Reading Between the Lines

by Alison Lueders

Part of web editing is mechanics – correcting spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on. But some clients also value your perspective on their message. Especially if they have done several drafts themselves, they often discover they are “too close” to really see the content any more. Your fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable.

When clients are stuck trying to articulate their message, some clarifying questions like these can help:

  • What does this mean?  In the simplest case, an unfamiliar word or phrase prompts a look up in the dictionary, Wikipedia or a basic Google search. 9 times out of 10, that clarifies things and you move on. But occasionally, learning what a term means doesn’t make the overall point any clearer. So make a point of asking. A client’s explanation may shed entirely new light on the content as a whole.
  • Can you say more? Put yourself in your readers’ place. If the content raises questions in your mind, then readers may have those questions too. Rather than leave them unsatisfied, elaborate. It may mean adding more text or an explanatory link, but clients sometimes assume their readers know more than they actually do.
  • Who are you talking to? If a client says, “Everyone,” there’s a problem. It’s the same thing as saying “No one in particular.” Fuzzy writing is sure to follow if underneath, your client isn’t sure who their potential customers are. Helping your client identify their audience (if they haven’t already) may go beyond what we normally think web editors do. But a discussion about this can vastly simplify the editing process.
  • Might you consider saying it like this? Light re-writing to make a passive voice active, a word choice more impactful, or a long point more concise can make a surprising difference. But you always need to strike a balance between “cleaning up” the writing and maintaining or enhancing the author’s voice. When the two conflict, err on the side of what the client wants even if it is not what the rules say to do. Often, those points where the client feels most strongly reveal a lot about their values and priorities that you can use to shape the overall content.
  • These are my take-aways – is that right? Articulate – briefly and powerfully – what you think the client is trying to say. One of my clients, a life coach, had drafted 7 pages of web copy. After reading them, I said, “What I take from this is that you specialize in helping people see the extraordinary in the the ordinary places and artifacts of daily life – and thus feel happier.” Not only did it confirm that I was on the right track, but it was clear that the client felt relieved that her message was indeed coming through to someone besides herself. And then we could set about making it stronger, clearer, and more compelling. That’s a happy customer – and one who is likely to come back.

I know that many web editors lack the time and client attention to ask questions like these. But if time and circumstances permit, think about the message itself and see if you can’t make it better by asking questions like those above.

Do you have a favorite “clarifying question” that has worked for you?

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Analytics: Avoiding Overload

In my role as a board member of my local chapter of the Association for Women in Communications, I’ve been compiling analytics. I collect the information through Google Analytics (website), MailChimp (e-newsletters), and Hootsuite (Twitter), and then I give a brief report at our monthly meetings. Sounds simple enough, right?

Not so fast. Not for me, anyway.

These tools can be really useful for communications, but every time I log in for analytics, I feel like I’m bushwhacking with no machete. The statistics are piled high, and the graphics look appealing. But every month, I log in, look around, get overwhelmed, consider downloading default data, decide I can’t really use that, get mesmerized by the colorful charts, and start clicking around randomly like a lab monkey in a cage. After wasting an hour or two, I log out and take a nap.

Last month, I determined to have a strategy before I logged back in.

My first step was to think about how I would use the data; imagining myself giving the report to the rest of the board helped me focus:

  • The report had to be brief
  • The data had to be explainable to others
  • The information had to be meaningful, and therefore specific and applicable to our group’s overall goals

I like to procrastinate think about the big picture, so next I rewatched a couple of insightful talks on information glut:

Clay Shirky’s “It’s Not Information Overload, It’s Filter Failure.
What I like about Clay Shirky’s talk is that he puts our current situation (his talk is from 2008) in historical context. We’ve “evolved” in an environment where publishing and printing have traditionally had high upfront costs, and therefore publishers acted as gatekeepers and quality-control filters. Now we have low-cost, low-barrier-to-entry publishing and we have spam, “information overload,” a flood of low-quality content, and a whole slew of new privacy-control issues.

Our new forms of media require new ways of filtering because we no longer have a filter (via cost and inconvenience) near the source of information. And because we depend on email, social media, search engines, blogs, and many other new means of getting information, we need new ways of thinking about filtering. The information sources we use now are often not in “linear” form—a filter mid-stream will not work if the stream is actually a connected group of lakes.

Which brings me to JP Rangaswami’s TED talk, “Information is Food.
Rangaswami is on to something—on to a new way of thinking about filtering—when he says that information is food. At the end of the talk he asks:

If you began to think of all the information that you consume the way you think of food, what would you do differently?

Analytics, I thought, is an all-you-can-eat buffet. How to avoid indigestion at a buffet? Be choosy: go for quality and freshness, don’t mix too many types of foods, and don’t be tempted to overload your plate just because everything is so cheap.

Now it was time to devise my plan for going into the jungle of data, and coming out with something … digestible. I came up with a few simple questions that I thought our analytics could shed light on, and I put them in three rough categories:

What people like

  • What stories get the most click-throughs in the newsletters?
  • What links or tweets get the most clicks/retweets?
  • What subject lines result in the highest open rate for newsletters?

Experiments and outliers

  • Did we change our methods this month? Can we see results in the analytics data?
  • Are there any unusual results (compared to industry benchmarks, for example)—either very high or very low?

What brings people in

  • What search terms were used to get to the website?
  • What search terms were used to search within the website?
  • Where are people being referred from?

There are many other good questions one could ask, and there’s an endless amount of minutia one could track. I chose these because they seem to suit our needs. And I like to group them in categories because it makes it easy to pick a question or two from each category without feeling like I need all of the questions every time. The important thing, I now believe, is not to try to consume more information than I’ll actually use.

Comments welcome.

@EditorAM