Last month I wrote about how The Mirror messed up a new poem from the poet laureate by laying it out badly on their web site. The main point is less that poetry should be handled carefully (which it should), and more that we should be sensitive to when content requires tailored presentation, rather than shoving it in generic article templates that ruin it by, say, putting a large animated advert in the middle of it.
Well, The Mirror are at it again, with the same unfortunate author. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about UK flights grounded because of the Icelandic volcano appears on their site with all the same mistakes as her first one, only this time missing a word to boot.* (Believe it or not, an even more horrific version appears elsewhere on the same site).
This time, however, the Times are at it too.
The Times Online layout of the poem, which is called ‘Silver Lining’, is nowhere near as bad as The Mirror. The text is not broken up, and putting the whole poem in bold with the title in bold capitals helps it to stand out a little in the column.
Yet it hardly jumps out, does it?
So much more could be done to enhance the presentation on the page, for example through indentation, font size, colour or type, or with additional graphical elements – especially as it is having to compete with two noisy side columns for the readers’ attention. Worse still, the ‘RELATED LINKS’ text box pushes the first half of the poem over to the right, playing havoc with the line breaks.
Online newspaper layouts are not suited for verse because there is far too much clamour on the page, and poetry requires close attention. Where their article templates might work for longer, undifferentiated blocks of prose, poems end up being broken up by inserted elements such as adverts and link boxes.
But surely the Times Online could have formatted the poem specifically instead of just publishing it in a default standard article template (albeit in bold)? Why not go one further and develop a dedicated poetry template, where the related links still feature without realigning the verse, or at least make a standard template more accommodating to forms other than paragraphs of text?
This is not just about poetry. The moral is that if you have more sensitive content, don’t just whack it into a standard article template that will chew it up. Design a specific template for that content, or a layout that will work for everything you want to publish.
Or at least craft it a little bit.
*The word and is missing from the last line.
The Cambridge University Accommodation Service provide a remarkable service: they find lodgings for thousands of University people; or find tenants for the University, colleges and private landlords, depending how you look at it. The remarkable bit is that their friendly, personalised service is free – even to landlords most of the listings are without charge.
To make this happen through a web site is difficult, because there are so many parties involved. Students, scholars and staff are looking for accommodation, but sometimes departments look on their behalf. The University wants to fill its houses and rooms, as do individual Colleges, but only sometimes, and sporadically. Private landlords also want tenants, and hotels and B&Bs would like to advertise in case anyone needs a short-term stopover…
And the staff need to co-ordinate all this behind the scenes.
When we first made a web site for Cambridge University’s Accommodation Service, our hands were tied. There were strict branding and structure guidelines because the site is a subsection of the overall University web site.
When they wanted a redesign – or more accurately a realignment – we found many of those restrictions had loosened. Design was only one part. They wanted to make the information-heavy site clearer and easier to use, as well as adding new features.
I tackled much of this through a detailed audit of their content and processes. Once naming and tone decisions had been made, they were ruthlessly applied to content old and new.
We structured the site much more clearly so that each party had a clear route in from the front page – from understanding the purpose of the site, to finding out more, through registration, to eventually having their own logged in homepage, customised to hide any content not directly relevant to them.
Some information was cut, some ordered into ‘Help topics’, and only the most essential and urgent made visible at the top of the hierarchy.
Although there was no sales-sounding pitch, the benefits of the service were shown more clearly to each party, and the staff given the ability to prove their value to the University through analytics and surveys. I wrote style guides to keep new content in line with the new layout and design.
The Accommodation Service project was rewarding because it was a chance to get stuck into real content challenges while having to work closely with the designer and developer.
And it seems to have worked.
Who was responsible for your horrific old web site again?
You know, the one crowded with far too much information, most of it out of date, and navigation like a drunk describing the way to the kebab shop.
The one where one line is emphasised in italics, the next one in bold, before the floodgates open and red and blue type competes with underlining, CAPITALS, and multiple exclamation marks!!!!!!!
BECAUSE EVERY LINE YOU WRITE IS IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO BE SHOUTED!!!
The one where the headings style is inconsistent and there are more font variations across the pages than across the Anglican church.
The one where you’re spelling and grammer, is wronger.
