What they don’t tell you about creating style guides

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What they don't tell you about creating style guides

This text was the basis of my recent talk at Write the Docs NA 2018, mostly about the glory and greatness of creating your own style guides from scratch. It highlights some of the major lessons I’ve learned about writing style guides, because I really like style guides — like, a lot. I make style guides for my own personal projects which only I will ever work on. I also help make style guides for wider use, including The Responsible Communication Style Guide. My current project is a style supplement for people writing about the Python programming language, so you will almost certainly hear me complaining about disambiguation if you run into me in person. 

STYLE GUIDE GIVENS style guides are amazing you should use style guides you should make style guides for your projects and organizations

I believe I’m among fellow style-guide enthusiasts if you’ve read this far, but let’s just go over a couple of givens for this article. First, style guides are amazing. They’re basically lists of style decisions your team needs to stick to while working on a project that you no longer have to keep in your head. When you’re writing with a team, sharing a style guide will help ensure you all write with a similar style. Readers won’t get confused by different spellings, editors don’t have to correct the same errors over and over again, and writers can eliminate internal debates about when to capitalize the word “internet”. Style guides aren’t limited to written content, either — there are design and coding style guides as well.

It’s easy to build up a whole bookshelf of style guides. There are references like The Chicago Manual of Style, industry-specific style guides like The Bluebook which covers legal documents, organization-specific style guides like The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications. Depending on the project you may need more than one style guide — you might use an internal style guide when you’re writing documentation, then need to grab something broader to look up what your internal guide doesn’t cover. Sometimes you may need to even pull a more general guide off your shelf, like the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s a somewhat graceful deprecation, keeping the guidelines we need close at hand, with a fallback plan for anything an internal guide doesn’t cover. Those internal style guides are mostly what we’re talking about here — though I still have more space on my style guide shelf if any of you are thinking about something bigger.

Making your own style guide is a relatively easy process. RCSG started as a list of notes I kept for my own writing and then shared with a couple of other people as a template to adapt for their projects. That list turned into a book because it just kept getting longer. You too have the power to create your own style guide deep inside of you. I have faith in each of you.

STYLE GUIDE STICKING POINTS questioning assumptions bringing in unheard voices providing education and tools

A lot of developing a style guide is exactly what you think it is. You make a list of what you want to cover in your style guide, maybe words that you need to make sure you capitalize correctly or a list of the colors you should avoid for buttons. You keep adding things when you hear a new suggestion or make a novel mistake. Personally, most of my style guides are just a list of errors I’ve already made and reminders to not make them again. Seriously, I’ve already got a list of errata to update for the next printing of the RCSG because I’ve made new and interesting errors since the book went to the printers.

You edit your list, realize you’ve missed some things, edit again. You ask some people to read it and give you feedback, then you incorporate that feedback. At some point, you’ve got something you’re ready to share with a broader audience. Consider that version a first edition, because style guides are not carved in stone. You’ll start a list of things you want to update in the next version the moment you print a single copy, too. It’s not too different from other process documentation.

There’s no secret sauce when it comes to creating a style guide. You make the tool you need. There’s no magic software that will automagically pluck words from your documentation and shove them into a style guide. You can get the job done in a text file if that’s the only software available to you (though I encourage you to learn from my mistakes and move your style guide out of your word processing software of choice before it’s longer than five pages). A style guide can live within your other documentation or be available separately, depending on what you need.

The mechanics of putting together a style guide probably already feel familiar and I don’t want to spend too much time on them. Let’s talk about the major issues that come up when creating a style guide instead. There are three key sticking points we’re going to cover here:

  1. Questioning assumptions
  2. Bringing in unheard voices
  3. Providing tooling and education

Question your assumptions

Sometimes I think that writing documentation is just a constant process of asking people to break down one step into smaller and clearer pieces. Everyone assumes that certain knowledge is universal. But unless we can develop species-wide telepathy, we can’t make that assumption. Every reader who looks at a piece of documentation brings their own experiences to interpreting it and may interpret it in an entirely different way.

That’s doubly true when working on a style guide. We can’t assume how other people use language. Consider the word “literally.” When I tell you that I am literally freezing, you know I’m cold. But am I actually literally experiencing a concerning drop in my core temperature? Not so much.

Despite my own feelings on the interchangeability of the words “literally” and “figuratively”, we haven’t just suddenly agreed to switch the meaning of a word out of nowhere. Different communities use different words in different ways. Language grows and changes to cover new concepts constantly, like how the word “computer” used to refer to a person making calculations, but now refers to a bunch of different types of devices. These changes are routine, through conversation, slang, academic use, memes, translation and literally every other time we communicate.

We can’t assume we know what someone means when they say “literally” anymore, at least without context. We need to ask.

I would go into a whole bit about user research here, but Jen Lambourne already said everything I was going to say, plus quite a bit more, so I’m just going to refer you to Jen’s talk at Write the Docs 2018 and keep talking specifically about style guides.

Ultimately, the more you can question your own assumptions around the meanings of the words you’re trying to define, the better equipped you’ll be to create style guides that speak to everyone. Jargon, acronyms, idiom, and slang may all have their place in writing — especially within technical writing — but only as long as they improve our ability to communicate.

Examine the status quo

That’s a side benefit of creating a style guide to share with other people, by the way. To create a good style guide requires asking questions about the status quo. If your documentation is all in advanced technical jargon, developing a style guide is a chance to ask why. If there isn’t a reason, style guide development will also offer an opportunity to make some changes to the way your organization communicates.

Many people won’t argue with a style guide once it’s established. I would never encourage any of you to use this fact for evil. For good, though? It’s an opportunity to advocate for changes to the status quo. When you’re making or updating a style guide, you get to choose whether to capitalize the word “Internet.” You also get to choose how members of your organization refer to people, what metaphors are considered inappropriate in your materials, and whether images must have alt text tags. Each of these decisions is an opportunity to create a more inclusive organization as much as a way to coordinate the voice of your organization.

Of course, you should go through all the appropriate approval channels before implementing a style guide, and of course, you should work with your team to make sure decisions are acceptable to as much of your organization as possible. You can adapt and update your style guide as appropriate for your organization.

But that one dudebro in your office who refuses to give you input during the process and then wants to know what they can do to change the whole style guide after the fact? Yeah, for that dudebro, your style guide has already been sent out to be chiseled in stone. Sorry, dude.

I should also warn you about the danger of swinging too far in the opposite direction. While requiring writers to match an organization’s voice and style makes sense, style guides are not meant as ways to police other people’s tone or voice. There is no one true way to write in English and we should only attempt to describe how to use language in our own context. We need to empower writers to do better. It’s never our job to tell people they’re writing incorrectly At best, I’d consider any attempt to enforce particular ways of writing or speaking to be classism. At worst, doing so is a well-established and particularly destructive method of colonization. It also results in bad writing.

