contentgrrl

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Archive for October, 2009

Why I Don’t Write Fiction

Posted by contentgrrl on October 27, 2009

Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.‘ – E.L. Doctorow, author of World’s Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), and others.

The prospect of completely creating a fictional universe — around a protagonist, his allies, his family, his challenges, his antagonists, and all the little twists and turns of fate — frankly frightens me.

I do well enough to make a living as a technical communicator and content developer, and leave myself a little time to make healthy little forays into escapist fiction, television, games, and dreams.

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12 Steps to Hatchet Mastery: Less Detail, More Dialog

Posted by contentgrrl on October 26, 2009

Less of just the right detail is more engaging to readers. That works for magazine copy, Web copy, and even proposals.

But in my geeky love for technical prowess and quotable professionals, I once was guilty of being too, um, prolific.

I wrote my first cover story for a trade magazine with an amber-on-black Tandy Radio Shack word processor, aptly dubbed the TRaSh-80. My ambitious draft was 24 screens of helpful detail and quotable quotes. My editor (Bless you, Blake!) said, “Cut it down to eight.”

It was painful, but I did it. I continued to hatchet down my own and others’ articles for years. I made “proof pages” bloody with red ink.

In celebration of Halloween, here are my 12 tips for hatchet mastery:

  1. Inverted Pyramid. Don’t bury the lead. Get to the point. Start with the crucial conclusion you want readers to take away, and sequence supporting details in order of their importance or relevance to the target audience. Fairly quickly, you’ll be able to cut the chaff.
  2. Raise questions. Leave some things unanswered. You don’t have to answer them all right now. That’s for you to do later in dialog/commentary, or for your sponsors and advertisers to do as they build the relationship, or in a follow-up story.
  3. One-Time Only. In some circles, they teach you to tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em. That works in speech and academic print publishing, but it won’t work in magazines or Web content. Just pick the best way to say it once with your key words. Save the lesser gems to polish for a future article.
  4. Select the Best Example. If you’re teaching or training, it’s a good idea to provide multiple examples. It gives your audience mental hooks to connect with you and learn new knowledge. Save such elaboration for the classroom or Webinar. Pick one example that shows off expert credibility, newsworthy timeliness, a picturesque analogy, or the audience’s deep-seated pain.
  5. Trade up for a Picture Worth a Thousand Words. Sometimes when you want to describe a thing, a whole and its parts, a process with inputs/outputs, the flow of a procedure, or an abstract concept, it’s better to illustrate it, which provides visual interest editors and visitors love. If you or your artist design the figure, chart, or photo well enough, you don’t have to reiterate much in the copy. I like short highlights followed by, “as shown at right” or “as shown in the figure below” — or even no reference at all. If it’s shown nearby, they’ll get it.
  6. Replace Lengthy Transitions with Brief Bold Subheads. Breaking up long grey columns of text with subheads shows off your organization, and helps the reader scan for what they want to know.
  7. Change Passive to Active Voice. When you clearly identify the actor and use active verbs, you can avoid the foggy rigmarole of “The prize was awarded to him by the so-called committee” in favor of  “He won the Nobel prize” — eliminating several words in the process!
  8. Shorten Sentences. Split up convoluted or compound sentences, simplifying statements to subject and verb when you can. Sometimes you can cut out “that” and “which” in subordinate clauses, as well as wordy correlative or subordinating conjunctions.
  9. Effusively Cut Adverbs and Fluffy Adjectives and strings of Prepositional Phrases. Do you really need to specify exactly where, when, how, why, which, and to what extent in every sentence? In some cases, that detail is superfluous or redundant.
  10. Bullet Lists. Sometimes you can get the point across with lists of things or short phrases instead of complete sentences.
  11. Fewer Syllables. “Utilize” is rarely better than good ol’ simple “use.” Try Thesaurus.com.
  12. Cut Articles Before Nouns. Unless you must specify which one, see how many instances of “a”, “an”,  “the”, “some”, and so on you can eliminate. Switching to plural may help. You may be surprised how many nouns can stand alone.

