Shoes – yes, shoes – are a freelancer’s most important tool

Freelancer tools: Dog, shoes, gas heater

A freelancer’s essentials: a dog, a heater and pair of sturdy boots.

Years ago, when I both a freelancer and immersed in the chaotic life induced by having a small child in the house, I complained to a friend about how I couldn’t find something in my kitchen (or, in fact, anything in my home, most of the time).

Flylady, she said. You need Flylady.

So I looked up Flylady, signed up for her emails and slowly, slowly, regained my organised life.

Most South Africans have never heard of Flylady. She is Marla Cilley, who lives in the United States, and runs an email service aimed at helping people deal with clutter and getting their homes more organised. Her business model is based on selling cleaning tools and organising aids, like a fabulous calendar, so that her website and emails remain free. She offers gently bossy advice, systems thinking and a sense of humour. (FLY stands for Finally Loving Yourself).

Tips for writing an Internet news poll

Today – August 8, 2018 – there’s a poll on the News24 website on the topic of breastfeeding. It asks:

Is breastfeeding in public scandalous?

  Yes, it’s something that should be done in private

  No, but cover yourself

  No, it’s natural and breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure

The results of a News24 poll on breastfeeding

The results of the News24 poll.

The poll is just one way of asking a question about a burning issue – using what I think of as the “putting words in people’s mouths” option.

On the same day, MSN South Africa is using the same option for the poll choices:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

Yes, we are well on our way

No, people are afraid of change

It’s already too late for us

Things will never ‘get that bad’

I’m ready to emigrate

The results of an MSN South Africa poll on South African politics

The results of the MSN South Africa poll

W24 has the other kind of poll, the one where the vote options are narrowed down simple yes/no choices – it is asking:

Are you attending the #TotalShutdown march?

Yes

No

The results of a Woman24 poll on the Total Shutdown march.

The results of the Woman24 poll.

All three are framed in a multiple choice format, and you don’t see the results of the poll until you have voted.

None of these polls will yield a scientific result, of course – they are really just little bits of Internet fluff, designed to draw readers’ attention to an issue, or drive them to read a story, or perhaps just to generate a few more clicks.

Yet they are all over the Internet, and if they are part of the furniture, then why not do them well?

I have a seat-of-the-pants set of guidelines to making polls. Here they are*:

  1. The poll should be topical, based on the site’s understanding of the news of the day – and it should be changed as soon as it becomes outdated (the W24 poll above refers to an event that has already happened… not such a good idea).
  2. The options should be clear and easy for readers to understand. And broadly applicable. I’d argue that the third option in the News24 poll doesn’t reflect a broad consensus. Lots of people probably think breast-feeding is natural – but it’s unclear how many of those would venture the opinion “breasts aren’t just for men’s sexual pleasure”. The option is harder to choose when so narrowly framed – so No, it’s natural would probably have done the job.
  3. The options should not overlap – they should be different enough that a genuine choice has to be made. In the MSN poll the options are not clearly different from each other. Yes, we are well on our way, and It’s already too late for us are options on the same continuum. People are afraid of change is hard to understand and people might be ready to emigrate for reasons other than a fear that South Africa is likely to become like Zimbabwe. My options as potential answers might have been a simple Yes/No/Maybe. And if I had to put words in people’s mouths I might have done it like this:

Could SA become the next Zimbabwe?

It’s a distinct possibility

No, we are a great country

We are already the next Zimbabwe!

 

  1. To get nuance right, run your poll past someone else – if they look blank, or bored, then you need to go back to the drawing board.
  2. Above all, put yourself in the reader’s shoes: run the question and options through in your mind as if you were seeing them for the first time. Do they make sense? Do they represent the sort of choices that most people might pick?

 

* I am doing some critique of the three polls I used as examples – not to show the particular sites up, but rather in a spirit of constructive criticism. I have made many flawed polls in my time!