So, yeah, writing a style guide is more responsibility than it might look on the surface. Pulling together lists of words and styles isn’t nearly as hard as understanding the impact of a style choice. We have an obligation to take extra care when developing style guides, especially those intended to be used by a diverse audience. We need to balance the voice of the organization with the voice of the writer. We can clarify how we communicate, without policing other people’s writing in a problematic way.

Bring in unheard voices

Empathy is the best tool we have for building effective style guides. We need a lot of compassion in this process, too. We need compassion for our users — the people who will use this style guide to write documentation — but we also need empathy for our users’ users — the people who will read the documentation our users write. Finding enough empathy may be the hardest part of writing a style guide.

Hopefully, you can find compassion for fellow writers, whether they write documentation full-time or write on top of other responsibilities. To empathize with your readers, you need to make sure that you have an understanding of the many backgrounds your readers may come from. I’m not just talking about understanding if someone has the technical know-how to get through your documentation. I’m talking about understanding cultural context around the words we use and repurpose for technology. I like the example of the Chevy Nova. According to urban sales legends, the Chevy Nova sold poorly in Latin American markets because “Nova” means “doesn’t go” in Spanish. Snopes has disproved this story, but I still use it because all of the actual examples I could use require content warnings.

We’re all aware that listening is a key skill for documentation. We know that we need to listen to as many people as we can who create, consume, or otherwise interact with the materials. But there are still voices we can learn from who we fail to hear. We need to listen to programmers with dramatically different backgrounds. I know how to write for the 20-something dudebro with a computer science degree, but I don’t know if the same materials will work for a single parent trying to learn to code in between taking care of kids. The only way to learn is to listen to people who are not in this room. If we want to build a truly inclusive industry, we need to meet the needs of people who haven’t been able to join us yet. We need to go out and find them.

You won’t be able to ensure your style guide is all things to all people. Starting with the intent to listen, and iterate on feedback on as it comes in is the right place to start, though. Include the people you already have access to — as many editors, sensitivity readers, beta testers, and users as you can practically manage — and build on that base to include new voices as you find them.

Pro tip: Inclusion during the development process also gives other members of your organization a sense of ownership and improves the likelihood they’ll use your style guide when it’s complete. It’s nice when doing the right thing makes your life easier.

Empower community members

And, of course, what’s the point of a style guide that no one uses? I feel like there should be a good punchline here, but there’s not really a joke. There’s no value in a style guide no one will use.

The best style guides empower their users. In my ideal world, I could hand anybody a style guide and some workflow documentation and they’d immediately be able to contribute to a writing project. That might be a little utopian, but it’s not as far off as you think. Consider Wikipedia. The site’s Manual of Style is somewhat buried, but the editing FAQ is a mini-style guide, covering things like link formatting and how to write article summaries. It’s more than enough to get someone started on their first Wikipedia edit. The Wikipedia Editing FAQ is a gateway style guide. It empowers people to make immediate changes.

Honestly, you’ll know your style guide is top-notch when someone outside of the docs team can hate-edit inaccurate documentation without needing to talk to an editor. I can tell you from experience that most style guides and contributor onboarding systems are not at this level.

Provide education and tools

Ultimately, a style guide should democratize the writing process in your organization. Style guide users should be able to write more clearly without relying entirely on editors or experts.

That’s a big “should.” There are a lot of assumptions there — and since we’re questioning our assumptions, we need to unpack that “should.” All other things being equal, a style guide should democratize the writing process in your organization. Those other things are the tricky part, though. We can’t just hand people a tool and assume everything will be fine. We need to educate our communities on how to use those tools.

Planning for education needs to be a part of your style guide development before you ever look up your first acronym. For experienced documentation writers, that education may mean a short workshop on the specifics of *this* style guide, while other users may need more of a “Style Guides: How do they Even” class. Ideally, someone should be able to pick up a style guide and use it without a class but given that very few people seem to read style guides all the way through, personal walkthroughs is a really good idea.

I like to start my educational plan with materials on how to contribute to new iterations of the style guide, by the way. The more people who can add to and improve a style guide, the more the workload is spread out, which isn’t exactly altruistic but is a necessary practicality.

If you can create a culture of contribution for your style guide from the start, you’ll enable improvements you can’t imagine ahead of time. Go beyond writers, too — if you’ve got a developer who needs to write at least some of their own documentation, giving them access to your style guide files can let them build tools that work for them (and that might work for you, too).

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking of a style guide as a book or a handout. Digital style guides put information in a wider variety of hands and create a world of potential right now, from providing a basis for new kinds of linters to upgrading spellcheck to something far more useful. Imagine how great the future will be if we make all of our style guides available via API!

Move the Overton window

Style guides represent the future, whether we know it or not. They streamline production processes and give people power to work on their own projects.

They also give us the opportunity to talk about how we write and why. Those discussions have the power to change the world. Style guides offer a clear indicator of how an organization wants to discuss different questions. A style guide that cautions users against terminology that some readers will find offensive is an explicit Overton window. An Overton window is a guide to what we consider appropriate to share in public discourse. For example, women wearing pants in public was considered highly inappropriate — until the Overton window moved as more and more people decided pants are perfectly reasonable apparel.

Our communities, both technical and not, are facing big questions about what we want to look like in a year, in five years, in ten. Within technology, many of these big questions are about inclusivity. Some communities have hard-coded styles of communication that exclude everyone who hasn’t personally written a programming language. Some communities want to make sure that the benefits of technology are available to everybody. The ways we style materials dictates, in part, what side of the divide our organizations land on. The more tools we have to create inclusive documentation and other materials, the faster we can move the Overton window towards expectations of respect and inclusion, at least within our own organizations.

STYLE GUIDE-BASED REVOLUTIONS style guides empower contributors style guides inspire questions about the status quo style guides are the future

I’m not expecting anyone to go back to work just to lead a style guide based-revolution (though if you want to, I’d love to hear about it). I am hoping, though, that you’ll start thinking about how you style your own work and whether a style guide will help your organization communicate more effectively.

I’m hoping you’ll think about the cultural assumptions that go into a style guide and how to give a voice to more people in your organization.

I’m hoping you’ll think about the communication status quo on the projects you work on and whether that status quo is effective.

I’m hoping you’ll drive big conversations about the future of our communities and how to welcome more people to those communities.

STYLE GUIDE TAKEAWAYS style guides are awesome when you make style guides, consider assumptions empowerment the future style guides are powerful

To sum up: style guides are awesome.

