Writing tips and ideas blog

De-clutter your website

Putting away winter clothes and getting out summer things makes me think, yet again, that I must get rid of some. Everything I don’t wear makes it harder to find the thing I want.

It’s the same with a website: every extra page or bit of information means work for you to manage and makes the site harder for users to navigate. So an annual de-cluttering is well worth the effort. Users will find what they want more easily and your site will be more effective.

Organisations that audit their websites often find that many of their pages are never visited. Many other pages are visited by people who don’t want to be there at all. They’ve been attracted by material that isn’t central to what the site offers and by words and phrases that are not specific to the site’s purpose.

In an article called “The accidental website visitor”, the web consultant Gerry McGovern says that, far from being an asset, these users are a liability to a website. Part of the solution is to reverse the search engine optimisation: remove general terms that are only vaguely related to the site’s purpose and use specific terms that exclude the accidental visitor.

Some organisations have discarded as much as 80% of the content of their websites and seen them improve dramatically. Users get what they want more quickly and are more likely to return. The organisation becomes more efficient when calls to customer services or the office are drastically reduced.

We are about to discard a whole section of the Clarity website. If you think we’re losing useful material, do let us know. However, if it’s not what you’re looking for, you almost certainly won’t notice.

Doges and lolcats

I don’t normally write about internet memes, but I do like to write about the way language changes and I think that increasingly those changes are conceived online.

Captioned pictures of animals speaking in a unique way are nothing new. We’ve had the “O RLY?” owl and the lolcat but the latest addition is the doge, the Guardian’s candidate for meme of 2014.

Each animal meme has its own grammar, mimicking the supposed thought patterns of the animal in question. So while lolcats are obsessed with “can has”-ing more things, doges are in a constant state of “amaze” and “wow”. I can’t quite work out why owls would be incredulous, but then they are famously wise creatures, so perhaps they know something I don’t.

As some of these memes move offline, their grammatical patterns may become standard use. After all, “hello” started as a telephone greeting before becoming ubiquitous. That said, I can’t imagine the boss asking if he “can has a photocopy of much annual report“.

For a more in-depth look at the grammar of the doge meme, listen to Gretchen McCulloch on Radio 4. Gretchen also wrote a great article for The Toast blog.

A final note on pronunciation. Clarity’s style is “dogue” (to rhyme with “vogue”). “Dog-e” is too easily confused with “doggie” and “dohj” sounds too much like a Venetian ruler. Although the latter does give me a great excuse to use the following picture:

doge doge

This one weird trick will change how you write forever!

I apologise. I have oversold myself with that headline. But I bet you couldn’t wait to click and find out what the trick was.

Well, you’re not the only one. Sites like Upworthy have started to forego search engine optimisation in favour of writing headlines that people want to click on, known as “clickbait“. The advantage is that you don’t have to worry about your keywords and your headlines can be more whimsical: clickbait may even herald the return of the pun.

The downside is that clickbait usually promises more than it can deliver. The headlines are so over the top or even a bit deceptive that when the articles or videos don’t deliver, the reader is disappointed.

The writers don’t mind because they’ve already picked up the pageview to sell to advertisers and, beyond that, there are plenty of links to other cool-sounding things that will prick the reader’s curiosity.

Another problem is that clickbait makes headlines formulaic. You can see clickbait techniques used everywhere from Gizmodo (“Nine Facts that Sound Ridiculous but are Actually Completely True”) to the BBC (“Why was Dickens’ dying wish ignored?”).

All this is possible thanks to a change in the way people find new information online. When they’re looking for something specific, they’ll use a search engine, but when they’d like to be surprised with something new, many will turn to social networks. This kind of article (and I’m including Buzzfeed’s lists, Gawker’s style and other clickbait techniques) benefits from the way Facebook’s sharing algorithm prioritises what appears on your friends’ newsfeeds. That’s why there’s little point optimising this kind of viral social content for search engines.

Businesses have realised the power of sites like Upworthy and have started using clickbait articles to market films, products and even political parties. The line between something that is written about, and shared, because it is interesting and something that is written about because money has changed hands is blurring.

Lots of articles have already been written about the spread of clickbait but, in short, it’s used because it works. Until people stop clicking on or sharing these articles, they’re bound to keep appearing.

Word of the year 2013: troll

I’ve picked ‘troll’ because it has recently changed its meaning. I’m not talking about the word in the sense of goat-bothering, flesh-eating monsters. I’m not even talking about the change it experienced around 20 years ago, when it started to refer to problematic users on internet message boards.

A bit of history: most online forums don’t like it if you’re rude to other users. If you write something attacking another user, referred to as ‘flaming’, you can lose the right to post or even get banned from the forum. This led to a form of harassment where some users would try to make others flame them and get them banned. These users, the trolls, would have their fun by posting things designed to make people angry and seeing the enraged responses. The origin is probably linked to the monster of myth and legend.

But the word has undergone a further metamorphosis in the past year or so. It has been used to describe people who harass others more directly. Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasey and many others have been attacked for their feminist views by Twitter trolls. Others have used ‘trolling’ to describe people posting unpleasant comments on Facebook, ask.fm etc.

