Gentle Reader, Stay Awhile; I Will Be Faithful

by Amber Simmons

32 Reader Comments

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your suggestion that we write for one person.  I’m in the radio business and just as in writing, the best broadcasters speak to only one person, the listener.

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  2. Amber, you say that online readers tend to have little patience; however, I had to read over 200 words of your article (not including the wonderfully vague title) to really understand what it is about.

    My impression (rightly or wrongly) from this – especially given ALA’s audience – is that you are writing for yourself rather than your reader.

    Overall, I like the theme of your article, although it was a struggle to get through it, largely because of presentational issues. One of your paragraphs is 10 lines and 175 words long!

    As a reader I look at that and see a block of intimidating text and am inclined to skip straight to the next paragraph.

    Much as I like the advice you offer, I would suggest that readers would be better off learning the basic rules of writing for the web before moving on to your ‘master class’.

    As a suggestion, most news sites such as the BBC are a great place to learn how to write compelling content that is also readable.

    Alternatively, I link to a number of “good articles about writing for the web”:http://www.smileycat.com/miaow/archives/cat_writing_for_the_web.html on my own site.

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  3. What has especially touched me is your comment about “just one reader.” I was reminded recently of this idea when a friend who I’d not seen for over a year asked how my podcast was doing. “Not so well,” I glumly told him, “only about 800 listeners.”

    He was dumbfounded. “When I saw you last year, when you were starting,” he said,“you were giddy because you had dozens of listeners!”

    He was right. I had started it thinking that if I only had 5 listeners, I’d be happy. And when I do public speaking, it’s not to the audience, it’s in the engaging, conversational style I learned from my father. I’d not thought of applying it to writing, but I suspect the best writing I do does apply this idea.

    Thanks—looking forward to reading your other work. And very jealous that you live in one of the coolest cities in the nation.

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  4. I agree with Christian’s criticisms. Way too many words for web writing! Needs more Strunk & White.

    Also, can I humbly suggest a global moratorium on the use of the ultra-cliche “at the end of the day”? Every time I read this phrase, I cringe, and I have to force myself to keep reading any further.

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  5. The snapshot blurb off to the right of the article is an excellent innovation.  It’s also “faithful” by giving us readers an idea of what the article is all about before we begin.  I suggest moving it into the main column, above the article, as a guide to readers.

    Also, on the idea of writing for one reader… we use that on the site I work on but it’s tough to get scientists and researchers to write for a general audience.  Practical ideas on how to achieve some of the ideas mentioned in your article would be helpful.

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  6. The snapshot idea is definitely a good one – too bad it’s in the wrong place. I never even noticed it. Why can’t the summary or snapshot go at the beginning of the article?

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  7. While I agree the post was a bit wordy, I’m glad I read it. It’s an issue I’ve been struggling with myself. When I started my blog late last year, it was mostly for my family and friends. But somewhere along the line, I was seduced by the idea that I could write to attract “traffic” that could generate clicks and revenue. Not only had I lost sight of my reader, I wasn’t even thinking in terms of an audience. And it wasn’t long before I realized I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore.

    I was reminded of why I started when my aunt asked why I hadn’t posted in so long. So, thanks for the reality check.

    I have my reader.

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  8. Perhaps using words like “zeitgeist” ( which your casual reader might have to take a time-out to go jaunting off to Merriam-Webster On-line to check the context of… ) in an informative article might want to be re-thought. I was doing great up to that point. ;-)

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  9. Perhaps using words like “zeitgeist”? “¦ in an informative article might want to be re-thought. [sic]

    Why? Is it so hard to look up a word once and a while—particularly when it is used in a context such that the meaning can be deduced by the reader?

    If I know a date will be attached to my work, it is probably less important to place my writing in its proper cultural or historical context. On the other hand, it doesn’t hurt to remind my reader of the zeitgeist that shapes my work.

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  10. So far, everyone who has commented on wordiness have been male, as best as I can deduce from the names provided.

    As I read, I thought, “This is pretty feminine for an ALA article”.  There was no value judgement in the thought, just a general observation.

    Is it wordiness, or is it communicating ideas differently than we are accustomed, particularlay in a “technical” journal like ALA?  Does this stylistic differencee have anything to teach us?  Does it offer any additional food for thought in the context of the content of the article?  Could it even have been a conscience decision on the part of the author?

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  11. (And as for zeitgeist”¦c’mon, folks. If you hope to become a better writer, you can’t afford to be a lazy reader.)

    Exactly.

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  12. Consider the context of this article.

    It is in the “writing” section of ALA.

    Given this, I don’t think “wordiness” is really an issue.

    I appreciate the substance, and if that is acheived by 10 line paragraphs this a good thing.

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  13. I wonder if the practice of writing to one user would still be ideal in instructional type articles. In this I am frequently diffusing and correcting common thoughts and approaches to things that just don’t work. “You might have tried…”, “You’re probably thinking…”, etc. Which assumes some level of missunderstanding on the reader. I would rather assume that misunderstanding on an unspecified audience. “Some people have attempted..”, “Many think the best way is to…”

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  14. “I’ve personally noticed that forum comments vary in certain ways depending on the sex of the article’s author.“

    I’d be interested to learn what these observations are.