You should make at least one style guide in your life, if only so I have more people to commiserate with, I mean talk shop with.

When you’re making style guides, consider the assumptions you make, how you can empower the people who will use your guide, and what you hope the future brings, at least in terms of communication.

Lastly, making a style guide is an awesome responsibility. It gives you the opportunity to guide conversations, defeat miscommunications, and maybe even inspire newcomers to your communities. Subtle, yes, but style guides are powerful — and with great power comes great responsibility.

 

You can watch me give the original version of this talk at Write the Docs here, with bonus digression into why peanut butter isn’t the All-American treat we think it is.

You can buy a copy of The Responsible Communication Style Guide here.

Download My In-House Style Guide Template to Use However You Want

I’m excited to share the template I use for creating in-house style guides, as a reward for The Responsible Communication Style Guide Kickstarter reaching $10,000 in backing. Want to really improve your company’s communications? Back the Kickstarter today!

TL;DR: Here’s the link to download my in-house style guide template: the style guide as a .docx!

Keep reading for some context!

Whenever I sit down with a prospective client to work on their content, I ask about style guides: Does the organization or project rely on a particular style guide? How do they enforce style guidelines? How do they update the style guide?

I get a lot of blank stares. That’s okay, because very few of the organizations I work with are founded by trained content creators. While I know that anyone who already has a style guide in place will be easier to work with, I don’t consider a lack of a style guide a problem — at least before we start working together. I do insist, however, on making a style guide before we start on any other content projects. I need a style guide before I can create new content, audit old content, or even decide on what belongs in an editorial calendar.

Creating an in-house style guide isn’t that difficult of a process, provided you’ve made a couple dozen style guides over the length of your career. Part of that is experience. Part of that is building a template that can be customized to different organizations quickly. While I can’t give you a self-serve package of my expertise, I can give you the template that I’ve built up over the past decade or so.

I’m sharing this document as a .docx so you can easily adapt it to your own ends. You’ll want to start by reading through the style guide and adding in the information your organization needs to reference regularly (like exactly how to spell, space, and capitalize your company name). After that, you can share it with your team.

Remember, your style guide is a living document. Whenever new questions come up, add the answers to the guide. Whenever your organization hires a new person or releases a new product, add them to the guide. Whenever a content creator screws something up, add the information they need to avoid future problems to the guide. Schedule a regular review to update and clarify your in-house style guide. This template, by the way, is also a living document. I keep adding information to it, tweaking it, and looking for ways to improve it.

You’ll notice that there’s some information about writing inclusively in this guide. If this is a topic you’re just starting with, I recommend reading the white paper I released with Recompiler Media on quick changes your marketing team can make to dramatically increase your audience (PDF!) with an inclusive approach. If you aren’t thinking about inclusivity, you’re probably reaching only a fifth of your potential audience. If you are thinking about inclusivity, you can take your content to the next level by backing The Responsible Communication Style Guide Kickstarter.

The Responsible Communication Style Guide: A Kickstarter and an Explanation

TL;DR

I’m working on The Responsible Communication Style Guide with Recompiler Media. This project is something I’ve been thinking about for years and I wanted to write up how I got to this place.

Our Kickstarter is here — backing at the $15 level is the fastest way to get a copy of The Responsible Communication Style Guide to use in your own work.

CONTENT NOTES

This post is over 2,500 words. There’s some heavy emotional stuff in here (lived experience + the Holocaust, how language affects our lives, and diversity in technology). I do hope you’ll read the whole thing.

How to Screw Up as a Journalist in One Easy Step

I screwed up early in my career as a freelance writer: I conducted an email interview with an individual named “Chris” for an article I was working on. In the article, I referred to Chris with a male pronoun. My source emailed me immediately after reading the article to say that “Chris” was short for “Christine” and that she would appreciate me fixing the error.

Chris was super nice about the whole thing, making me think that I wasn’t the first person to make this particular mistake. Now I do some obsessive Google-ing if I’m not sure how to describe a person just from an interview — though even Google can’t always tell me enough information.

Ever since, I’ve also been looking for a guide or workshop or some sort of education on how to ask questions about identity without being offensive. Sure, asking someone their pronouns is one of my standard interview questions (along with how to spell their name and what their professional title is), but that’s not enough.

  • How do you even begin to ask a trans person about referring to them by their dead name if you’re writing about them during a time when they still used that name?
  • How do you make sure that unconscious bias doesn’t influence your writing?
  • How do you write about someone engaged in activism without bringing an internet shitstorm down on their heads?
  • Heck, how do you even determine if you’re only telling stories about people like you or if you’re finding diverse sources or stories?

I don’t have the one true answer to all these questions. Figuring out how to handle these sorts of topics requires both empathy and context. Context, in turn, requires lived experience.

What is ‘lived experience?’ Lived experience, or the experiences, emotions, and impressions of a person living as a member of a minority, is easily dismissed as a buzzword from a women’s studies class. Hanging out in tech circles, I mostly hear people talking about their lived experiences and how they differ from what other people may see (such as a woman talking about an act of discrimination, only to be told by a man that he’s never seen any problems in the industry). While I don’t think that this sort of gaslighting should be dismissed, there are even bigger dangers to ignoring others’ lived experience: My paternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He spent six years in concentration camps. When he was liberated in 1945, he was 18. He weighed 85 pounds. In the years that followed, my grandfather encountered Holocaust deniers. These people told my grandfather that the hell he went through never happened.

I don’t want to turn this blog post into an example of Godwin’s Law, but every time I hear someone discounting lived experience, I see them become a little more willing to accept anti-Semitism and other bigotry. Suffice it to say that I strongly believe in the importance of involving someone with lived experience when creating training materials about their identity, history, community, and other related topics.

Back to the Question at Hand: Improving Our Ability to Communicate

At the same time, expecting anyone (no matter their lived experience, expertise, or knowledge) to educate either individuals or organizations purely out of the goodness of their heart is both rude and unreasonable. My landlord doesn’t let me live in my apartment out of the goodness of its warm, fuzzy, corporate heart, so I need to spend my time in a way that gets my rent paid — and I expect the same to be true of every human I encounter. (Kronda Adair has written several brilliant posts on this topic — start with this post.) In the event we all wind up living in a communist utopia, remind me to revisit this point.

That means paying multiple editors to look over my work who can bring the right context to it, right? Since I don’t have a lot of money, I generally can’t afford to work with more than one editor on a project. As it happens, since I write for the web, I often can’t afford to work with even one editor.

