Tag Archives: writing

As the online editor, I s…

As the online editor, I sometimes feel like my job is to make something beautiful, just to hack it apart for kindling. Here’s the way I (mostly) think about it instead: any link to a fragment of LQ is a breadcrumb that can bring you back to the whole. Every magazine wants to lead you back to the mothership, but when you finally pick up an issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, what you have isn’t the end of your own curation and the beginning of our vision. It’s the start of a new reading in a closed-off sphere that also resembles the web you came from: a rabbit hole of thought that you’ll gladly fall into.

Michelle Legro – History and Its Contents.

We need to reinvent the article

We need to reinvent the article. Sean Blanda illustrates that it’s time to rethink not just the article but how information is published on the web. I agree. My favorite narratives are those that answer long, winding questions by telling a story. They are more akin to a short book than a news story. This recent New Yorker piece is 50 pages and over 20,000 words when I drop it in to Pages.app. I loved that article, but defaulting to the same mental model and design presentation for a few hundred word piece about NFL draft trades is ludicrous.

Avoiding easy

When you spend all day working with the same piece of software your definition of what is easy for someone else becomes horribly skewed. Since I started jamming with the CoPress gang in 2009, I have spent thousands of hours staring at a WordPress dashboard. It means much of the WordPress interface is easy for me. That’s dangerous.

I try to minimize the number of times I use easy in a support reply. I avoid phrases like “Setting up custom menus is easy…” or “Writing a new post is easy…” There are a few reasons for this.

First, if a feature or product were legitimately easy the user would not be writing in to support about how stuck they are. Sure, some percentage of users will find questions to ask about any interface. But do you want to start the conversation by assuming the user falls into that percentage? You venture to learn much more if you assume the software is wrong, not the user.

Second, describing something as easy sets a dangerously high bar for the user when they walk away and try it for themselves. Before you characterize a feature as easy you should be certain it actually is. If you say “easy” and the user does not get it they will, at best, feel like they are wasting your time and, at worst, feel like it is not worth using your product.

Finally, the worst part about saying a product is easy is that it immediately starts the conversation by putting you in command. You are the expert. You are the one who said it was easy. In some cases that is okay. It will work out. But doing so shuts down your opportunity for learning from your users. If, instead, you think back to the days when you did not know everything, you can start the conversation on an equal ground. Help the user accomplish their goal but also learn about where the pain points are so that you can make the user’s experience, and your product, better.

The best support is a conversation. The best support happens when a user learns how to do something new and you learn about how your product can be better. This can only happen when you do not immediately think of your software as easy, intuitive, or simple. If you can remember that you too were once new to things you will end up with a better product and, most importantly, happier users.

Blogs, term papers, and a fear of what’s new

Cody Brown tweeted a link to this New York Times article earlier today about blogs and term papers. It’s a fairly shallow piece with many things I’d enjoy responding to, but I’ll pick one: the patronizing way the old guard portrays newer forms of writing.

Here are two quotes from that article. The first is from Douglas B. Reeves, a columnist for the American School Board Journal:

It doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting blogs. But nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.

The second is from William H. Fitzhugh, founder of The Concord Review:

Writing is being murdered. But the solution isn’t blogs, the solution is more reading. We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.

Fitzhugh and Reeves aren’t engaging with the idea of blogs from an academic or evidence-based perspective. They seem to fearful of the new medium and seek to discredit it with all the tact of a gossip writer.

“We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives” is a great soundbite, but it is ridiculous. First, are we so sure there is something wrong with giving kids an outlet to write about themselves and their home life? Second, what does it matter what the output is if the learning that happens in the process of getting there is substantial? I think Fitzhugh and Reeves are far too concerned with the potential output of these blogs than they are with what kids may learn by writing in a medium they enjoy.

If you want to say that blogs have, through research, been the cause of decreasing critical thinking among students that is fine. Merely asserting it does not make it so, though. You need evidence to back your claims, just like the term papers Reeves and Fitzhugh glorify.

If, instead, you are going to characterize the only benefit of blogs as the fact that some are “interesting” and imply that “premise, evidence, argument and conclusion” are only achieved through dead tree term papers, then you are full of it.

These two would be better off taking Reeves’ advice and using premise, evidence, argument, and conclusion to analyze writing on the web.