Thanks to Maryn McKenna for tweeting the link to this. Via Tumblr, Scott Hensley of NPR's Shots blog offers a 24-page presentation on writing for the web, delivered at Medicine in the Media 2012. While he focuses on medical reporting, much of what he says applies to webwriting in general.
Slate’s editorial guidelines call for articles to be split into multiple pages once they hit the 1,000-word mark, so I have to keep this brief: Splitting articles and photo galleries into multiple pages is evil. It should stop.
Pagination is one of the worst design and usability sins on the Web, the kind of obvious no-no that should have gone out with blinky text, dancing cat animations, and autoplaying music. It shows constant, quiet contempt for people who should be any news site’s highest priority—folks who want to read articles all the way to the end.
Pagination persists because splitting a single-page article into two pages can, in theory, yield twice as many opportunities to display ads—though in practice it doesn’t because lots of readers never bother to click past the first page. The practice has become so ubiquitous that it’s numbed many publications and readers into thinking that multipage design is how the Web has always been, and how it should be.
Neither is true: The Web’s earliest news sites didn’t paginate, and the practice grew up only over the past decade, in response to pressure from the ad industry. It doesn’t have to be this way—some of the Web’s most forward-thinking and successful publications, including BuzzFeed and the Verge, have eschewed pagination, and they’re better off for it.
So would we all be: Pageview juicing is a myopic strategy. In the long run, unfriendly design isn’t going to help websites win new adherents, and winning new readers is the whole point of being a website.
I bet that if all news sites switched to single-page articles—and BuzzFeed-style scrolling galleries instead of multipage slideshows—they’d experience short-term pain followed by long-term gain. Their articles would get shared more widely and, thus, win more loyal, regular visitors for the publication.
In fact, pagination is so horrible that I suspect eradicating it from the Web might also lead to bigger breakthroughs—it would almost certainly solve the Iran nuclear crisis and eliminate the fiscal cliff—but I don’t want to make any promises.
Not only are computer screens getting bigger, they're also finally getting better — which might be more important. In June 2012, Apple introduced the first mainstream computer with a high-definition screen: the MacBook Pro with a resolution of 2880×1800 on a 15-inch display. This screen delivers a pixel density of 220 PPI (pixels per inch, corresponding to the DPI — dots per inch — that measure laser printer quality.)
Apple uses the propaganda term "Retina display" for screen qualities above approximately 200 PPI, under the theory that this is as much as the human eye can resolve. Of course, this is not true: we need around 900 PPI for a screen so good that adding pixels wouldn't make it look any better.
Although Apple's screen quality isn't perfect, it's dramatically better than anything on offer from other computer vendors. It's a disgrace that the PC industry hasn't recognizably improved screen quality over the last decade — despite the fact that we have known for decades that 300 PPI screens offer dramatically faster reading speed than low-density monitors.
By all means read his whole post. I'm bringing up the subject now because last week I bought myself a MacBook Pro 15"—and it's been a revelation. No doubt 300 PPI would be even better, but until it comes along I'm more than content.
Composing text on screen has become a pleasure, and reading is too—whether or not I'm reading any faster. Most strikingly, this machine has made me realize how god-awful tiring it's been, for years, to read and write on a low-res screen.
So we finally have something like the resolution that Nielsen has been demanding for decades. As HD screens become the norm, they're going to oblige web designers and writers to reconsider content and display issues: Can we write longer sentences in longer paragraphs? I suspect we can and will. Should we prefer serif to sans serif? Nielsen thinks it's now a personal call, based on branding or the "mood" of a given type style. I agree.
Non-updated text is distracting and hard to read on the new iPad. It’s a bit like watching standard definition content on a high-definition TV. Just as standard definition TV looks worse on a high-definition TV than it does on a standard definition one, the same effect happens on the iPad. It’s not that apps need to be updated to look even better on the new iPad; it’s that if they aren’t updated, they’re very hard to look at.
I’ve found that apps that haven’t been updated are not worth using. The text is so hard to read and distracting that it ruins the reading and news consumption experience. It’s hard to imagine someone who enjoys the typography of print getting into such a pixelated reading experience.
Some magazines are more known for their visual flair than The Economist. Vanity Fair is now taking advantage of the higher resolution display to feature higher resolution photos that show off more detail. Many users and app developers had concerns, however, that the new iPad would lead to magazine issues that were too big.
Vanity Fair, Wired and others had large file sizes, sometimes 500 MB or more. The smallest iPad has about 13.5 GB of usable storage space. At 500 MBs an issue, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for many issues or other apps or movies. And that was 500 MB per issue on a device that needs to push four times less pixels than the new iPad.
Vanity Fair recently switched to a bundled PDF format from a PNG format, which has allowed the magazine to use higher resolution art assets while also reducing the file size of their issues. Its May issue weighed in at 135 MB.
Art Director Chris Mueller said in an email that Vanity Fair also rethought some of the apps’ usability. Issues now feature less scrolling content. The Table of Contents page is several individual pages instead of one big, long scroll.
