Monday, August 8, 2011

A Brown Redish

As long as Janice Redish is writing books teaching us about writing for the web, I’ll toss in a little tidbit for a person writing books to be printed: Make sure you don’t print a stinky book.

Redish’s book is stinky. I’m not talking content; I’m talking stink: It’s that same aluminum stink you get from the clay your kids play with (ordinary clay, not Play-Doh). It’s akin to the odor that accompanied the book on sharks I used to check out from the Idaho Falls Public Library incessantly as a kid, just so I could sniff the pages and imagine it was the stink of sharks. Or worse.

I truly enjoyed Redish’s book. It’s a handy, essential (to use the overused adjectives) book for anyone who finds himself writing for the web. But as I read it, I kept thinking of good ol’ Professor David Hailey of Utah State University fame, lamenting that while there are many good books out there by authors crying to tell us how to write for the web, there aren’t any that really get to the meat of the problem, which is getting past the cut-and-paste mentality most of us have in our web writing and ensuring that what we write for the web is appropriate for our audience’s varied needs.

Redish only lightly touches on this issue:

Page 260: “I urge you to review the entire document, rethink it for the web, probably break it up even more than it is, and so on; but in any case, make sure that each section you make into a web page has useful headings and turn them into same-page links.”

Page 238: “Whether you are writing new content or revising old content, if you find it difficult to write a heading for a section of text, is probably means the section is not clear or covers too many points all jumbled together. Clarify the content. Break it up into smaller sections. If you find yourself writing the same heading over different sections of text, it probably means that the material is not well organized. Reorganize it to be logical for your site visitors.”

How, I keep asking myself, how?

This is where part of me screams that good writing is instinctual, that it cannot be taught. Then the more rational part of me screams right back, “Well then, Mr. Smarty-Pants, why is your own writing getting better over time? It’s not because your genius is increasing, but because you’re learning how to become a better writer. Somebody’s teaching you, bonehead, so writing is teachable.”

Redish’s book is great. It just doesn’t go deep enough. It helps me know how to be better at helping my site users and guiding them through my website and keeping them there by offering good information and pare excellence wayfinding, but doesn’t tell me the critical stuff – how to revise the stuff I want to put on my site.

And also, some of what Redish writes is simply becoming outdated.

The PDF thing, for example. She urges us to shun long documents, as people don’t want to read them online or don’t want the hassle of printing them out. With the advent of tablet computing and more on-the-go computing, I find myself reading a lot more PDFs than I have in the past. It’s just easier. And it bugs me nuts when I encounter a long bit of writing I want to read at leisure but have to print out because the idiot web designers split it up over multiple pages or pepper it with headings and wayfinding so much I have lot of stuff to bleep over to get to what I want to read. The pendulum has swung back the other way, if you ask me.

Brown Redish hits somewhere in the middle-ish here.

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