Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Creative Brief: Website for Web Authoring Course

Wedding Website (for Mark & Emily)

Objective & Purpose
  • To allow guests to RSPV without having to pay for postage
  • To host photos and other stuff for guests that can't make it
  • To have one place with all the stuff on it for less confusion, especially for non-tech-savvy guests
  • Wedding guests
  • Guests who can't make it to wedding
  • Bride & Groom/ Wedding party
Idea Dump 
  • Engagement pictures
  • Wedding Date, time, place
  • RSVP form
  • Contact form / guestbook
  • Links to registries
  • Links to photo albums (pro. & where guests can add photos)
  • Links for guests coming from out of town: accommodations, area attractions, etc.
  • Resources for wedding party if needed
  • Map/directions to & from venue, etc.
  • Link to bride's & groom's websites/online portfolios
  • Simplistic theme and navigation for ease of use
  • Photos of bride/groom
  • Match wedding colors if possible
  • High contrast for easy reading by older guests
  • Elements from wedding style if possible

Chapter Four: Just Because It's The Internet Doesn't Mean You Can Slack Off

Killian's fourth Chapter in Writing for the Web is the chapter in which he finally gets to the actual writing bits. He doesn't say much, unless you count the weird rant about only using Anglo-Saxon words right after he talks about how good it is that English has absorbed so many words from other languages, along with some standard writing advice you'll find in any composition or writing book. He also mentions not using lengthy compound sentences since, you know, the Internet has made us all massively dumber and we can't handle the big words, anymore.

Sure, you can make a whole page of short sentences and little words, but this isn't Twitter. Tell me something or I'm leaving. Elaborate a little. Short sentences can be cool, but a whole page of little snippets and fragments gets old fast.

And for crying out loud, stop slacking off just because it's the Internet! Capitalize your words. Form sentences. Use punctuation. Have a thought or viewpoint of your own instead of just regurgitating something you read or arguing every point against it just for the sake of being argumentative.

My advice: grab a copy of The Elements of Style by Strunk & White if you need a quick, helpful writing guide, or dig out whatever comp book you had to buy as a freshman. This chapter is okay, but there are such better guides out there.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Advocacy and Marketing on the Web

Kilians' eighth chapter in Writing for the Web has lots of detailed examples and how-tos about appealing to your audience along with what not to do. Most of this you'd learn in a college public speaking or persuasive writing course.

In general, to write persuasively for the web you should do these things:
  • Be truthful, open, and considerate. Have your facts straight.
  • Don't insult your reader accidentally by making them feel stupid - or on purpose by throwing around insults and generally being a jerk.
  • Use legitimate appeals. Study up on rhetoric and make the kinds of appeals you want to make. Check your text to see if it's saying what you want in subtext.
  • Use the register and semantics you want, considering your audience. This falls in with rhetoric appeal.
  • Don't push too hard. 
Also keep in mind that your audience is wide, outspoken, and full of trolls. If you're going to be unethical, you're probably going to get lots of nasty-grams from the people who see what you're doing. You can see this in action all over the web; a good example is Regretsy, a site that most commonly points out utter garbage that makes its way onto Etsy, but also makes sure to blow the whistle on copyright infringers and 'crafters' flipping cheap non-handmade items from big box stores or wholesalers.

Web Content Organization and Fonts

Most of Kilian's third chapter in Writing for the Web is overly-worded common sense. There are, however, a few important points and at least one thing I disagree with him about.

Having each page of your website be able to stand alone is important, especially if you have a variety of content. Google will send your reader only to the page about whatsits and the majority of them will be totally unable to navigate their way back to your homepage. It also helps people who did come in through the homepage, but have forgotten some important thing about you and don't want to back up. Finally, it helps you with one of the most important things about writing for the web and writing in all forms: continuity. People need cues, and stuff needs to look familiar.

I know some people think pointing this out is a joke - now that blogging software makes the layout for you and prompts you to put in your About Me and your Navigation and your Links. When frames were the big thing, people got stuck in them or missed the navigation or missed the content pages. When Iframes were the big thing, people would get your individual web pages without the navigation sections.  Sure, it's no big deal for me to go to the top of my address bar and take out the individual page file name and hit enter, but people new to the Internet aren't going to get that - and you shouldn't expect them to. People don't have to stay on your page, and if you make it difficult, they just won't.

On page 44, Kilian says, "You should be generating your webtext in whatever font and size are comfortable for you."

No. No, you shouldn't. You should do some research first, and see what looks good, and see what people hate. Sure, it sounds like common sense. But do you know how many horrible web pages with bright blue Comic Sans there are out there? Old English? Papyrus? Kristin? Your font for the body of your webtext should be a simple, easy-to-read font that does not detract from the message in your text. Try invisible fonts like Verdana, Arial, Times, Tahoma, Georgia, Helvetica - anything that isn't overly embellished. Check out this humorous article from Cracked (note: some language, and I don't agree with everything said here) and this more serious font article; if you got IPFW's English Department newsletter last semester, there's also an article about fonts there (by yours truly).

