Archives

Your Own Words: Got Style?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Your Own Words

Welcome to another edition of “Your Own Words.” This time I thought I’d throw a list of links at you; send you on a wild and webby chase straight through all the clutter available on the Internet; and mark a trail to all the gold that’s there. But rather than simply dumping them on you, I figured I’d better take the opportunity to explain why each link has made this list.

So, in paragraphs to come I’ll name the greatest language resources there are. I’ll point you to each one’s home on the web. And I’ll briefly list my reasons for their inclusion.

English is not an easy language. There’s exceptions to every rule. And the distance between the good word and exactitude is often a long journey. And while I’m sure you have more links about coding in your collection than you know what to do with, maybe a few on language have been overlooked.

Neglect language and all the fancy scripts and graphics in the world will not sell a widget or make the average visitor care a lick about your vacation pictures. Make language a priority, however, and they may stick around to view, or to buy…

So, without further ado, here’s my list of the finest language sources available on the web, and a few that aren’t. I’ve even divided them into bite-sized categories for you: Theory, General Reference, Design & Editing, Style Guides, and Books. Make them your friends and visit them frequently, and I promise you’ll notice more power in your prose, more tone in your text, and more snap in your style.

Theory

Useit.com
http://www.useit.com/

The Obi-Wan Kenobi of web usability, Jakob Nielsen has put together this rather austere, yet extremely valuable site. His Alertbox column has been delighting web usability fans and practitioners since 1995. Why not put his research to work for your site?

Web Pages that Suck
http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com/

Vincent Flanders is the keeper of WPTS, perhaps the finest collection of How-Not-To’s available anywhere. This well- designed and always current site showcases transgressions ranging from Pretentious Front Pages to Free Backgrounds to the ever-popular “Mystery Meat Navigation.” Worth checking out.

Contentious
http://www.contentious.com/index.html

Contentious is Amy Gahran’s fine clearinghouse for all things related to writing and editing for online media. Her articles are excellent and she does a great job relating the news of the day as it affects content producers and consumers. Subscribe to the newsletter!

Reference

Merriam-Webster OnLine
http://www.m-w.com/

Think dictionary. Think Merriam-Webster. It’s that simple. And their collegiate dictionary and thesaurus are both fully- searchable and available here. Get the Free Dictionary Button. It’s all free and you have no excuse.

The Elements of Style
http://www.bartleby.com/141/index.html

A classic! William Strunk, Jr. describes for you in no uncertain terms the qualities that make up fine writing — and those that make up… well… This is a must-read if you want to learn the finer details of composition in the English tongue and learn it quickly. And be sure to check out the other fine works available free at http://www.bartleby.com.

Design and Editing

Yale Web Style Guide
http://info.med.yale.edu/caim/manual/

“…few existing resources have attempted to approach Web page and site design as a challenge that combines traditional editorial approaches to documents with graphic design, user interface design, information design, and the technical authoring skills required to optimize the HTML code, graphics, and text within Web pages.” That about says it all, doesn’t it? If possible, you should consult Yale before you design. But if you can’t, do yourself a favor and test your site against it afterward. You owe it to yourself.

Edit-Work
http://www.edit-work.com/index.html

Here’s another fine resource for translating the writing and editing skills you have into online content that works. Here you’ll find strategies for editing online and a skeletal style guide to get you started. While it’s not too current, this site is still a great source of ideas for bringing those pages of yours under control.

Style Guides

Creating Your Site’s Style Guide
http://www.webreview.com/1998/02_06/webauthors/02_06_98_6.shtml

Got style? Got consistent style? If you’ve mentioned email and e-mail in different places at your web site, then you must read this article. You must impose standards on your language, your layout, and your graphics or feel the wrath of the finicky visitor. Get started with your site’s style guide today and grow its future.

Books

The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1572318902/o/qid=991661057/sr=8-1/ref=aps_sr_b_1_1/002-1131772-6347239

No, Microsoft didn’t invent style. And no, they don’t get the last word on everything. But if you’re looking for a starting point for your own style, there’s perhaps no more comprehensive effort in the field of online style for content, software interfaces, and technical communication. Use it verbatim. Use it as to start debate. Use it to prop a table leg. But ignore it at your peril.

The Chicago Manual of Style
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0226103897/qid=991661087/sr=1-1/ref=sc_b_1/002-1131772-6347239

Designed for writers and editors in print media, but packed with information for everyone, The Chicago Manual of Style houses an exhaustive amount of information on any style question imaginable. You shouldn’t be without it.

