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Letting Go of the Words Again

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works, by Ginny RedishMost books about web design and development don’t last. The field moves so quickly that many books are out of date by the time they hit the shelves.

Ginny Redish’s Letting Go of the Words is not one of those books. In a field with few classic texts, this, along with Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, is surely one of them. So when I heard that a second edition of Redish’s book was coming, I immediately preordered in Amazon.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Longer and Shorter

In the technology world, most second editions are really just an attempt to keep up with changing technology: “Now includes HTML5!”

That’s not what Redish has done here. This is a true revision, not just a quick update. In short:

  1. There are two new chapters: one on headlines and one on usability testing.
  2. There are two new “interludes”: one on content strategy and one on “Finding Marketing Moments.”
  3. The book is now 32 pages shorter.

More content, fewer words. That Redish clearly lives the title of her book really tells be all you need to know about it.

But if you aren’t yet convinced…

How to Do It

The second edition keeps in place what I’ve always liked about this book: she shows you how to do it.

This is key for improving your writing. It’s one thing to tell your readers to omit needless words. It’s another to do it. As the linguist Geoffrey Pullum wrote about this famous bit of advice: “The students who know which words are needless don’t need the instruction.”

Getting from the general rule (“Cut! Cut! Cut!”) to the specific example (“We can cut this down by 40%) is the tricky part. It’s the kind of thing writing instructors spend their time helping students learn.

But in the absence of a teacher—or even with a teacher—Redish’s book is a great resource. She doesn’t just tell you the kinds of things you should do to improve your web writing, she shows you how, with before and after examples. And she includes process help, too: where to start, how to draft, how to get and use feedback on your writing. If you need to know how to write for the web, this is the place to start.

What about Mobile? Social?

If there’s something to that’s missing here, it might be the lack of more specific information on topics of the moment: things like mobile, social media, andSEO.

In fact, all of these topics are mentioned on the back cover. And a number of of the new examples are mobile and social examples. For instance, the revised “interlude” on “The New Life of Press Releases” includes an example of planning news posts for social media use. There’s an example of how Lufthansa’s site gets stripped down to its essentials on a mobile device.

But you won’t find a chapter on writing for mobile or writing for social media. Redish explains in her introduction:

Letting Go of the Words is about strategy and tactics, not about tools. Technology changes too fast to be a major part of the book—and the principles of good writing transcend the technology you use.

Now while I think there is a lot to be said about writing for and within the limitations of new technologies, I can sympathize with Redish’s point here. Good writing is good writing. And that’s the idea that made this book a classic in the first place.

It’s also why I’ve chosen it as the text book for my upcoming course on Social Media & Web Writing for Higher Ed. We’ll go beyond what’s in the book, and we’ll get specific about writing for social media and higher. But I wouldn’t want any web writer to miss Letting Go of the Words: it’s a foundation you’ll find yourself building on for years to come.

The Students You Didn’t Know You Had

How good are our websites’ readers at, well—reading?

In The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had (from Issue No. 2 of Contents), Angela Colter makes a point that may surprise a lot of web writers:

…if your target audience includes the general public, you may want to consider that nearly half of them may have low literacy skills.

And she backs it up with the research to prove it, both in the United States and abroad.

If you write for higher ed websites, you might think “Low literacy? At least that’s one problem we don’t have to worry about.” That is, unless you’ve read writing by college freshmen.1

In fact, according to the National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not to Read, in 2005 only 35% of American twelfth graders read “at or above the proficient level.” Further research finds that the books most frequently read by high-school students are written at a 5th to 6th grade level.

Now consider this: while only 35% of U.S. twelfth graders read at or above the proficient level, 68.3% of U.S. high school students enroll in college.

That means that in a best-case scenario (in which all of the proficient readers enroll in college), about 49% of college freshmen read below the proficient level.

Of course, the percentage of low-proficiency readers will vary from college to college. Some colleges enroll a higher percentage of non-proficient readers, others a lower one. But, as I’ll argue in a few moments, it’s an problem all of us need to reckon with.

Not that those of us who market universities and colleges online are going to solve it! But the numbers above make it clear that if we are to make our admissions numbers, all but the most elite colleges are going to have have to attract and enroll a good percentage of non-proficient readers.

