Your Own Words: Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation: How to Improve Your Content before Publication

Hi! I’m Daniel, netmaking.com’s Content Specialist. You are reading the very first column in this fine newsletter’s history to be written by me.

I call my column “Your Own Words” for two reasons. First, it is through the power of the Internet that each and every one of us is able to become a publisher of content for the world to read. Second, as publishers we must all remember the responsibility we have to the language, and not allow our content to take a back seat to graphical tricks or whizbang programming. We own our words. We need to take care of them.

There’s always someone who can write better scripts, create better animations, or record better effects. But if you can learn to write error-free, to the point, and with clarity and style, then your site’s visitors will stay. Perhaps they’ll learn. Or buy. Whatever your objective in creating a web site, solid content can help you achieve it.

The name of this, my first installment of “Your Own Words”, is “Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation: How to Improve Your Content before Publication”. I plan to tell you how these four stages of content creation can help you improve your content right away. But before I do that, I need to take care of some housekeeping.

I want to thank Eirik Johansen, president of netmaking.com, for allowing me this space in his excellent newsletter. We’ve been helping each other make better websites (and better newsletters!) for almost a year now, and I’m looking forward to further contributing my expertise to the netmaking.com brand.

I also want to thank you, the Absolute Webmasters out there, for continuing to read us, and for passing this newsletter on to your friends (in its entirety, of course…). Without the support and feedback of our subscribers, we couldn’t keep doing what we do. And speaking of doing, let’s get on with it, shall we?

As promised, here is an outline of four steps you should include in your writing process to make your site’s content more powerful. Whether your revamping your site’s current content, or drafting new stuff, if you’ll keep these ideas in mind, your content will be the better for it.

Education

Even if you don’t have a degree in English, there are still steps you can take to learn writing fundamentals painlessly. While I did receive an English degree years ago, I continue to educate myself everyday.

Did you know there are hundreds of websites devoted to the craft of writing? Whether you’re a poet, marketer, or newswriter, there’s plenty of instruction out there. Why not start at my favorites?

Inkspot has a huge audience because it provides tons of original writing instruction from professionals in all genres. Contentious focuses specifically on writing for the net and is updated regularly. And don’t miss out on About. Billing itself as the human Internet, About features hundreds of individual “sub-sites” maintained by Guides—experts in a chosen field—who scour the Internet in search of quality resources and link you to them. Freelancers, journalists, screenwriters, whatever your writing type, you’ll find it there.

If you’re like me, you may not like wandering around the Internet all the time looking for good advice. Why not let it come to you? Each of the site’s I mentioned offers a periodic newsletter to keep you informed of updates at their site. Sign up and have the quality content pushed to you.

I also receive vocabulary words, trivia, and advice on grammar and usage via email. Small daily doses make learning easy.

And if you need more, there are thousands of sites online that want to offer you writing courses. Some want none of your money, while others want all of it, so if you go this route be careful. Whatever your preferred method, a solid writing education is the basis for quality web content. So get out there and learn something! And don’t forget to read lots of good writing too.

Composition

How do you write your content? In Notepad, between lines of code? In FrontPage, with all its clever layout features? Would you use a butter knife to carve a turkey?

While many web development applications offer a few text features, like spellcheckers, you should seriously consider drafting your content in a real word processor. While I have many software applications for brainstorming and creative exercises, I do the bulk of my writing in Microsoft Word. It’s got more features than I’ll ever use, but it’s nice to know I could. Only once the writing is perfect do I then copy and paste it into my web pages.

Take the time to learn about your word processors functions. Learn to love its thesaurus. The difference between an okay word and the perfect word isn’t really all that far. Don’t be afraid to use the exciting turn-of-phrase or that analogy about turkeys and butter knives you read somewhere. And most of all, when composing, be selfish. You’re a long way from having to show this to the world. We’ve got three steps to go before then, so just make that keyboard sing.

Alteration

Ever buy a pair of pants a little too long because you loved the stripes? Or the number of pockets? Or because they were on sale? You knew they’d be perfect after a little hemming.

