading it after it has rested?
      5. Read it out loud
      6. Use dictionaries, handbooks, and a style guide
        1. Keep a dictionary (or dictionary site) handy
        2. Get a grammar handbook if you aren’t comfortable with grammar
        3. Don’t overuse a thesaurus – stay with a consistent set of words
        4. If your organization has a style guide, use it
      7. Run the spell checker but don’t rely on it
    3. Ask colleagues and others to read and comment
      1. Ask a few people what your key message is
      2. Have someone else read it out loud to you
      3. Share partial drafts
      4. Get feedback online
      5. Pay attention to the feedback
      6. Work with colleagues to get a uniform style and tone
    4. Put your ego in the drawer – cheerfully
    5. Work with a writing specialist or editor
      1. Have someone focus on the big picture with you
      2. Have someone copy edit for you
    6. Make reviews work for you and your web site visitors
      1. Setting up good reviews
        1. Meet with the reviewers when you start the project
        2. Practice the doctrine of no surprise
        3. Help your reviewers understand good web writing
      2. Getting useful information from reviewers
        1. Tell reviewers when the schedule changes
        2. Give reviewers a “heads up” a few days in advance
        3. Make your expectations clear
        4. If you have specific needs, let reviewers know
      3. Making good use of reviews
        1. Don’t let your ego get in the way
        2. Don’t automatically accept changes
        3. Rewrite to avoid misunderstandings
        4. Persuade, if you can
        5. Negotiate, if necessary
        6. Let reviewers know what you did and did not do
          1. Summarizing Chapter 13
    7. Interlude: Creating an Organic Style Guide
      1. Use a style guide to keep the site consistent
      2. Don’t reinvent
      3. Appoint an owner
      4. Make it easy to create, to find, and to use
  17. Bibliography
  18. About the Author