Tag Archives: writing

Writing for the Web

14108561722_2a5c4984da_zWhat websites do you like reading? What ones do you glance at once and never come back to? Have you ever thought that your favorite websites might be just that because of the way the content is presented?

One of the biggest challenges for academic and educational websites is to inform, but not bog down, the website visitor. People are used to being able to quickly digest little snippets of information when they’re looking at a screen, rather than reading long paragraphs of prose.

Good content developed for your website also increases the accessibility and search engine optimization (SEO) of your website by tailoring the words to be concise and descriptive. Continue reading

Posted in Communications, Social Media | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

First impressions and fresh eyes

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This quote has been attributed to Will Rogers, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain — there is disagreement as to the original author — and has been used to sell everything from men’s suits to dandruff shampoo.

Regardless of who first said it, its truth is not disputed. The adage can be applied to job interviews, sales calls, and first dates.

It also applies to our writing. Whether it’s website text, a press release, a newsletter, or an email about an upcoming event, our written words are often the first way others learn about our college, our programs, and our people.

What first impression do we make if our material has typos or other errors?

Errors can be costly

According to Professor William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute at Oxford University, errors can cause concerns over whether a website or communication — and the people or organization behind it — is credible and trustworthy.

If those reading your content find reason to doubt your credibility or competence, the result could be fewer people attending your event, learning about your research, or buying your product.

For example, Charles Duncombe, an online marketer in the United Kingdom, found that fixing a simple spelling mistake on a website accounted for a 100 percent increase in sales.

Put fresh eyes to work

We all make mistakes, but it’s hard to catch our own errors. One reason is because we’ve already looked at what we’re writing a dozen times, and we know what it’s supposed to say. That causes our eyes to skip over mistakes and instead see what we know should be there.

Psychologist Tom Stafford with the University of Sheffield, quoted in the Aug. 12, 2014, edition of Wired, says that writers don’t see their own typos because, “When you are writing, you’re trying to convey meaning. It’s a very high level task.”

In other words, when the brain is focused on the complex task of conveying ideas, it is difficult to see the individual letters, commas, and sentences involved.

That’s why it’s so important to have someone who is not familiar with the material — a fresh pair of eyes — review it for misspellings, factual errors, and grammatical issues.

Proofreading your own work

If you have to proof your own work, here are some ideas for helping you pinpoint errors:

  • Print it out. For most people, it’s easier to proof on paper than on a computer screen. Before printing, double-space the text.
  • Use a ruler. A ruler helps because it keeps the eyes from jumping ahead. Clear plastic rulers don’t work for this purpose. Another option is sliding a piece of paper in a contrasting color (a bright or dark color works best) down the page as you read line by line.
  • Read aloud. Turn on the white noise or go to a quiet location and read the text out loud. Or have someone else read it to you.
  • Change it up. Before reviewing, try printing it in a different font — something wider and different from what you usually use. And while you’re at it, print the text on brightly colored paper to make it stand out.
  • Back it up. Some people suggest reading a document from the end to the beginning. This trick might help with locating out-and-out typos (an extra letter or transposed letters), but it doesn’t help with grammar errors or homophone misuse (there, their, or they’re).

For more information about the science behind typos, check out Nick Stockton’s article in Wired, “What’s Up With That: Why It’s So Hard To Catch Your Own Typos.”

Posted in Communications | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Magical Number Seven

If you want your audiences to remember what you have to say, there are techniques that can be used to help people retain your message. Grouping information into bite-sized chunks can help readers recall important content you want them to remember. This is called chunking.

In the mid-50s, cognitive psychologist George A. Miller, wrote about the concept of chunking in a paper titled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” Long story short, human memory can store up to seven bits (chunks) of information in short-term memory, plus or minus two. In other words, some people can store nine chunks of information, others five, thus the “plus or minus” part of the equation. This is why phone numbers are seven digits (or they used to be!).