Well, if you write for the web, you will almost always start out a little too long. And with too many spelling and punctuation errors. Too many weak sentences. Maybe a well-written idea that belongs in a completely different article. (Did you know that vinegar has thousands of household uses?)

As a professional editor, my review process has over 20 steps from draft to finished product, but yours doesn’t have to be so involved. As long as you have a procedure, a checklist to follow that covers all your weak areas without ignoring your strengths, you can make your writing leaner and stronger. Here’s a few ideas:

Read through your document, focusing on each sentence. Any glaring spelling or grammar errors? Did you use proper punctuation? Does the sentence contain a recognizable subject and a strong verb? How about tired clauses like “What I’m trying to say is…” or “It’s important to remember that…”?

Now focus on each individual paragraph. Does it convey a single idea and no more? Does it contain a logical transition from the last paragraph and to the next? Did you vary sentence length and structure? How many times did you use “the” or “I” or any form of the verb “to be”?

Try this: Check the readability of your document in Microsoft Word (I’m in Word 2000). Choose Options from the Tools menu and select the Spelling & Grammar tab. Here you can completely customize the way Word checks over your writing. Check the box next to Show Readability Statistics and select OK. Now choose Spelling & Grammar from the tools menu again (or press F7) to check over the document. You can choose to keep or throw out Word’s suggestions for improvement. When finished, Word will display a window of readability statistics. Sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, characters per word, and number of passive sentences are all good to know if you want to make sure your writing is appropriate for your chosen audience.

Remember: if your average characters per word is 7, that means for every one-letter word in your writing there’s also a 14-letter word. Try and keep that average number in the 5 range for most audiences. Search Word Help (F1) for more information on Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. These two statistics are fascinating when viewed in the right perspective.

Check your facts. Are all your dates correct? How about the spellings of proper names? Check your opinions. Is your language confusing or offensive to members of another gender, orientation, religion, or ethnicity? Check your ego. Have you made any claims you’re unprepared to back up with actions? Check your neighbor. Read it aloud to someone or let them read it to you. How do the words sound? How are a reader’s questions anticipated and addressed? What is this other person’s reaction after reading?

Finish all those steps? Come up with any good ones on your own? Good. Now try this last one:

One of Eirik’s favorite rules for web developers is “test, test, test”. Mine is “test, cut, test”. Read your entire document. If your intended message comes through loud and clear, go through and cut out 10% of its total length. Read it again. Still make sense? Cut again. Continue to trim your document until you can no longer communicate your ideas in fewer words. What remains will be the leanest, strongest writing you’ve ever done. Your readers will thank you.

Hibernation

Okay. So you’ve picked up some writing education, you’ve composed the perfect piece, you’ve edited mercilessly. Now for the hard part.

Do nothing.

That’s right. Find a length of time that suits you—though no less than 24 hours—and put that piece of writing away. Lock it up. The final step to the perfect steak and the perfect piece of writing is marination. While away from your writing, fill your mind and your day with other things. Walk the dog. See a movie. Visit a friend. Clean out those gutters. When you come back, I guarantee you’ll find those pants have grown too long again (though you still like the stripes…).

Break out your editing checklist again and get to work. Stuck somewhere? Fire up your web browser and visit that writing site. Does an idea need more development? Open a blank word processor document and brainstorm awhile.

Conclusion

Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation. Try these steps in any order. Even repeat a few. Then post that writing to your site for the world to read and bookmark and tell their friends about (just like you’re going to do with this column). A word of caution though: If the same piece of writing hibernates regularly, scares the few people it encounters, and hides from the rest, then it’s really a bear. Thanks for reading and good luck with Your Own Words. If you have any comments regarding this article, or have an idea for a future column, drop me a line.

This article is a re-post of a column I wrote for the Netmaking newsletter in 2004. While the technology and uses of the web have changed significantly since then, much in the way of content development—the actual processes by which writers create for the web—has not. This column is being re-posted here for archival purposes, and in the hopes that it may be of some use to fellow writers out there. My Norwegian friends at Netmaking [English] are still going strong and doing great work with the eZ publish platform. I encourage you to check them out.

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