Category Archives: Redish – Letting Go of the Words

Chapter Review of Ginny Redish’s book “Letting Go of the Words”

Redish Chapter 13: Using Illustrations Effectively

We read in a previous chapter about too much text on a web site being a bad way to attracting visitors. Balancing illustrations and pictures with text helps make a site visually interesting and inviting. It attracts visitors, helps support the conversation and makes the visit memorable. There is such a thing as overdoing the illustrations and pictures. Moderation in all things is the key.

What works and what doesn’t for illustrations and pictures? The best illustrations create a memorable experience. They are consistent throughout the site, and make sense with the brand and content. Illustrations set a tone that is appropriate for the message. In the early days of web design, there was a lot of use of flashing and moving objects, a variety of colors and multiple fonts. Things have settled down quite a bit as studies have revealed that moving objects alienate visitors, and minimal number of fonts and colors are more effective in capturing attention.

Good illustrations and pictures help augment the text. They clarify information. Charts, graphs and maps can also simplify the message, and replace lengthy text. Illustrations and pictures also set the mood, whether it is serious, inviting, happy or informative. As with writing text, it is important to keep the conversation in mind and test to make sure the message is clear.

Redish Chapter 12: Writing Meaningful Links

Helping visitors navigate a web site is as important as creating clear, simple text. Visitors scan information in an F pattern, and typically do not read everything. In addition, they search for easily identifiable keys, such as blue text with an underline. This is the common formatting for links. Changing colors to indicate a link has been used is another visual cue.

On webpagesthatsuck.com, the author and contributors identify poorly designed website and explain why they are so bad. One of the comments used to describe bad links is “Mystery Meat Navigation.” The use of this term – fondly reminiscent of military chowhall fare – refers to links that are either buried in the design and are not readily recognizable, or that take the visitor to incomprehensible pages. Mystery Meat Navigation doesn’t answer any of the typical questions visitors ask, such as how, what, where or why.

The best links lead the visitor in a logical manner to pages or sites that make sense, in the context of the information. Links should be clearly identifiable and name what the visitor can expect when clicking on it. While labeling a link “click here” may have been acceptable in the 1980s and 90s, it is no longer necessary. The vast majority of people have enough experience with Internet technology to be able to figure out how to use a link. What they really want to know is the why or where of links.

Redish Chapter 11: Using Lists and Tables

This chapter was interesting, because it identifies the difference between lists and tables and how to apply each. I’ve spent the last couple of months writing policies and procedures for a local VA hospital. Some of the procedures were packed with lists and tables. Not only are they time consuming to create, but they are time consuming to read if not done properly.

Lists are effective when ordering items in steps or separating items for easy identification. In a recent trip to the grocery store, I asked my daughter to text the list to me. The grocery list arrived in a paragraph format, which made it extremely difficult to manage. Why? Because I had to read and reread the entire paragraph each time I needed to refer to it to find the items I needed, and to make sure I didn’t miss anything. By contrast, putting it in a list format makes it easy to identify each item and to ignore those I’ve already picked up or am not near.

Tables are useful for comparing different types of information or answering if/then statements. Left justifying data is generally good advice. There are situations where data in a table should be right justified or centered. In columns with currency, the information lines up better if it is right justified. Centering simple numbers or short text, such as abbreviations, can actually help make a column of data easier to read. If more than one word is used, left justifying is still the best option.

Redish Chapter 10: Tuning up Your Sentences

Creating a conversation with visitors does not mean “dumbing down” the information. On the contrary, writing for site visitors means giving them information that is easy to find and use. Personas are a perfect way to make sure your writing is appropriate for the intended audience, and for the various types of visitors a site might attract. Think about the reader as someone looking over your shoulder as you write. Would your sentences and information make sense, or are you alienating or eliminating certain readers through the very words you choose?

Redish tells us to “talk to your site visitors.” I would disagree with this instruction. A conversation is not one-sided, which is implied by the word “to”. Instead, a conversation is with and between two or more parties. Effective writing for the Internet should include the idea of creating a conversation with the visitors, not talking at them. Television and radio programs talk to visitors. We want to engage the visitors, and therefore need to create a dialog that includes the site visitors.