Which means that our admissions websites are going to have to be written at a readability level below twelfth grade. How low? Tenth grade? Ninth grade? Your school’s English department probably has a good handle on the reading level of your entering freshmen. Give them a call.

“But we want the smart students”

I know what you’re going to hear from at least some of the folks you work with: “Tenth grade? Ninth grade?! Those aren’t the students we want. We want the smart ones!”

It is an understandable reaction. But keep in mind that reading proficiency and intelligence are not the same thing. If you’ve ever spent time in a country where you didn’t know the language, you experienced this first hand. You did not become less intelligent the moment you stepped off the plane. But you did effectively become a much less proficient reader, and your performance at all sorts of tasks—from obtaining coffee to riding the bus—probably suffered.

Now those less-than-proficient students are certainly going to have a harder time of it in college. But it’s a fact: there just aren’t enough proficient students to go around. Unless you work at a very elite institution, you simply have to attract lower proficiency readers and help them to gain the skills they need after they arrive.

And even if you do work at one of those elite institutions, here are four groups of people who might convince you to write your admissions content at a level somewhere south of twelfth grade:

  1. Parents: At what level do your prospective students’ parents read? They may in some cases have lower literacy than their children. The most recent Noel-Levitz E-Expectations study found that 48% of students involve their parents when deciding which college to attend. If those parents have trouble understanding your website, your institution may be less likely to make the short list.

  2. Stressed Out Students: As Angela Colter points out, we are all low-literacy at times:

    When people are tired, under stress, or just plain busy, they may have fewer cognitive resources to bring to the task at hand. And that affects word recognition, inference, problem solving—all the skills you use for reading and understanding.

    Tired, under stress, busy: this could easily be a student or parent researching colleges—or searching for financial aid. Under these conditions, even proficient readers will be grateful for an easier-to-understand website.

  3. Foreign students: If part of your job is attracting foreign students, keeping the reading level of your admissions materials lower will pay off. Just as when you tried to order coffee in Prague, these are smart people who may not be as proficient at reading as others. That doesn’t mean they won’t be a good fit at your institution.

  4. Everyone: Lining up readability levels with grade levels is a handy shorthand, but leads to the common misconception that more readable writing (that is, writing with a lower grade level) is somehow “stupider” than less readable writing. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are few people who won’t appreciate writing that is clear, concise, and brief. Save the complex writing for complex matters—and maybe not even then. (The post you are reading right now has an average grade level of about 7.)

Actually simplifying your writing—now that’s the hard part. The Readability Test Tool is a good place to get started. And this is also a topic I’ll discuss in more detail in Social Media & Web Writing for Higher Ed, a four-week online course that starts on October 15, 2012.


  1. A big shout out to anyone else who’s been a reader for UC’s Subject A exam and its successors or any other form of mass writing-testing. You rock. 

What Pterosaurs Can Teach Us about SEO in Academia

pterosaur fossil, courtesy of digital cat All writing is rapidly becoming web writing, making search engine optimization (SEO) a core web-writing skill—and not just for marketers.

Academic SEO

One of the things many of us who write for higher ed websites have to unlearn is the academic style of writing. If you went to college, I’m sure you are familiar with paragraphs like this one:

A new way to advance public relations research in Web–based communication is to conceptualize research using a technology acceptance model (TAM) to investigate online audiences’ push–pull media behaviors. Analyzing how users accept and use online communication technologies is important to best understand how to reach online audiences. This is especially true for targeting the ever–changing landscape of Web–based communication where demographics such as age have been shown to exhibit different communication behaviors and consumption patterns online.

—Heather Martyn and Linda M. Gallant,
Over 50 and Wired: Web-based Stakeholder Communication,” First Monday, Vol. 17, No. 6

Interesting content for many of us higher-ed web types, but not so easy to understand. There are many even harder to understand examples out there, of course. But you get the idea.1

But it isn’t the style that interests me here. Instead, I’m interested to know how a reader would find this article in the first place when the First Monday website doesn’t use even basic search engine optimization (SEO).

A few of the issues:

  • The HTML <title> of the article above is—“Martyn.” And that’s what shows up in search results.Martyn - First Monday
  firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/.../3449by H Martyn - 2012
  First Monday, Volume 17, Number 6 - 4 June 2012. Home · About · Log In · Register · Search ... stakeholder communication. Heather Martyn, Linda M. Gallant ...

