“UX Workshops - Writing”: Cennydd Bowles on the value of editing

 by Martin Belam, 8 June 2011

Sitting down to write a blog post about the UX Writing workshop we just had in London is a little intimidating. I feel compelled to follow my own rules about having an SEO-friendly headline and a “grabby” opening paragraph, and demonstrate that Cennydd’s talk has improved my writing style. If you can’t spot the “standalone tweetable quote”, or you see me using the passive voice or convoluted sentences, then shoot me down in the comments below...

Cennydd started his talk by saying that he had originally called it “Editing for UX people”, and then decided to practice what he preaches about our profession, and changed the title to “Editing for UX people”. His point was a valid one - that the skills he talked about applied to all kinds of writing. He did, though, have some tips that applied specifically to us as a community.

“Occam’s razor is the buzzword filter for UX language”

Arguing for simplicity, Cennydd pointed out that we are prone to use words like “methodology” when we could say “method”, or “long-term in-depth contextual study” when we could say “interviews”. He also pointed out a UX writing sin I’m sure I’ve done hundreds of times. “User” is singular - so make sure you don’t drift from saying he/she to “and then they” in your documentation and use cases.

He also argued against using the phrases like “I think” on a personal blog:

“I know it is what you think. You’ve written it on your personal blog”

Having worked in the digital bits of journalism organisations for some time, and having had sub-editing training, it was great to see Cennydd’s overall message delivered to UX people. Editing is crucial and undervalued. It is just as much a part of the creative publishing process as writing. One of the reasons it is so noticeable when there is a sub-editing error in a printed newspaper or an on-screen graphic is because they are so comparatively rare.

Cennydd was in favour of editing reducing the length of a text. He subscribes to the theory that if a word doesn’t add anything to a sentence, take it out. And if a sentence doesn’t add anything to a paragraph, take it out. And if a paragraph doesn’t either advance your argument, or provide the background information to subsequently advance your argument, take it out.

If editing can reduce the length of an article by 40%, he said, then that gives you 40% more content in which to either make your argument stronger or add exposition where necessary. One of his rules was “make every single word matter”. Every wasted word raises the noise-to-signal ratio, and you dilute your reader’s attention.

Some of the practical things to come out of the session were suggestions to read Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style”, “The Longman guide to revising prose”, Austin Govella’s essay on editing, and of course “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” from Lynne Truss. I also recommend adopting a style guide - I like this one - and the brilliant Twitter feed that goes with it.

One of the reasons I am so interested in the emergence of content strategy as a job title and discipline is because it is a recognition that businesses that previously didn’t “publish” now do. They have intranets and websites, and people writing content who never previously had to write for an audience.

The same is true of “UX people”.

The articles that appear on “Boxes and Arrows” and “A List Apart” would previously have been confined to the design and tech trade press. We now write about our jobs and processes and deliverables in a way that is open to the whole world wide web.

We deal in communication interfaces. We should always be willing to learn to communicate better with our words.

See also: “This title is clever but pointless and inefficient” by Tim Caynes


I should add, before anyone else does, that I am aware that “long-term in-depth contextual study” and “interviews” are not synonyms :-)

was this one of the tips you got last night? using comments as footnotes could also be a great technique for increasing the clarity of your blog post - sometimes I think half the problem of UX writing is having to deal with context and various interpretations of the words we use. Putting your disclaimers in the comments +1

“I know it is what you think. You’ve written it on your personal blog”

Except, for one, the laws of libel don't quite work that way. Ones thoughts or opinions can be fair comment, but if they are stated as facts, without the clear expression of them being opinion, could be actionable.

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