When I’m flying without a grammatical net, there are some options for improving my writing without spending a ton of money:

  • I use a ton of technology. There are tools to analyze common grammatical mistakes, such as the spell check tool built into most word processors. But there are also tools that do more specific editing tasks, such as the Hemingway app, which helps writers to follow Hemingway’s writing advice (limited adjectives and adverbs, short sentence structures and so on).
  • I got an education in writing and communications, and then kept learning. I have a couple of degrees in communication, which included loads of classes on writing. I also still read a ridiculous amount about writing. I kept learning after getting a degree, using self-education materials available from experts, ranging from writing hacks to full-fledged textbooks. A degree isn’t necessary in this field and an in-person class isn’t even required.
  • Lastly, I adore my style guide. I don’t (usually) sleep with the AP Stylebook, but I still keep both the digital and print copies handy. I also own a bunch of other style guides. I ask the publications I write for if they have their own style guides. I also have made my own style guides, both for individual publications I work on and more generally (i.e., I’ll go to bat with an editor to make sure ‘internet’ is not capitalized).

The resources for writing responsibly and ethically are few and far between. During my education, the closest I got to a class on how to write with some level of sensitivity was a graduate-level course on how to write about controversial topics — where ‘controversial’ was read as ‘political’ or ‘religious’ more than anything else. (Side note: That class was taught by Arthur Magida, author of How to Be a Perfect Stranger, which I have referred to as The Book that Keeps Me From Screwing Up Other People’s Weddings. I highly recommended it.)

That particular class was incredibly valuable, but I had to wait until I was working on a master’s degree to have an instructor start talking about how to start thinking about dealing with difficult topics, despite taking my first journalism class in middle school. How is there not a basic class in every journalism, public relations, and marketing program on how to write for diverse audiences? We teach basic interviewing techniques, like how to ask a question to high school journalism classes, but fail to teach those same students which questions to ask or who to ask questions of. I don’t know what your student paper looked like, but mine didn’t exactly reflect the demographics of our student body. It reflected the perspectives of the teachers leading the class and of the kids in accelerated English classes — despite having a big ESL program at our school, I can’t remember a single ESL student writing for the student paper. I’m not advocating for fully restructuring journalism (yet!) but we do need to make a point of teaching empathy in journalism.

We’re at the beginning of conversations about representation in the media. There are a few organizations now that try to track statistics on authors and writers, like the VIDA Count. Getting more diverse writers (and other media makers) into big publications is just a first step. Telling stories of underrepresented demographics is the next step — and I’m not talking about tokenism. Pro tip: it’s perfectly fine to have an article about a technical project led by a woman without ever asking her about whether she thinks tech is a tough industry for women. As a matter of fact, skipping the focus on how different the story’s subject is means that you get to spend more time on how cool the actual project is.

Some individuals and organizations have started working on this problem, but many resources are fragmented. I have more than a dozen style guides and media guides just for covering religion. (I’ll get more into what’s out there in another post I’m already working on.)

We still have a long way to go to get to a truly diverse media scene, though. I keep thinking of our current media landscape as the beginning of a very long journey — we’re still outfitting ourselves for the trek and don’t really know what’s on the trail ahead. We won’t even know some of the work we need to do to get to that far off Wonderland until we get on the road. We know that we need to remodel or replace many of the systems in place to produce journalism and other media, but until that work is done, we won’t know many of the steps that come after.

Let’s Talk Ideals and Infrastructure for Writers

In my ideal world, I could just use pronouns that aren’t based on gender for writing and everything else. I recognize that I have to stick to the current system if I want readers to be able to understand everything I publish, but I certainly don’t like the existing system.

Until there’s a good opportunity for a linguistic revolution, I’m focused on making the existing system better. That means starting with the writers who make the articles, blog posts, and other things we read (along with the scripts for plenty of the audio and video content we see, too). Style guides are a good starting point for talking about how we cover things because we’re already used to looking up details we might get wrong.

In fact, some organizations have put out specialized style guides for how writers can cover their specific communities. These resources are all over the place, however, and sometimes contradictory. Creating a standard resource is the first step to making improvements in who writes what stories. Having discussions about diversity and inclusion before publishing anything will, at least, limit some of the more thoughtless headlines and references that we see constantly. As a personal goal, I’d like to see publishers avoid referring to an Olympic athlete as someone else’s wife.

I have thought of other formats this style guide could take. I kept coming back to the idea of doing the research and running an in-person workshop, geared towards newsrooms. But while we clearly need more educational materials about writing responsibly, style guides have more power than classes. I’ve taken more writing classes than I can count. I don’t remember where all the handouts and notes are from those classes, though I can point to the occasional writing hack and say that I picked it up from a particular instructor. You could have swapped out most of my writing teachers for other writing teachers and I would never have noticed.

But taking my AP Stylebook from me would turn me into a mess. And while I could manage if you took my Chicago Manual of Style or one of the other style guides I rely on, I would be pretty unhappy. These reference books have impacted my writing far more than anything or anyone else.

Making a Real Difference with The Responsible Communication Style Guide

I’ve spent the past couple of years casually talking about making a style guide that answers some of the questions I have. Audrey Eschright, the publisher of the Recompiler, heard me talking about the idea for The Responsible Communication Style Guide this spring. She said that she wanted something similar and would be willing to work on the project.

Working with Audrey is amazing — we’re on the same page about everything except whether there’s a hyphen in ‘ebook’ (I’m anti-hyphen, while Audrey is pro-hyphen, if you’re wondering). Perhaps the most important thing we agree on is how to construct The Responsible Communication Style Guide. Our particular manifesto for this project can be broken down into the following bullet points:

  • We’re hiring the right people to write each of these sections and we’re paying them. None of that crap about asking people to educate us for free here.
  • We’re creating a printed resource, as well as a website. Different people use different formats (and we’ve got some cool ideas for even more approaches once we’ve got the initial iteration ready).
  • We’re developing training around The Responsible Communication Style Guide, because people only use resources they have some familiarity with.
  • We agree that this sort of style guide isn’t just about writing clearly. It’s also about being able to communicate in a manner that doesn’t harm anyone: writers, editors, and publishers influence culture and attitudes so directly that we have an obligation to use that power responsibly.

Yes, we’re both absolutely scratching our own itch with The Responsible Communication Style Guide. But we’re also creating something that we know there’s a need for — and something with the potential to guide major conversations in technology. Yes, journalists working in this space need the guide. But there’s more room than that in the long run. Ultimately, everyone in technology is a writer: a programmer writes documentation, technical blog posts, and internal talks, even if they never publish a single word outside of an employer’s media. Designers, marketers, and even business analysts create reams of written material every day.