And sometimes just fragments of
The one where you started a blog but couldn’t keep it up, or perhaps just put company news or press releases in there to keep it ticking over.
The one with the bad photos that have been stretched to fit a space or are a file type that most browsers don’t read any more.
The one with the revolting colours.
The one where more and more features and icons and menu bar items get squashed onto the front page so that it’s hard to know where to start and quite frankly nobody has any clue what you were trying to say in the fireplace.
Who was responsible for it again?
Your last web team?
Then you have my sympathy. How unlucky to have got stuck with the only web team on earth whose vision for a web site is like something that Damien Hirst would produce given 8 cans of fluorescent paint, some live chickens and a meat cleaver.
It must have been all their fault.
However, in the tiniest of possibilities that you, the owner and guardian of the site, might just, perhaps, have had a miniscule mite of influence over the content and how it ended up looking …
Then we need to talk before you get a new site.
It doesn’t matter how much smarter the new car is, if you don’t learn how to drive and you leave your junk inside it’s going to end up a dirty wreck and stop working.
Just like the old one.
The biggest threat to clear, compelling and useful web sites is not rogue designers or web teams. It is clients who won’t learn how to look after their content.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to like poetry. You don’t even have to know who or what Carol Ann Duffy or a poet laureate is. This is about valuing content in the way that you present it on your web site so that your readers will value it too.
Here’s what happened. Carol Ann Duffy is a talented British poet. She wrote a topical and smart little verse about David Beckham being ruled out of the World Cup because of an Achilles’ injury. The Mirror, one of the UK’s tabloid newspapers, published it exclusively on its web site last week.
And that’s where it went Goldenballs up:
Can you even see where it begins and ends at first glance? The problems with this layout are:
With poetry, these transgressions are magnified, because poetry is language arranged in such a way that it invites you to take a closer look: to enjoy, to be moved, to think. The frame is vital – from the title, the line and verse breaks through to the layout and choice of fonts and paper if the poem is published in print.
Shouldn’t as much care be taken online?
I’m not talking about fancy ornamentation. Just enough care to honour the material, draw attention to it and even enhance its meaning, because most poetry is written for the eye as well as the ear.
Would you be happy with a professional painting stuck on the gallery wall with no mount or frame? Or a meal at a decent restaurant slapped in a sloppy pile on paper plates?
Bad presentation says that you don’t value your content. And if you don’t value it then your customers certainly won’t.
Although no other poetry site is as brazen as the stanza-splitting advert-loving Mirror, I am yet to find one that does poetry justice. Many of them put small font sizes in dense array for an overall dull effect. The Poetry Society are one example, who also use a low contrast font (being a lighter grey) that reminds me of financial small print.
Perhaps the Mirror needs a poetry style guide (because that’s going to happen). Perhaps it’s okay if they present their own copy as worthless, but for goodness’ sake when they’ve got the poet laureate submitting an exclusive verse they could display it in such a way to make readers take it seriously – or even read it in the first place.
The best example I’ve seen for laying out poetry online is Verbatim Poetry. I would say that, because I did it. It’s not perfect, but even as a fun little hobby on the side it puts whoever was paid to publish the David Beckham poem in The Mirror to shame.
What do you reckon?
Blogging is consistent publishing, online. It demands long-term commitment, creative inspiration and a combination of writing, marketing and web skills.
Not surprisingly, some people appreciate a little help with all that. Not someone to write their blog for them, but to get alongside to inspire new ideas, guide the tone and style, give online writing and editing tips and motivate them to keep on publishing.
My blog personal trainer service provides whatever it takes to ensure that your blog posts are consistent, compelling and clear: actually serving your business and getting read by the right people – not just to begin with, but sustained over time. How? Through:
The blog personal trainer service is an ongoing service from £449 per month plus VAT. This price guarantees you one day of my time each month to train, coach, edit, support, or inspire your blog to make it succeed.
I can take a limited number of clients for this service each month so get in touch quickly before all the allocations have gone.
I also run a How to write great blog posts 2-hour workshop, or you can contact me to talk about how else to make your content brilliant. Try Fluent for a whole new web site that works perfectly for you.