  • The actual title of the article is burned into a graphic, so a Google search for “over 50 and wired” doesn’t bring up the actual article, only a different page with an abstract of the article (and that comes up in seventh place).   Over 50 and wired: Web-based stakeholder communication
  www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3449 A description for this result is not available because of this sites robots.txt - learn more
    (A listing on adademia.edu does show up in fourth place.)

  • The URL for the article doesn’t include the title or any keywords. It doesn’t even include the name of the journal: http: //www.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/ index.php/fm/article/view/3449/3262

  • Because of a robots.txt problem, the <meta> description doesn’t show up in search results.

  • Which turns out not to matter so much, since the <meta> description is actually blank.

  • This isn’t an SEO issue, but it’s worth mentioning: because First Monday uses frames, if you bring this article into Instapaper, it doesn’t work at all.

So unless you already know about First Monday, you aren’t likely to find this article—which is a shame. Research on how to manage online PR for older users could be interesting to a lot of people, including those in the higher ed web community.

It should be surprising that one of the oldest peer-reviewed journals on the internet, a journal that is about the internet, and one that is dedicated to the idea of open access, should have such terrible SEO issues. I don’t mean to imply that First Monday is completely inaccessible. Once you are there, you can search the site by author, title, issue, etc. The journal is indexed in all sorts of academic indexes. However, without good SEO, First Monday’s authors are not accessible to the search techniques used by most people on the internet (also known as most people). Which means these authors are not a part of the conversation that I assume they want to be a part of.

It should be surprising. But it’s not unusual for academic journals. First Monday is far from alone among online academic journals in having poor SEO. If “one of the first openly accessible, peer–reviewed journals on the Internet,” online since 1996, can’t get this right, we shouldn’t be surprised that many others are doing even worse.2

Are many editors of academic journals worried about SEO? I don’t know. But they should be. Academic journals obviously appeal to a specialist audience, but they shouldn’t be completely divorced from the rest of the world. What happens when those who have been thinking most systematically and deeply about a subject never get to participate in the larger online conversation about their subject because of poor SEO?

Pterosaur Heresies

For an answer, take a look at ReptileEvolution.com. Or, better yet, read Darren Naish’s post on the Scientific American blog site, Why the world has to ignore ReptileEvolution.com. As Naish sums up at the top of his post:

ReptileEvolution.com does not represent a trustworthy source that people should consult or rely on. Students, amateur researchers and the lay public should be strongly advised to avoid or ignore it.

Why is Scientific American posting this advice? Because David Peters, the proprietor of ReptileEvolution.com knows his SEO. Naish points out:

If you google the name of just about any fossil reptile, synapsid or amphibian…you get numerous hits for ReptileEvolution.com, typically high up or even top in the search results. This goes for image searches as well as for normal ones.

As it turns out, aside from being an amateur paleontologist and a gifted illustrator3, Peters is also a marketer and web designer. Which is great for ReptileEvolution.com but not so good for science, because the information provided at ReptileEvolution.com turns out to be, according to scientists who work in the field of reptile evolution, “unreliable and inaccurate.” But the average student, searching for information on pterosaurs, will find Reptile Evolution.com first. She’ll have no idea that this site is unreliable, in part because

those who publish the sort of big-scale, taxon-heavy analyses that contradict [the view of of evolution at ReptileEvolution.com]—either have no internet presence at all, or are not interested in putting images, diagrams and other representations of specimens online.

It’s not just that our academic writers don’t know how to write for the web, it seems that neither they (or their editors) know how to get what they publish found and make it appealing. As a result, their voices are missing from the online conversation—which, for better or worse, is becoming the only conversation that matters.

At a time when the entire academic enterprise is being seriously questioned—when a lack of respect for the work done by academics might be cutting your funding right now—this is a big problem.

Web Geeks to the Rescue

And this is where we, the higher-ed web pros, come in.

While we’ve been busy applying our SEO skills to market our schools, it turns out those skills are needed on the other side of the quad, too. Optimizing for search engines isn’t just a skill needed for marketing. Increasingly it’s a skill needed just to get heard on the web, which is why I say it’s becoming a core web writing skill.4

And who probably has the maddest SEO skills on your campus? You do, because you do it every day.