This guide gives people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers a starting point for thinking, talking, and, yes, writing, about users in an empathetic way. There’s a real potential for The Responsible Communication Style Guide to equip us for important conversations by providing an introduction to concepts of identity and a framework for writing about those concepts.

So here we are. There’s a big chunk of my heart and soul up on Kickstarter right now. I’m a bit terrified, especially of getting things wrong with the people who I want to contribute to The Responsible Communication Style Guide. I’m ridiculously hopeful about what bringing this project to life means for the books and blogs I’ll read in the future. I’m wound up waiting to see who will back this project. We’ve got just under a month to make this happen. Let’s go.

We Need Your Help

If you are as excited as I am, we are looking for help!

  • Please consider backing our project, even at a low level. If everyone just bought an ebook copy at the $15 level, we would need just over 1,300 backers — and there are far more than 1,300 people writing about these topics.
  • Please share our Kickstarter with everyone who you think might be interested. From our perspective, that means journalists, marketers, speakers, and other folks who write publicly. But once the Responsible Communication Style Guide is a reality, we expect people to use it in ways we never considered.
  • Please let us know if you think of any ways to make this material more accessible to your community. We have some ideas (I want a linter for writing!), some of which will be incorporated into this first iteration of the guide and some of which we’ll work on after the Kickstarter (including my hopes for a linter).

Thank you for reading this whole long post and thank you for your help.

HTML is the New Latin

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Latin is a strange language. No one speaks it as their first language and few people speak it regularly outside of Vatican City. Yet many schools still offer Latin classes and most of us know a few words (even if we aren’t always aware that we do). We still use Latin roots for forming new words, even in English with its Germanic heritage. Kids studying for the SAT or GRE learn Latin roots to score well on what may be the most important tests of their lives.

We have a certain respect for the language that united scholars and politicians across Europe hundreds of years ago. Latin provided an underlying structure that allowed key ideas to pass communication barriers. Whether or not Latin is regularly spoken in the future, it will still have a lasting impact on the words we use for centuries to come.

The digital age requires a new connective infrastructure. Markup languages, including HTML, are that communication tool. Markup languages are systems of annotating documents in a way that’s both visually different from the text itself and recognizable by computer programs. Learning at least a few HTML tags is rapidly becoming a necessary step to sharing information across borders. HTML, by the way, stands for “HyperText Markup Language.”

The Words Themselves Aren’t So Important Today

As a writer, I hate myself for even suggesting that words themselves aren’t so important. But with translation tools constantly improving, my choice to use English words is far less important than it was even a few years ago. Even the specific words I use are exchangeable for something simpler: I can drop a blog post like this into Hemingway and see where I can change my diction.

I read web pages written in foreign languages every day. Google translates those pages for me automatically. I don’t need a human to translate their work into Latin or another shared language for me to get the gist of it.

But I do need those foreign texts in a format that Google can access. They need to be web pages, written in HTML, so that a machine can access and process the information they contain. Markup languages make our work accessible to the world — the same purpose Latin served centuries ago.

Of course, machine-based translation isn’t perfect. It’s improving, however, especially as the systems handling such translation get access to more text and can learn from experience. The algorithms used to process language are improving every day. In the long-term, it’s possible that we really could have real-time translations whispered into our ears as we talk. In the meanwhile, we can make our work easier to access, both by machines and by humans.

A Little Formatting Makes a World of Difference

Formatting is crucial. When we speak, we can convey our emotions through eye rolls, upbeat tones of voice, and other non-verbal communication. But with the written word, we’re limited to sharing information through words and formatting. Boldness, bullet points, and other visual cues have to do the heavy lifting.

This sort of formatting also conveys information to non-human readers. When a machine processes a document without any formatting, it can guess what the title and topic of the piece are based on comparison to other documents. But if the writer of a document puts a couple of H1 tags around that document’s title, a computer can tell the title of the piece immediately. Doing so also helps human readers focus on the title quickly, as an added benefit.

Unfortunately, formatting isn’t always a simple matter. There are many ways we can share text with the world — a shared Word doc, a WordPress blog post, a plain text comment, and many more. But each of these methods brings its own formatting woes. Our reliance on rich text is to blame. Different tools implement formatting in different ways, making it difficult to copy and paste between systems. These proprietary systems don’t talk to each other as well as they could. Don’t get me wrong. The situation has improved over the past few years: You can copy text from a Microsoft Word document into a WordPress blog post without your formatting going all wonky now (provided you’re using a recent version of WordPress). But there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Writers Need to Learn Markup Languages

The need to make our work more accessible for both human and machine readers seems like a question of improving technology. Our tools are continuing to evolve. But, as a writer, choosing to learn HTML or another markup language can push your own work much further.

On the most basic level, offering an editor or a publisher a plain text file formatted with HTML can help your career. An editor can get your work published online far faster if you hand them a prepared file. You have a far better shot at being the editor’s favorite writer when you know HTML.

On a deeper level, however, the ability to correctly format your writing in HTML can increase its reach. Search engines have a harder time ranking an incorrectly formatted blog post or web page than one with correctly written HTML. You don’t have to dive too far down the rabbit hole: just being able to format your writing and add a little meta data is enough to make your work much more accessible. Adding in the right HTML is the modern day version of translating your work into Latin so that the folks in the next country over can actually find and understand your work in their library.

I’m not suggesting that you learn how to program. I may personally think that’s a good idea, but I’ve seen other writers get anxious at that sort of suggestion. Rather, writers need to be able to annotate our work to ensure our meanings are clear — we need to add formatting tags and a few other details. It’s possible to get by with using a tool that generates your HTML for you. I actually write in Markdown using a cloud-based word processor that can transform Markdown files into all sorts of other formats. But it’s worth your while to learn some HTML first, if only so you’ll notice if an automated system gets something wrong.

HTML is a Tool of the Cultural Elite

Through the seventeenth century, getting any attention at all required translating your work into Latin. It didn’t matter if you were a member of the Catholic Church or not. Latin was your only choice of languages for communicating with the cultural elite. Even Isaac Newton, who lived in the Protestant country of England, wrote his mathematical treatises in Latin.

Today, reaching the cultural elite means publishing your work online. Online doesn’t mean just tossing up an essay or an article on your blog, by the way. If you want to have any sort of reach, you need to be able to push your work on to a variety of platforms, like the Kindle. Just as writing in Latin meant that any European with a good education could read Newton’s work, marking up your own work with HTML makes spreading it easier. You can immediately push your work out to all the different platforms your readers might use. (The only way to use what Amazon refers to as ‘advanced formatting’ in a Kindle ebook, as it happens, is to format your book using HTML.)