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  15. Interesting article, but does anyone really ask questions like these?

    “What prompted the author to write this article?
    What greater context surrounds this work?”

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  16. First of all, let me thank y’all for the feedback. I’d like to address a couple of the concerns raised here, particularly the notion of the piece being too long or wordy.

    I think it’s important to keep in mind whom this piece is written for. While I would be thrilled to hear that non-writers got something out of this article, essentially it is written for writers. Most writers tend to be voracious readers; we love words, and we tend to enjoy making en emotional connection with whatever we’re reading (I would even argue that is true of casual readers, too.) It’s very difficult to achieve the appropriate emotional connection with a subject like this with few words. Although I’m writing for the web, I don’t believe in sacrificing the human connection with my reader in order to be in line with current web writing standards.

    This brings me to my second point. I accept that in today’s world casual readers don’t read online; they skim.  Historically, the web has been an unfriendly place for readers: pages weren’t designed for ease of reading, content (let alone grammar or style) was a secondary consideration.  Why would anyone invest time in a hostile environment like that? But I’m looking toward tomorrow.  I see writers and designers working together to make pages easy and inviting to read. I see them building pages that are engaging, accurate, interesting. I’m looking forward to when readers will read online, and I want to challenge other writers to usher in that era by writing good, engaging content, even if that means it’s long. Writers train their readers, and as the content of the web changes, the way casual readers approach online content will change, too. If we don’t raise the bar higher, the web will never improve. And that, to me, is unacceptable.

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  17. Student Organization Guy, you make a good point. It’s never good to alienate a reader, especially by making negative assumptions about him. You’ll notice in my article I chose to use the pronoun “I” instead of “you”. I didn’t want to say, “If you’re a good writer…” because that could be construed as judgmental and/or derogatory. But by using “I” instead, the reader won’t take my words too personally, and can stay attentive without getting his feelings hurt or being insulted.

    I do think you can write for a single reader regardless of what you’re writing. It isn’t necessarily about word choice, but about tone, style, and approach. If you think about it, the vast majority of people who read your work online are sitting at the computer by themselves. Reading is a solitary process anyway. I think we make the process that much more engaging when we acknowledge that and write appropriately.

    Do good readers ask questions about greater context and author motivation? Yes, they do. If someone stumbles upon a piece I’ve written talking about why atheists can’t be Christians, a good reader is probably thinking, “Why is she talking about this? Where did this come from?” If my reader doesn’t have this information, then my writing is a pointless rant, and the reader can’t relate. Good readers want to know where I’m coming from so that they know how to meet me head-on.

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  18. Yeah, I do all the time.  See my previous post for several examples.

    There are entire accademic disciplines built around these types of questions.  It would probably do the web design community good to get our collective toes wet in them.

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  19. I for one always like to look up a new word when I read an online article. Gotta expand that vocabulary.

    This article seems relevant to me since I’ve recently begun to read Slate. It’s been around forever, but only in the past couple of weeks have I desired to read something more substantive than I find on most “hyper-chunked” news sites and blogs. The fact that an editorial process is involved is one of the good things about Slate, and one of the curses of the blogosphere. At some point I get tired of the grammar mistakes and the aimless rambling.

    Also, Amber, I notice that you work for UT Austin. I make frequent use of their page that links to all the college websites. I was part of a university site redesign, and it provided a great hub to see what others were doing and how we could do things better.

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  20. I don’t want anyone getting the impression that I think all web designers should get a PhD in comparative lit.  So let me break it down like this.

    We’ve all met people who think anyone can build a website.  We may even have had them as clients or employers.  They surf the web, they make their daily rounds through the favorite dozen sites or so, they know how to use boookmarks and maybe they even know some really advanced stuff like how to subscribe to an RSS feed.

    So the only thing that seperates us from them is some basic knowledge in that HTML hooey and they could learn it themselves in an afternoon but their time is way more important than that so they’d rather pay us, since they couldn’t find some 16 year old MySpace user to do it for them.

    Don’t you hate those people?

    Now, we all read everyday.  We have our favorite writers, journals, magazines, and newspapers.  If we’re really good, we may be able to pull off something really advanced, like figure out an Agatha Christie mystery half way through.

    The only thing that seperates us from those professional writers is a college degree in English, which is about as useful as nipples on a boar hog, right?

    Isn’t that the same attitude that pisses us off daily?  Is it any less assanine when we do it?

    The web is driven by content, and a hell of a lot of that content is textual, ie. it has to be written.  And just like we could easily offer advice on how sites like barrygifford.com and joerlansdale.com could be improved, people who understand the fine art of writing may very well have a thing or two to teach us about improving our user experience through better writing.

