It’s OK to Write Multiple Drafts
Sometimes, your initial UX writing drafts fall short. It’s ok to rewrite things and suggest design changes. Here’s a quick example of that.
Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.
Sometimes, your initial UX writing drafts fall short. It’s ok to rewrite things and suggest design changes. Here’s a quick example of that.
If customers ask certain questions so often that your company requires a dedicated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, the answers should be so obvious that they write themselves, right?
Creating a user-friendly FAQ page can take a lot of work—and, frankly, I think it’s kind of fun. In fact, for a while I was known as the de facto “FAQ person” on our content team because I like revising them so much. They allow me to get my hands dirty; with FAQs, I get to rearrange sentences and phrases wholesale, cut deadwood, and put myself into the place of the reader to ask questions. Then, when the stakeholders provide feedback on my changes, I get to go to town and create something useful, organized, and correct.
In short, working on an FAQ list can be an editor’s dream. Plus, since the content in question is so customer focused (and since most organizations that create FAQS have the good sense to realize that customer satisfaction leads to more money), FAQ documents involve a lot less ego than other forms of content. You can put all the bloated corporate jargon you want into a Mission Statement page, but a truly useful set of FAQs will keep the bloat to a minimum.
However, you may need to edit a few sets before you get the hang of it. In this article, I’ll discuss the lessons I’ve learned from editing several FAQ documents for a large Canadian telecom company, and the ways in which FAQs compare to other types of copy.
First off, don’t get too frightened of the whole concept of an FAQ. Good FAQs should follow plain language guidelines, including:
Structural editing principles also apply to editing FAQs, just as with other documents.
I’ve also found that the workflow for FAQs is similar to the workflows for other types of documents that I’ve worked on in the same environment: after going through a few rounds of revision with stakeholders, I then send the file to our legal department for a quick once-over, after which it goes to the translation department.
When substantively editing copy, you have probably learned that you shouldn’t cram multiple ideas or concepts into a single paragraph—or have probably given the same recommendation to the authors you’re working with. This advice holds true for FAQs. However, instead of restricting ideas to separate paragraphs, restrict them to separate questions.
For example, the FAQs that I edit often involve informing customers about changes in the company’s TV and telephone services, or telling them how to take advantage of a new product or service. In such instances, it’s more reader friendly to have questions that address each of the following topics individually:
This advice sounds straightforward, but there’s an important corollary to remember, which is…
A few years ago, I edited an FAQ document about reserving a new smartphone in advance of its official launch date. The original draft of the FAQ asked the following two questions in sequence:
There were two big problems here. The first is that Question #1 was asking the wrong thing—the FAQ document was meant to discuss the process of reserving a device, and product pricing is technically independent of the reservation process.
The second problem is that Question #1 didn’t mention a reservation fee at all, even though it should have—the reservation fee, and its associated amount, were first mentioned only in Question #2, and mentioned in such a way that it assumed the reader already knew about the fee!
When I realized this, I created an entirely new question from scratch to address this issue, and made a comment about my decision for all of the stakeholders involved to review. The final version of the FAQ ended up having this sequence of questions instead:
Even though I created a new question from scratch, this was still a benefit to the FAQ document as a whole; because of my revisions, the revised document with the new question was still shorter than the ambiguous, obfuscatory original.
Sometimes FAQ documents can be several pages long. One of the risks of this is that the longer the document, the higher the likelihood of repeating your answers from one question to another. Your Subject Matter Expert may state in the answer to Question #8 that customers can call the help line to find out if their account has been suspended, and not remember that this information was also mentioned in Question #3.
In such cases, most project managers or SMEs I’ve worked with are happy to merge the two answers together or delete the repetitive answer entirely. Like most types of web content, brevity counts, and your colleagues will probably welcome any way to reduce the word count without sacrificing clarity.
