Web Writing for Beginners: Simone’s Top 10 Tips

Approx. 5-minute read | I’ve received a lot of requests for these tips, most recently on the email list for the Global Health Knowledge Collaborative. This is not a formal work product yet, so it doesn’t have my project or organization branding on it — it’s what I think, based on more than 15 years of writing on the Web. EDIT, 10/6/2016: It is a formal work product now! Read a slightly more serious version for the knowledge management context on The Exchange (K4Health’s Medium publication), or download a 2-page abridged-for-print version from K4Health.org. 

Consider Your Audience

1. Think about your readers.
 Before you begin writing, put yourself in a reader’s shoes. People read on the Web to find solutions to problems, get information, be entertained, or be moved or supported emotionally. What are you trying to convey? Is it useful, interesting, motivating, or energizing? Make reading worth their time.

2. Be careful with jargon. Jargon and abbreviations can be useful shortcuts with the right audience. With the wrong audience, they are actively alienating. Jargon and abbreviations can also be hard to translate, if translation is a concern. Use plain language and spell out your abbreviations.

Jargon tangent: I recently did an informal survey asking friends how they felt about “thought leadership”—an expression I hear quite a bit in my professional sphere. 78 people responded. 10% felt neutral or grudgingly positive. The other 90% felt negative: They found it pretentious, confusing, or Orwellian.

People react to the phrase "Thought Leadership" with words like "Unease", "Orwellian", "Not down with it."
People react to the phrase “Thought Leadership” with words like “Unease”, “Orwellian”, “Not down with it.”

Write Well

“Writing well” is a huge undertaking —far beyond the scope of this tip sheet. The tips below are the pieces of “writing well” that are particularly applicable to writing for the Web. They can be especially helpful for people who are used to writing in a more academic or specifically-professional style (e.g., reports to a particular funder, papers for a known group of experts).

3. Find your own voice, and use it.  Within whatever style guide you might be held to, express your own ideas or build an argument from your own perspective, but in words your readers will understand. Imagine reading your piece out loud: Does it sound like you? If you read it aloud, would people listen? Readers recognize authenticity when they see it.

4. Condense your sentences.
 Check your writing with a readability tool (like this one). Keep your average sentence length down (15–20 words is a reasonable range, depending on your target audience). Vary your sentences — break up long sentences with short ones. (Write music.) Even people who have the patience to read a 40-word sentence on paper may give up after 20 words on the Web.

5. Watch the details. This includes proper grammar and punctuation. Check your spelling. Small mistakes will distract some readers from your ideas. (Imagine grit in a salad. Is the salad still good?) Also, double-check sources and quotations. It’s tempting to illustrate your point with a supporting aphorism from a famous person, or a quote from a colleague—but make sure they really said it. A misattributed or inaccurate quotation can be a big embarrassment.

Web Writing Specifics

6. Don’t paste from Word. Word is full of background formatting code that does not play well with most websites. If you wrote your piece in Word, copy and paste it into a plain-text editor (like Notepad or TextEdit) before putting it into a website content management system (CMS). Yes, you’ll have to re-do all your links—but that’s much less work than cleaning out incompatible code. If you must write in Word, and you’ll be sending your work to a content manager for publishing, it’s polite to include the URLs of any embedded links, so the content manager can reconstruct the links when s/he strips out the formatting.

7. Be conscious of length. 
This tip used to be “Keep it brief.” Experts used to recommend 300 to 700 words as a guideline for blog posts . Over the past ten years, with the rise of Twitter and mobile, very short-form writing became popular — but then there was a backlash in favor of more in-depth writing. It’s not uncommon now to see online posts of 3,000-5,000 words. If you think your piece needs to be longer, consider turning it into a series or a different type of publication. It’s a good idea to put an estimated read time at the top, and/or a summary of the key message of your post (some people call this the “TL;DR” — “too long, didn’t read”). Here’s a tool that calculates read time.

8. Make your piece scannable. Most people don’t actually read on the web. They skim through a page, looking for headings, keywords, and bullets that interest them. Would a reader still learn something from your piece if they read only the first few words, and skimmed through the highlights?