These chunks of information can be stored in short-term memory for about 30 seconds before it is forgotten. If you look at billboards, notice that the ones you can remember as you drive past. At 70 mph the industry average time for reading a billboard is six seconds. So, around six words is all you get for your message. Continue reading

Posted in Communications | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Should Titles Be Capitalized?

When crafting a press release, publication, or letter, the rules for when and how to use academic or job titles can seem confusing. Virginia Tech follows the Associated Press Stylebook for guidance. Here are some general guidelines and examples to follow.

Academic Titles

The rule of thumb is to capitalize academic titles that precede an individual’s name but lowercase academic titles that follow a name.

  • Capitalize academic titles that directly precede individual names. Note: Capitalizing “professor” or “assistant professor” before a name is an exception to AP Style. Ex: Dean Vernon Wormer, Professor Severus Snape
  • Lowercase academic titles when they are used without a specific name. Ex: the dean, a professor of potions
  • Lowercase academic titles that follow the name of an individual. Ex: Vernon Wormer, dean of Faber College; Severus Snape, professor of potions

Exceptions:

  • Capitalize University Distinguished Professor and Alumni Distinguished Professor whether or not they precede a name. If an area of study is included, capitalize it.
  • Capitalize all professorships and endowed chairs, whether or not they precede a person’s name.

Job Titles

With job titles, capitalize formal job titles that directly precede a person’s name but lowercase job titles that follow a person’s name, are used without name, or are more like job descriptions than formal titles. Continue reading

Posted in General | Tagged , | 1 Comment

One space or two?

People of a certain age — myself included — learned to type on a manual typewriter, and our typing teachers taught us to put two spaces between sentences and after colons.

Nowadays, the rule is one space between sentences and after colons. This is true in Virginia Tech’s style guide as well as in all major style guides, including Associated Press, Chicago, MLA, and others.

Why the difference? It has to do with the fact that manual typewriters used monospacing — every letter, no matter its width, took up the same amount of horizontal space. Thus, an “l” or “i” was allotted the same amount of space as a wider letter, like an “m” or “w.” This caused more white space between some letters and made the space between sentences more difficult to locate. So, two spaces were inserted between sentences to make it easier for the reader to visually separate them. Continue reading

Posted in Publications | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

It’s alive! Socialize-ing communications in real time

Dilou Prospere

Photo from SANREM CRSP Facebook page: Assistant In-country Coordinator Dilou Prospere outside the Caritas offices in Hinche before presenting the conservation agriculture workshop at Maissade.

As communications professionals, the use of social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter not only provide us additional tools to tell the stories about the impact of Virginia Tech-led research, but they also give us the capability to tell those stories with an immediacy that is heretofore unprecedented.

Why is this important? Immediacy is significant because social media channels often allow impromptu, up-to-the-minute, and candid opportunities that show our collaborators and faculty in ways that are translatable to the general public in a manner that might not be appropriate in a more formal press release.

Especially for research initiatives funded in far-flung parts of the world, the immediacy of reporting on-location in real time using social media is an excellent way to connect with audience members in the Virginia Tech community and across globe. Continue reading

Posted in Social Media | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Academic jargon: Keep things simple

If you’re a subject-matter expert, it’s a good time to be communicating. People no longer believe leaders are telling the truth, reports the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer. The public is more likely to turn to other sources, such as academic experts, whom they rate highly credible.

But you can alienate your audience from the start if you indulge in jargon. Consider how the venerable publication, The Economist, begins its style guide: “The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”

Many great thinkers and writers have said as much, including Albert Einstein — “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” — and Leonardo da Vinci — “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Did you know that if you use jargon, 74 percent of people will think you don’t understand your own words? A clever infographic shows how people respond to jargon. Only 21 percent of people are happy to work with people who lace their conversations with jargon. And half of all people think you’re using jargon to sound smart!

With 1 billion smartphones in use, a million apps floating around, and thousands of advertising messages beaming at us daily, not to mention social media – you’ve got to work hard to get your messages through. Rule No. 1: Keep things simple!

Posted in General | Tagged , | Leave a comment