This behaviour is more like what would have been referred to as flaming some years ago. So why don’t people use that word? Well, ‘troll’ is more evocative than ‘flamer’. It brings to mind ugly, misshapen creatures, huddled in the dark: many trolls in folklore are turned to stone by sunlight. Trolls hide under bridges the way online trolls hide behind the anonymity of their usernames.

So I like ‘troll’ because it shows how old words can be repurposed, even if they’ve been nearly forgotten. Our language is always changing, even if the changes are only small, and I think that’s rather magical.

Pathetic puns

So some writers love puns. They think it’s clever to make a sneaky little play on words for their readers to appreciate. There is a good example with the new ‘Walkie Talkie’ skyscraper in London. It was in the news over the summer for acting as a giant parabolic mirror and focusing the sun’s rays to melt cars. The British press promptly redubbed the building the ‘Walkie Scorchie’. Now, that’s quite a good pun but I’m ambivalent about it. There’s a part of me that really loves a good pun, and another part that wants to punch the first part in the face.

Anyway, Land Securities, the people behind the skyscraper, released a pun-tastic statement to shareholders this morning:

“At 20 Fenchurch Street, our landmark tower in the City, we have continued to attract new tenants and the building is now 56% pre-let, with a further 20% in solicitors’ hands. Despite the solar glare issue of the summer, occupiers have not been blinded to the efficiency and location of the building.”

(bold mine)

This time I was not ambivalent. It made me wish that the writer would fall down a hole. I think that’s because 1) it’s really, really weak and forced and 2) I expect puns from newspapers, but not from statements to investors. A serious subject requires a serious tone.

That said, in spite of its other problems the “Kick It Out” campaign against racism in football shows you can combine a pun with a serious message. It works well in this case because the dynamism of the phrase reflects the dynamism of the game. The lesson is to keep puns out of your writing unless they are actually funny and appropriate.

I’ll end with some highbrow Latin puns. There’s a great selection from Pope Gregory I on Wikipedia. “Non Angli sed angeli” comparing the beauty of Angles to angels is truly cringeworthy.

Mind you, that’s not as bad as the time I put nearly a dozen entries in for a pun competition. I was hoping one would win, but no pun in ten did.

Epic writing and reading

Did you hear the late Seamus Heaney’s reading of Beowulf on Radio 4? It sounded wonderful. I only vaguely followed the story, but that didn’t matter. It was still lovely to listen to and made me want to read it.

Epics and sagas were meant to be listened to. Most weren’t written down until much later, but they had to sound good for their message to be heard.

Today’s messages are usually composed the other way round – written first and spoken later, if at all. The results are often disastrous. You can’t follow the story, you don’t understand half of it and the message does not get through.

When you’re writing, one of the best ways of testing what you’ve written is to read it out loud. If you stumble or put the stress in the wrong place or run out of breath, you can be sure your reader will find it hard and you will have failed to communicate.

We recommend reading aloud in our training courses. Try it next time you’re writing something important.

When your audience doesn’t understand

We often hear people say: “That’s not jargon; everyone knows what it means.” But do they really?

One of our clients was giving a presentation recently when he noticed that several of his audience appeared to be distracted by their mobiles. Eventually he caught the eye of one as he looked up from his phone. The person concerned sheepishly confessed that he had been looking up the meaning of one of the terms the presenter had been using.

The presenter subsequently discovered that other members of his audience had been doing exactly the same thing. Everything turned out fine, and he was relieved in one sense, but disconcerted to realise that he hadn’t been getting his message across as clearly as he might have.

Our client was lucky to have a fully engaged audience sufficiently motivated to do their own on-the-spot research. And it prompted me to wonder how often such presentations are given to less committed audiences who simply lose interest as the jargon count builds up.

Phabulous news – phablet’s in the dictionary!

A quick phablet update for all phablet fans. It’s made it into Oxford Dictionaries Online.

Note that this is not the same thing as the much-adored Oxford English Dictionary. The ODO updates faster, adding new words much more regularly than the OED. Other new additions are selfie, and omnishambles coined by The Thick of It and made more famous by George Osborne’s 2012 budget.

We’ll keep you updated as more words are added.

Lack of clarity masks incompetence

I’ve just had a most revealing exchange with my electricity company. They wrote asking me to read my own meter. In the block of flats where I live, this meant I would have to arrange for the managing agent to let me in to a locked room.

One sentence in the company’s letter puzzled me. It said: “We may also have a meter reader in your area that could call to do this for you”.

If they had someone who could read a meter, why were they asking me to read it and why did the letter say he or she “may” be in my area? Didn’t they know?

It turned out they didn’t know, because they had sub-contracted the meter-reading to another company. I discovered this after hanging on to the telephone for quite a long time to speak to an adviser. The automated system had rejected my reading because the agent had misread it, but that’s beside the point.

The last straw was that the meter reader had indeed been in my area, so neither the agent nor I need have bothered to do anything at all.

Yet another example of an organisation saving itself money and wasting our time instead. And yet another example of woolly writing that blurred the issue but in the end revealed the incompetence of those involved.