Neil James and Ginny Redish—Writing for the web and mobiles (PLAIN 2013)

Veteran plain language advocates Neil James and Ginny Redish shared some eye-opening statistics about web and mobile use at the PLAIN 2013 conference that may prompt some organizations to reprioritize how they deliver their content. In 2013, for example, there were 6.8 billion mobile phones in use—almost one for every person on the planet. Half of the users were using their mobiles to go online. In 2014, mobiles are expected to overtake PCs for Internet use. Surprisingly, however, 44% of Fortune 100 companies have no mobile site at all, and only 14% of consumers were happy their mobile experience. Mobile users are 67% more likely to purchase from a mobile-friendly site, and 79% will go elsewhere if the site is poor.

People don’t go to a website just to use the web, explained Redish. Every use of a website is to achieve a goal. When writing for the web, always consider

  • purpose: why is the content being created?
  • personas: who are the users?
  • conversations: what do users have to do to complete their task?

Always write to a persona, said Redish, and walk those personas through their conversations. Remember to repeat this exercise on mobile, too.

Consider the following areas when creating content:

  1. Audience
  2. Physical context
  3. Channels
  4. Navigation
  5. Page structure
  6. Design
  7. Expression

Words, noted the presenters, are only one element out of seven.

Some basic guidelines

Build everything for user needs

Again, think of who your users are and what they are trying to accomplish. Consider their characteristics when they use your site. Are they anxious? Relaxed? Aggressive? Reluctant? Keep those characteristics in mind when creating your content.

Consider the physical context

Mobiles are a different physical environment compared with a tablet or PC. The screens are smaller, and type and links on a typical website are too small to read comfortably. Maybe soon we’ll have sites with responsive design that change how content is wrapped depending on the device being used to read it, but for now,  creating a dedicated mobile version of a site may be the best way to ensure that all users have an optimal experience on your site regardless of the device they use.

Select the best channels

Smartphones, equipped with cameras, geolocators, accelerometers, and so on, are capable of a lot. We need to be creative and consider whether any of these functions could help us deliver content.

Simplify the navigation

Minimize the number of actions—clicks and swipes—that a user needs to do before they get to what they want. “People will tolerate scrolling if they’re confident they’ll get to what they want,” said James.

Prioritize the content on every page

Put the information users want at the top, and be aware that, for a given line length, a heading with more words will have smaller type, which can affect its perceived hierarchy.

Design for the small screen

Pay attention in particular to information in tables. Do users have to scroll to read the whole table? Do they need to see the whole table at once to get the information they need?

Cut every word you can

The amount of information you can put on a website might be seemingly infinite, but for mobile sites, it’s best to be as succinct as possible. Pare the content down to only what users would need.

What does your markup say about you?

This interview also appears on The Editors’ Weekly, the Editors’ Association of Canada’s official blog.

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A friend of mine was venting to me about his old boss, who used to look over his reports. Whenever his boss found an error, he’d not only circle it but also emphasize his discovery with an exclamation point—a practice that drove my buddy nuts. Encoded within this tiny mark of punctuation was his micromanaging boss’s chiding disapproval: “HEY! THERE’S A MISTAKE RIGHT HERE! WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?”

I was relating this story to my good friend Naomi MacDougall, an award-winning designer, and she told me she once had to work with a proofreader whose markup she found “overly aggressive.” We both had a good laugh about that, but the conversation got me thinking: Whereas most of us have switched to editing on screen, a lot of us still proof on hard copy, and our markup is often the only communication we have with a designer, whom we may not know and may never meet. It’s a bit of a weird working relationship—more distant than others in the publication production chain. How can we be sure that our markup isn’t inadvertently pissing off the designer? I asked Naomi to sit down for an interview to talk about some of these issues.

IC: When you mentioned that a proofreader you’d worked with had “overly aggressive markup,” what did you mean by that? What did the proofreader do that rubbed you the wrong way?

NM: Mostly it was the use of all caps and lots of exclamation points at the end of every note. It made me feel as though I was being yelled at. The tone of the markup put me on the defensive.

IC: Are there other things proofreaders have done that you wish they wouldn’t do?

NM: There have been times when the markup hasn’t been clear, and obviously that’s tricky. It’s frustrating to have to sit there and puzzle over what a letter is. Also, occasionally, I feel like the markup has left too much for interpretation. Because we’re often going through these changes quickly, I don’t want to have to be deciphering code.

On the flip side, if something is very obvious in the markup—like if a letter is dropped or a word inserted into a sentence—then you don’t have to spell it out again by rewriting the sentence in the margin. But when there are lots of moving words and punctuation marks in a sentence, it’s really helpful if the proofreader rewrites the sentence in the margin.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d like as much clarity as possible in markup. I’m intelligent, but I’m not a mind reader.

IC: When there’s a problem like a bad break or a widow, would you prefer that the proofreader just point out the problem so that you can find a solution, or would you rather the proofreader suggest a fix?

NM: That’s a good question. In most cases I would say just point out the problem, unless it’s obvious it’s going to be very tricky to fix—then it’s hugely appreciated when the proofreader suggests a fix, especially if it involves cutting or inserting words.

IC: What’s your preference when there are more extensive passages of text that need to be inserted? How long would an insert have to be before it’s better to send you new text in an email rather than writing it in the margin for you to rekey?

NM: I would say I’d want new text for anything longer than one sentence or two short sentences. There’s just more room for error when I have to type a bunch of text. And if you’re moving more than, say, four words around in a sentence, just rewrite the sentence and have me retype it. It takes less time than moving all those words around and making sure they’re all in the right place.

IC: I think you were telling me earlier that different proofreaders approach word substitutions differently. Some mark a word as deleted and then add a caret to show that a word in the margin should be inserted, whereas others just cross out the word in the proof and write its replacement in the margin, without the caret.

NM: Yes, I like the caret. I find it clearer.

IC: It’s a visual cue for the designer to look in the margin.

NM: Exactly. It takes out that second of guesswork.

IC: Which can really add up!

NM: Yes!

IC: Is there anything else proofreaders do that you really appreciate?

NM: I always appreciate a neat printer, and I always appreciate it when a proofreader uses a bright ink, like red or purple or anything that stands out against the type. Often I’m scanning a page quickly, and if the markup is in pencil or black or blue pen, I tend to miss more of the changes. They don’t jump off the page as easily, so I have to take more time to look at each page closely.

Also, I really appreciate it when the proofreader suggests a global change at the beginning of document if a word is misspelled throughout. It’s so much quicker for me to search and replace these in one go. But I also like it when these words are highlighted in the text so that I can double-check that the change was made and check for reflow, since, during a global change, there’s always the potential for a line to break differently.

IC: Do you ever return communication on the proofs? What kinds of things to you say to the proofreader?

NM: Not often, but if I do it’s almost always a note that a change can’t be made because of reflow issues—mostly to do with hyphenation. And occasionally I’ll make note of a design style that overrules a type change.

IC: We’ve focused on hard-copy markup so far. Any thoughts about proofreaders working on PDF?

NM: I know in some instances I’ve missed smaller fixes in PDFs, like a change to one letter or a punctuation change, because they’ll just show up as tiny, tiny marks, and they’re easy to miss even in the full list of changes. If you click on the markup and add a short comment to it, though, it pops up as a little box, so it jumps out.

PDFs are great for shorter publications; I can copy and paste the text right out of the markup boxes, so that makes my life easy! But for a big book, hard copy is preferable. Having to go back and forth between windows on the computer is the issue.

IC: How much does it annoy designers when we make a change on first proofs and reverse it on second?

NM: It’s not usually a big deal—unless it’s a complete change from Canadian to U.S. spelling throughout, say. If that ping-pongs, then it can get annoying—though I’m sure it is for everyone involved! In that case a note about global changes is hugely appreciated.

IC: What can a proofreader do to ensure that the relationship with the designer is as collegial and productive as it can be, given that it’s such a bizarre, arms-length interaction?

NM: If markup is done professionally, then the relationship will be smooth. Just be clear, be thorough, and print neatly… and no all-caps yelling!

IC: Yes! I think those are all of my questions. Do you have anything to add?

NM: Just that I appreciate how much work goes into a thorough proofread, and I don’t know how you all do it! Sometimes your hawk eyes blow my mind!

An e-Interview with Noeline Bridge

This interview appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Bulletin, the Indexing Society of Canada’s newsletter.

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Editor of Indexing Names Noeline Bridge has been an indexer for more than 20 years. She has published numerous articles on indexing and is the co-author of Royals of England: A Guide for Readers, Travellers, and Genealogists. Recently Iva Cheung interviewed her by email about Indexing Names, which was edited by Noeline and was published this year by Information Today [ITI].

IC: What motivated you to compile Indexing Names?

NB: Two interrelated and rather vague thoughts led to the book: that I’d thought on and off over the years that I’d like to write a book on some aspect of indexing; then, publishing articles and making presentations on names, this vague idea turned into a book on names. Also, over the years, other indexers had been producing books about indexing but one devoted to names wasn’t one of them. My conversation with John Bryans at the Information Today booth at a conference was the trigger. I was perusing the books on display, and John remarked that he wished more indexers would write books. I found myself asking, “So you would be interested if I wrote a book on indexing names?” To which he replied, “My response is, ‘When can you get it to me?’” A short time later, a posting on Index-L [an indexing listserv] mentioned the need for a book on indexing names. After drawing a few deep breaths, I responded to say that I was thinking about doing this, knowing I was making a commitment and would be doing it.

IC: How did you find, approach, and select contributors? Did you give them content guidelines?

NB: I’ve always collected listserv postings about names for my presentations and articles, so I went through those looking for expertise and writing skills, and also ASI [American Society for Indexing]/ITI’s books on indexing. As my outline took shape, I dived into the listings of indexers available on the indexing societies’ websites, looking for relevant interests and experience. I thought it would be easy to secure writers and articles, that everyone would have the same reaction I do when asked to write, leaping at the opportunity and producing the article! I was naive. Quite a few people turned me down—nicely, I must add!—but several referred me to others, some of whom agreed, while others referred me to others, and so on, or suggested another relevant topic that ultimately bore fruit. Over time, a few writers dropped out, inevitably and understandably—indexers qualified to write chapters for books are very busy already, and when their lives became complicated by health or family issues, the added burden of writing proved to be just too much for them. A couple of others just never produced their chapters after showing initial interest. For very important chapters I later found substitute writers or included that material in my own chapters. Other ideas, I just had to drop. Seeing how difficult it was to secure writers, I imposed only a few guidelines for fear of putting off potential writers. Enid Zafran, ASI’s editor for their books, wanted substantive material, which I did too. I asked for lots of examples along with background information—historical, where relevant—so that indexers could make informed decisions when examples didn’t match their requirements. I decided to worry about length later, just asking them to write what they wished in the meantime. Editing would come later.

IC: In the book’s introduction, you write that as you worked on the book, its direction changed and that the final product is “not the names indexing encyclopedia that I had envisaged.” What was that initial vision? And if you could add any material to the book now, what would you choose to add?

NB: When the book was a vague idea, I had various equally vague ideas, like some vast compendium of short pieces on names belonging to as many nationalities and ethnicities as possible, or a compilation of all published articles on the subject, or… I wasn’t sure. However, when I approached Enid about the book, quite naturally she wanted an outline as soon as possible. So I had to produce one fast, realizing that only when I had at least a temporary outline could I approach possible writers. I still wanted as many national/ethnic names as I could get, but my compiled listserv messages were often about specific issues regarding names indexing, and names in particular genres of books. So then I came up with the divisions in the book, feeling rather uneasily that it would look like three books in one, and even wondering if I should produce three books. But the latter idea disappeared when I confronted the realities of securing writers, so only the one book was feasible, at least at the time! Outstanding material that I was dearly hoping to include was North American Native names; someone was interested initially but then dropped out, and although I tried hard, I never found a substitute. Others were more Asian names and at least some African ones, a chapter on local history (lots of name issues there!), religious names outside of Christianity (although some of that material was covered in other articles), and, somewhat similarly, European royalty and aristocracy.

IC: What I appreciate about the book is that it offers context and suggestions but isn’t overly prescriptive. It’s a guide, not a strict set of rules. And there is a recurring emphasis on respecting the author and reader in almost all of the contributions. Was that the effect you had hoped for?

NB: I’m glad you noticed and appreciated this aspect. As I mention in the book, I am a former library cataloguer, where we had to use a prescriptive, rules-based approach—as big databases must—to ensure uniqueness and matches for each person’s name. As a freelance back-of-the-book indexer, I came to realize that in this indexing context, genre and reader and authors’ and publishers’ styles often dictate especially how long or short, formal or informal, an indexed name should be. Consequently I changed my terminology from rules to conventions or guidelines in my articles and presentations. Reading the contributors’ chapters expanded my own flexibility and sensitivity to genre, styles, and user issues.

IC: You note in your chapter “Resources for Personal Names” that references are increasingly Web-based. Any plans to turn Indexing Names into a Web resource?

NB: No, I don’t think so. Although many websites remain surprisingly stable, other valuable ones arrive and depart or change their URLs. All URLs have to be checked often, and especially just before publication deadline, a time-consuming process—and frustrating when one tries to discover if the website is now under another name or has simply been pulled. Also, because books have to be finalized many months before publication, at least some URLs aren’t going to be current when the book comes out. Web-based resources are, I think, the stuff of journal articles but not published books.

IC: You wrote the index for Indexing Names—how intimidating was it to compose an index for a book by indexers about indexing?

NB: It was always on my mind that indexers would be using my index and judging it not only by how easily they found needed information but also how I’d structured it. One of my first index users pointed out to me that he’d looked up “stage names” and not found an entry, although there is a chapter on the names of performing artists—a See reference I should have thought of! And perhaps there are others… I shudder to think!

Top 10 controversies surrounding cattle

I’m an (extremely) occasional contributor to Listverse. Its quality has been hit or miss as of late, but I usually see one or two lists a week that I find interesting and learn something from. This morning my most recent list, inspired by Florian Werner’s Cow: A Bovine Biography, and a David Rotsztain cheese workshop I attended a couple of months ago, was published.