The company that I work for has two major brand identities. One brand is geared towards mainstream users. The other is geared to a younger, Millennial demographic. As a result, I often have to look at two FAQ pages at once that contain the same information but are written in very different styles for very different audiences.
This means that when I edit these FAQs, I have to make sure that the content I revise is not only factually correct, but also tonally correct. We might refer to “customer care representatives” in one document, while in another document, we might call the same types of workers “customer service rockstars” instead.
Basically, what this means is that your FAQs should not be the philosophical equivalent of cardboard — functional but completely boring and non-descript. Instead, think of your FAQs as a lush meadow — inviting and comfortable to visitors.
If writing and editing web content in general is something that you’re still nervous about, it helps to remember that many of the philosophical concerns behind good editing are the same no matter what the medium. However, if this article has given you a hankering to learn more about web content and content strategy in general, I highly recommend the following two books:
This article is an updated version of one I wrote that was previously published by Corrigo in 2016.
I get several flyers in the mail every week. Most are conventional: coupons, sales, and so forth. However, I sometimes find one that catches my eye.
Unfortunately, one caught my eye last week for the wrong reasons. It was such a jumble of information that I had no idea what to focus on when I read it — which means it’s a valuable educational tool.
So, today, I want to talk about what you shouldn’t do when designing print advertising, using this flyer as an example.
I made a copy for you, too — download it and follow along. There’s even a screenshot on this page so you know what to expect.
Note: This is not the actual flyer. This is a mockup that I made to show the flyer’s poor design elements while also maintaining the privacy of the organization that made it. While some phrases from the original flyer remain in this mockup, all identifying information has been removed.
The first thing you’ll notice about this flyer is that aside from the header and footer, it contains 3 columns of nearly continuous text. The columns contain subheadings, lines, and the occasional bullet point, but those features disappear when you squint your eyes.
The thing is, studies have shown that people rarely finish big walls of text online. Instead, they skim and pick out the information that most applies to them. Considering how much the online world has affected our media overall, I’m sure that those reading habits hold true in print, especially for advertisements.
This is related to, but not the same thing as, Mistake #1. It’s possible to have a lot of text and still use white space judiciously to encourage readability. White space calms the eye and encourages readers to keep on reading. However, this flyer doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s an avalanche of information, and it gives readers very little opportunity to rest their eyes and reflect.
Contrast that with print advertising examples like this, where the use of white space to convey visual interest and additional information is what makes several of those ads so remarkable. Granted, this flyer wasn’t designed with memorability in mind, but research has shown the importance of white space to readability.
In this flyer, I have no idea which information is the most important. Where am I supposed to start, and where am I supposed to end? Should I just read everything in order from the top of the leftmost column to the bottom of the rightmost column in order to find the one piece of information that might help me?
Put another way, there’s no sense of hierarchy. No textual element immediately grabs my eye to help me get my bearings.
As a result, I have no idea where to focus my attention. There’s no underlying visual path to lead me through the maze of the text. In contrast, here’s a great example of a print ad with dense text that still has a coherent visual path.
You’ll notice that the mockup contains phrases like “employment counselling,” “skill development,” and “language instruction.” Those phrases are one of the few indications that remain of who originally created this flyer, and why. The flyer is meant to promote community services to people in need.
This means that the mistakes outlined above lead to the worst problem of all: they show that the organization behind the flyer was more interested in listing everything it did rather than addressing the needs of its target audience. Chances are this choice was made with the best intentions — Every program we offer is important, and we can’t omit any information! I hear them think.
However, imagine who benefits the most from the kind of employment, education, and settlement programs that this organization offers. These programs are meant to help people who:
In other words, this organization helps the kind of people who are least likely to be able to understand this flyer’s wall of text and most likely to benefit from better readability because they’re experiencing bandwidth poverty.
In that context, think about what a missed opportunity this flyer is. The people it means to help are those most likely to be overwhelmed by its breadth of information. Do you think that was the plan?
