Letting Go of the Words: Finally a Book that Empowers Web Writers

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October 2007

Letting Go of the Words: Finally a Book that Empowers Web Writers

CIDMIconNewsletter  Susan Harkus, Independent Consultant

I’ve sat through several seminars and conference sessions that presented writing web content as a series of often very detailed rules. For me, sat through are the operative words. Rather than feeling liberated by the sessions, I’ve felt shut down, disempowered.

An Empowering Reference for Yourself

No one will feel disempowered by Janice (Ginny) Redish’s latest book, Letting Go of the Words, Writing Web Content that Works. The implicit theme of her book is that useful web content comes from making good decisions about everything from content structure and using headings tables, lists, and graphics effectively to the online conversation you have with your web site user.

Letting Go of the Words will certainly help you develop, extend, or tune your web writing skills. It covers broad design issues like communicating essential messages but also drills down into particular writing issues like whether to embed links in sentences.

However, the book offers more than just “something on every topic.” Letting Go of the Words invites you to

  • walk through typical online user behaviours and consider their implications for the way you present your page content
  • compare web examples, including before and after versions of web pages, and decide for yourself what makes web content useful
  • assess guidelines and develop your own way of determining what is best for your user in a particular context of your web site

More Than Just a Reference for Yourself

Letting Go of the Words has another great value. Most web writers think actively about producing useful, engaging content. Their problem, MY problem, is selling their strategies to others when those strategies conflict with ingrained principles of paper-based marketing communications OR with the creative designs adopted for web site templates.

It doesn’t matter whether your clients are external or an internal project team. Now you have a book that will support your recommendations.

For example…
My clients want to “cross-sell” on the web. I always recommend holding off the cross-sell moment until the user has achieved their web task objective. Next time a client queries this recommendation, I’ll direct them to page 112 of Redish’s book: “The time to market on a web site is after your site visitors have satisfied at least part of their need.”

I often work with standard web page templates that restrict illustrations to prescribed sizes.
I’ve just sent a client a recommendation about a web page that will introduce their new seaside resort to members—use large, emotive images to evoke the “customer experience.” I know they’ll ignore my recommendation because their web page template specifies a small, 138×128 pixel image, top right in the page body.
In the future, I’ll simply direct them to Letting Go of the Words, page 288—Make sure that the photos evoke the mood you want.” The examples they will find there are convincing.

All organizations seem to plunge into political apoplexy about the pixel space business areas need on the home page of the corporate web site. I took great comfort from the section Starting Well: Home Pages because the whole section shows that it is about the USER starting well, NOT the business—certainly a section that is worth sharing regularly with clients.

How often do you confront debates about how to address your user and how to project your organization? Have you ever been constrained by the corporate style guide? “We always refer to our company in the third person as The Biggest Inc.

You will love the simple criteria proposed in a later section, Tuning Up Your Sentences, which maps the choice of I/We/You to real business-user situations.

Chapters that Align You with Your Users

In the opening chapters of Letting Go of the Words, you will walk with your users.

The first few chapters of the book take what we know about online user behaviour and explore the implications of that knowledge for designing the user’s web experience through architecture and content.

“Think of your web content as your part of a conversation—not a rambling dialogue but a focused conversation started by a very busy person… You have to build your side of the conversation into the site”

Redish suggests that personas and scenarios are useful tools for making your different audiences “real” and provides techniques for gathering, documenting, and focusing on their experience, emotions, values, behaviours, and backgrounds.

Chapters that Empower Decisions

Letting Go of the Words translates the traditionally prescriptive teaching approach to writing for the web into insights and guidelines: what your choices are and how you choose.
Whether Redish is helping her reader grasp the user experience of the web, “information, not documents,” or giving a rule of thumb for identifying when to use a table:

She invites the reader to assess and evaluate through examples and annotations.
She highlights basic design principles through easy-to-read summaries at the end of each chapter.
She gives the reader the option of selectively reading or anticipating chapter content through the lists of guidelines introducing each of the seven chapters that deal with designing and creating your content.

Even the detailed table of contents can be read as a statement of the book’s principles and recommendations.

Accessibility Strategies in Context

We may all read and take in the library of World Wide Web documentation on accessibility but how much easier is Redish’s approach—she introduces accessibility issues in context and marks the reminder with a guide dog icon.

For example, as Redish outlines the ways to use headings on the web page, she points out that screen-readers enable sight-impaired users to scan the page by jumping from heading to heading but ONLY if the page uses HTML heading tags. Once HTML heading tags were a given. On today’s web sites, they are frequently replaced in web site stylesheets by redefined paragraph styles.

And when will you think to check whether your site stylesheet is using standard tags? Most certainly when you want to leverage

[sub-]headings to communicate your message.

A Really Good Read

Letting Go of the Words is a remarkable reading experience. Excitement and enthusiasm pervade every page—just as they did in the book that Janice Redish co-authored with JoAnn Hackos—User and Task Analysis for Interface Design.

Yes, the book has a linear flow but as Redish points out, the book has been written to enable the reader to “jump around”, not just read through page by page. And you’ll meet your web audience—your content users—on every page, in every guideline, and in every example

  • through the red frustrated, amber confused, and green happy smiley icons that carry user assessments of web content
  • through “talking heads” that represent user agendas—I’ve got to get this job done! Just tell me how to do it.”
  • through web page examples that demonstrate the change from business “push” to user-centred engagement

And a Website Too!

In her book, Ginny Redish invites her readers to join her “on the web site at <www.redish.net/writingfortheweb> to ask a question, voice an opinion, get information about usability testing and other topics, and share examples.”

Visit the website. Test the book’s value by reading the two chapters that are posted there.

Get the book. This is one book that will very quickly achieve a dog-eared, well-used look. CIDMIconNewsletter