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”.

News in the time of Generation Z

Group of teenagers on their phones

Picture: Nben54, Wikimedia Commons

I’m not sure I care much for the “generation” way of looking at the world. Baby boomer, Millennial… who cares, we are all people really.

These sweeping generalisations are not often useful – but I think there might be an exception: the cohort of people apparently called “the Linkster generation” or Generation Z. (Linkster? Surely not. I will be sticking with Z.)

The London Independent reckons that Generation Z makes up about 18 percent of the world’s population. These people grew up with social media, smart phones and apps. “Not only this, but someone born in 2002 is just going to have turned 15-years-old meaning they are developing into adults surrounded by both the help, expertise and pressures of social media, the internet and advanced technology.” (Wikipedia gives a wider date range for the birth years of Gen Z:  “demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to early-2000s as starting birth years.”)

Books I Have Been Reading – April 2018

Bill Bryson book with beer in the background

Bill Bryson and a beer, while waiting for a flight at the airport. Picture: Renee Moodie

I have been banging on about the importance of reading for the last two weeks, and thought it might be useful to list the books that I have been reading myself, over the last month or so. I try to read as much as possible, but sometimes life gets in the way.

Still, here’s what’s been keeping me busy:

The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain

Much-loved travel writer Bill Bryson revisits Great Britain, going to a variety of villages and cities as he reflects on how the nation has changed since he wrote Notes from a Small Island. He is funny as always, but older and crabbier. And some of the things he has to say about Britain made me feel a little sad.

Where did I lay my hands on it? My mother had it on six-week loan from her local library and loaned it to me because it was a Bryson that had somehow escaped my notice till now.

English 101: How to turn yourself into a reader

Magazines on a rack

Read newspapers and magazines. Picture: Robert Couse-Baker, flickr

Last week, I suggested that being a reader is one of the keys to success as a journalist.
More specifically, I was thinking of how reading can help people required to write in languages other than their mother tongue.
Today, I thought it might be useful to make some suggestions about how to approach your reading adventure, and what to read (note: many of these recommendations have resonance in the South African market, but with some thought, similar sources can be found in other regions of the world).