One of the most useful commentaries on plain writing I’ve ever seen is by Dr. Steve Pinker, a professor currently at MIT. He is a Harvard graduate and professor in the field of psychology, with research in the use of language. This video tells us why following traditional style manuals and writing instruction typically taught in a university does not always make us good communicators. In particular, applying conventional writing rules, such as Strunk and White, to current technology does not effectively meet the needs of the visitor. Simple language is not dumbing down, but is actually writing or speaking clearly, and for the audience. His video lecture to technology and science students at MIT is available at: http://video.mit.edu/watch/communicating-science-and-technology-in-the-21st-century-steven-pinker-12644/ . It is worth watching.

Redish Chapter 9: Including Useful Headings

Headings – these are the signposts that help guide the visitor to the information they seek. Good headings apply the appropriate writing style for the topic. Questions, statements and verb phrases are the most effective heading style. Noun phrases are useful in certain circumstances, such a label. The best way to identify what type of heading to use is to keep the conversation with the visitor in mind.

Using examples of what not to do is the most effective way to really understand a topic. Redish shows us good and bad practices, so we can see the difference. The most effective technique is to look at the information and design from the visitors’ point of view. If it makes sense, is easy to navigate and answers visitors’ questions, then the headings accomplish the task. Failure to take the visitor into consideration is a violation of basic customer service standards. If you want visitors to stay or return, give them what they want, the way they want it. Don’t scare them away, or they’ll never return.

Most of the complaints about poor site headers (or lack of) is simple common sense. For instance, there are sites with poor headings that tend to try to cram tons of information into a small space with very little effective organization. On the other end of the spectrum are the minimalist sites. Minimalism is great, it helps the reader find things fast and navigate easily. But, going too far in the minimalist direction can create as many issues as too much information. By following basic principles of professionalism, the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) and writing for the visitor, effective headings will ensure your information is used in the way it is intended.

Chapter 8: Titles versus Headings

In writing for the web, there is a distinct different between titles and headings. There is only one title for a site, but there can be numerous headings within a site. In addition a title has only one level, the top level. Headings are number 1 through 6, denoting decreasing sizes and emphasis, with H1 being the highest level and H6 as the lowest.

On the Internet, titles are specific identifier for the overall site. For instance, TechWhirl is the title of a site devoted to technical communication, content management and other topics pertinent to the technical communication field. Within the site, there are headings that identify different sections such as Content Management, Technical Communication, Technical Writing, Magazine, News and Business Expo. Dropdown menus below each of these headings reveal subheadings for various areas and topics below each category. These subheadings would be identified by lower level heading formatting, such as H2 through H6. H1 headings are the “first level … of your content.” (157)

Headings are important and useful for a variety of things. They enable search engine optimization (SEO), which can drive traffic to a site. Headings also lead people to the content they are seeking. Headings can be a statement, question or “call to action.” (158) Heading aid and drive navigation through a site.

 

Chapter 7: Conversations and Key Messages

Redish gives us seven guidelines for focusing on conversations and key messages:

Give people only what they need.” (126) Provide information based on identifying visitor personas. Then clarify the questions visitors ask. Write in a manner that answers those questions, without boring or alienating visitors.

Cut! Cut! Cut! And cut again! (126) Less is more, and keeping it simple is what visitors want. Identify what you want visitors to accomplish, and how they can do it in the most expedient manner. Cut all of the other fat from the information.

Think “bit, snack, meal.” (126) A bite is a headline or link, with only enough information to describe it. A snack is a “key message or brief summary” (135) that might be at the top of an article, a blog post or contained in a summary. It is a synopsis or “the first bit of information.” (135) A meal is all of the details, such as the article, report of detailed description that causes visitors to linger longer in order to read more.

Start with your key message. Visitors start at the top and move in an F pattern down through the information. Placing the key message at the top ensures that the greatest number of visitors will get the message. From there, visitors read less and less, as the information progresses. By writing in an inverted pyramid style, the most important information goes to the greatest number of readers. From there, information is provided in lessening levels of importance, mirroring the decreasing number of visitors reading the details.

Layer information. Providing information in layers “keeps site visitors from being overwhelmed,” and it “helps site visitors who want different levels of information.” (140) Layers are achieved through rollovers or secondary windows.

Break down walls of words. Similar to Cut! Cut! And cut again!, this means that visitors want to be presented with small chunks of information, rather than a huge wall of words. Smaller chunks enables fast and easy nagivation as well as encouraging conversations.

Plan to share and engage through social media. Social media is increasingly accomplished on smaller handheld devices. By keeping social media in mind, it reminds us to keep our message short and direct enough to support social media. No one wants to look at a small screen and attempt to navigate a huge amount of information. Visitors want their social media experience to reflect the typical space allowed for posting messages.