Photo: CORE-Materials, Flickr
Have no mercy. Cast them out of your copy. Now. These are vital corrections to make when you edit your writing before publication, otherwise you will look like an amateur.
I know the second one is controversial. Get over it. Straighten up and fly right.
Most readers aren’t going to read your article until they can see that it’s useful to them. So tell them, straight away, in the headline, first paragraph or both, what your article is about and why they should read it.
The longer you waffle about some metaphor for the topic or how you felt getting up today or – look at me, I’m actually writing a blog post – the greater the chance that the next part of the page to receive attention will be the back button.
The consultant is a singular subject. Therefore he makes phone calls, adds items to his diary and is overjoyed when it’s time for lunch.
My colleagues are a plural subject. Therefore they make fun of my haircut, add amusing accents to their impressions and are thrilled when I throw Victoria sponge around the office.
Everyone is a singular subject. Although it involves more than one person, the focus is on every one, singular. Therefore everyone makes time for SmyWord, adds this blog to his or her favourites, and is happy to leave a comment below.
The same applies to no one and everybody – they are singular. They and them are plural. Never the twain shall meet.
Choose what person each of the parties in your article is going to be, and whether they are single or plural, and stick to it for the duration of the article. For example, in most of my blog posts there are three main parties:
The writer is me. So I use I, me and my. If I was writing on behalf of a company, it might be we, us and our. Just as long as it is the same all the way through the article.
Steer clear of talking about yourself in the third person – as the author of this blog discovered – that way madness lies.
The reader is you. So that is what you’re called. In modern English you can be either plural (as you all know) or singular (I’ll explain it to you after class). So it’s hard to go wrong, just as long as you avoid the dreaded third person again: folly, as the readers of this blog know.
The people I tell you about are they: clients of mine, your web site users – unless I am talking about just one, in which case he, she or it is required.
The crucial point is that you are consistent within an article, and establish a pattern for your web site at large. Why? Because switching between singular and plural looks amateur, and shifting person around confuses your readers.
A simple guideline for exclamation marks is that they should only be used in recorded speech and even then, sparingly.
The product manager shouted “eat my shorts!”
As for quotation marks, the clue is in the name. They should only be used to enclose a direct quotation, proven by supplying the reference. If you can’t reference it, don’t quote it.
An even simpler guideline for semicolons is don’t use them – unless you can explain their correct usage to somebody else without bluffing. The same goes for ellipses (…), em dashes (—) and, well, every other punctuation mark. If you don’t understand it don’t use it. Learn to create effects with the words you choose, not with little pictures.
There is simply no excuse for bad spelling and typos. Not when you have spellcheck, the ability to proofread your own writing, this guide to apostrophes, and colleagues or friends to check it over for you.
Here on SmyWord I offer a free sample – an hour of my time – so that you can taste a bit of content strategy magic for absolutely nothing.
Only an hour! What could I possibly do in that time?
The answer so far is: plan a blog post, write a tag line, critique site pages, critique whole web sites, write front page copy, or meet up in the pub to talk about content strategy as a career (that one especially fun).
Here are 3 highlights from some recent free sample requests:
I love working with fresh, innovative companies offering genuinely good things. Pitchup are leading the charge in getting the people of Britain camping again. They provide a massive directory of campsites and the tools to find what you’re after, be it beach, yurt, or proximity to the pub.
They asked me to write them a blog post about celebrity camping. They took the free hour as a discount off the fee. Having captured the company’s tone of voice (their words), I’m now helping with the content for their site realignment – coming soon.
I’ve just sent Mixcloud some suggestions to make their service clearer to first time visitors (only just – no time to implement yet). Sometimes you get too close to a web site and lose the outside view.
Mixcloud loved the objective feedback: ‘this is really helpful. We knew that it could be a lot better but didn’t really know what to do!’ Mixcloud are another original, energetic service. I defy you to start listening to their shows without wanting to get up groove around the office.
Political Insight put a tremendously useful tool into the hands of local and national political groups to help them to communicate and campaign effectively. I gave a free hour to developing the tag line, now in use on the site. They were chuffed. They came back for further copywriting and editing.
Do these examples give you any ideas? Is there anything I could do for you in a free 60 minutes?