Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The battle against jargon

The Plain English Campaign people have been taking the fight to purveyors of confusing writing and ridiculous jargon for years; I'm with them all the way. I particularly like the fact that a lot of what they talk about nowadays involves the Web. They give a Web Award every year and its great to see that this year and in the recent past, plenty of public sector organisations have been getting in on the act.

Having previously worked for a county council, its easy to see the problem from both sides. The people whose services you are administering (and they're major services remember: education, environment, roads) are sometimes at the end of their tether, being force fed huge long forms and booklets with complicated terms, full of jargon and unusable to the point of frustration. The people inside the council/public sector organisation are battling with a huge number of departments, long-established (often outdated) ways of doing things and, most tellingly, people producing material for public consumption who have never actually been taught how to write clearly and concisely.

Before you start getting on your local council's back, I stand up for them in that the majority are really trying to do something about their image as stuffy, jargon-heavy organisations; indeed, many councils, at least in the UK, have better organised and accountable Web and publication teams than many private sector organisations.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

When is proof reading not proof reading

...when it is editing. It seems people have different ideas about which is which. If you're in this line of work it's important to draw the line somewhere so that you can charge accordingly. I won't take on work without seeing a sample, generally. The only exception is if it's familiar material from a regular client and if I trust the project manager involved.

I learnt this after my first assignment here, touted as proof reading but ended up being (quite a few hours) editing to get the language in line. This was no proof reading assignment. Words, whole sentences, meanings, punctuation...the list goes on. I prefer editing, it is more interesting, but proof reading sometimes does give you a geeky sense of satisfaction; perhaps that's just me?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Back off the wagon...words are everywhere

I'm taking on a job for what I think is the Finnish equivalent of Trading Standards. It has made me realise how varied this work can be. I would never have thought I would be looking at documents about wine labelling regulations, but it has given me a new lift and got me thinking about all sorts of areas where translators might need text proof read. Time to get that Yellow Pages out again and look for some more prospects.

Empathy is my best friend

I've been editing and proofing a lot of instructional material recently: manuals, software help files, among other things. Pretending that you are the person using the software/product/Web site to which the instructions relate is the best way to sort out any glitches in the text.

It has long been accepted that good Web writing follows the same principle. Sit and think: what would my customer/reader/user/subscriber do here? What are they thinking? In what environment are they accessing this page? What do they really want to read?

I found myself thinking back to my school history lessons, where my crazy Welsh teacher would talk at great length about empathy being the best way to appreciate what people really went through during some historical event. It works: you try and use that software and be that person; you try and fill out that application form online as if you've never seen a computer before; you try and set up your new DVD player not knowing what an S-video cable is and where the SCART connection on your TV plugs in and out.

Then you really appreciate the kind of hell that badly written, badly organised, jargon-heavy text puts people through.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Help your readers' eyes climb down the mountain

Plenty of other more experienced and well-known Web writing experts have espoused the value of a good sub-heading. Sites I read regularly all agree on this, including the excellent Nick Usborne on his Excess Voice site and a site I use a lot for its straightforward, understandable advice on Web content, Webcredible

Subheadings are like climbing footholds

I see subheadings as footholds on a mountain climb, except most of the time you're climbing downwards. Readers' eyes need something to anchor on, hang on to, whilst on their way down. If they're not sure of their route, they can always go back to a foothold and check. If they finish the climb down, then they can look at the map of footholds and see if the route they took was what they were intending.

Subheadings work in the same way. Readers use them whilst they scan a page, checking their route, 'Is this reallly what I want?' After reading, and more importantly before, they can look at those headings and judge for themselves whether your page has really got what they want. And they know from your subheading 'footholds' that they'll either be safe on the way down, or that they might fall half way and disappear off to someone else's Web site.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

When does blogging for pleasure become blogging for business?

Writing is what I do, so I figure if I'm doing this then why feel guilty about taking time out from 'real' work to write here. If this goes in the direction I want it to, then it will (hopefully) focus on issues relating to my work and anything I think might interest others. I like to think (am I deluded?) that every time I write I'm getting in some practice, reawakening those tired brain cells and the creative centre of my brain that sometimes goes to sleep during the day.

Spend time crafting and tweaking other people's words like I do and you can often feel like just a cog in a really big set of wheels; write your own words and put them out there, even on an obscure blog, and you feel different somehow. Proof reading and editing to a nice, polished final product for somebody IS satisfying; an original piece, even just an opinion, makes me feel like I've finally got round to saying something outside the constraints of someone else's house style.

Do journalists have all the fun?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Let it slide...breaking the rules is ok

Since starting to learn Finnish I've had countless conversations with people about grammar, the rules and the ins and outs of various cases, tenses, punctuation, everything you can think of really. In my assignments, proofing and editing, clarity is always the deciding factor - sticking rigidly to the rules is further down the list of priorities. I'm dealing a lot with non-native writers of English who if anything are more clued up on many points of grammar than I am, having been taught English within a strict, structured format, and certainly taught more recently than I have been!

Without referring back to some of my well-thumbed reference manuals on grammar and English usage, there's plenty I will forget. Do I lose sleep over this? No. If my client ends up with a clear, flowing, readable document and the intended audience will understand it, and perform whatever action is required of them, then I figure the rules can be broken sometimes.

With a little help from...

...anyone I can get my hands on frankly. Being a one man business means being everybody's friend. I've not turned a proof reading job down yet despite what the subject matter or medium may be. Initially this had me thinking 'what am I doing?' but now I'm more than a year down the line I'm glad I have taken on all those jobs: now I can boast working with all kinds of material that I would have never taken on if I had stuck to my original plan.

I came here with the idea of only working on English text for Web sites, being a Web writing 'Santa's little helper'. If I'd have stuck to that plan I would be writing out my 'hungry, please help' sign on a piece of (recycled, this is Finland you know) cardboard by now. Anyways, I can happily file away those jobs working on software help files, university thesis material, online betting scenario testing manuals (!) and push on.

I also discovered recently that I'm not alone: fellow Everton fan and one-man businessman Aaron has recently shipped out to Scandinavia to do something similar, in Copenhagen. His blog, Somethingrotten, is linked over on the right in my links list. I'm hoping now we're in touch we can help each other out, even if its just releasing some frustration at the end of the week and talking about the football. It does make you feel less alone when you find someone else doing almost exactly what you're doing. Being an expat isn't all moaning about missing beans and marmite you know.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Dirt-flavoured slush puppy

Spring finally comes to Finland, and outdoors now looks like a giant dirt-flavoured slush puppy. Seriouslly though, I've been looking forward to seeing the ground again after 3 months of snow cover. Despite being cold and rather dark, the winter has been a very successful period with more and more jobs rolling in from Finnish clients. I started working with a great company here in Tampere called Multidoc. The amount of stuff I've been working on is great, I love variety: software help files, job adverts, academic papers, instructional material, so it looks like there's plenty more to come in the future. Roll on the Spring...