There may always be print versions of particular work, but we’re fast reaching a point where publishers of all stripes push work online first and create a physical copy second. And since HTML, with a little help from CSS, can format text for printing, we should expect the online-first mindset to become even more common.

So Where Should Writers Start?

It’s not uncommon to meet writers who are only interested in perfecting their craft. Personally, I find that mindset to be problematic: If you want to lock yourself in a room all day to write, how can you guarantee that anyone will ever read what you’ve created? If you want to opt out of the world and focus on writing to the exclusion of all other things, though, you do have the option.

But if you’d rather ensure your work reaches an audience, there are a few easy starting points to help you learn a markup language.

  • Start by writing in a rich text editor, such as the one built into WordPress. Write as you would normally, but make a point of switching from rich text to HTML. In WordPress, you just need to click between tabs at the top of the text box where you’re composing your latest magnum opus. Once you see your HTML, you can make a point of checking your formatting against the HTML your editor generates. You’ll pick up simpler formatting, like bold or italic quickly.
  • Consider going through a tutorial or a class. There are hundreds of free tutorials online for HTML and related topics. I’d suggest searching for how to handle specific questions, like ‘how to format a block quote in HTML‘. You can also take more in-depth classes, like those offered by Codecademy.
  • Learn more about markup languages — but only if you really want to. I realize that I’m already bumping up against the limits of what the average writer cares about by writing 2,000 words about why you should care about HTML. If I went down the rabbit hole into topics like metadata, Markdown, and the wide variety of markup languages out in the world, I’d probably lose most of you who have read this far. But for the one or two of you who have an interest, there are all sorts of opportunities out there for writers who really understand markup languages.

You can also consider your tools. We don’t always get the option of choosing how we write. The muse may only strike when you’re looking at an entirely blank screen or even if you’ve just got a pad of paper and a pen. But if you understand your own workflow, you may be able to upgrade your tools so that you’re able to deal with HTML questions and the like with only minimal effort.

At the bare minimum, choose word processing programs capable of exporting HTML without screwing up your carefully planned formatting. Scrivener, for instance, has a much better export track record than Microsoft Word. There are any number of word processors and other tools that will help you write, as well as add HTML to your work in an efficient manner.

Right now, I’m using a tool called Beegit. It gives me a way to share projects with a team, as well as the ability to write with visible markup in my documents. However, Beegit is based on Markdown, rather than HTML, so it’s not necessarily a good switch if you’re still learning about markup languages.

Your Obligation to Experiment

The written word is becoming ever more important: We spend more time with text today than any of our ancestors ever did. But we still haven’t perfected a way of ensuring that a given document is accessible to every single person who wants to read it. Language and cultural barriers still slow down how quickly we can share new ideas, as does issues as simple as file formats.

But the more that we writers can tackle the question of accessibility on our own, the wider our own work will spread. If reaching readers is one of the reasons you bother to put words into a row, take the time to experiment with markup languages, just scholars in centuries past invested the time necessary to learn Latin.

Photo credit: iStylr

The Age Of The Uncredentialed Curator

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Tumblrs full of kitten pictures, websites ranking the helpfulness of individual restaurant reviews, Pinterest pages full of tasty ways to prepare vegetables you’ve never even heard of — at its core, the internet is about collections. We find topics we care about or people who we want to connect with and we build lists.

Some of these collections contain original contributions, like blog posts or memes. Others are purely an organization of what the collector in question finds online. The same has held true of most information management over the years: a library is also a curated collection of books judged to be worth consulting, as well as records or other information the library may have gathered or even created. It’s how we handle anything complex.

You Don’t Need Credentials to Buy a Domain Name

But while it’s tough to get the money to build a new library without a degree in library science, you can set up a new website for under a hundred dollars. Calling the curators who are building the information collections we base our lives on these days ‘uncredentialed’ may be overly kind: not to be cruel, but the only requirements for getting a Tumblr or Pinterest account is a valid email address.

That low barrier to entry isn’t a problem, but it is a fact we need to acknowledge if we’re going to talk about curation. When anyone can publish their curational efforts, effectively by accident, there’s a question of how useful those efforts are to anyone else. I’ve seen plenty of Pinterest boards that are meant to be intensely personal — it’s where people plan weddings and pick out tattoos for themselves, far more than they focus on sharing what they’ve found with other people, no matter what its creators intended.

There is value in that sort of collecting; I spend plenty of time browsing through other peoples’ Pinterest boards myself. They’re sources of things I might be interested in, based on my connection with the curator, as well as information about what my friends and family enjoy.

But there is a lot of noise coming through these channels, as well as through all the various options we have for publishing any sort of collection. No one can pay attention to every single channel that we can access. We have to be selective in a way that a scholar who had to physically go to wherever information happened to be never was.

Who Curates the Curators?

When finding the right piece of information or viewing the right piece of art required days of travel, there was (perhaps surprisingly) less of a problem in figuring out what information to pursue. With only one expert to talk to, you got a good pair of boots and headed out to talk to him.

Today, the wealth of information we can access is dangerous. How many times have you looked at one article on Wikipedia, only to find yourself engrossed in articles about Pleistocene megafauna or glam metal music hours later? We no longer face questions about what information is worth preserving or worth traveling days to learn. Rather, we have the problem of deciding which information is worth paying attention to. The job of the curator is far different right now than it was a few centuries ago.

Personal curation solves some small element of this question: quietly saving links that will help you go back and cook exactly the recipe you’re after or purchase the perfect outfit can let us handle a lot of the small questions in our lives. But when we’re taking on a new topic, either personally or professionally, curators have to provide more information. I recently read an article that covered the entire history of a musical genre I had no familiarity with; when I went looking for information, I was quickly overwhelmed. No single curator had taken it upon herself to create an introductory guide to the genre or even to suggest ten albums a new listener should pick up.

There may be a fan of that particular genre with a great playlist on a website devoted to music somewhere, but that hypothetical playlist doesn’t show up through a cursory web search — all that I’m really prepared to do if I have anything else on my plate I really need to be working on. There isn’t a lot of incentive for someone curating resources for her private consumption to bother publicizing that sort of resource, by the way: it’s rare that such a specialized list will earn the author any money, though a small amount of niche fame can be possible. Even that level of fame can be a double-edged sword: I have a friend who is an expert in an incredibly esoteric topic (as a life-long hobbyist who has published about his work online, he’s essentially one of a handful of experts in the world). He gets oddball questions all the time, to the point where it would take him significant effort to field these questions — but people aren’t willing to pay him for the answers. While a few people will continue sharing information out of love for a topic, there are more who will discontinue their work because of the effort involved.

