As a part of our required readings for the social media writing class at Quinnipiac, we read On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. This was a terrific book.
On Writing Well covers a multitude of issues that writers can face. Zinsser gives writers the freedom to occasionally break some rules, or at least to bend them. Moreover, he gives reasons why one type of construction might work better than another.
For Zinsser, the start and the end pack heavy punches. On Page 54, he writes,
“The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead. And if the second sentence doesn’t induce him to continue to the third sentence, it’s equally dead. Of such a progression of sentences, each tugging the reader forward until he’s hooked, a writer constructs that fateful unit, the ‘lead’.”
Not only is this good advice for fiction writing, it’s excellent for report writing and for writing for the web. How many times have we had to slog through a ton of prose before getting to the good stuff? How many times have we tried to hang in there when we’d rather be doing anything but tackling an opaque garbage can full of prose?
Active Versus Passive Tense
Many writers are told to prefer active to passive tense when writing. Zinsser explains why, on Page 67,
“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb. The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer.”
A little over the top, maybe, but it does get the point across.
Don’t dance around your subject. Be bold. And be clear. Be terse.
White Space is not your Enemy by Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen
White Space is not your Enemyby Kim Golombisky and Rebecca Hagen is a beginning design book. And I purchased it because I definitely need assistance with design. While I (at least I think I do) have something of an understanding of which color goes with which, it is sometimes difficult for me to make something look good. Seeking some inexpensive professional help, I turned to this book.
So apart from the obvious title, the book offers tips on color combinations, font selection, focal points and even how to prepare a document for a professional print job. And the chapter on design sins really resonated with me. I have seen poorly designed advertisements (both online and offline) and websites, and have never really been able to adequately articulate just why they were so hideous. So now I can.
The exercises in the back of each chapter seemed, I thought, somewhat superfluous. However, I did find myself beginning to look at designs with a more critical eye. For example, I noticed a print advertisement where the background photograph was of varied colors. Some were light, some, dark. The print, however, was pure white, and cut horizontally along the middle of the photograph. Hence this would have been fine, except the copy crashed straight into a white space, so some of the print was invisible. Which part? The company’s name. Epic design fail.
Another extremely helpful chapter: the one on the “works every time” layout. This layout is all over the Internet and all over print media, and for good reason. It is, essentially, a full width photograph or other graphic across the top third of the screen or page, with the remaining two-thirds divided into two vertical columns for text. A cutline (caption) goes directly underneath the visual (if appropriate; some visuals don’t need a cutline), with a more prominent headline directly below that.
Break up the columns into paragraphs and beware widows and orphans (one or two short words on a line). Place tags (these aren’t Internet meta tags), which are the logo, company name and small nugget of information such as the URL or physical address, in the lower right-hand corner. In addition, round it all out with generous margins all around. Voila! An instant beautiful (albeit somewhat common) layout!
If nothing else, that chapter has a greater value than the price of admission.
Creativity cannot, truly, be taught. But the peripherals around it can, such as how to gather ideas and nurture them, and how to place those ideas together in a coherent format. It’s like teaching pottery and smithing but not cookery: you get enough so that you can set the table, but not nourish anyone.
For that, you need to be an artist. And that, sadly, no book can ever teach you.
But I know it’s important and so I’m going to take my shot at trying to optimize things as best as I can. The fact that the site and this blog are already on Google (and I already pretty much own jespah as a keyword – I’m #2 on Google already) is encouraging.
An Early Hint
In 2010 I met Kevin Palmer for a networking meeting, and told him I was interested in creating a new site for myself. And he told me — it’s like three legs of a stool: Content, Design and SEO.
Content I’ve got. I’ve got content coming out of my ears. I’ve got stuff to write like, like Carter’s got Liver Pills as my Dad would say.
As for design, I use WordPress. It is far, far simpler to just use their templates. They have an excellent understanding of how to put together a sweet-looking website and give it some style. And it’s mine and I made it and I am not only fully responsible for the content, I am also responsible in every way for its design and usability. With the help of WordPress, it’s prettier and more usable than ever.
But then there’s SEO. My friend, Robert Gentel, who runs Able2know, which we both manage (he’s the owner, I’m the Community Manager/Project Manager/Chief Cook, etc.), is an SEO whiz. I have talked to him about it a little bit. As I spread my own wings, I also learn from classes at Quinnipiac and from looking at Google’s own tools and, frankly, from my own experimentation.
I’ll either fly or fall onto the pavement. The first option is more attractive, so SEO it is.
Oh and the title? It’s a play on Freud’s book. I’m not a big Freudian but I do love the title.
The book is less of a how-to and more of a why-to, if that makes sense. If you’re looking for code examples, look elsewhere. Instead, the book covers theory and explains how and why certain tasks need to be done.
Essentially, any social site, whether in the shape of forums or something else, faces the following user hurdles:
Pay attention – users need to have an idea that they want your software, product, services, etc.
Decision to sign up
Input personal information
Pay money (if applicable)
Decide for someone else (if applicable)
Give up the old way of doing things
Back Up a Second
Frankly, there’s even one item before #1, call it #0 if you will: the potential user must understand that he or she has a need. And, hand in hand with that, the potential user also needs to decide to fulfill that need online. Hence if a potential user, say, decides that they want support because they’ve just gotten a cancer diagnosis, but they further decide to only get their support via an in-person group and not an online board then, so far as you’re concerned, it’s game over. After all, not everyone “gets” the social aspect of the web.
Get Over Those Hurdles
Joshua Porter covers the handling of some of these basic hurdles, such as designing to favor signing up and hanging around. One main point he makes is: don’t make signing up too arduous a task. And its corollary: don’t ask for information you don’t need. Far too often, sites ask for what ends up being ludicrous levels of granularity of detail. After all, when was the last time that anyone, really, needed your middle name for you to apply for a job? Yet sites ask for this trivial piece of data. And, even if they don’t require it, that begs the question even further. Why is the field even there in the first place if the site so openly acknowledges that it’s just plain unnecessary?
Eight Seconds to Impress
Porter makes the point all too forcefully: the decision to sign up for an online service is made in eight seconds. That’s an awfully short window of opportunity to convince a potential user that his or her time and attention should go to you and not your competition.
The book abounds with these kinds of helpful nuggets, and is also chockful of references to blogs and books to support the author’s recommendations. The generous sprinkling of citations was helpful as it was a clear signpost suggesting online readings. It can seem counterintuitive to learn about designing for the web by reading a completely offline book. Porter’s work bridges the gap back to the web and lets the reader in on where to find more information situated a lot closer to where the reader is going to be placing new social software or services.
Finally, Designing for the Social Web does not seem to draw an overall conclusion. Rather, the book instead seems to simply run out of gas in the end. It’s as if the author had run out of what to say. Hence a final upshot or even some words of encouragement would have, I feel, helped. But that’s a small issue with an otherwise interesting and eminently practical work.
The Future of Lonely Writer and Adventures in Career Changing
The future? Well, more specifically, I mean the future of the Lonely Writer website.
So as some readers may recall, I started that website as my capstone project at Quinnipiac University. I needed the project in order to graduate with a Master’s in Science in Communications (social media). Well, graduation happened in August of 2016. However, I had paid for the domain until the end of March of 2017. It seemed silly to try to cancel early.
But now it’s March of 2017.
Hence I want to change things up. My life has gotten considerably more busy since I graduated. I currently hold down four part-time work from home jobs, all centered around various tasks having to do with blogging. I also podcast every month and I blog for that podcast and for its parent podcast. Furthermore, I still blog about social media and even about fan fiction.
In addition, I still write and still work. I always try to get more of my work published. As a result, I just plain don’t have the time for yet another domain. Most noteworthy, I’d also like to save a few bucks. This project does … okay. Yet Adventures in Career Changing does better.
Therefore, I realized: I should combine the two.
What Will Happen?
The Lonely Writer YouTube channel and Facebook groups will both live on. And the Twitter stream won’t be going away, either. They do not require as much work as a separate blog. Plus, they are also free of charge. I am only talking about the other domain and those particular blog posts.
So, where are they going? Why, they are coming here!As a result, the blog URLs will change, and the blog posts themselves will be removed for later re-posting. I will change them up, too, so they will be more up to date. That’s all. So don’t worry, okay? That advice and that work will not go away. It’ll all just move here, down the street. I am excited about the move. I think it will help to freshen up Adventures without losing the focus, which is altering my career and also embracing social media. And the writing-related posts, of course, will give that more of a writing bent. That’s all.
The Yahoo! Style Guide. For my social media writing class at Quinnipiac University, we were required to purchase this book and use it as a reference.
However, instead of just referencing the guide as needed, I read it from cover to cover. And it is a fantastic guide.
So for most people, the act of writing online seems to mainly consist of ejecting words and hoping that they will somehow collide in a manner that is coherent or at least semi-understandable. The Yahoo! Style Guide, instead, serves to provide some well-needed guidance.
Rather than displaying seemingly antiquated grammar rules, the guide provides logical explanations. Hence as the guide says on Page 50,
“Scan an article reading only the headlines. If you can understand the flow and substance of the story, your content passed the test. If something seems confusing, you may need to rewrite the headings or even reorder some paragraphs.”
So to my mind, this makes infinite sense. Consider how quickly we all skim articles and newspapers these days, whether online or in dead tree format. Headlines and graphics grab our attention. Perhaps they are more fraught with meaning than they should be, but those are the current rules of the game. Therefore, writers on the Internet need to understand that headings, image captions and the like are important to the human reader.
In addition, and unsurprisingly, these elements are also important to machine readers, e. g. search engine bots.
Worth the Price of Admission
And then on Page 4, the guide talks about eye tracking. Yahoo! has surveyed users, and they have come up with an understanding of a general pattern as to how people browse websites. Here’s what they said:
“People scan the main sections of a page to determine what it’s about and whether they want to stay longer
They make decisions about the page in as little as three seconds
If they decide to stay, they pay the most attention to the content in the upper top part of the screen”
So you’d better get your pages and posts in gear, and pay particularly close attention to headings and the content that sits above the fold. Because the guide shows you the way.
About a thousand (er, twenty) years ago, I used to practice law. And,
of course, things were far different then as opposed to now. But I have retained some of my old interests and connections, and would get the paper version of the ABA Journal for years after I had hung up my shingle.
Once a lot of that started to go online, I renewed my interest in any number of facets of law practice, in particular how it collides and dovetails with the Internet and, these days, Social Media.
Viral Marketing Gone Wrong
And I have seen enough tone-deaf Social Media campaigns (Able2know is rife with laughably bad viral marketing attempts, for example) to see the need for a publication like Law Practice Today to try to clear up some misconceptions and get lawyers going in a good — or at least non-harmful — online direction. What is great about this article is that it doesn’t just apply to attorneys.
Get Your Own Domain Name
The first point made in the article is: You need your own internet domain name. Well, yes. And it continues to surprise me when companies and individuals who are attempting to make a splash (or at least not appear to be totally out of it) online don’t do this. C’mon, people, domain names are cheap! Go to GoDaddy and buy one! You can direct WordPress to be posting through a domain name that has naught to do with WordPress. This is not too tough (hell, that’s what I’m doing with my blog), or you can hire someone to do this. It’s a lot, to me, like buying business cards with your actual name on them versus cards that just say “Lawyer”.
Rejuvenate Your Website
The next point is: Rejuvenate Your Website. No argument here. Stale websites are as appealing as stale bread. I am not saying that you need to update every minute or every day or even every week but I see an awful lot of abandoned blogs and websites out there — or at least they appear to be, as their most recent changes occurred in 2010. That means it’s been at least nearly two months since anyone changed them. Surely there is news, or at least even cosmetic changes would give one’s readership/potential clients a feeling that someone was minding the store.
Use a Good Profile Picture
Point number three is: Your picture is worth a thousand words. A good picture is, well, good. You might not be able to afford to hire a professional as the article suggests. That’s okay if you at least get a decent photographer friend to take a lot of pictures. How many? How’s one hundred? Lighting varies. You might not smile perfectly the first time. Your tie might be crooked. Your hair might be flying in your face. You might not be looking directly at the camera. There are any number of reasons why a photo can go wrong. And get your pal to snap photos of you in various places, doing various things, so long as they are germane to the site. For a lawyer, that could be in the office, or in front of a courthouse or in front of the office building or with colleagues or alone. After all, with a good hundred photos, you might end up with several usable ones. If there are choices in different locations, you can use them to make different points on your site.
Fill Out All About Me and Profile Pages
Point number four is: It’s All About Me. That is, create an “About Me” page. There’s a place to put a photograph or two, eh? It doesn’t have to be long, but give it a little personality. Be sensible, of course. This is probably not the place (assuming you’re a lawyer) to tout your ninja skills. But if you play tennis or have two kids or are from Omaha, by all means, those things are perfectly fine here. Otherwise, you’re just nameless, faceless Joe or Jane Lawyer — and I, as your prospective client, can find a million of them.
Give Visitors Take Aways
The next point is: Give visitors something to “take away” from your blog. Me, I write articles and I allow the reprint rights. So if my experiences can help you, then by all means reprint my articles, and I wish you well, so long as you respect my rights in the matter.
Work on SEO
The next point is: get on Google+ as it gives you a boost in rankings. For an SEO beginner, or someone with a limited budget, this is easy and free and it takes nearly no time.
Here’s another point: Make Sure You Advertise on Google Local. I felt no need to do this, but I’m not trying to push ecommerce directly through my site and blog. Your mileage will, undoubtedly, vary.
Next point: Be LinkedIn. Hell yeah. Here’s my LinkedIn profile. Yes, I will link to you – just send me a request. Also, I have found that LinkedIn is an excellent way to get to know people attending an event with you. If you can get a hold of the guest list in advance (and with Eventbrite, evite and others, you can), look those people up on LinkedIn. Hey, you might have something in common with them, their photo might be up so that you can recognize them and they might be someone you’d like to know, either personally or professionally.
Gather Business Intelligence
Then there’s the penultimate point: Use Social Networks To Gather Business Intelligence. People share all sorts of stuff these days. Want to know if someone is moving? Going on vacation? Selling their business? Changing jobs? A lot of that information is out there, free for the taking. And other things are out there, if you know how to dig. I’m not suggesting that you turn yourself into a creepy stalker but if a possible client is tweeting about buying land, and you’ve got a real estate practice, well, do I really have to connect the dots for you?
Tell People the News (About You or Anything Else of Interest)
Here’s the last point: Be the Evening News. The idea is, broadcast youtube-type stuff, either your own or pass along others’. Agreed, but I wouldn’t overdo this, particularly not at the expense of other types of content, which are generally easier for Google to index (and for you to get an SEO bounce from). But by all means, if it adds value (there’s a big if right there. I adore the Old Spice Guy but he does not help me on my site), add it.
The bottom line, I think is: don’t be afraid. Yes, the Internet can bite you. But it can also be quite a good friend to you. So start supercharging.
This is tabs and tabs of an Excel spreadsheet as I think about what I really want to do with all of this.
It’s becoming more obvious is that I’ve got major ambitions and there aren’t enough hours in a day in which I can accomplish them. To really make a good site, a beautifully designed one with awesome SEO and kick-bun content, means engaging something like 50 people to do it.
Egad. I’m organized and I’m energetic and I’ve got time these days, but I’m not 50 people.
This is a source of a bit of stress, to be sure, but it’s also a challenge. How can I leverage what I’ve already got? How can I use my organizational skills to make things easier on myself? How can I set up some things which will run on their own, thereby saving me time? What’s the timing of, well, of all of it?
I’m very excited about this whole venture. I actually got a little Google traffic yesterday! Yay!
I’ve only been on Google for maybe 3 days. Holy cow. This stuff really works.
I have a billion things to do. Oh and I’m running in a 5K in a week. If I could do web development while running, I would.
Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson is the concept of succeeding in a small business by essentially paying attention to details and doing many things yourself. Simple ideas, perhaps, but they often seem to be missed.
Some of this may be self-evident.
After all, a small business, almost by definition, does not have a lot of capital just lying around. Often everything needs to be done by an impressively small cadre of workers. Yet we also live in a society where it seems more people than ever before just want to pay someone to take care of whatever needs to be done. Yet that is wrong-headed.
Levinson’s mantra is that it’s not necessary to invest a lot of money. That is, if you’re willing to instead invest time, energy, imagination and information. And, I might add, patience and attention. For a small business owner, this means having a passion about what you do. All too often, it seems, entrepreneurs get into a particular field because they cannot find a more traditional means of employment. After all, the economy has been rather sour for the past few years. Or they chucked a traditional job but without a vision or a plan. Neither method will work for long because the entrepreneur’s heart is not in it.
What the entrepreneur needs – beyond the details of how to work a crowd or give a talk – is enthusiasm and passion about what he or she is doing or selling. Going through the motions is simply not going to cut it. Since the entrepreneur is one of the only faces of the company (and, perhaps, its only face), the entrepreneur must be jazzed. This is for everything – presenting, talking, handing out business cards, performing demonstrations, writing copy, etc.
If the entrepreneur is excited, the prospects can be as well. All in all, an interesting read, and good for the detailed tips, but a more current version would have been a better choice.
For User-Centered Design Class, I compared Harrison Parrott vs. Sam Hill Entertainment.
Harrison Parrott vs. Sam Hill Entertainment
For two sites with the same ostensible purpose – assisting users with hiring musicians – Harrison Parrott and Sam Hill could scarcely be more different.
From the beginning, the Harrison Parrott site is all about the hiring of classical performers.
The slide show changes, but the images are all clearly associated with classical performing arts, such as chamber music or opera. There is a lot of white space and the headings are simple and clear.
Scrolling down, the next part of the front page revealed the Featured News portion of the website. The slideshow at the very top is apparently the really important news, whereas the middle portion has smaller images and isn’t a moving slideshow. Featured News seems slightly older, but everything has a date range within the month of May, 2015. This gave the site an up to date look and feel.
Scrolling down, the next part of the front page revealed the About section. This part also contained social sharing buttons for LinkedIn and Twitter, and a Twitter stream. Harrison Parrott has done its homework, particularly given the demographics for LinkedIn (urban, over age 30, many with college educations, and 44% with an income of over $77,000 per annum) and for classical music aficionados (median age of concert goers is 49). As well as they can, Harrison Parrott is matching a typical classical art aficionado buyer persona with the closest social media platforms that they can find.
I clicked on the Artists tab, and was presented with large clickable images of artists with brief verbiage about what each of them does.
The tiles are clickable and everybody’s got their own page.
A quick perusal on my phone (I have a Nokia so the screen is a little smaller than an iPhone) revealed that the site is pretty easy to navigate although the hamburger icon is unexpectedly in the upper left corner of the small phone screen. This detracted from usability but only momentarily.
… don’t miss important features because they overlook a non-standard design element”
While the logo isn’t in the upper left corner (it’s centered at the top), it’s still easy to spot. Doing double duty, the logo serves as a link to return to the home page. To minimize confusion, there is also a small house icon in the upper left corner, another way to return home from anywhere on the site.
Sam Hill Entertainment
Sam Hill is a site for booking bands for weddings, parties and the like. Head to the home page, and you get this:
I’m not really sure what the images on each side are for, as there are no links behind them. This is it for the front page. Everything is above the fold because there is no fold.
The site isn’t optimized for mobile. The side images look even more out of place, and there is a ton of unused white space at the bottom of my screen. Print is tiny; I had to zoom in if I wanted to click anything. If the twin images had been eliminated, there might have been larger print.
Selecting the Browse By Musical Style tab, I was presented with choices which were grouped. E. g. Motown, Soul, Oldies, Beach, and Variety are all grouped together.
I chose the musical style at the bottom of the tab: Decade, Tribute, Novelty Acts.
I selected Massachusetts from a menu of states, and was brought to this screen:
The colors are still washed out, and the print is still too small on my phone, but at least those two images are gone. I clicked the page for The Real Geniuses and finally found a page that looked good on my phone. I scrolled down and found this:
The FAQ has its own page and its own link (upper right corner of every page), but it’s also on all of the band pages. The placement of the FAQ link does follow the Web Style Guide, but the placement of another copy of the FAQ on every single band page does not. Furthermore, from a developmental standpoint, placing the FAQ on every page creates a nightmare if the document is ever altered. I viewed the page source, and the FAQ isn’t linked from somewhere. Instead, the verbiage is in the page itself. This includes a statement that the offices are in Charlottesville, Virginia. If the offices are ever moved to, say, Pittsburgh, the webmaster will need to change code on over ten pages, and that’s just for bands that serve Massachusetts.
Between the two sites, Harrison Parrott is well put together and easy to follow and find what you need. Sam Hill could learn a few things from them.