9. Make links meaningful.
 Links stand out — so make them mean something. A link to a video of a cute kid racing an otter is more meaningful and scannable than one that says to click here — even though they both go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9APqLA2YKs. (Don’t use bare URLs like that on a web page; they are not meaningful to humans, and they clutter things up.) Meaningful links are also an accessibility issue for people with disabilities. Many people with impaired vision use a “screen reader”—a device or app that literally reads website text aloud. In some modes, the screen reader only reads header and link text — it skips all the paragraph text until the user asks for a paragraph. Imagine the difference between hearing “a recent study about injectable contraceptives…today’s statement by the World Health Organization”, versus hearing “click here … here … click here.”

10. Write a good title. If someone were to try to find your piece with a search engine, what would they search for? Are those words in your title? Are they in your piece? Search engines tend to rate things more highly if the words in your title are also in your text. (Read my colleague Liz Futrell’s To Click or Not to Click: The Art of a Good Title.)

Sassi Saucier and the Potluck Revelation (Two Summer Salads, Good for Potluck)

Originally posted as a Note on Facebook, June 7, 2014. (I’m gradually moving my oeuvre from there to here as other life priorities and the material tolerances of my arm tendons permit.)

TL;DR: Don’t make boring things for potluck.
Skip to the recipes:
Watermelon, Feta, Watercress
Vaguely Southwestern Roasted Vegetable Salad

We had a potluck at work recently. I signed up to make a salad, and then I specified: “Watermelon, watercress, feta cheese, red onion.”

I had a moment of nervousness about that. In my 20s, I thought potluck food had to be “safe”—something I could count on most people being OK with. I think I underestimated other people’s palates, or undervalued my own. I would bring basic salads, or interesting but not terribly challenging cheeses.

Continue reading Sassi Saucier and the Potluck Revelation (Two Summer Salads, Good for Potluck)

Evidence, Innovation, and Adaptation

There’s a tension in the social sector between “evidence-based” and “innovative.” Policy-makers and funders have largely gotten behind the concept that basing decisions on evidence is a good idea. At the same time, they want to see proposals and work plans full of innovative thinking. (It’s hard to get support to keep doing what we’re doing—even if what we’re doing seems to be working just fine—without some innovation in the mix.)

This has bothered me for years on a purely semantic level. If something is truly innovative, then it hasn’t been done before. If it hasn’t been done before, it can’t possibly have been studied. If it hasn’t been studied, there can’t be evidence—at least, not rigorous, gold-standard evidence. So how can something be both “evidence-based” and “innovative”?

My answer? Adaptation.

Cultural and technological advancement—the stuff that builds humanity, that moves us forward as a species—has been driven much more by adaptation than by pure inspiration or creativity. Taking solutions proven in one context and applying them in another. Hearing or reading about pieces of diverse ideas, and fitting them together into something new. Adjusting to the cultural shock when an old way of thinking proves less than useful, or even untrue.

(More to come on this, some day. I just wanted to get the core of the thought articulated.)

On Blessings for Babies

My tribe has some new children. We have been around for long enough as a tribe that we have seen a broad range of challenges and triumphs in parenting. We’ve got a greater awareness of the pressures and factors that we didn’t have to contend with ourselves, but that are major stressors on our children. Being asked to write a blessing for them this Imbolc, I started thinking about baby-blessings in general–what I wanted to accomplish or avoid in this new piece.

Most baby-blessings I have seen tend to be parental wishlists, or paeans to innocence and potential (boiling down to “be healthy and happy and successful, you precious little angel, and also reflect well on me”). I wanted to avoid putting any expectations on our children. I also wanted to avoid being the unwitting thirteenth fairy–afraid that by writing a list of wishes, I would leave something out, making room for a curse or a specific weakness. And I’m tired of rose-colored glasses, of trying to put the best face on everything.

Life is hard, and we’re not perfect, and it’s still all worth the striving.

Welcome to Preachain

Welcome, child now among us. We’ve waited for this day.
We’re your tribe. We are your family. We will love you, come what may.
We are glorious, and broken. We are fine, and we are frayed.
We are strong, and we are ailing. And we’ll love you, come what may.