These 12 Steps of Wordyholism drill down to your substance, whispering promises of more.

Rather than lull readers to inaction, keep it short and succinct (KISS). Inspire possibilities and questions…Prompt them to action, and increase dialog between you, your readers, and your sponsors.

Posted in illustrating, marketing, persuasion, publishing, writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Best Advice on Coding HTML Email Templates

Posted by contentgrrl on October 22, 2009

Sometimes, HTML emails just don’t work the way you expect. In my day job, I distribute HTML emails using a variety of applications, including Marketo, GroupMail 5, and a proprietary app integrated with our software issue tracker. Sometimes, despite my painstaking validation and link-checking, when I use the latter I get recipient feedback of broken links with all styles stripped, my link href URLs stripped and replaced with “/”, and other design nightmares.

The solution? You may have guessed the proprietary app, but it’s not necessarily the problem.   You have to design HTML email templates as if you’re stuck in the mid-90’s, ‘cuz that’s how standardized email clients are.

Anand Graves’s simple WordPress blog includes the most straightforward and comprehensive HTML Email Guide I’ve ever seen.

For everyone who sends HTML emails, here are a few highlights:

  • Much as we love/hate Microsoft Office — do not use Word or Outlook or even copy & paste from them. Office inserts a ridiculous quantity of hard-to-remove mso formatting tags. Thankfully, the WYSIWYG Adobe Dreamweaver ($$$) has a command to clean up Word HTML. If you don’t have the Adobe option and are collaborating with someone who insists on working in Office or Outlook, it’s worth it to paste into Notepad, which strips out all formatting, and then copy and paste into an HTML editor that affords highly clean markup. I invested in Adobe’s Creative Suite, but if i had to go without WYSIWYG, I also like Notepad++ (free). I also like the online WYSIWYG http://www.online-html-editor.org/ in a pinch.
  • Use tables for layout, nesting a narrower 580-pixel-wide table within a 100% table, where the outer table’s cell has a white background. This is to accommodate recipient email clients that ignore the body tag where you usually define the background, as well as email clients that will display your email in a narrow preview (like Outlook 2007, Hotmail, Yahoo, and the like, to accommodate their banner and skyscraper ads.
  • For images, specify both title and alt attributes for cross-browser display of the image description in case your recipient client doesn’t display images by default.
  • Get several Webemail accounts for testing, including Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and AIM (AOL), and get desktop clients including Outlook Express, MS Outlook 2003/2007, & Mozilla Thunderbird.

Things I didn’t think of that Anand did:

  • Remove unnecessary HTML tags that will be ignored or removed between you and the recipient. Surprisingly, these include Doctype, HTML, body, meta, head, base, link, script, title, frames, and comments.
  • Instead of stylesheets (Unfortunately, body and head stylesheets are often ignored and replaced with client-specific styles over which you have no control), use inline styles in table cells to define the default font, font color, and font size for your content:
    <td style="font-family: Verdana, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 10px; text-transform: uppercase; color: black">Content</td>
    
  • Use similar inline font/size/color styles in hypertext links, and use short URLs (extensively long URLs tend to get wrapped and broken):
    <a href="http://www.tinyurl.com/####/" style="font-family: Verdana, font-size: 11px; color: blue">blah</a>
  • Send the email as multipart/alternative, one part HTML, the alternative part plain text for the remaining recipients out there whose email clients don’t display HTML. I would rely on the email delivery software or service to be able to handle this (as advised by GroupMail and MailChimp), but Anand Graves’ HTML Email Guide has included instructions for doing it with PHPMailer, available under LGPL license.

Related Links:
http://spamcheck.sitesell.com/
http://www.mailchimp.com/articles/stupid-html-email-design-mistakes/
http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/10/16/best-practices-for-bulletproof-e-mail-delivery/

Posted in marketing, persuasion, publishing, writing | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »