“Content is easy, People are messy: The new rules of writing for the web” – Sally Bagshaw at Confab

Confab Events logoYou might be basking in the afterglow of Confab 2013 in London. I’ve still got a couple of sessions to write up. So here is my take on Sally Bagshaw talking about future-proofing authors by defining a new set of rules for writing on the web.

“Content is easy, People are messy: The new rules of writing for the web” – Sally Bagshaw

Now, having a talk with “writing for the web” in the title does somewhat contradict the message elsewhere at Confab that there is no such thing as writing for the web/mobile/internet-enabled fridge screen, there is just good writing. But Sally Bagshaw was delivering a lot more than a list blog post saying profound things like “Punctuation is important on mobile phones”, although she did have a list.

Sally was out-lining a set of principles that will hold us in good stead as we move to a world that requires the production of more structured content. “The desktop is no longer the prime source of truth,” she said, “and we have to start breaking our content down from these massive pages into smaller flexible units.”

The rise of the CMS has meant the demise of centralised editorial control for a lot of organisations. Those teams of content experts used to keep everything on-brand, tight and meaningful. With so much devolved publishing, you get some people who are great, but there is a proliferation of junk. When Kristina Halvorson was talking about our websites being full of accrued years of “land-fill”, a lot of that would have been generated by junior members of staff without much training in writing, and with very little incentive to ever go back and re-visit the content they had published.

WYSIWYG is the spawn of the devil

Sally also had some unkind words to say about the WYSIWYG editor. Well, not entirely unkind. She pointed out that we’d almost certainly all worked on a couple of CMS projects where telling people “It is easy, you won’t need lots of expensive training, it works just like Word” was the only way we got the project over the line and out the door. But, she insists, we have to get away from this old “publish” method and a reliance on the “preview” button.

The Guardian CMS actually had two preview modes. One was a preview, which was an approximation of how the page would look, but included lots of interesting CMS cruft like where empty editable slots were. And then there was “True preview”, which was an approximation of how the page would look, with slightly less bits of CMS cruft. Neither view was ultimately like looking at the Guardian website on anything other than Firefox on a Mac with a giant glossy monitor, and crucially, didn’t tell the journalist or editor if they had included components that might not work on a phone or tablet. It also encouraged staff to manually insert <br /> tags into headlines, to make them space out nicely on their screens, oblivious to the impact this had on the paper’s mobile site or apps.

Sally Bagshaw defined the real problem here — “Content is easy, people are messy.” And she said something that sounded quite lovely to my geeky ears — that people care about metadata again. After a brief flurry of interest when you could use the meta keywords tag to spam search engines, metadata has been mostly unloved except by the nerdiest of IAs and content strategists. No longer. “Metadata is the new art direction” as Ethan Resnick put it.

Why? Because the flexibility we need to publish across multiple devices requires structure. And that structure is metadata.

The new rules of web writing

Sally went on to make clear her rules for web writing. Firstly, don’t just talk to the people who work on the CMS. Everybody in a businesses is making content, whether it is the sales team hacking together personalised pitch sheets from existing material, or the call centre folk making fact sheets and notes to help them answer calls. Everybody should get a chance to understand how they could make better content.

Secondly, Sally said that somebody has to be in charge. Erin Scime defined this person as a “content czar”. They need to be across taxonomy and metadata, and be the line of communication between editorial requirements and IT implementation of publishing.

Mind your verbs

Sally Bagshaw then had two suggestions for improving style for a multi-channel world. “Mind your verbs” was one. Avoid terms like “hover”, “pinch”, “click”, “tap” as you don’t know what device your content will be viewed on. I’ve noted myself that “click here” is going to turn out to be a generational marker, and I see that Cennydd Bowles has come out in favour of using the word “select” for these use cases. At Confab, Sally suggested it won’t be long before our copy is littered with commands to “blink” or “wink” to do something, which generated what sounded like nervous laughter in the audience. Nervous, I guess, because it sounded all too likely, and called to my mind a horrifying vision. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a cross-platform content migration project full of device-specific micro-copy stamping on a human face — forever.

Define style at the micro-level

Sally also made a great point about defining style at a micro-level. Many of our webpages are now drawn together from components littered all over the web — our latest tweets, the titles of videos from our YouTube channel, a list of blog titles written by multiple authors from a range of business units. Making those all look coherent and consistent on the page means making them consistent at the point of authorship. And Sally put in a plea for the humble <a href> tag. Links and headlines, she said, are still “the ultimate decision-makers” for users, so get them right.


I’m close to the end of my Confab blogging odyssey. Later today I should have notes from the closing keynote by Ann Handley, and I also still need to write-up the wonderfully Oz-themed talk by Erin Kissane which touched upon the relationship between content and data.

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