“We’re adapting and working through other quirks as they come up, but overall the huge improvement to the appearance of type and images on the tablet is worth the effort,” Mueller said of the changes made to the Vanity Fair app for the new iPad.
The Washington Post is another iPad app in transition. The text looks great, but photos are low resolution. Joey Marburger, designer for mobile and new digital products at the Post, said in an email that higher resolution photos are on the way. He cautioned that a balance needs to be struck between high resolution photos and download speed.
He said that offline storage is another issue that iPad news app makers need to take into account. (iPads hold a small fraction of what desktops and laptops can hold.)
I've been wondering what Jakob Nielsen would say about the new iPad, and now I know. Via Nielsen Norman Group: iPad 3 Changing Use Patterns. Click through for the complete post and links. Excerpt:
The new iPad 3's crisper screen will lead to increased tablet use, particularly when reading content.
•iPad 3 is the first broad-market computer with a good display, meaning that it's currently the only computer that makes it reasonably pleasant to read text. In other words, people with both a desktop computer and an iPad 3 will tend to prefer reading from the tablet, even though the desktop is otherwise more powerful. (Users will stick with their desktop computer for tasks that involve more intense interaction.)
•Also, as we know from all previous research, when the usability of something goes up, users do it more. More pleasant reading = more reading. I stand by the analysis in my previous newsletter that the user interface design guidelines remain the same as those discovered when testing the iPad 1 and 2.
However, the expectation to see more use of tablets, now that they are more pleasant to use, does have implications for design strategy: a broader set of companies should now invest in designing tablet versions of their websites or mobile apps.
The Tyee has published my article Bad Apple. Excerpt:
Teaching in Capilano College's Mac-based Infotech program even before the web, I could see that we write and read differently on the computer screen. The medium really is the message online, and the message is jolts.
Jolts are the little sensory rewards the computer gives us. They come when we turn on the machine and it bongs at us. Jolts come with every alert, every new window, every avian squawk and porcine grunt in Angry Birds. Jolts come with every email and text message. Isaacson [in his biography of Steve Jobs] doesn't use the word, but his description of Apple packaging shows that jolts of pleasure are designed right into the boxes that your Mac and iPhone come in.
Jolts also come in the form of verbal abuse, which inspired the email and forum flame wars of the 1990s, the ongoing hysteria of today's political blogs, and the punchlines of Twitter.
Like lab rats with electrodes wired into their brains' pleasure centers, we learn what gives us the strongest online jolts, and we keep doing it. We forget that the lab rats preferred to push their jolt button until they starved to death, but in our few lucid moments we realize that we're well and truly addicted to the jolts that Apple gives us.
Hence our rapt anticipation of the next jolt machine: the iPhone 5, the iPad 3, or something completely novel that Steve knew we'd want before we ourselves did. (In one of my 1980s SF novels, I imagined something like the iPad, but assumed it wouldn't arrive until circa 2080.)
For the third consecutive State of the Union Address, Barack Obama spoke in clear, plain terms.
And for the third straight Address, the President's speech was written at an eighth-grade level.
In Obama's own words: "My message is simple."
But was it too simplistic?
A Smart Politics study of the 70 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since 1934 finds the text of Obama's 2012 speech to have tallied the third lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, at an 8.4 grade level.
Obama also delivered the second lowest scoring address in 2011 (at an 8.1 grade level) and the sixth lowest in 2010 (at an 8.8 grade level).
The Flesch-Kincaid test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level. Longer sentences and sentences utilizing words with more syllables produce higher scores.
Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores.
Smart Politics ran the Flesch-Kincaid test on each of the last 70 State of the Union Addresses that were delivered orally by presidents before a Joint Session of Congress since Franklin Roosevelt.
Excluded from analysis were five written addresses (by Truman in 1946 and 1953, Eisenhower in 1961, Nixon in 1973, and Carter in 1981) and two addresses that were delivered orally, but not by the President himself (Roosevelt in 1945 and Eisenhower in 1956).
The vast majority of State of the Union speeches were delivered in writing prior to FDR.
Each of Obama's three addresses are among only seven of 70 in the modern era that were written shy of a 9th grade level, and among the six that have averaged less than 17 words per sentence.
Obama's 2012 and 2010 addresses averaged 16.6 words per sentence with his 2011 address coming in at 16.8.
Other low-scoring addresses on the Flesch-Kincaid scale over the decades are George H.W. Bush's 1992 address, Harry Truman's 1951 and 1952 addresses, and Lyndon Johnson's 1965 address.
Obama's speeches are a continuation of a general pattern that finds as State of the Union Addresses have perhaps become more and more political, they have been written more and more simplistically.
This seems to me to be misplaced anxiety. As I've often commented, the King James version of the Book of Ecclesiastes is at the third-grade level of readability. But no one complains that it's "simplistic."