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0877797099/qid%3D991661119/002-1131772-6347239

Get it online, sure. But get the hardbound edition too. Prop it up on your desk. Sift through its pages. Breathe in that pulpy aroma and be the wiser for it.

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
by William Knowlton Zinsser
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0062735233/o/qid=994074334/sr=2-1/102-9440032-7117751

Simply the best writing on simplicity. Zinsser’s common-sense approach to straightforward writing sounds fresh even after repeat readings. Buy a good highlighting pen and mark the passages that really send you. This is a classic.

Conclusion

So there you have them. I hope you’ve enjoyed this list of the finer language resources on the web. And I hope you’re able to use them to strengthen your skills both online and elsewhere. Thanks for reading!

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.

Your Own Words: Coding Your Content: The Web Reader as Browser, Part 1

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Your Own Words

Ever opened a web page in Notepad? Ever used your web browser’s “view source” feature? I certainly hope so. But if you haven’t, give it a try sometime.

Code is extraordinary in its blandness.

Find even the slickest web page and have a look at the code. Those cascading slide-out menus are simply long lists of instructions. That subtle balance between background and font color? Just an appropriately-placed hexadecimal here and there.

And that striking graphic that makes your pulse pound? It’s not even really there on the page. But a string of code pointing to that graphic is there.

It’s true. A naked web page is not a pretty thing (to most people anyway), but rather a mess of brackets and tags and pointers and referentials. What’s more, web pages don’t even do anything but sit on a server and wait for that special someone to come along and view them in a whole new way. And that Prince Charming is otherwise known as a web browser.

See, the intelligence is not in the code itself but within the browser. Browsers have the ability to literally render beauty from that mess of code, and have the whole thing make sense. With that code—plus whatever style sheets, scripts, graphics, and other needed files that reside on the server—a browser creates the web experience for its user.

Put another way, a web browser re-translates a programmer’s creativity from the lifeless code in which it was packaged and shipped.

Intelligent Browsers, Intelligent Readers

Thus ends the technical portion of this column. Maybe.

But what if language worked the same way? I’d argue that in a lot of ways it does. I’d go so far as to say that in the relationship between any piece of writing and its reader, it’s the reader doing the real creating. The words just sit there and take it.

But just like a good programmer controls the web user’s experience, so too can a good writer control the reader. It’s all in the code.

In Part 1 of this article, I’d like to throw some examples at you to prove the point and prepare you for Part 2, in which I’ll give you some specific advice for translating your message into this code called language in such a way as to assure that your reader renders it accurately.

Tag Talk

We use punctuation every day to tag our writing; and like HTML tags, punctuation does nothing until an intelligent reader comes along to reproduce the effects we placed there when writing. Many marks of punctuation even have an HTML equivalent. They give readers the same instruction that their counterparts give web browsers. Here are a few examples:

‘The Period’ and ‘<./HTML>’

Obviously, you would use the Period (.) to mark the end of a sentence just as you would use to mark the end of an HTML page. Reader and browser both know to treat what comes before these tags as a cohesive whole.

‘The Colon’ and ‘<.OL>, <.UL>, <.DL>’

While the colon (:) has several functions, quite often it’s used to precede lists. The following tags instruct the web browser to treat a string of text in the same way: <.OL>, <.UL>, and <.DL>.

‘The Dash’ and ‘<.IMG>’

The dash (—) is great for inserting examples or illustrations—like web producers would use <.IMG>—into your sentences.

‘Parentheses’ and ‘<.!–comment –>’

We use Parentheses to insert useful information (a dash means something entirely different) while preserving sentence flow. In the same way, <.!–comment –> hides text from your browser’s window while still making it available.

‘Ellipsis and ‘<.HREF>’

Ellipsis (…) mark omissions in a piece of writing and let you know that more information is available on a particular topic. Perhaps the most powerful tag of them all, <.HREF> allows web producers to make more information available to visitors instantly. Just click…

Conclusion

The examples above were provided to acquaint you with a fresh topic (an approach to language) by comparing it to one you already know a little about (programming for the world wide web).

In the world of writing instruction, this is referred to as the ‘Given-New Contract.’ Start with the given and introduce the new.