I certainly don’t. And I certainly think it’s a pity.
I’m not a designer. But even so, I think several things could be done to make this flyer more effective. These include:
Of course, a lot of other things could be done to make this print advertising more effective. These are only a few. But you need to walk before you can run.
Amid all this talk about plain language and writing web copy, it seems like a smart idea to pull back and look at things from the other side. A lot of the myths about editors out there exist because people don’t really know what editing entails.
So what do you do if you think you’re looking for an editor, but aren’t completely sure? What exactly do editors do, and what types of editorial tasks are there?
The Editors’ Association of Canada lists 12 types of editorial skills on its website — the variety might surprise you. However, broadly speaking, most editing is broken down into 4 types: substantive editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Also broadly speaking, the stages of the editorial process are approached in the order outlined above as a piece of text moves from beginning to end, from creation to publication.
Let’s look at each in turn.
This type of editing is also called “structural” editing. This is the stage of the editorial process where, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, your editor will look at things like character development, pacing, dialogue, and plot. At this stage an editor will analyze how your story holds together and determine if there are any issues (eg: plot holes or unclear character motivation) that you need to address in a future draft. In non-fiction contexts the process is very similar, though I personally have not worked with book-length non-fiction. An excellent source for information about non-fiction substantive editing is Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers.
Substantive editing involves looking at the bones of your work, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and seeing if any of those bones are fractured or dislocated. During a substantive edit, editors will ask themselves questions like:
If you’re a fiction writer who is part of a critique group, you’re probably familiar with this process — many of the comments you might receive from your group members mirror those that a substantive editor would give you. (This is something I’ve had personal experience with as part of a critique group.)
This is also known as “stylistic” editing. Not many traditional publishers have dedicated line editors anymore; instead, both substantive and copy editors may handle various aspects of this process. Instead of looking at things from a section-by-section level as substantive editors would, line editors focus on the text line by line and paragraph by paragraph to ensure smoothness, clarity, and flow. During a line edit, editors will ask themselves questions like:
Again, if you’re a fiction writer in a critique group, line editing concerns often pop up in critiques, and for good reason. For example, you might have a certain stock word or phrase you’re unaware of.
Hey Bob, can you give this a quick proofread for me? I think there’s a word missing here.
Chances are that when a colleague or friend asks you this, what they’re looking for is not a true proofread, but a copy edit. Copy editing (or rather, what those not in the know consider proofreading) is all about checking text for errors in grammar, syntax, and punctuation. However, there’s more to copy editing than just mindlessly shuffling through a dictionary. Copy editing is about consistency just as much as correctness, as this short post by Ken Follett illustrates:
First [my copy editor] checks spelling and punctuation. Now, my spelling is not bad, and I always look up difficult words such as Khrushchev (three aitches) or Willy Brandt (not Willi Brand). But she always finds some errors.
Then she checks consistency, just like the continuity person on a movie set, who makes sure that if the actor is wearing a green sweater when he goes to the front door, he’s wearing the same sweater two weeks later when they film him coming out of the house. A copy editor makes a note that Rebecca is thirty in 1961, and checks that when we get to 1971 I don’t absent-mindedly say she’s forty-five.
There is a whole host of things that copy editor check for aside from the usual culprits of grammar, continuity, and punctuation — a topic so large it warrants a post of its own.
So if checking for grammar issues isn’t proofreading, what is?
It’s checking page proofs — but let’s step back a bit to understand what “proofs” really are.
After a manuscript has been edited, it’s then sent to a typesetter/designer. This person takes the edited text and actually does the physical/visual layout of the book, making sure that all of a work’s textual and visual elements — tables, images, page numbers, captions, running heads and footers, and so forth — form a harmonious visual whole.
