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Isn’t writing for the web just like any other writing?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Well yes and no. Yes because the web provides writers with just another medium for their words. No because web users read in a different way to readers of text in other media such as newspapers, books and magazines. They read in a much less linear fashion flitting across the screen like a butterfly looking for something to settle on. And when they do settle they tend not to hang around for long if there’s nothing of interest – not least because just a few clicks away there’s the whole of the World Wide Web to distract them. So as a web writer first you’ve got to grab your readers’ attention, then you’ve got to hold them long enough for your words to work their magic. And if that wasn’t hard enough you’ve got very little space to do it – especially if your words are displayed on a tablet or smartphone.

If I viewed the preceding paragraph on my iPhone in landscape mode, in a font large enough to read without straining my eyes (Calibri 11 if you’re a real anorak and want to check for yourself) I ’d get halfway through the seventh line before having to…

 

 

 

 

…scroll down. As a rule of thumb – an ancient expression that seems oddly modern in an age of handheld devices – you can squeeze 120 words on a Smartphone. Tablets, laptops and desktops can, of course, accommodate progressively more in one “screenful”. Read this on your iPad in landscape mode and you’d get about as far as the word anorak in the second paragraph – a word count of about 200. Turn the screen through 90 degrees and you can squeeze in an extra hundred or so words – 330 in total. A figure not to be scoffed at in a world where Twitter limits you to 280 characters but still relatively few compared to the olde worlde of paper and ink.

Take the book that’s been gathering dust under my bed for so long it’s now more dust than book. It’s called The Isles – A History by Norman Davies. It contains approximately 450 words per page – twice that between page turns given that you get to see two pages at a time. How do I know this? Because I am that anorak! What’s more I’ve just counted 2,750 words on a double page spread in the best-selling tabloid newspaper and 3,056 words on a similar two pager in a leading broadsheet.

I’m not saying people won’t scroll down. I’m just saying that these differences between screen and page demand much of us as writers. Certainly we shouldn’t be putting really important stuff so deep into a webpage that people have to scroll down to find it because they simply may not bother. To avoid this problem we have to “front-load” web pages – that is, put the most critical information at the top of the page where it’s clearly visible. In the old days of broadsheet newspapers it was called putting stuff “above the fold” where, on a news stand, the bit of the article on the top half of the front page could instantly be seen by potential buyers.

Authors have long been aware of the need to keep readers reading over the potentially awkward chapter breaks. That’s why they often set up some kind of conflict towards the end of one chapter but keep the resolution from us until the beginning of the next. Done well the book becomes unputdownable. The challenge then is to make our websites unclickawayfromable!


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How to start a presentation – “zoom in” on a detail

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute

How to hook your audience at the start of your presentation by zooming in on a detail. It’s better, says ACM Training’s presentation skills coach, Richard Uridge, than overwhelming them with the “big picture.” Or boring them with something that looks and sounds the same as every other presentation they’ve ever seen.


This podcast episode is just one of a series of audio, video and written “how to” guides that form part of ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series.

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Hook ’em with a question

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

“Online it’s all about the narrative. We’re suckers for a good story so try to convey your research as such. Make it engaging for your target audience. Aim for a conversational tone. And remember to ask lots of questions. Think of it this way: a question mark is like an upside down hook so to hook people into your research ask them questions. As a researcher you’ll be amazed at the value of their responses. It could even be the answer you’re looking for!

I penned these few words of advice for researchers looking to build an audience for their work online. It was in response to a request from Hywel Curtis at http://www.growresa.com – a new website to help academics with blogging.

The quote took me a long time* – certainly longer than the few minutes I’d expected. But it’s amazing how blogging can help clarify the thought process. And that, in itself, is surely one of the benefits of blogging for researchers? There are, of course, other benefits. Here’s a short presentation I prepared as part of a training course for Queen Margaret University in Scotland. It’s a basic introduction that I hope might help you decide whether to start blogging yourself. Watch it carefully and you’ll spot the delicious irony when I say that blogs shouldn’t be a repository for all those presentations you’ve given!

 


French philosopher Blaise Pascal
French philosopher Blaise Pascal

*The French philosopher Blaise Pascal, he of the “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter I didn’t have time to write a short one” was right; it takes longer to ponder a few sentences than it does to compose a whole article.


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What’s the difference between categories and tags?

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Whether it’s birds or blogs we’ve be organising stuff into groups since the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus invented his system of classification. In fact I’d argue that making sense of our complicated world is something we’ve felt compelled to do as Homo sapiens (Kingdom: Animalia; Order: Primates; Family: Hominidae) pretty much from the get go. Or to put it another way, we were anoraks well before the anorak was invented. But whilst the taxonomy of the natural world is, for want of a better word, taxing, the taxonomy of the digital world is, thankfully, less complicated.

Carl_von_Linné

Blogs can be organised into three, simple sections:

  1. Subject
  2. Categories
  3. Tags

Think of the subject as the label that covers everything you write about or are planning to write about in your blog. It might be a subject with a wide-ranging scope like nature or gardening or something much narrower like hill walking or vegetable growing or narrower still like Munro-bagging or potato propagation. Narrow or wide the choice is yours – especially if you’re blogging for pleasure. If you’re blogging for profit then I’d suggest you stick to a subject you know about and one where your target audience will value your expertise. It’s easier to sell yourself a master of one trade rather than a Jack-of-all.

Categories become important once you have more than a few blog entries and  help vistors find their way around. The wider-ranging your blog the more important categories become. I have a client who blogs about urban anthropology (the subject). She’s written extensively about the legacy of the London Olympics but also writes about the post industrial landscape and about the impact of technology on human behaviour. I suggested they should be thought of and classified as three separate categories. Of course, there will be times when you want to list a post under several categories and that’s fine. For example, if Pokémon GO ever becomes an Olympic sport it’d come under two of my anthropologist’s category headings.

