Posted tagged ‘editors’

Who should organize a website?

January 6, 2012

I don’t mean organize it the way one might organize a union. (“Users’ rights!” “Occupy the World Wide Web!”) I mean bring some logic to the process, some common sense to the look and usefulness of the pages, the links, the graphics, the messages written and unwritten. Which reminds me of a fun quotation:

“Logic is one thing and commonsense another.” (Elbert Hubbard, The Note Book, 1927. What, you haven’t read it?)

A new client, a national nonprofit, has asked me to fix up a website that its leaders all believe is an ugly, outdated mess. No sense. No sensibility. No pride, and they’re afraid the site’s problems are creating prejudice. Eek! Call a writer/editor!

Not the usual reaction, of course. Most folks would think first of a designer or a tech person. But it’s possible that this particular website is a mess because someone with some tech training (he or she obviously didn’t have graphics training) slapped up the basic elements and declared it done. Most designers wouldn’t know what pieces go together or what parts to emphasize where, and most techies wouldn’t know how to make it all look appealing. Lucky for me, this nonprofit decided to take the unusual step of asking “a communications expert” (that’s what they call me) to reorder the thing.

So I hereby make the case for us writers and editors, us communications experts, to organize or reorganize websites. Why? Because we can interview and listen to the stakeholders inside and perhaps outside – ask them what they need to accomplish, what they want to say and show, who their audience(s) is, who their competitors are, and so on. We can study similar organizations’ websites, gathering information on what works and what doesn’t, what the good ones have in common, what the competitors are doing and saying and showing, et cetera. And we can poke around every corner of the site in question, testing it from a user’s perspective, making outsider assumptions, asking the “dumb” questions, noting the dead links, following trails to their logical – or illogical – ends. We can bring both logic and common sense to the process of communication – which is, after all, what a website is supposed to do.

In a few days, I’ll report to the people in charge how I would completely rework their site, where I’d move the many reorganized parts, what I’d get rid of, and the like. Having neither technical nor graphic training, I’ll then turn the project over to a designer for that part of it and then to IT to get the parts to work. Meanwhile, I’m glad the leaders of this nonprofit could see the real problem with their site: not that it looks bad or has nonfunctional pieces but that it doesn’t achieve its mission of communicating. So they hired a communicator.

Such logic and common sense!

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

We’ve got style

October 26, 2011

Copyediting and proofreading are often about minutiae. That’s where stylebooks or style guides come in. For consistency, most organizations use a mix of a published guide and their own proprietary specifics.

Washingtonian had its own list, constantly updated, which I eventually memorized. We called it an extremely bastardized version of AP. The Investment Company Institute sent me its paper guide. Foreign Policy used Merriam-Webster, AP, and Chicago. AGB uses Chicago. I’ve also used APA, Words Into Type (not really complete, but some people use it as an addition), and – occasionally and unhappily – GPO.

Chicago’s a bear. I can understand using it for academic writing, books, footnotes, and so on, and it does cover nearly every eventuality. But being of the opinion that academic writing ought to have its hot air let out until the average number of syllables per word drops to 2.5 and it becomes more easily understood, relatable, laypeople writing, I much prefer AP – The Associated Press Stylebook.

AP is easier to use, easier to understand, even had a spiral binding for a while (wish it still did). I recommend it to my students. It covers common misspellings, some grammatical bugaboos, and pretty much all the necessary style points as well as basics of business, sports, law, and punctuation.

We have our quibbles: AP doesn’t like “okay,” and really, would anyone write “cat box filler”? And then there’s the matter of the serial comma. Someday the editors will see the light on that. But the word “media” is plural, it says. “A controversial issue is redundant,” it says. AP is clear. It’s alphabetical. It explains dozens of idioms without condescension and spells “ketchup” properly. AP is the Mac to other style guides’ PC. All hail AP!

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Internet speed

September 9, 2011

I’ve heard that e-book publishing is fast, but this fast?

A potential client asked about my work in books, so I was looking up details on those I’ve worked on, including the tsunami one for Foreign Policy. That was a rush job, but I’m astonished now to see how much of a rush: Less than three days after I turned in my part of it, the publishers sent an announcement that the book was available for download.

So tens of thousands of words were commissioned, collected, and sent from little islands in the Pacific, in some cases translated from Japanese, run through the folks at FP, and sent to me and, presumably, other people (designers, editors, digital experts). I consulted my colleagues and Chicago day and night and sent the words back. I never saw any of these people, and it’s possible, theoretically, that no one else did, either. And just over 2-1/2 days later, the whole world, theoretically, can read what we’ve produced.

Haste makes waste, as Mr. Franklin said, but I’m pretty impressed.

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The things you learn

August 18, 2011

At Washingtonian, I always said that anyone inspecting our Google history would be totally confused. Editors and fact checkers doing their jobs would click on whitehouse dot gov one minute, whitehouse dot com the next, followed by sites about frogs, glassblowing, the Holocaust, Lisa Simpson, and Ali Wentworth. Huh?

Likewise, generalists – or even writers/editors who switch specialties – get to know a lot of random facts about a lot of random things. Nonwriters might find some of these boring. For instance, nine interviews into this Scrap magazine assignment, I was explaining to a friend last night about the dangers of biodegradable plastic bags. They sound benign, even environmentally helpful. But people are putting them in recycle boxes with their grocery bags. Do you want to drive down the road behind a load of bricks secured by plastic strapping made with some unknown portion of biodegradable material?

Or how about this: A bottle and its cap are usually different kinds of plastic. I’m embarrassed to have learned that only a few months ago. What I learned this week is that the label on a bottle may be yet another kind of plastic – and it could make the whole bottle all but useless to a recycler. Depending on the label, the company may have to sell that bottle to China, which uses more mixed (or contaminated) plastics than companies can here in the States.

Boring? Are you kidding? This stuff is just part of what makes our work so interesting.

Copyright 2011 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.