A Passion for Commas

by Alan Eggleston

A writer friend, Will Conley, posted a thought piece on his Facebook page, a small excerpt here:

Hey, Passion. Righteous Indignation called…

When I first read it, I thought it sounded like poetry, almost Shakespearean, thus:

Hey, Passion.
Righteous Indignation, called.

Commas2

And Will responded, “Oh, how a comma says so much.”

That got me thinking, too. People treat punctuation so off-handedly, yet punctuation is as much a tool of communication as are words. And no punctuation mark is more simple yet speaks more complexly than the comma.

The comma commands order in a series. It separates warring clauses. Just as important, it announces an introductory phrase, says farewell to the concluding phrase, too.  The comma hands us off in a letter greeting or conclusion, and sets off parts of a whole such as location or time.

You won’t see these many diverse roles for the period, the exclamation point, or the question mark – let alone the colon, semi-colon, slash, or dash!

Yet no mark is as misunderstood, misused, abused, or underused as the comma. I once accused someone on a corporate approval route of using a comma shaker when reviewing copy, because he seemed to indiscriminately add commas, and then I couldn’t make any sense out of many of them. One of our publication editors even added commas of her own, in an attempt to provide some consistency between all the writers and reviewers. Oh, the humanity! Among writers, these just bred confusion.

I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter recently about punctuation that indicates a “pause.” She felt nothing was adequately enough understood by readers to handle the job, including the comma, the ellipsis, or any of the dashes. I pointed out that in print, all had been well established over many tens to hundreds of years for their various purposes and variations of pauses, but she insisted that today’s reader can’t know what is in the writer’s mind by these punctuation marks. I think they can, if they are used and edited consistently.

That is why I still favor the Oxford (or serial) comma. Yes, I know, often you can deduce the meaning without using that final comma, but the goal of the writer and editor aren’t to leave a question in the mind of the reader but to be clear. Leave the questions for the poets and philosophers. Our purpose as editors, in particular, is to be clear. Thus, except in the case where I am trying to fit a house style in which they already follow the no-Oxford rule, I refuse not to use the Oxford comma. I nurture a passion for commas.

Yes, Will, “a comma says so much.” And we as editors owe it to our readers to give voice to those commas so that our readers may clearly hear.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle on the Web

by Alison Lueders

Happy Earth Day! I encourage you to take action today – however small – to make our planet healthier. Many small actions can have a big impact.

As I was thinking about today’s post, I wondered how I could possibly tie Earth Day to web editing. One of the mantras for Earth Day is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” In fact, that’s very relevant to web editing.

Reduce – use fewer words

This point was driven home to me at the Nielsen Norman conference last month. Fewer words aids reading speed and comprehension for ALL readers. Web editors have the skills to trim the words while retaining or enhancing their meaning. We also know that saying something in fewer words is often harder than saying it in a lot of words. “Less is more” on the web, but “less” does not mean “easier to write.”

Reuse – share the ideas

It’s a no-no on the web to write something once and post it verbatim in multiple places. But as a green business owner, I know that many people are unaware of why operating a business sustainably matters. Repetition is one way to educate people, So I may blog for my website and then re-work the same set of ideas into a client newsletter. Same ideas, different words.

Then I use the web to spread the word. I may share my original blog post through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and so on. I want the idea to get out broadly, without running afoul of the “original content” police.

Recycle – when words become wisdom

Sometimes, an idea or a set of words is so true and so powerful that it stands the test of time. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “Be kind” or the Gettysburg address. These words are repeated and passed on and remembered. They are words that guide us in tough times and see us through to better times. These words eventually become known as something else – wisdom.

Web editors – as shapers of words and ideas – help share wisdom with the rest of the world. I think that’s pretty cool.

So, I find that “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” fits just fine into my web editing toolkit. What do you think?

Policing Links in Your Comments Section

Links in your site or blog comments section are good, right? They can be. They can also be bad. To keep them good, you need to police them.

Any link on your site – internal or external, inbound or outbound – will affect your site’s search ranking. The most important factor here is the link’s quality, and several factors will determine a link’s quality.

(Photo: Simon Rowe, creative commons license.)

Link Quality

Internal links (links to pages within your site) that go to pages with high quality content add value to your site. The closer the anchor text relates to the topic of the page you’re linking to, the higher the value. You want links to all your pages to show search engines the size and breadth of your content, but the more high quality content you have, the more value your site has.

External links (links to pages outside of our site) that go to pages with high quality content add value to your site, and the higher the authority and popularity of the page and site of that link, the higher the value. Again, anchor text needs to relate highly to the topic of the page you’re linking to (or being linked to), and it’s always best if link URLs use keywords, not random code. (Content management systems and some blogs will default to using random code, but you can often change to using keywords.)

Inbound links (links to your site from outside), including trackbacks, are less within your control, but can affect the value search engines assign to you. That’s why it’s important to look at trackbacks (referrals on other sites to yours) and monitor when another site links to you – if you don’t like a trackback you can often delete the notice in your own blog and if you don’t like an inbound link you can request that the other site not link to you; most will comply. One inbound link to avoid is a “doorway” page, which is a list of links between unrelated websites often in exchange for your linking to them.