You know, way back when I was learning HTML, I can recall comparing individual tags (the new) with what I already knew about language (the given). Thanks to you, the Absolute Webmaster reader-browsers, I get to stand the Given-New Contract on its head.

Next month I’ll make a few more comparisons between the language of the web (your specialty) and the language of the web visitor (my specialty). I’ll use these comparisons to give you hands-on advice for making your readers render beauty from all that blandness.

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.

Your Own Words: Coding Your Content: The Web Reader as Browser, Part 2

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Your Own Words

In Part I of this article, I made some pretty bold comparisons between the workings of web browser software and those of human readers. I’ve offered some examples of direct translations of English grammar rules to those of HTML. I promised to give you a few more examples and I’m going to make good on that promise now. I’ll even give you a few strategies to use in your writing to add punch, create interest, and keep your readers hooked.

Recap: The human brain, like a web browser, processes coded language on the screen and (hopefully) creates some close approximation of the author’s original intent – be it to amuse, inform, or shock. Without the intelligence of brains and browsers, all language (HTML, English, or otherwise) is just marks on a screen.

Your job is to turn your ideas into lean English code, and do it in just such a way so your reader/browser renders your ideas as you planned. Armed with this knowledge, let’s turn to some specific strategies for better writing:

Anchors Away!

One powerful method for helping visitors navigate your web pages is the <a> tag. This tag creates bookmarks or “Anchors” on your page that users may return to by clicking a link elsewhere. Anchors alert readers where on the page a specific topic, graphic, or other information resides. Use anchors in your writing by employing strong transitions between paragraphs.

A well-written transition–either at the beginning or end or a paragraph – tells your reader to prepare to shift gears. Words like “Another,” “Also,” and “Consequently,” not only mark the shift but denote the relationship between paragraphs as well. Phrases like “In addition…”, “On the other hand…”, and “By the way…” serve the same purposes and (when used conservatively) can help you maintain a more conversational style.

Picture This…

What do we think of long pages of unbroken text? Yuck!

Including an image on your web page makes it more visually attractive and helps solidify concepts in your readers’ minds. The right imagery in your writing can serve the same function, whether you write brochureware or a hypertext novel.

The brain works visually. In your descriptions — of your company’s product or of your summer vacation or of a mountainous scoop of rocky road ice cream on a flaky sugarcone — let your reader look away from the monitor, close her eyes, and build a mental picture of just what it is you’re describing.

The Frame-Up

Does your site use frames? When used correctly, frames are helpful when you need to keep context information visible for your readers.

They’re a great place to keep your site’s navigation buttons and a company logo. Wherever your visitors travel on-site, that information stays available. Nobody gets lost.

To add spice to a block of text — or even to your entire site — try enclosing it between frames of reference.

Do you write instructions or FAQs for your company’s products? Invent a user and put him through the paces.

Write online fiction? Try an extended flashback or write the entire story in the form of a letter. Such devices, when done well, can create a comfortable environment for your reader and keep him glued to his mouse.

Interactivate!

Static web pages are history!

Javascripts, Flash movies, and other advancements have made pages more versatile, personable, and dynamic. Interactivity enhances your presentation and the user’s experience so they get more out of your information.

Equivalent flavoring for your writing includes the use of second person (referring to your reader as “You” simulates conversation). Employing real-world examples of your ideas can hit the right nerve with a reader who may be experiencing that very thing in his own life.

Humor (tasteful humor) adds sparkle to otherwise dry prose.

And a rhetorical question here and there can make your reader stop and think. So why not use one?

The Eye of the Beholder

As a reader of this fine publication, you already know better than to launch your page without viewing it in multiple versions of multiple browsers first.

Depending on the code you use, your page could render far differently between Internet Explorer and Netscape. And what about AOL? What about a wireless device? What about different versions of the same browser? The possibilities are limitless.

The same holds true for your text.

You cannot guess the age, gender, ethnicity, or orientation of your visitors. And unless you can test your pages on a representative of each of these groups (or combinations of groups!), you’d better make sure your language is clear of ambiguity, questionable humor, or turns of phrase that may offend or confuse a potential reader.

Use common sense as your guide and maintain a professional, respectful tone at all times.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little extended metaphorical journey into language as much as I have. Language is code, remember. And platform is culture. I hope you’re able to apply some of this advice to your pages and that your reader/browsers stay hooked!

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.