To get the information we need, then, we’re left looking to a secondary level of curators: people who will seek out those awesome playlists and other collections and point attention to them. I’m not so sure that this is a long-term solution, however: while there are certain bloggers and other online curators making a living from ‘finding cool crap on the internet’ (the folks behind BoingBoing and Dooce come to mind as very different examples), those people are few and far between. In the meanwhile, however, there are plenty of people who aspire to that role or to otherwise make a living on the internet. There are not so many, however, that I can find playlists for somewhat obscure musical niches.

Expert Curation is Getting Expensive

There is an understood value of some sorts of curation: particularly talented curators who can make topics interesting and relevant have already found a variety of business models online. But if an expert curator is willing to specialize in certain fields, the money associated with their work can increase.

In fact, the amount some companies are willing to pay certain types of expert curators keeps going up. This obviously includes people who can curate interesting information to create an alluring social media feed — most companies are happy to pump money into marketing if it results in a corresponding increase in sales. However, other types of curation are in high demand. Anyone who can effectively parse and contextualize information about complicated topics (like business and finance) is very employable these days. Whether they’re writing broad advice for the masses or telling an individual company when to jump, an expert who can pull together different sources of data is incredibly valuable.

But the expense of accessing expert curators is going up, no matter what job description you have in mind. Collecting data is a time intensive process, full of time spent pursuing potentially useful tidbits only to find that they don’t really fit in with what you’re curating. I track all sorts of topics and just evaluating sources can be intense: when anyone can post anything to the internet, you can’t exactly assume that each piece of information you find is equally reliable. The more information a curator needs to sort through, the more expensive that sort of work is going to become.

It’s understandable that with the added cost of hiring someone as a curator, an employer or a client is going to want to see credentials as proof that the curator in question can handle the work. But that sort of proof may not be necessary, at least for any curator who can build a collection before hunting for work. An appealing collection of information, whether it’s a blog, a Pinterest board, or a book speaks for a curator’s ability far more than any other credential might — at least in this era of too-easily accessible information.

What do you curate? Do you feel like credentials make it easier to collect the ideas and items you focus on? Or do credentials just get in the way of the work you want to do?

Photo credit: Ginny

TextExpander: A Useful Tool for Writers

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There’s a benefit to finding a niche, especially as a writer: you can make sure that you know the topics you work with inside and out. You know exactly where to look when you need a particular piece of data for a project. You can be an expert, to the point where people beyond your mother look for the work you’ve put out.

But you’ll also wind up typing the same things over and over and over again.

It’s a small price to pay: you can be truly adept with your vocabulary, provided you’re prepared to get as familiar with it as that one pair of pants that you can’t wear out in public, but that you will never throw away.

Taking Advantage of Over-Familiarity

But if you’re going to get that personal with your jargon, why not take advantage of the fact? Why not use that reality to speed up the time it takes you to do your work?

What if you could type a shortcut on your keyboard that would put those terms on the page with three keystrokes instead of ten? Over the next couple of years, that could add up to some real time. I do exactly that with TextExpander, a shortcut management tool available for the Mac.

Since I write about business quite a bit, typing ‘ap;’ spits out ‘accounts payable’ into my documents. That doesn’t seem like a big difference, but after you get used to typing something a little different, it can make more repetitive work go a lot faster.

I’ve got shortcut for all sorts of things:

  • the names and websites of the clients I work with regularly
  • templates for certain projects I work on (for instance, I have a weekly column that has to follow a very specific format)
  • the bio that I drop in at the end of articles I’m writing for certain publications

But there are some very cool ways to take shortcuts a step further, particularly if you spend most of your day putting words in a row.

Using Shortcuts to Improve Your Writing

If you write constantly, you’ll start to notice that there are certain phrases or even individual words that you use too much. Most of us are aware of such problem phrases, but it’s tough to write and find those phrases at the same time. You might pull a couple out during the editing process, but then again, you might miss them.

Every time I type certain phrases that I’ve decided I need to eliminate from my writing, TextExpander drops in an expansion that I can’t help but notice when I edit and that usually will catch my attention as I’m writing in the first go around. It usually looks something like ‘////////////BAD PHRASE/////////////’ — which is pretty hard to miss. I haven’t been able to entirely train myself out of using such phrases, but I’ve been able to improve the end product quite a bit.

There are also some words that I can’t write correctly for the life of me. I have certain suspicions about the way ‘soldier’ really ought to be spelled: I’m pretty sure there is a conspiracy around any word where vowels hang out next to each other. Rather than spend a lot of time stressing about conspiracy theories, though, I’ve created shortcuts to automatically correct my most egregious errors.

There are plenty of other ways to take advantage of shortcuts as a writer. I know I’m still only scratching the surface of how I can make my own workflow more productive, but I’m certainly going to keep experimenting with TextExpander and other tools.

A Little Bit of Markdown Makes a World of Difference

Over the past few months, I’ve made the switch to writing just about everything in Markdown. It’s a bit like writing in HTML — but much easier! I’ve reached a point that it would be hard for anyone to convince me to go back to my previous approach. I’m becoming a bit of an evangelist to convince other writers to start using Markdown, along with a few associated tools, to make workflow management much easier.

My Previous Approach

Prior to switching to Markdown, I wrote out blog posts (along with most other text) in a bastardized version of HTML. The goal was to be able to copy and paste what I wrote as plain text, without having to go through and change styling on specific words after I loaded a post into WordPress, or wherever else it was going.

You’ve probably seen horribly wrong results from cutting and pasting styled text from something like Microsoft Word into WordPress — if you haven’t, I strongly suggest against relying on this approach if you routinely write for the web. But, at the same time, writing in a text field on a browser just seems like begging to lose hours worth of work. Many sites now have some level of auto-saving built in, but it’s not something you can count on.

All of this added up to my adding in certain HTML tags directly as I wrote. But doing that can be a little distracting. Trying to figure out what a headline should say, as well as remembering which tag will result in the style you want can be a hassle.

Markdown to the Rescue

HTML is what’s known as a ‘markup’ language. So is Markdown, albeit greatly simplified. It’s easy to remember — asterisks do a lot of heavy lifting, as do octothorpes (also known as pound signs). It’s almost like adding a few little symbols to remind yourself to go back and add formatting latter. Luckily, though, with the right tools, the formatting winds up adding itself.

