It’s not too often that I go on a rant, but these days I often find myself gob-smacked by a general lack of knowledge of good writing principles. Consider this my periodic off-the-rails outpouring of frustration about the state of my profession.
Either I’ve had the privilege of a very good education (though my degree is in Creative Writing and Women’s Studies and the term XML wasn’t even coined back then), or my ongoing, self-directed professional development has left me perpetually holding up a bar over which very few can jump. But please, people, if you’re going to present yourselves as senior writers or information designers or content developers and content strategists and content managers – in fact, any work that involves professional writing and/or editing and/or manipulating content – can you at least figure out how to do what the title says?
Anyone who has heard me speak knows my position about content strategy: the “under the hood” aspects of content are just as important as the shiny parts that people see. When I talk about “structured content”, I’m not talking outlines, I’m talking structured content – elements and attributes and all that related stuff. If content is the “stuff between the tags”, then the tags “containers” are the controllers of the content. Use them! Know them! If you don’t haven’t figured out how to use stylesheets in a word processor, how on earth are you going to figure out how to manipulate content through its structure? I mean, really, people, it’s 2011!
But even more basic than that is getting that content between the tags in good shape. Quality content with content quality. What do I mean by that? Everybody seems to know, no matter with how little depth, how to write for SEO (search engine optimization). Mostly, I hear about how to pad content for more hits. Yeah, good, fill your boots. But what about the basics of writing? Chances are, a portion of your audience doesn’t have English as a first language or has low literacy skills, and they need extremely clear and straightforward communication to help with comprehension. As a writer, do you even know about the Plain Language Movement? It’s been around since the early 1990s, so it’s not like we’ve just discovered it. In fact, the UK, Australia, Canada, and now the US have legislation around it. When I ask you about plain language, I want feedback that indicates you know about this stuff! There are associations and conferences. Go! Learn! Practice!
Oh, and about Plain Language – don’t confuse it with Simplified English, which isn’t just for maintenance manuals any more. It’s not hard to learn the principles, but does take some discipline to implement. One of the benefits, though, is that if you’re writing for translation, you get double benefits: better comprehension for English (or source language) users PLUS reduced translation costs. If you can’t articulate the benefits of always writing for translation – even when you don’t translate, then I can only assume you’ve led a very sheltered life, and had a very sheltered career. Either way, I don’t need you contributing to inter-cultural misunderstandings on any of my projects. Get thee to a classroom somewhere. Preferably in a foreign country!
And what about writing for accessibility? If I see one more “Click Here” or “Read More” links that a writer thinks is acceptable, I swear I’ll do something involving sharp sticks. It’s not enough to have Web accessibility standards; accessible content is important, too. (Yeah, back to that “under the hood” stuff.) It’s not like there is a dearth of support out there. The Society for Technical Communication has an Accessibility Special Interest Group, and I’m sure there are other groups out there. (See how they walk the talk? See the choices they offer? Look! Learn! Walk the talk with them!)
Last, but definitely, definitely not least, if you’re just going to correct some grammar and add some editing marks, you’re a proofreader. Don’t call yourself something you’re not. Maybe poets and novelists can get away with a red pen and a dictionary, but if you’re going to work in the corporate world, you need to know your stuff. You need to be able to talk intelligently about the profession, using profession-appropriate vocabulary. Yes, I want you to practice the basic of the 4Cs (clear, correct, complete, concise), but I also want you to be able to pull apart mish-mashed pages found all over the place, and turn it into a cohesive, coherent, structured content. Is that so much to ask?
OK, end of rant. Back to regularly-scheduled programming.
About Rahel Bailie
Rahel Anne Bailie is a content strategist with a skill set encompassing content management, business analysis, information architecture, and communications. She operates Intentional Design, helping clients analyze their business requirements and spectrum of content to get the right fit for their content development and management needs, and facilitates transitions to new business processes, content models, and technology implementations. Her experience gives her an intimate understanding of end-to-end processes, from requirements-gathering to implementation. She is an STC Fellow, and holds memberships in various associations to stay current in pertinent practice areas. She presents on the topic of content strategy at conferences across North America and Europe, and was recently cited as one of the top ten most influential content strategists.