Don’t accept offers to “exchange” links when you have nothing in common with another site. They’re just doorway sites, regardless of their sales pitch to you. If you don’t have a business or social relationship with the other site in which you would naturally link to the other site in your content, don’t exchange links.

Outbound links (links from your site to others), including those that commenters add on your site, can also detract from the value of your site. You would like high authority and high ranking sites, but in a comments section is less within your control. What you should watch out for include:

  • Obvious spam – links to product pages or topic pages or blogs that have nothing to do with your content but are meant solely to benefit the poster.
  • Stealth spam – written to look like a legitimate comment but containing poor quality links, usually with misspellings to avoid spelling filters. Website URLs and email names are often nonsensical letter combinations, again meant to avoid filters. Also look for URLs with .nl, .pl, .ru, and other international extensions where spammers often originate, plus use of URL shorteners meant to hide obvious keywords or odd URLs.
  • Legitimate comments that link to low quality pages – spam pages, doorway pages, and other garbage content meant to fool you into allowing the link on your page but having no real value to you. Search engines will devalue your site when they follow the link from your site to this eventual garbage page.

You can often engage filters on your comments section that won’t allow comments with spam or with certain numbers of links and other parameters. Some bloggers don’t like to filter their comments; that’s fine if you don’t mind losing search ranking value.

You’re the Boss of You

I once experienced another blogger who used the comments section of my blog to sell her wares on my site. It was blatant hijacking of my blog to sell her stuff, never asking permission and never apologizing. She promoted her products and then provided a link to her product pages. I politely asked her to stop but she continued anyway, so I had to block her from my site. I found out through comments on her own blog that she was doing it to other blogs, too. It’s not OK.

Your blog and your site belong to you, and you set the rules. It’s also up to you to police the rules. That includes watching for links and where they lead or where they originate. Links may be good but they also may be bad. Either way, they can affect your search ranking, which can affect whether new readers can find you!

Time Management: Six Steps to Peace of Mind

By Cathy Hodson

In the fast-paced, ever changing world of online journalism, is it possible to still, as author/entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki tweeted recently, “rediscover the magic of doing one thing at a time”?

Twitter post by Guy Kawasaki, April 14, 2013

Twitter post by Guy Kawasaki, April 14, 2013

Managing your time is a must for web editors. News can happen very quickly, and you have to be prepared to have your day turned upside down at any moment. Natural multi-taskers, web editors learn very quickly how to juggle their responsibilities but still make room for the occasional emergency.

One of the most important tools in a web editor’s arsenal is time management. Organization and prioritization are integral partners with time management – you really can’t manage your time if you are not organized or cannot prioritize.

Here are some tips on maintaining time management, organization and prioritization:

1. Handle everything only once. Any assignment, any piece of mail, any notes from a phone call, any verbal order you receive – only handle it once. Take the piece of mail and do something with it – add it to a folder for a project you are working on, pass it on to a colleague, or deposit it in the circular file. Actively do something with it, don’t just set it on your desk to be dealt with later. Deal with it now.

2. Keep information and resources for each project together – whether you use paper folders, electronic ones, or a combination – use some type of organizer to keep everything you need on one topic or project together. The photos for this year’s election candidates should all be kept together in one place so they don’t get mixed up with the candidates from last year. The article your boss just handed you about mobile apps should find its way to the reference folder you have for mobile information. By keeping organized and handling this information just once, everything should be where you know where to find it when you do need it.

3. Try to keep one day of your week clear of meetings and interruptions. Physically block out one day of the week on a recurring basis on your calendar so that no one can schedule a meeting for you that day each week. If you have to relinquish for one meeting, fine. But otherwise, keep one day each week as free of meetings as you possibly can. This will enable you to have some actual “work” time to catch up on projects you need to without interruption.

4. Learn to say no, or at least how to barter. Keep a running list of your current projects. When your boss comes to you and says, “You have to drop everything for this new project,” you can honestly show him or her that your schedule is packed, or at the very least it gives you something to barter with. “I could move this project to the back burner if your new project has a higher priority?” The boss can then see what those other projects are and help you move something if the new project does take priority, or perhaps understand that the new project isn’t really as important as the other things you are working on, and can wait.

5. If you have a “time stealer” person – someone who is in your office frequently – either for business or personal reasons – set up a regular time to meet with them so they can continue to use you as a business resource, but you can contain their interruptions to one dedicated session. If they are in your office for personal reasons – schedule a lunch with them now and then to catch up, but learn how to say, “I’d really love to hear all about this, but I’m on deadline. Let’s do lunch some time and you can fill me in then.” Learn to recognize activities and people who usurp your time, and learn to handle them so they don’t handle you and waste time that could better be used for concentrating on the project at hand.

6. Even the best laid plans, however, can be turned upside down. Hurricane Katrinas happen. Learning to delegate important facets of projects to your staff can make them feel involved, engaged and part of the team. If you do not have staff to delegate to, one of the best practices is to break a project into manageable pieces. That way, when you can’t work on one part of the project because you are waiting on someone else, you can move ahead to another portion of the project and get it underway until the first portion of the project comes back to your bailiwick.

What are your favorite time management techniques? Please share them in the comments.