For me, those tools include the following:

  • Marked: This little app makes everything else possible. I write in Markdown in a variety of different programs, but I always have Marked running. It lets me generate live previews of what my text actually looks like from different types of files, as well as copying my work as HTML, so that I can drop it into a blog editor — or exporting the file as HTML, RTF or PDF.
  • Sublime Text: If you’re writing in Markdown, you’re going to want to write in some sort of text editor. I’ve been learning to code, so I just use the same text editor for everything. As an added bonus, there are some plugins for Sublime Text that make it into a great word processor. However, I only use Sublime Text for shorter peices of work — for longer pieces, it can get unwieldy.
  • Scrivener: For longer projects, I’ve started using Scrivener — not only is it Markdown friendly, but it has a ton of features for making big writing projects very easy to deal with.

That’s about $120 worth of software that makes my writing life much easier than it has been in the past. But you don’t need any of it to get started. You can rely on just about any text editor you may already have and try out some free tools for whatever platforms you’re working on; many content management systems have plugins that let them handle Markdown natively. Give it a whirl. I promise, you’ll be surprised.

The Inverted Pyramid Format is a Dinosaur

The inverted pyramid format is one recommended for journalists (as well as other types of writers), where the most important information comes right at the beginning of an article, perhaps even crammed entirely into the first paragraph. Important details come next, with general background information coming last.

It’s a format that was developed for newspapers, although the exact genesis of the inverted pyramid is unclear. The version I like best is that the format grew out of journalists sending in stories by telegraph or phoning them in: the important details had to be up front, in case the connection was cut. It makes for a romantic picture — a journalist reporting on the Mexican Revolution, perhaps, desperate to get as much as possible back to his editors before Pancho Villa cut the telegraph lines. But the reality may be much less favorable for writers. With all the important information at the front, a lazy editor could just start lopping off the end paragraph and keep going until the article could be wedged into the column inches available to it.

Whichever creation myth is true, it’s clear that the inverted pyramid format is a legacy of a different approach to publishing, which was dependent on communication methods that were incredibly finite and lossy. A print publication only had so many pages and a paragraph at the end could easily be cut out.

The Extended Rule of the Inverted Pyramid

If the inverted pyramid is so old-school, why is it still the format primarily taught in journalism classes? Why did I get subjected to it in numerous classes over two different degrees, including a creative non-fiction class?

Part of the problem is that it’s an easy format to teach. Writing is an inexact process, particularly when time comes to teach it to new writers. It’s so much easier to tell students to write to a specific format and grade them on how well they do with that approach than it is to let them run wild. But that’s turned the inverted pyramid into a hammer that new writers will use on anything that looks vaguely nail-like. There are still situations in which using the inverted pyramid makes sense, but they are far fewer than the number of articles it’s actually used in.

The reality of where articles are published today is far different than the late 19th century and early 20th century — the years when the inverted pyramid emerged. We publish to blogs, mobile apps and news sites, which have no page limitations. The only restrictions we face are those we choose to accept, like Twitter’s 140-character limit. If I want to write a 12,000-word article on whether cats actually like cheeseburgers, the only factor I should really consider is if anyone will want to read it (and since my theoretical opus has cats and cheeseburgers on the internet, the odds seem good). I can write an article of any length and publish it immediately. The basis for the inverted pyramid is entirely gone, leaving only a shaky metaphorical shape.

The Guilt of the Inverted Pyramid

Some people feel that the inverted pyramid is more than outdated; it’s dangerous to readership rates. The broad concern is that it’s a generally uninteresting format. The reader gets the whole package one paragraph in. It’s trained readers to be lazy and to assume that the end of the article isn’t worth the effort. Sure, the article may have a kicker at the end to revive interest, but how many readers really make it that far after reading articles in this format for years? Even in the hands of the best writers, it’s hard to create an interesting story in the inverted pyramid format. At the most basic level, the inverted pyramid guarantees a boring story.

But there are some suggestions that the danger goes deeper. As a writer, I can usually tell by the comments whether someone read an article all the way through. A lot of the time, few people actually make it to the end, preferring to read the first paragraph and skim the rest. In the past, the inverted pyramid format made that approach perfectly reasonable. Readers have been trained that this approach will get them through most reading material. It’s a bad habit to get into and it’s an even harder one to break, unless you see that you’re not getting all the information you need. Moving away from the inverted pyramid format won’t fix the problem, but it’s a step in the correct direction.

It creates an interesting problem for all those newspapers with paywalls as well: universally, they offer a few teasing lines of the articles that they want readers to pay for. But those first few lines, at least in an article written in the inverted pyramid format, contain the whole picture — for anyone who doesn’t want more than that, there’s no temptation to pay to read further. There’s no clear solution that that little issue, either.

The Alternatives to the Inverted Pyramid

There’s a concept in design called ‘skeuomorphism’ — it’s the act of adding characteristics of an old form or approach to a design that doesn’t necessarily need them. In technology, it’s made obvious by example: your smartphone may ring with the sound of an actual physical telephone ringer, despite not having one itself. In many ways, the inverted pyramid is the skeuomorph of the writing world. We’ve been trained to expect it, just like we’ve been trained to listen for phones ringing, but it’s a characteristic we’ve imposed on new channels of communication.

It’s time to look for some of the forms that these new channels point to. We’ve barely scratched the surface of concepts like hypertext and we have the ability to publish practically infinite lengths of text. These may not be universal opportunities, but why not play with them and see what develops?

Even if you aren’t working on writing anything that you can afford to take that far afield, there are still some strategies that you should employ other than the inverted pyramid. Writing for the web demands storytelling: when a reader can be gone as quickly as she can click ‘back’, putting everything in the first paragraph isn’t good for your page views or other metrics, let alone for getting the whole story across. A more traditional approach to storytelling (just tell what happened, in order) or an essay format (a hypothesis and then some proof) can work well online, at least in my experience. Both approaches do require the writer to make some effort to be interesting, but it’s easier to pull off than in an inverted pyramid-style article. But these formats are just starting points. It’s up to you to decide what works for a given topic.

The Place for the Inverted Pyramid Today

There is a home for the inverted pyramid today, despite my unwillingness to let it run rampant over all forms of writing. It’s perfect for reporting breaking news. When you need to get across the facts of a situation like a natural disaster headed your way, put all the important information in the first paragraph. No one wants to be forced to read several paragraphs in to tell if their particular town is in the path of a snowpocalypse.

For a situation in which there’s an urgency to get information across, the inverted pyramid makes sense. It should still be taught and used and generally be a part of the writing world — though we can limit its place in the educational process to one class on the form and use of the format.

But the inverted pyramid should no longer take precedence when deciding how to write an article. Rather, the question needs to be what the right format for each individual piece of writing: it may add some time to the writing process, but we’re likely to wind up with not only better writing, but a higher level of engagement with readers in the long run. If we’re willing to pour time into efforts like optimizing articles for search engines and to promoting them on social networks, why not put a little more time into crafting great work?

Image by Flickr user Stephen Carlile