    The “emotional connection” Amber’s talking about may sound like a bunch of fluff and fairy dust to people who spend as much time “writing” code for web servers as we do communicating with actual human beings.  But that’s just it, in technical fields such as ours its all too easy to loose sight of the human element.

    If you don’t make an emotional connection with your site visitors, your site is doomed to fail.  That’s why good visual design matters, that’s why good usability design matters, that’s why good branding matters, and that’s why good writing matters.

    To learn more about the symbiotic relationship between literature and the web, I reccomend sites like Shelley Jackson’s “The Body”:http://www.altx.com/thebody/body.html and books like Janet Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck”:http://www.lcc.gatech.edu/~murray/hoh/hoh.html .

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  21. If you don’t make an emotional connection with your site visitors, your site is doomed to fail. That’s why good visual design matters, that’s why good usability design matters, that’s why good branding matters, and that’s why good writing matters.

    I think that about nails it. Thanks, Derek; I’ve really enjoyed your contributions to this discussion.

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  22. oops; screwed that up. :) Maybe it’s time to get back to work…

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  23. and you see, that it*s written, but only for you!
    You communicate with noone, but with yourself.
    it*s not important to reach someone all the time.
    Sometimes people communicate in their ways, like in this cute website, i just found here…. Never been here bevor..

    Donc, je dis: salut!
    Je tire mon révérence , et dis A+!
    Salut danou

    Ecoute: j*ai une squat pours les jeunes europeean!

    Venez, voir l*Wissensnetzwerk für Europa. Von und Für Freidenker und Künstler! Mehr Sein als $chein http://www.danou.eu

    Für eine Bessere Welt, lasst uns unser Wissen tauschen! Denn gemeinsam haben wir superviel im Kasten! Wir müssen nur unsere kollektie Intelligenz zusammenbringen und zu einem planetaren Bewusstsein verschmelzen. Dann entsteht aus unserem gemeinsamen Geist ein neues, intelligenteres Geflecht.

    :: Danou.eu :: Europas Wissensnetzwerk für Freidenker und Individualisten ::

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  24. “But that’s just it, in technical fields such as ours its all too easy to loose sight of the human element.“

    One very important thing in writing is also to use correct spelling.

    Plus… can anyone tell me how to format a quote properly in the comments? The Textile link shows to add “bq” but that makes my reply part of the quote too! I cannot find a way to turn the style off. There must be an easy way…

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  25. Bickering over spelling is almost as petty as bickering over “wordiness”.

    Plus”¦ can anyone tell me how to format a quote properly in the comments? The Textile link shows to add “bq”? but that makes my reply part of the quote too! I cannot find a way to turn the style off. There must be an easy way”¦

    The blockquote command is “bq. ” in front of the block of text to be quoted.  That’s bee kwoo dot space.  The space is probably what threw you off.  It threw me off at first.

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  26. Were you writing to just me?

    It seemed like it. Nice work :-)

    I’ve just begun a blog and will use your advice to try and engage my readers as you’ve engaged me.

    I look forward to visiting your blog more often…I can see why it’s so popular!

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  27. I have been running a blog since the start of the year and find that everything you wrote is true but one thing I found also is that using images and live video in posts also draws people to stay longer and surf more pages.But to Petty commentar 28 making sure your spelling and grammer are correct is essintial for keeping your readers going and coming back.

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  28. Posts made here in this dicussion thread and main site content are two very different things in some very important ways.

    On the rare occasion I’m made responsible for the content of a site rather than markup, scripting, and design, I always use at least one pass, usually several passes, through a spelling and grammar checking program.  If at all possible, I pass it under the nose of a few trusted friends and/or coworkers for some editing and advice before publication.  I don’t want my imperfections to reflect poorly on my clients or whatever the site I happen to be working on at the time is representing.

    Here, I’m not representing anyone but myself.  And here I am, warts and all.  As some of you have so kindly pointed out, I can’t spell worth poop.  Being an intuitive thinker/learner, I’m far too caught up in the meaning behind the words to get caught up in something as insignifigant as the individual letters.

    The more detail oriented of you out there probably see that as a major flaw.  I see your even bothering to notice (in the informal context of this discussion area) as a flaw.

    However, I judge people not by their (perceived) flaws but by the (perceived) relative validity of the meaning they are attempting to convey.

    So let’s hear something meaningful.

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  29. “bee kwoo”


    Isn’t it: “bee kyoo”?

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  30. You’re right.  A diphthong would be more technically correct.

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  31. While ignoring the first golden rule about web writing (ie front loading), this article eventually provides some advice on how to ‘speak’ to readers.

    I’m not sure how effectively applying the Long Tail approach to web copy will work if you’re writing for a diverse audience, but it’ll no doubt prove useful for sites dealing with niche audiences.

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  32. Amber, You note some crucial points to good writing of any kind, even print. I will definitely use your article in my web editing work and trainings… though I will have to cut it short. Like most web readers, I scan content for the most pertinent points. I think you could use some concision (as other commenters have noted)…!

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