Your Own Words: Content Planning: Two Simple Document Design Strategies that Work

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Your Own Words

In my last column, “Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation: How to Improve Your Content before Publication”, I proposed a four-stage process for growing your web site’s content from scratch. I cautioned you to continually develop your language skills; to draft with reckless abandon using a real word processor; to systematically review your work’s focus, accuracy, and economy; and to put it away for a while then review it again before sharing it with the world. With this column, I thought I’d direct my comments on a facet of web development often overlooked by producers of all stripes: Content Planning. To many, the idea of Content Planning is inserting an ‘Under Construction’ message on that page between splash and shopping cart. Others believe it to be the hour before bed set aside to update the links page and scribble a few lines in that online diary. After reading this column you’ll know what Content Planning really is, why it’s important, and how some simple planning strategies can elevate your content, free it from the confines of mediocrity, vanquish all evil from the planet, and—best of all—turn your visitors into your biggest fans.

What is Content Planning?

When I said in my last column to make your keyboard sing, I meant it. The act of furious hammering at the keyboard is a very powerful one. The mind is sent to that place where the real gems live. Whether you write fiction or marketing copy or obituaries, nothing keeps the ideas flowing like busy fingers. At the same time, however, there are two specific steps you can take before and after this fit of typing that will help focus your writing and assist your readers in making sense of it all. Let’s call these two steps Pre- and Post-Draft Planning.

Pre-draft Planning

When faced with the blank page (and you are using a full-featured word processor, right?), you may already have entire paragraphs your anxious to get out. Go ahead and get those down if you’re afraid you might lose them forever. More often than not though, you’ll have an idea of where you want to go, but no idea where to begin. Start by asking yourself some open-ended questions (those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no).

  • Who are my ideal readers?
  • How did they find me?
  • What do I want them to do or feel or know?
  • What must they already know to prepare them for what I have to say?
  • Where else could this audience find this information?
  • How will my content be different and better than those others?
  • What format, style, tone, or method of organization will best achieve my goals for this particular content?

By answering these questions (and any others that come to you), you will have analysed your purpose, your audience, and your organizational strategy. A mental picture of what’s needed should already be forming in your head. Now grab a tall cold drink and just the right piece of music and start typing. Refer back to your notes if you need to, but don’t stop until your draft is complete. I’ll wait right here. Go! All done? Time to mark it up with code and upload it right? Wrong!

Post-draft Planning

Reread your document. Do you notice any organizational patterns (parts/whole, chronology, cause/effect) in your writing that is holding it all together? If not, what other tricks can you use to put your paragraphs in order? Next, try employing some classic hallmarks of information design. Try “chunking” your content into short paragraphs (3 or 4 sentences) with no more than one thought in each. Remember, reading on the Internet is not like reading on paper. Short paragraphs are easier to digest. If you can remember effective use of white space, headings, type size, typeface (font), bulleted and numbered lists, text boxes, and bold, italic, or colored lettering, you will be doing your readers a great favor by making your words more appealing to the eye. The last step before you even dream of posting that content to the web is to proofread it. Run your spellchecker, but don’t forget to read it again yourself to catch what slipped through. No piece of proofreading software is a match for the human eye. Okay, NOW you may create your HTML page and prepare it for the web. But Content Planning is not finished yet! Have you considered incorporating a visual element into your content? Would an optimised jpeg help to drive your point home? Go for it. But keep in mind just how your content will be experienced for the first time. Should you present your visual first, or wait until you’ve had the chance to explain yourself. Perhaps you should give those visitors with slow modems something to read while the picture loads. Always keep your reader in mind. Imagine a first-time encounter with your words. Lastly, don’t neglect your navigation. A crucial component of Content Planning is integrating it into your site and the web at large. Include those links to other pages on your site and don’t forget your mailto link. You want your visitors to be able to reach you and compliment you on your wonderful pages, now don’t you?

Conclusion

Because reading on the web is so different from print reading, your approach to writing on the web must adapt accordingly to be effective. Hopefully with this column I’ve been able to show you some strategies for planning your content to maximize its impact and get your message across. It’s never easy to find the additional time to plan your documents. But if you’ll give it a try, you’ll be planning for success!

For more on this topic, please visit the following: How Users Read on the Web (by Jakob Nielsen),  Eyetracking Study of Web Readers (another by Jakob Nielsen),  Your Online Audience: Who Do They Think They Are? (from Contentious), Planning and Analysis Links (from About.com)

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.

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

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Your Own Words

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.