Wednesday, January 27, 2010
My Paperback Debut
The primary text for the class, Working with Student Writers: Essays on Tutoring and Teaching, was a collection of essays that had been written by previous students in the class, edited by the instructor, Len Podis, and his wife, JoAnne Podis. I still have my copy, filled with the enthusiastic scribblings of my 22-year-old self, who could imagine no other path than going on to graduate school and eventually becoming a professor himself.
Now, just over ten years later, Peter Lang Publishing has released a second edition of Working with Student Writers featuring the essay I wrote for that class: "The Hero With a Thousand Voices: The Relationship Between the Narrative and Academic Styles." The book is also available on Amazon. In the essay, I attempted to mediate the tension so many young writers encounter between the academic discourse community they're suddenly expected to inhabit and the narrative discourse that they've been consuming and producing their entire lives; I did so by highlighting the commonalities between the two forms of narrative and academic writing, and by reframing the writing process itself as a narrative.
It's actually a lot more entertaining than it sounds, I swear.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Writing for the Web: 5 Guidelines
As the Law School moves closer to our goal of a redesigned and re-engineered website, it's time for our staff to begin working on content -- creating new copy, editing existing pages, and pruning out-of-date text. While many of our staff are experienced and accomplished writers, we sometimes forget that writing for the web is different than writing for other purposes. Numerous studies have indicated that people simply read differently on the web.
To that end, I've prepared a brief set of guidelines for staff to consider as we undertake this process. These rules are synthesized from my own experiences on the web as well as from two great books: Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug and Killer Web Content by Gerry McGovern.
1. The reader comes first.
- Know your audience. Before you begin writing or editing, take a few minutes to think about who will be reading the copy you're about to work on. Will they be prospective students? Faculty? Alumni? What will they already know about the Law School? What do you need them to know? What will they want to know? (Note that these are three very different questions.)
- Put yourself in the reader's shoes. As you are writing or editing, imagine yourself as one of those readers. Ask yourself if what you've written so far will help the reader get the information they need and/or want as efficiently as possible.
- When in doubt, borrow a fresh pair of eyes. Ask a colleague or student worker to look over your copy and point out what isn't clear at first glance. Then refine accordingly.
2. Brevity + Clarity = Good.
- Be concise. The more information on a page, the harder it is for the reader to find what he or she is looking for. Usability expert Steve Krug suggests cutting half the words you've written, then cutting in half again. While that practice might be extreme, always remember that less is more.
- Web surfers don't read -- they scan. Our eyes usually skip over long blocks of text as they try to find a relevant needle in a haystack of information. To help your visitors out:
- Use visual anchors such as bold headings and lists, when appropriate.
- Keep your paragraphs short and make the first sentence of each paragraph attention-grabbing and relevant to the rest of the paragraph.
3. Make your links a call to action.
- Links also serve as visual anchors. Readers' eyes gravitate quickly to links as they scan the page's content. Make that fact work for you to help them find what they're searching for. For example, which of the examples below gets you to the downloadable presentation more efficiently?
4. Web content is never "done."
- Remember that whatever you write will have to be maintained and kept up-to-date for a significant period of time. The only thing worse for a reader than not being able to find information is finding wrong or out-of-date information.
5. Don't reinvent the wheel.
- Does the content you're creating exist in another form somewhere else on the site, or somewhere else on the web? Why not just link to already-existing content, instead of creating more content that will require maintenance?
I'm sure more guidelines will emerge as we go through the content-production process. Are there things that you think I've left out? As a web-reader, what bothers you about the way content is sometimes presented? What are some examples of well-done web writing?
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Review: "The Laws of Simplicity" by John Maeda
The book is intended as a primer in the merits of simplicity for not only designers but also technophiles of various stripes and business leaders as well. The wide range of intended audiences also results in a style that is rather jarring for those used to a different style of writing about design -- the book often feels like a mix of design criticism, personal anecdotes, and the often-mushy self-help language of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"-type bromides intended for wealthy executives.
Another consequence of the wide range of audience is that many of the laws are fairly obvious to anyone with a basic grounding in the theory of design -- groupings help communicate (Law 2, "Organize"), whitespace is good (Law 6, "Context") -- and they can all be effectively summed up (the ultimate in simplicity) in the final law: "Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful."
The one idea that did resonate with me in a way that had never struck me before was the idea that simplicity requires complexity (Law 5, "Simplicity and complexity need each other). He uses musical rhythm as an example: the simplest rhythms have their place, but are rendered far more effective in contrast with more complex ones. This is, of course, the very essence of something I am very passionate about: the writing and arranging of pop music. What makes a great pop song is often, the establishment of a pattern which is then suddenly changed (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, BRIDGE), or stood on its ear (building up to a chorus only to go back to the verse).
All told, "The Laws of Simplicity" is an interesting book if for no other reason than that it may give designers something to recommend that their clients read as a justification for why they really don't need to make the logo bigger; most designers, though, will already have internalized most of these "laws" already.