We are druids, bards, and warriors, and cooks, and smiths, and fools.
We are drunkards and we’re gossips; we are kind, and we are cruel.
We’re hard workers, and we’re lazy. We are hopeful, and dismayed.
We are generous and selfish, and we’ll love you, come what may.

We are proud, and we are shame-faced; we’re holy, and profane.
We are horrible and lovely, and we’ll make mistakes again.
We are greedy and mean-spirited and wise and calm and brave.
You may be these things, or others, and we’ll love you, come what may.

 

Sassi Saucier and the Celeriac Sprain

This is a cautionary tale about the perils of chairs, trackpads, and root vegetables. I got a spiral vegetable cutter last Christmas. At the time, I made the (remarkably prescient) statement that readers should expect exclamations along the lines of “Hells yeah, spiralized celeriac!” Little did I know that spiralized celeriac would be the last straw for my right arm. Six months later, I have recovered enough to write about it without risking an aftermath of incapacity and icepacks.

Continue reading Sassi Saucier and the Celeriac Sprain

Fuse: An Old Find

[Edited, May 2017: I had a paragraph here about a video, but the link I had is broken. I’ll ask my friend Zoe, who made the video, if she still has it.]

I wrote this sometime in the early aughts, but I can’t find exactly when–and if I wait to find that information, this won’t get posted. So, I’m posting it. [EDIT, May 2015: I located the original manuscript! I wrote it between Feb. 20 (first draft) and March 1 (last edit), 2002. I’m pleased that my “sometime in the early aughts” guess was correct.]

Fuse

I beg, amid this day’s frustrations
Beg, O You who pattern pathways
Beg of you your secret sacred
Taste of truth, of sure and certain
Yes, your concentrated influx–
Sudden blaring pulsing fusion
Light-and-music, shells-and-blossoms
Sap-evaporate-infusion
Straight to vein-spike bee-hummed starshine
Shatter skull and reassemble
Kiss my fury gone with glory
Wrap me tight in all that’s holy
Slide molecular through mundane cares,
Remind me: Here’s What Matters.
Words and fibers, these I spin now
Breath and meat are what I’m made of
Silver-falling fertile springtime
Rain on long-parched fragrant soil
Rootlets tremble, jagged, fractal
Feed me free-born flesh and apples
Corded forearms, hammer-wielding,
Raising skill and crops and striking
Magma-stirring stones set just so.
Frozen crystals splitting sunrise,
Synapse-crackle, strong embraces,
Drums and honey, woolen prickle,
Wooden, copper, cobalt, amber
Bleached-white bone and deerskin supple
Scales soft rustle, silent feathers
Sudden-indrawn breath for shrieking
Crow-beak pierces through the curtain
Song and laughter, my voice gifting
Tears of gratitude, my treasure
Night and fire, silken beauty
Brainstem-clutching pale Muse grasping
Pre-dawn dreams: I am beloved.
Wild-eyed kin call me their bard,
and nothing less than howling loss
of poetry itself shall break me.

-Simone Parrish / Etaíne na Preachain, February 20-March 1, 2002

The Turning Round

My friend Morag recently discovered that a song I wrote for our Celtic reenactment group a few years ago can be sung as a round with itself, and woven into another piece we already sing as a round. (We don’t sing that other piece quite like the examples I’ve found online, though–we’ve somehow turned it from three lines to four, and added a second verse.)

My song, “Quarter Days,” is rarely sung all at once. It forms part of our quarter-day celebrations, the four big holidays on the cross-quarter points (between the solstices and equinoxes) at the spokes of the Wheel of the Year. Usually I only sing the verses for the specific holiday–the Beltaine ones for our Maypole, etc. I originally wrote the piece for Lughnasadh, which is in August, so even though the Celtic year begins at Samhain I think of the Lughnasadh verses as the beginning of the song.

There’s no recording of this, yet, but as we work on the weaving we might work on recording, too.

Quarter Days

Come we now to mark Lughnasadh,
Three quarters ’round the Wheel.
Now give we thanks for tribe and allies
As battle bruises heal.

Hearth and harvest, welcome brothers
And sisters to our feast.
We’ve fought with valor, shared our treasures;
The crow comes home to nest.

Chorus (2x):
‘Neath our feet the earth is turning.
Stars dance their shining whirl.
The fire in our hearts bright-burning
Feed our passion, light our world.