However, the initial typesetting is far from perfect. There may be pages where only one word is printed, dangling there, separate from the rest of the paragraph on the previous page. Sometimes the spacing between certain elements (eg: subheadings and the following text) is inconsistent from page to page. In other situations, a word or phrase change significantly in meaning if there’s a bad line break in the text, like in this stunning example. When typesetters actually save the page design (usually using a program like Quark or InDesign), they either print the files out or export them to a digital format like PDF. Those files are what we really mean when we say “page proofs.”
Proofreading is all about looking at those proofs as a visual whole and pointing out issues in spacing and placement to the typesetter. In addition, proofreaders correct any (hopefully few) remaining errors in the text that the copy editor didn’t catch.
Because proofreading is one of the final editorial stages before the actual printing process, a good proofreader (or a good author!) will not introduce major changes to the text unless absolutely necessary. This is because adding a completely new chapter — or even a completely new paragraph — runs the risk of upsetting the visual flow of the entire document, potentially introducing further new bad breaks or spacing issues. Proofreading is not the time to add “one more thing”. Instead it’s the detail work, the final sculpting of your text before the clay dries completely.
Chances are that the further away your text is from publication, the more editing your text needs. As you refine your writing with the help of an editor, you’ll get closer and closer to the proofreading stage. Understanding that fact is a great place to start when you’re looking for editorial help.
Title: Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose
Authors: Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
Publisher: New Riders Publishing
Rating: 4 out of 5
Writing can be a daunting prospect for many people, and the way that the internet has changed both how we write and how we read can make it even more so. But the realities of the modern marketing world demand writing that’s user-friendly and easy to understand. What’s a verbophobe to do?
Well, a good place to start is by reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. I’ve been writing for years in the context of websites and content management, and this is one of the most concise, thorough, and welcoming guides to online writing and editing that I’ve come across.
What really makes this book special is that it follows its own advice. All throughout, one of the most constant pieces of advice in it is to write in a friendly way that’s similar to how you would talk – and this book does that! A lot of writing and style guides take on a more authoritative tone, and sound intimidating as a result. This one doesn’t.
Nicely Said also imagines building a website from the ground up. It even uses an imaginary small business as a recurring example throughout the book of how to write and organize a website: Shortstack Books, an independent bookstore.
As the book discusses the process of doing research, writing mission statements, creating a wire frame, implementing consistent vocabulary, and even writing error messages and terms of service pages, it uses the example of Shortstack Books as its frame of reference. Although it’s a familiar technique, it works — it grounds the advice and keeps the topic from getting too abstract.
The book also includes case studies from several online companies like Etsy and Google, and provides several examples of good and bad web copy so you know what to do and what to avoid. What makes my particular editorial heart sing is that there are multiple chapters devoted to the topic of revision and workflow — processes that ordinarily strike non-communication-types with dread.
The only problem I have with Nicely Said is that it takes for granted the way the web works in 2013 and 2014. This book risks sounding dated very quickly.
However, that’s a small caveat. This is an extremely useful resource for people in a variety of contexts, like web developers and designers, not just writers and editors.
Whoa! The “4 Myths About Editors” post has really taken off in the past few days. Thanks so much for all the positive feedback!
What I want to talk about today is related to one of the myths I discussed in that post: the idea that an editor will change your voice so much that it won’t sound like “you” anymore.
This concern is based on the idea that an editor will dilute what you have to say. However, good editing achieves the opposite — it strengthens and concentrates your voice, instead of weakening it. One way that editors do so is by removing crutch words.
Crutch words are the filler words people use that don’t add any value or information, and are often used to buy time when deciding what to say. Adverbs like “really” and “very” are a common culprit here — while they can add emphasis when used judiciously, overusing them makes for flabby writing. Here’s an example of what I mean, courtesy of Camilla Blakely, my copy editing teacher at Ryerson. Look at this sentence:
I was really quite scared.
Then compare that one to this:
I was terrified.
Which sentence sounds more vivid? I think you can guess — it’s the second one. In fact, the first sentence has the curious effect of making the speaker sound less scared than in the second sentence despite the use of multiple intensifiers. Technically, both sentences mean the same thing, but they convey completely opposed images.
