Simple HTML for content creators

No one becomes a journalist or a writer because they are interesting in coding.*

And yet, here we all are producing content for websites – which means that the text we produce will inevitably be underpinned by code.

For all the everyday things that we do to text for the web, the underlying language is something called HTML (or hypertext mark-up language).
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Everyone is a writer. Everyone is an editor

I know, I know. A writer is someone who writes books. An editor does something important at a newspaper. That’s not you, right?

But every time you write an email, or post something on Facebook, you are writing.

Every time you go to the local print shop and organise a card or a flyer for your business, you are writing.
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Blogging 101: Just make a content plan

Example of a content plan

My content plan for 2019.

It is now three and half months since I last wrote a blog post.

In spite of my undoubted time management skills and all I have learned about being a freelancer, it seems I still have a long way to go.

Essentially, I took on a lot of work. And tried to have a holiday – and then was still doing the work that I took on in 2018.

I have been doing ten, eleven hour days and ditching everything that seems non-essential – including my commitment to write something every week.

None of this is complaining, dear reader: I am glad of the work, and glad to be busy -but work-life balance has been out of whack.

There is now a little gap before the next round of proofing comes along (the biggest bit of work I am doing is project managing and proofreading a book for a local publisher – that double whammy is something I won’t be doing again) and so I sat down to see if I could write something, anything to get things going again.

My blog is not the most widely read of productions, and I don’t imagine people have been sitting around wondering what happened to me – rather, the weekly discipline of sitting down to write, and the accompanying reflection and research, are what I have been missing.

The other thing I have been putting off is a content plan for the year – and that’s another reason I haven’t been writing regularly.

I teach a workshop on writing engaging content for the web at a local high school, and one of the things I talk about is the importance of a content plan. The idea is to sit down and make a spreadsheet with the weeks (or months – whatever your schedule is) of the year and try to fill each week with an idea for something to write. These can be tied to external events (on National Cat Day, write something about cats for instance) or they can be internally generated (one of my areas of focus is editing, so I will devote the month of May to posts about editing, for instance). Or a mix of both.

However it is created, a content plan is a godsend for that day when you have no ideas and no momentum and no time to think: you just sit down and start doing what the list says.

So – a content plan, and a post for next week. I had best get on with it.

Main Picture: Andrew Neel, Unsplash

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!

How to generate ideas for your writing

Painting by Adriano Cecchi

Learn the fine art of eavesdropping. Painting by Adriano CecchiI had forgotten how much I enjoy training.

Last night, I did a two-hour workshop on making blog content interesting at Bergvliet High School in Cape Town, which runs a very good continuing education programme.
It was small group, which made it possible for everybody to ask all their questions, and for me to answer queries and go over material in some detail.
Arising out of the workshop, I thought I’d share our starting point, which was how to generate ideas for writing interesting blog posts. Continue reading

Little language tip: Distressed, distraught

I spotted this on a site which shall remain nameless*.

In an article about a musician who had killed two people in a car crash was this phrase, used as a subhead:

“Singer takes to Facebook to express his distraught”.

Distraught is an adjective and can’t be used in that place in the sentence. The verb “express” needs a noun, and the right one here would be “distress”. The singer, on the other hand, can be distraught (or distressed).

  • I never mention the sites or names of authors where I spot mistakes. My purpose is not to name and shame or score points.