Samhain night is now upon us.
We turn to the new year.
The ancestors may walk among us;
The Otherworld draws near.

Darkness gathers. Winter’s waking,
as since the Wheel began.
Into his arms all fears now taking
So burns our Wickerman.

[Chorus, 2x]

Imbolc draws us back together.
Winter’s grip is loosening.
Forge-flames dream of warmer weather
Through cold nights’ slumbering.

Share we now what we’ve created,
Our craft and skill we bring.
Let joyous work be unabated.
Through Brigit this we sing.

[Chorus, 2x]

Beltaine’s beauty blooms before us.
Desire warms the world,
Bursting forth in joyous chorus,
New buds and leaves unfurled.

Sap has risen; now breath quickens,
Life’s forces flowing strong.
Wrap the Maypole wreathed in ribbons.
Dance to life’s sacred song.

[Chorus, 2x]

Edit, March 26, 2015: At Gulf Wars, we were thinking we might want to do something particular to mark the Vernal Equinox, and I wrote this, which means I guess I’m on deck for the rest of the solar holidays, too. (I didn’t end up singing it there, though. We did an egg-hunt, with prizes.)

Balanced days are now returning
Tilting back toward the sun
Light is waking, stretching, growing
Dreams hatch through work well-done

Plant we now for future’s reaping
Make plans for summer’s height
Longhall’s rhythm, strong hearts beating
Bright friendship warms the night.

Edit, August 2016: We had some losses as a tribe this year, so our Lughnasadh ritual focussed on the cycle of loss and growth. I added these verses to the Lughnasadh ones.

Our hearts grieve from long-fought battles
And weep for absent friends.
Well-stored crops and slaughtered cattle
Take us through the Wheel’s next bend.

Each night’s fire feeds our story.
Each life that starts anew
Feeds on every former glory
Strengthening the cauldron’s stew.

Scattered seed grows corn to feed us.
Through the dark we reach the dawn.
All that’s been has led us hither;
All that’s here will lead us on.

(Those last two lines are drawn from Robin Williamson’s For Three Of Us, which has become my traditional last-night-of-Pennsic song.)

Sassi Saucier and the Radish Spirit

TL;DR: Spiral vegetable cutter. Daikon noodles. My life is different now. Skip to the recipe.

Me, on Facebook a few days ago: “I need to issue fair warning: I got one of these for Christmas. I’ll probably be posting a series of exclamations along the lines of ‘Hells yeah, spiralized celeriac!’ This video does not accurately reflect my user experience, because at no point does this lady say ‘Wheeeeeee!'” Continue reading Sassi Saucier and the Radish Spirit

Economics is just modern fortune-telling.

Minor rant: If I were Queen of the Universe, #12 on my list of proclamations would be this: We stop saying/writing/reporting things like “Market fails to meet analysts’ projections”, or “The 3rd quarter figures were lower than predicted.” All such utterances should place the blame where it goes: On the economists, not on the figures.

“Analysts fail to predict market. Again. So far this year, they’re doing only slightly better than chance. Could you remind me why we’re paying them?”

“For the 23rd quarter in a row, the economists are wrong. This time they only missed the answer by 3%, which is pretty good, for them.”

I used to think that economics wasn’t a science, but I’m broadening my definitions. I think macroeconomics is an interesting way of looking at the world. I find the Freakonomics podcast fascinating, for example. But that doesn’t make economics a good way of predicting the likelihood of a specific event–certainly not to the degree you can rely on in chemistry or physics.

It’s kind of like weather forecasting for my neighborhood vs. meteorology for the planet. You can still call it science, if you’re using “science” to mean a “way of knowing”. It just falls apart a little when you get to the “replicability” standard for scientific merit. I’m OK with that–I don’t require that level of rigor from everything I believe. Love isn’t predictably replicable. Nor is poetry, or faith. But economics is pretending to be chemistry, when it’s arguably more like astrology, and that pretense bothers me.

I want to put an image here from Demotivators.com, because it would be funny. However, I’m pretty wary of image-searching-lawyer-bots, so I’ll just link to it instead: http://demotivators.despair.com/demotivational/economicsdemotivator.jpg. Enjoy.