However, the true insidiousness of crutch words lies in how goddamned often they pop up in writing, sapping the willpower of your readers as they roll your eyes over your limited vocabulary.
Want an example?
You probably remember this kid from when a video featuring him went viral earlier this summer. Here it is:
If you want to skip the video, here’s a transcript, an excerpt of which is below:
Kid: It was great. And apparently I’ve never been on live television before. But, apparently sometimes I don’t watch the – I don’t watch the news. Because I’m a kid. And apparently every time – apparently grandpa gives me the remote after we watch the powerball.
Reporter: Tell me about the ride, what did you think about the ride?
Kid: Well it was great.
Kid: Because, you are spinning around. Apparently every time you get dizzy.
The video became popular because this kid peppered his speech with the word “apparently” so much that it was obvious he had no idea what “apparently” meant. It’s cute when a little kid uses words incorrectly — it’s a sign of their brains developing, and though we don’t want to admit it, much of our laughter was paternalistic.
But you know what’s super annoying? When a person old enough to know better does the same thing. Even worse is that in certain contexts, using a crutch word can undermine your credibility, as this article from Workopolis shows. An excerpt is below:
Him: “I was basically responsible for the content strategy. The senior editor had me running the day to day updates and maintaining the websites. I always kept the sites fresh by having the newest stories featured front and centre.”
Me: “So you weren’t actually in charge of the editorial websites, you just basically updated them with the newest stories as they came in.”
Him: “Basically, yes.”
I suppose it isn’t necessary to say that I didn’t hire this editor for the role. His resume got his foot in the door for the interview, but he proceeded to undercut all of his alleged accomplishments by saying that he had “basically” done them.
I’ve actually not done justice in this piece to how often he said the word. It was so frequent that I suspect it may even have been a nervous tic. If so, I hope he’s overcome it by now.
Let me tell you a story.
A few years ago, I was at a networking event and chatting with an older gentleman sitting next to me. I spoke at length to him about a book I had read recently and why I found it so interesting. After I was done, here’s what he said:
Him: You know what I like about you?
Me: No. What?
Him: You didn’t use the word “like” at all [as a filler] when you spoke to me just now.
People notice when you use crutch words. I consider this compliment — from a man whose name I don’t even remember! — as one of the best I’ve ever received in my life.
I want you to try something: the next time you’re listening to a friend talk or reading someone’s long-winded status update, pay attention to what words they overuse. Then imagine a big noisy “beep” sound over that word, like it’s being censored on a trashy talk show. Imagine that “beep” popping up every time those words appear. The more you hear that sound, the more it aggravates you, right? Now imagine how your audience feels when you do the same thing in your own writing or speaking — your pauses and tics distract from the core of your message.
Do you really want to sound like a five-year-old, beeping and grasping at that handy yet important-sounding word because you can’t think of others that will do the job?
What’s worse is that it’s hard for us to recognize our own crutch words because they’re an important component of supporting our thought process. They’re the scaffolding we use when structuring what we want to say. What an editor does is take a look at that scaffolding and apply all the material needed to finish the job and make that support structure unnecessary — then the building behind the scaffolding can stand strong and tall as its shining walls catch the sun.
You could write books about what to cut out of your writing (and many have), but here’s a list of some common crutch words and phrases that appear in both written and spoken English:
When you find these words in your text, ask yourself a few questions:
Applying these questions to your own writing and cutting the words that don’t pass muster — that is, by doing what your editor would do — will make your writing stronger and more memorable.
What editors do is often kept hidden. In fact, a good editor is supposed to remain invisible by giving the text enough care and polish that it shines brightly and speaks for itself.
The thing is, when your goal is to be invisible, people get a distorted image of what you actually do. Myths about editors exist, and they’re pernicious. So what is editing, and what myths about editors are there? Here are four examples.