Tags are similar to but more specific than categories. Again looking at the example above a post could be categorised under “Olympic legacy” but be tagged specifically “London” or “Rio” so that a visitor could more easily find all the posts that are tagged or reference, say, “Rio.” Tags on blogs aren’t that different to tags on #Twitter that help us find stuff there.

Most if not all blogging platforms allow you to display your chosen categories so visitors can see your blog’s organisational structure at a glance. I’d suggest you do just that. WordPress and others also enable you to display the tags you use so that if a visitor clicks on a particular tag it aggregates all the posts that use that tag.

If you want to have a look at how I utilise categories click on the dropdown menu  on the sidebar of this post or on my personal blog. The tags I use appear along the bottom of this and other posts. Try out the feature by clicking on one.

Eat your heart out Linnaeus!


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First, second or third person: which is best for blogging?

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

First Person

For me writing is a largely instinctive activity and I don’t often ruminate over which personal pronoun I should use when blogging.

Second Person

Want to know which perspective to use when writing a blog? Then keep reading. This post will explore the various options and help you decide which is best.

Third Person

Bloggers often struggle to know which perspective to apply to their posts. Should they use the first person of paragraph one? The second in paragraph two? Or, like this paragraph, the third?

And I know what you’re thinking, maybe you could use all three in the same paragraph because some writers do just that and seem to get away with it!

The first person (me) puts the writer centre stage. The second puts the reader (you) in the spotlight. And the third views things from an audience’s point of view (he, she, they) – way up in the cheap seats at the back of the auditorium if you like.

So which is the best? Sadly there’s no simple answer. All three have their place. It depends on a number of variables: who you are; why you’re blogging (your purpose); who’s reading (your target audience) and so on.  But what follows is some basic guidance drawn together after I delivered  ACM Training’s blogging workshop to a group of enthusiastic but reflective academics at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

Like most academics they are used to writing in the third person because of the commonly and firmly held view that this way is somehow more objective. (I say somehow because I’m not sure that it genuinely is only that it gives the impression of being so, but that’s a discussion for another day). So changing their perspective from third to second seemed, for them, like a huge step. From third to first a giant leap. And one that, because they’re academics, they needed plenty of empirical evidence to take.

When to use first person

The person you know best is you. So writing about yourself ought to be easy. And for some people it is. Too easy in fact. And they end up over-disclosing. Telling us all sorts of things that, frankly, are of no interest to us at all.

But some of you will find writing about yourself really difficult. Perhaps you’re naturally shy. Or, like my academics, so used to writing about other people that writing about number one seems uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t though. As a blogger the most important thing is that you engage your readers – hook them in the first place and then keep them reading, ideally to the end. And if writing about you’re own experience is the stuff that is most likely to engage your audience then do so. Get out of your comfort zone.

Let me give you an example. An academic had written a blog post about the Notting Hill Carnival and a controversial proposal to change it from processional to a fixed location. It was, by her own admission, a little dry and read more like a press release or the abstract of a learned paper. All because it was written in the third person. Talking through her own experience of the carnival it turns out that she attended her first as an unborn child. Write about that I implored her. Let rip with your imagination. Take us there. Have us listen to the beat of your mother’s heart in utero overlaid with the pulsating rhythm of steel drums.

When your experience is relevant and interesting it can lift your copy from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Try it.

The first person approach is also good when readers are coming to your blog principally because of you (and not only for what you’re offering them). As a keen cyclist I might, for example, follow Chris Froome’s thoughts on Twitter (a micro blog) not to read his detached and aloof views on cycling but to get first person insight into his life in the saddle.

When to use second person

But if people are visiting your blog mainly because of what you’re offering them (and who you are is largely irrelevant) then focusing on their needs via the second person perspective is probably the best approach. I find myself using the second person most often for instructional blogs and think of it this way: what does the reader really want? Me or the advice I’m offering them? If the answer is them then that’s what I’ll concentrate on. That’s where the value is. And my stock rises (hopefully) not because of who I am but because of how I’ve helped.

As Brian Clarke of Copyblogger put it “…if you’re blogging for marketing or public relations purposes, your every post should be purposefully aimed at the needs and wants of others. You only benefit when readers benefit first.”

When to use third person

Writing in the third person puts some “distance” between you as the writer and the events or people you’re writing about. It’s the preferred position in academic writing because, as already touched on, is or appears to be more objective. So if that’s what you’re after in your blog use the third person. But that sense of detachment can also appear aloof. The reader may be frustrated by this and wish you’d come off the proverbial fence. Again the guiding question should be this: is my detachment helping me achieve my purpose? If the answer is yes then stay detached. But if your aloofness is hindering then don’t.

In all forms of writing engaging readers and keeping them engaged is crucial. Whilst the words engaged and detached aren’t exact antonyms (engaged and disengaged would be) being engaging in a detached way is a hard trick to execute. Good academic writers are frequently pulling this particular white rabbit out of the hat. Bad ones send us to sleep.

When to mix and match

In reality very few posts are written strictly from only one perspective. We (first person plural) tend to use them in combination. You (second person singular) might even find them all together in the same paragraph. But never in the same sentence. That’s a recipe for confusion:

“I signed up for Richard’s blogging course and by the end of the day you have to write at least one blog but they didn’t insist in it being written from one particular perspective.”

Let me know what you think. Comments welcome. And if you author or read a great blog written from the first, second or third person link to it below. This person would love to see it!