The elements of a good headline

Newspaper page with headlines

The “joy to the weed” headline is a perfect example of one that relies on cultural understanding – in this case, it’s a reference to the Christian carol “Joy to the World”. Picture: Hayden Walker, Unsplash.

In the good old days of print journalism, in the depths of a smoke-filled subs room, there was one thing a junior sub-editor* wanted: for a grizzled night editor, or revise sub, to look over and say “Good headline”.
The elements of a good headline then were that it was clever or witty, or contained a subtle play on words. And the basis of that cleverness was the assumption that the newspaper and its readers had a shared understanding of the world.
The first time I got that “good headline” accolade was for a brief two-paragraph story about a doctor somewhere in the East who was using ants (or some by-product of ants) to cure people of a long-forgotten (by me) ailment. My headline was:

Take two ants,
call me later

In a 1982 medical paper, the reference is explained – it’s based on “take two aspirin and call me in the morning”, an age-old joke about the telephone advice given by a doctor trying to get a little extra sleep.

A strategy for working with house style guides

Two style guide books

Two style guides with which I have grappled: the Cape Times Style Book is the 1974 edition, while Do It In Style dates from 1995.

The Associated Press has cast a very big stone among the editing pigeons: they have changed their style and now say that “more than” and “over” can both be used to indicate a greater numerical value. This probably passed most of the world by, but in the editing world it is a very big deal (read more on that from the inimitable Grammar Girl).

The reason editors have their knickers in knots is that AP is the custodian of the one of the most influential style guides on the planet. Many US publications use their guide, and when they change the rules it is taken very, very seriously.

Tips for making content look good on the web

Fountain pen nib and writing on a page

Writing in Russian cyrillic script with a fountain pen. Picture: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons

Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?

The short answer is not really.

Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.

That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web – and those are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. Let’s break this down.

When you are reading text on a page:

* You can see the text in a large context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance along with its pictures and headlines and pull quotes and so on.

* You are likely to be spending a little time with text – with a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to read and inwardly digest as the saying goes.

When you are reading text on a screen:

* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other illustrations.

* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small bits of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.

Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways – there is a whole field of research called eyetracking with keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a F-Shaped pattern. There’s a lot of detail on that but the takeaway for the purposes of this articles is making an assumption that people start at the top of an article and read to the bottom is not useful. Research also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:

“the vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”

So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading. Vital elements of formatting for the web (or the smartphone) include:

  • Bolding important words
  • Bulleted lists (like this one!)
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Making sure the important information is easy to find
  • Visually grouping related content
  • Including pictures, maps and graphics

In other words, break the text up. Long screens on text simply don’t cut it!

Things I have learned from being retrenched (twice)

In 2002 I was at last pregnant

After two years of fertility treatment, we had done it. Things were going well. We owned our own house, our relationship was strong, I had a good job. I was worried about how I was going to manage a baby and a career but I thought I would figure it out.

That was not how it was going to pan out, though.

At about the six or seven months mark of my pregnancy, I found myself in the boss’s office being told that my job was being made redundant. I was given a good package and a generous baby shower, and shown the door.

My therapist was a little unsympathetic, pointing out that being retrenched was not as bad as, say, losing a baby. With hindsight, she was of course right.

But retrenchment is not nothing, either.

Dodge fake news by using reputable sources – here’s a list

Tablet showing words like news and agencies

Picture: Nick Youngson, Alpha Stock Images

A whole cottage industry has sprung up among journalists, reacting to the phenomenon of “fake” news. There’s no doubt this is a crucially important issue for our craft, and much needs to be discussed and done.

In the heat of that debate, though, we perhaps forget about readers, who are wondering if they will be the next person to share – inadvertently – some spurious bit of nonsense or propaganda. With that person in mind, I was interested to come across a list of WikiTribune’s preferred news sources.

WikiTribune, according to its Wikipedia entry, is a news website in which journalists with established backgrounds “research, syndicate and report on widely publicised news stories alongside volunteers who curate articles by proofreading, fact-checking, suggesting possible changes, and adding sources from other, usually long established outlets”.