When most people think of editing, they think of fixing typos and grammatical errors, or what editors call “copy editing.” (This is what others often call “proofreading” — proofreading and copy editing are actually two different things.)
However, even in a typical copy edit, there’s far more going on than just spell-checking. For instance, copy editors are frequently on the lookout for:
Let’s say you’re writing a novel set in 1981 and you mention that a character is wearing a pastel shirt like the ones on Miami Vice. MS Word won’t double-check when the show started airing, but an editor will – and they’ll flag it, since the show started in 1984, three years after your story takes place.
Another example: you say your character’s eyes are blue in chapter one, but brown in chapter six. Would a spell-checker catch that?
I doubt it.
Of course, that’s assuming you’re working with a copy editor. A lot of editors don’t copy edit. Instead, they look at the text from a 50,000-foot view, examining the terrain and figuring out the deeper-level issues in your text that need fixing.
These people are known as structural or substantive editors. When reading your text, they ask themselves things like:
That’s more than just being a glorified spell-checker. Editing like that involves being a bloodhound on the trail for gaps, unclear thinking, and logical fallacies. I bet Clippy can’t do all that.
People often think of editors as know-it-alls wielding red pens, waiting to call you out on your misuse of a comma. Granted, there are people out there like that, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the spelling and grammar mistakes of others.
But honestly? Getting into a tizzy over every single error is pedantic. More than that, it’s exhausting. People make mistakes. The whole reason editors exist is to keep those mistakes to a minimum and make you look better.
More importantly, ridiculing you for every mistake is counterproductive to an editor’s aim, which is a positive working relationship. As an editor, it’s in my best interest to keep you as happy as possible about the small things, like fixing spelling mistakes, so I can create enough trust to bring up more serious problems, like bad transitions and inconsistent referencing.
Bad editors may do this. Overzealous editors who feel like they have something to prove may do this. I know there are horror stories out there.
But unless your writing is so bad that such heavy rewriting is necessary — and if it is, that’s something that a managing editor or project manager should discuss with you in detail — editors like that are the exception, not the rule.
It all goes back to fostering a good working relationship, like I mentioned in the second point above. Trust is both important and scarce, and the wholesale rewriting of text without consultation burns through a lot of trust quickly with no obvious benefit. Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot like that?
Fellow editor Antonia Morton has a clever saying:
George Orwell wrote: “Good prose is like a window pane.”
Editor Antonia Morton says: “Good editing is like a squirt of Windex.”
Wholesale rewriting is not good editing — that’s just shattering the window entirely.
Update: I delve into this myth more in my follow-up post “How Crutch Words Weaken Your Writing”
Remember that bit above about people making mistakes? It applies to editors too.
Embarrassing confession time: there are a lot of errors I haven’t caught when editing something. Usually they occur when the turnaround time for a project is very short. (A lesson to the wise: don’t underestimate the amount of time that good editing takes.)
Hell, I’ll admit to something even worse: I’ve committed the cardinal sin of introducing errors. This is a huge no-no. One time earlier this year, I was doing a rush job (remember what I just said about needing enough time to do good work?) for a client whose company included a bed and breakfast facility. During the process, I wrote the phrase “bread and breakfast” rather than “bed and breakfast”. This happened not once but twice. Once the client informed me of this, I made sure to fix the error as soon as possible and — after doing a quick scan in MS Word to make sure this error didn’t appear anywhere else in the document — sent back a cleaned-up copy.
The point is that no one is perfect. In fact, academics have studied error rates in various contexts. Fellow editor Adrienne Montgomerie discussed last year both on Copyediting.com and subsequently on her own site that no editor catches every single mistake. At best, estimates about error detection rates range from 95% to 99% among professional editors.
They’re like anyone else, really. They’re fallible, but they care about doing a good job. The difference here is that this job is an intensely personal one because many people see their writing as an extension of themselves — and if your writing is bad, what does that say about you as a person?