Time to take a walk across the quad.

But what to do when you get there? Relations between us marketing folks and the academic world aren’t always smooth. And you’re not going to get very far if you just walk over to let them know they’re doing it wrong. Here’s what might work:

  1. Offer yourself as a classroom speaker on web-related topics. It’s fun, you’ll get to demonstrate your expertise in front of a faculty member, and it’s a great way to recruit talented work-study students. (Just listen to the questions they ask afterward. You’ll know which ones you want to hire.)

  2. Get on some campus-wide committees. I know you’ve still got a lot of work to do on the website, but you do know it will never be done, right? Aside from a chance to get out of the office, campus-wide committees give you a chance to build up relationships with faculty and staff that might not happen otherwise. Plus, you increase your chances of being there when important web-related decisions are being made.

  3. Keep working to educate your campus about web issues. This is difficult. It’s my experience that those of us working on a university website spent a lot of time training support staff, and we don’t always get to talk to faculty or other decision makers. But keep reaching out. We’ve had success with sending out updates about the web issues to everyone who is a registered editor in our CMS. On our campus, that includes a good number of faculty.

Since the early 90s, we have all been living through a revolution in how we communicate, a revolution as big as the transition to movable type. Those of us who spend our days working at the forefront of that revolution need to help our campuses learn to thrive in this brave new world.


  1. In the interest of full disclosure: once upon a time I wrote a dissertation that included academic prose that was much more impenetrable than this example. I had my reasons. Sometimes academic prose provides a useful shorthand for communicating with other specialists. Sometimes it provides a level of precision that plain language does not. (And, yes, all too often, it can hide sloppy thought or just prove that the writer belongs to the academic community.)

  2. Like all of us, First Monday is a prisoner of its content management system, a 2006 version of Open Journal Systems. Obviously, SEO was never built into that system, despite “open access” being one of OJS’s goals. Not every system for scholarly publication has this issue—I’ve seen hits from JSTOR appearing with increasing frequency in search results, and JSTOR materials are behind a paywall.

  3. If you’ve got kids, I highly recommend David Peters’ Giants of Land, Sea & Air, Past & Present. My kids’ copy eventually fell apart they read it so much.

  4. As a former teacher of freshman writing, I can’t help pointing out that this pterosaur controversy would make great material for a research writing class.

File under: seo web-writing

A Sample Editorial Calendar

Sample Editorial CalendarKarine Joly’s recent column on content strategy for higher ed included some comments from me about our our content strategy efforts at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

The article put a few e-mails into my inbox, including a request to share a month or two of our editorial calendar.

While I’m not comfortable sharing our working, internal calendar with the whole world, I’m happy to share the basic format we use and some of the thinking behind it.

We keep our editorial calendar in a Google Spreadsheet, and I’ve recreated the basic format we use in this spreadsheet. Why Google Docs?

  • Shared authorship: We can add in as many authors as we need, so different people can enter information about upcoming events, our social media plans, scheduled press releases, etc.

  • Shared readership: We can grant read access to anyone who needs it to make our plans actually happen, or to those across campus who need to coordinate their plans with us.

  • Everyone has the latest information: Some days, events move quickly and plans change accordingly. With Google Docs, everyone is looking at the latest version.

Our format is designed to make setup fairly easy. To add additional months:

  1. Duplicate the “Model” sheet
  2. Update the tab name
  3. Update the title in cell B2
  4. Update cell B6 to the first day of the month
  5. Delete the fifth week of the month if necessary

Once you have a new month, you’ll want to make sure you get major events into it: holidays, your academic calendar, athletics events, etc.

Another option we considered was using Google Calendar. This would avoid having to take time to set up the spreadsheet for each month, allow for import of the data into third-party programs like iCal, and let us set up repeating and multi-day events. A different, color-coded calendar could be set up for each venue. But in the end, we found the spreadsheet to be easier to read and update.

All in all, it has worked pretty well. But there are all sorts of changes and adjustments that could be made! So go ahead, make a copy, and modify as you need. If you come up with a useful modification, please share it in the comments!

File under: content strategy