Writing at a lower grade level is actually a major challenge for all writers, and especially for web writers. If your content is good and you're writing at a lower grade level, you can reach the poor readers and everyone with good reading skills as well. And if your content is bad or weak, writing at a "higher" grade level takes you only to a higher grade of bullshit.
I often don’t read my own articles in The Christian Science Monitor. The volume of hyperlinks the publication drops in their copy is just too distracting. Consider this Op-Ed on volunteerism among Millennials.
Not only does it contain no fewer than 28 links, but among them are a number of highly disruptive, full-line links to Monitor content, screaming things like, “RELATED: Top 4 obstacles for young people – and how to cope.” The all-caps grabber and full-line disruption is more befitting an ad for a used-car dealer than the innards of a respected news provider.
This one article contains five full line-break links to Monitor articles, and a sixth pasted after the writer’s bio. Every one of the 28 hyperlinks connects readers to Monitor content; readers aren’t afforded a single axon to outside information. The reason the article is littered with so many hyperlinks, a Monitor editor told me, is that the publication uses a computer program which scours copy and inserts links beneath words like “Tulsa,” “Harvard,” and “Twitter,” which direct readers to past Monitor stories.
These links are not placed to provide readers with the richest evidence and information accrued during newsgathering for the story at hand. The Monitor tries hard to keep its readers contained in its site. On many occasions I’ve submitted Op-Eds to The Monitor containing links to information and evidence I think readers will find helpful; the links also support the integrity of my reporting. These links, though, don’t make it past the publication’s self-containing software, in part due to technical limitations. But that’s not all.
“We also don’t have the manpower to vet and shepherd through links that our contributors might ask us to include,” Monitor editor John Yemma told me in an email.
“We do favor links to our own journalism, since we invest heavily in it, are confident about its quality, and want to invite readers to engage more deeply with the Monitor,” he said. “We weigh all opinions — as we will yours — in our ongoing effort to improve our presentation of news.”
I can understand the Monitor's interest in drawing readers to related Monitor stories; it helps to boost on-site traffic. But it can be overdone. The function of links in a news story should be to document sources and strengthen arguments—not to lure readers in front of "related" stuff with new ads.
On some issues, however, you may have a real case for linking to related reports. On The Tyee, we regularly link to earlier articles because we keep exploring the same political issues, such as inequality, in the light of new events and evidence. But we usually limit such links to three or four, in a sidebar.
Ideally, links in a web article should enhance the value of the article without sending the reader off to get lost in a labyrinth of hypertext.
The literary history of the typewriter has its well-established milestones, from Mark Twain producing the first typewritten manuscript with “Life on the Mississippi” to Truman Capote famously dismissing Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” pounded out on a 120-foot scroll, with the quip “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
The literary history of word processing is far murkier, but that isn’t stopping Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, from trying to recover it, one casual deletion and trashed document at a time.
Pay no attention to the neatly formatted and deceptively typo-free surfaces of the average Microsoft Word file, Mr. Kirschenbaum declared at a recent lunchtime lecture at the New York Public Library titled “Stephen King’s Wang,” a cheeky reference to that best-selling novelist’s first computer, bought in the early 1980s.
“The story of writing in the digital age is every bit as messy as the ink-stained rags that would have littered Gutenberg’s print shop or the hot molten lead of the Linotype machine,” Mr. Kirschenbaum said, before asking a question he hopes he can answer: “Who were the early adopters, the first mainstream authors to trade in their typewriters for WordStar and WordPerfect?”
It's an exquisite irony that documents created on such machines, with such programs, had lifetimes far shorter than that of, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Do you like shoveling snow? Then stop reading this and go back to your pushups and granola because you are not someone that I want to talk to.
Let’s face it, we live in a place that attracts snow like Magnetic Hill attracts cars, only that ain’t an illusion out there. That’s 12 inches of snow piling up and, oh, what’s that sound? Why it’s the snow plow and it’s here to let you know that it hates you and all the time you spent to shovel your driveway. Did you want to get out of your house today? Were you expecting to get to work on time? Or even this week?
You gave it your best shot. You tried to shovel by yourself and I respect you for that. I did it, my parents did it, some of my best friends did it. But deep down inside, we all wanted to murder that neighbor with the snowblower who was finished and on his second beer while you were still trying to throw snow over a snowbank taller than you are.
So, here we are. You could murder your neighbour, which could ensure that you won’t need to shovel a driveway for 25 to life, but there are downsides to that too. What to do?
Here’s the deal. I have a snow blower and I want you to own it. I can tell you’re serious about this. It’s like I can almost see you: sitting there, your legs are probably crossed and your left hand is on your chin. Am I right? How’d I do that? The same way that I know that YOU ARE GOING TO BUY THIS SNOWBLOWER.
This ad breaks most of the rules of webwriting, especially concision. Never mind. The ad got over 500,000 hits, and his blog had over 100,000 hits by November 24. This evening he was interviewed by Carol Off of CBC Radio's As It Happens program, a tribute paid to a new medium by an old one.
Mr. Cho is onto something, and I plan to keep an eye on him.