You are not a bad person. Your thoughts are worthy of expression.
All editors do is make that worthiness more apparent to the wider world.
One of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn as a writer was that using complex words was not a sign of good writing.
It’s a natural assumption to make. “Good” writing means writing that sounds “smart” — and what’s smarter than using vague or polysyllabic words that you really have to think about to understand?
How about using language that’s simple, clear, and gets its point across? In other words, how about plain language?
Understanding the value of plain language is something that a lot of individuals and businesses have trouble with. Hell, even the government of Canada hasn’t implemented plain language rules across all of its departments, as a recent news story about Revenue Canada has made clear.
Quick summary: an American firm reviewed thousands of letters sent to Canadian citizens by Revenue Canada (Canada’s version of the IRS) and found that they were “poorly organized, confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe, bureaucratic, one-sided and just plain dense”.
It gets worse, though. Turns out that having letters full of bureaucratic, complex language — AKA, what many people think sounds “smart” — has a huge cost:
All that gibberish comes with a human cost: confused taxpayers swamp the agency’s call centres with needless telephone inquiries, or they send thousands of letters to tax offices asking for clarification.
“Often the main purpose of the documents was not readily apparent, and other important information was scattered throughout the document or embedded in dense paragraphs,” Siegelvision said in its $25,000 review for the government.
The evaluation included an online survey of taxpayers by another firm, which asked respondents to examine a typical CRA notice that required the recipient to send the tax agency money. About half of those surveyed could not figure out they were supposed to write a cheque to the government because the document was so poorly written. [Emphasis added.]
Think about all of the waste in both time and money those poorly-written letters cause. Think about all of the money the government isn’t getting because people can’t understand that they need to submit a cheque.
Would you let “smart” sounding writing get in the way of actually getting the money you need to keep on going, whether you’re a business or individual?
I didn’t think so.
Put simply, plain language involves using common words and simple phrasing to make sure as many people as possible understand what you’re trying to say.
That doesn’t mean you have to sound like you’re writing for a five-year-old. But it does mean that you need to write clearly, avoiding heavily technical or insider-friendly terms. You have to assume that the people you’re talking to don’t know as much about your topic as you do.
Let’s face it, no one knows everything — but people do want to learn, and plain language is all about not getting in your reader’s way. Who knows how much money (literal and figurative) you’re leaving on the table otherwise?
Do you know what your business copy says about you? Not what you think it says, but what it actually says?
What if you want to look professional and competent but your business copy is secretly undermining you? Would you be able to see what you’re doing wrong?
Many don’t. But some do, and they know how to use language to appeal to different demographics. That’s why I found this recent article about the copy that Taco Bell uses on its menus so fascinating.
Quick recap: Dan Jurafsky, the author of The Language of Food, sat down with a writer for Mother Jones and compared two menus side-by-side. One menu was from Taco Bell, and the other was from U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s new upscale spinoff . Not surprisingly, the two menus have radically different copy based on what markets they’re targeting.
The upshot? Many of the things that Taco Bell does are things that you shouldn’t apply to your own business copy. Let’s look at a few.
One of the first things that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu uses a lot of descriptors like “fresh” and “fluffy” in its copy:
“So there’s all of those adjectives and participles,” he says. “‘Fluffy. ‘Seasoned.'” That’s one thing that’s common on cheaper restaurant menus — as if the restaurant feels the need to try and convince its diners of the quality of the food. A fancier restaurant, he explains, would take it as a given that the diner expects the eggs to be fluffy and the pico de gallo to be freshly prepared.
“Notice the word ‘flavorful,'” Jurafsky says. “The cheapest restaurants use these vague, positive adjectives. ‘Delicious.’ ‘Tasty.’ ‘Scrumptious.’ Wonderful. Again, more expensive restaurants take all that as a given.”
In contrast, the menu for U.S. Taco Co. is more spartan:
“What the really upscale restaurants these days are doing is just listing their ingredients. They don’t say “and” or “with.” It’s just a list.”
You’ve probably read more than your fair share of fluffy, meaningless writing yourself: adjective- and adverb-stuffed text talking about how “amazing” or “innovative” some product or service is, rather than what it actually does and letting the thing in question speak for itself.
Another big thing that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu had far more items on it than U.S. Taco Co.’s did:
There are dozens, if not hundreds of items. “The very, very fancy restaurants, many of them have no menu at all,” Jurafsky says. “The waiter tells you what you’re going to eat, kind of. If you want, they’ll email you a menu if you really want it.”
One of the first things I learned when starting out as a freelancer was to focus on a few things and do them well. How many times have you met someone at an event and heard about the dizzying variety of services they offer, some of them completely unrelated to each other?
Focusing on complementary services or sectors is fine — but do any more than two or three, and you’re beginning to look unfocused at best, and desperate at worst. In fact, that’s why this year I narrowed my focus even further to just writing and editing, letting the WordPress side of my business go.
A third thing that Jurafsky noticed in both menus was their differing attitude towards Spanish. Here’s Taco Bell:
…. the word “jalapeño” is missing its tilde — the little squiggle over the “n” that signifies a “nye” pronunciation in Spanish words. Jurafsky isn’t sure whether the missing “ñ” is linguistically meaningful, but keep it in mind, because it will become important when we look at U.S. Taco Co.’s menu.
In contrast, here’s U.S. Taco Co.:
“There are more unusual Spanish words on this menu,” he [Jurafsky] says. Taco Bell has “burrito” and “taco.” Everyone knows those. But “here we have ‘molcajete’ and’cotija.’ Every item has at least one Spanish word. And there’s the “ñ” in jalapeño!
A single letter may be trivial, but it means a lot — in this context, it shows one restaurant trying to be more authentic (a loaded word, I know) than the other. On top of that, the more upscale menu is using more obscure words — it’s trying to be a bit more culturally diverse. (Though honestly, considering Taco Bell is the parent company, I’m trying not to read too much into this.)
These lessons can be boiled down easily because they follow well-known rules of good business copy:
More importantly, what does not following these rules mean?
It means you look cheap. There’s no other way to put it.
Think about the content mills that charge writers only one or two cents a word. Those writers have to keep their heads above water, which means that they can’t afford to spend time writing copy that’s concrete and well-informed if they have to meet a certain word count — it’s much faster for them to slip in filler words “really” and “quite” to put them over the top.
If you don’t value your business enough to invest in clear, concrete writing, then you’ll probably attract customers with a similarly cavalier approach to value and price. When it comes to your business, is that really the impression you want to give?
In September I wrote a blog post about my experience with Ryerson’s publishing program. At the end of the post, I said I would provide more info for people who want to learn more about editing or who want to be editors. So here’s a huge list of resources for editors!
These links aren’t organized in any particular order. Some links may be repeated as they apply to multiple sections.
Please note that these links focus on freelance editing. If you’re an in-house editor, or if you’re a designer, bookseller, or marketer, I would love to hear about your recommended resources in the comments.
Many people think that editing involves primly marking up errors in red pen. However, it requires more than that. You have to be curious, thoughtful, and aware of your own biases. Here are some excellent pages about what it means to be a good editor.
Joining a professional association will allow you to connect with other editors, and that is extremely important. Depending on the organization, you can also benefit from mediation services, group insurance plans, group discounts, and more. Some organizations also offer discounted membership if you’re still a student.
Sometimes you need to hear that other editors are going through the same thing as you. These people offer great info and advice.
Editing involves more than knowing grammar. You also have to understand the ways that language changes. These people provide varying perspectives on this process.
Short on time? These sites provide a concentrated dose of helpful info.
Are there any websites that you think I should add? Let me know in the comments.