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

From The Uses of Grammar by Rodby and Winterowd:
It may surprise you to know that glamour and grammar are closely related, and that glamour was once associated with magic. In the early eighteenth century, Scottish speakers of English altered grammar to create glamour, which meant enchantment or spell. The word "spell" itself relates both to correctness in language and to the magic of language. In one sense "spell" has to do with the forms of words: the longest river in the United States is spelled M-I-S-S·I-S-S-I-P-P-I. But "spell" also describes words used to invoke magical powers.

"Chunks", Vampires, & Forest for the Trees

Reading material on the web, especially in today's rapid-speed society, can be categorized into two types: "chunking" and "scrolling", according to Writing for the Web, Chapter 2. Neither is better than the other; they serve different purposes.

Small chunks of around 100 words let the reader quickly digest the material and choose whether to continue navigating the website or move on. Large sections of text that readers have to scroll through are cumbersome, but the only way to display a full linear text like a writing sample or important document.

While I understand what Kilian is getting at, I only partially agree. Most of the websites I visit have large bouts of text, and most of my blog posts (and the blogs I follow and enjoy) are longer than 100-200 words. While most people browsing are of the "hit and run" category, there is still a whole section of cerebral people using the web who enjoy actually reading things and finding content of merit.

Kilian also talked about two other very important things for new web content writers to understand: subtext and the "vampire video" effect. You wouldn't go to a dentist with bad teeth anymore than you'd hire a freelance writer who obviously didn't bother to spell check his website. It's the same thing I always used to get in trouble for when I was younger: It's not what you said that was wrong, it was how you said it.

The "vampire video" effect stems back to when TV was a fairly new medium, and advertisers sunk all their funds into slick graphics that distracted people so much they missed the product. This was rampant on the web in the 90's, when every page you went to had crazy fonts, frames, animated gifs of Odie and smiley faces, custom cursors, welcome pop-ups, and 20 other things they didn't need but thought were cool. The website class I took in middle school used the Bells & Whistles site frequently for resources; they've evolved from a clipart and web graphics site to now having scripts and actual web development tools. When Internet speeds increased, people started adding videos, songs, and flash to their websites. Newcomers to websites often overload them with so much extra flashy stuff that you can't see the content for all the eye candy.

When developing a website, profile, or blog, a little goes a long way. Pick your best graphics and let them shine. Have a second set of eyes help you prune down your text for clarity and conciseness. Don't overwhelm your reader with too much stuff on the screen at once (break it into separate pages, for example), and avoid putting too-loud graphics or other distractions next to important content. Large blocks of text are okay, as long as you identify them and remember your audience - long blocks of text about the Jersey Shore will get you nowhere.


I accidentally wiped all the comments off my blog; I thought I was just deleting the notifications.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

I couldn't start a blog without talking about my only pet, Lucius, a royal (ball) python. While most ball pythons are a palate of browns, Lucius is a lemon/pastel "morph" - black, brown, and yellow. Right now he weighs about half a pound, and he'll eventually grow to be 3-5 feet long.

My fiance is allergic to pet dander, so Luci is perfect for us. Plus he doesn't make much noise, have to be walked, or make messes in the house. He has quite a bit of personality for a snake, but spends most of his time squigglin' around on his little tree or staring intently at his red light bulb.

Royal pythons are more commonly called ball pythons because of their behavior. When threatened, they curl up and fold in on themselves, forming a ball shape. They need high heat and humidity to regulate their body temperature and skin shed cycles. In the wild ball pythons live in termite mounds; though they're a 'tertiary' snake, they can climb quite well, and Lucius loves to climb things. He can also swim pretty fast; I'm not sure if all ball pythons are good swimmers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Twitter is Killin' Your Muse (And Your GPA)

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Chapter 7 suggests that the Internet is rewiring our brains at an alarming speed - and that while this rewiring is good for multitasking, it's quite bad for learning.

Carr lists tens of formal studies to back up his claims. Basically, the onslaught of stimulation that the Internet provides - hyperlinks, flashy graphics, sounds, chunks of text, instant messages, emails - divides our attention. We can only hold so much in our short-term memory, so when we try to focus on all these things at once we don't get the full picture. Thinking about 15 things at once shallowly instead of thinking about one thing deeply is re-wiring our synapses for that purpose. So, even if you can pull yourself away from Twitter and turn off your phone for a hour, when you sit down to read that academic article for your 400-level class your brain is still skittering around not wanting to focus deeply.

Something else that plays into this is our pleasure cycles. We get little moments of happy from checking our Facebook and seeing something cool, or looking at pictures of cats with bad grammar, or refreshing our email inbox and finding something new. Humans crave more, new, different. We'll click over to a social media site 30x an hour even if we know the odds are there's nothing good there, just for the chance there might be. Then we wonder why we can't sit still in a 65-minute lecture.

Even deeper research shows that this 'browsing' type of taking in content is changing the way we view other media. We skim course materials. We don't think deeply enough about what we're reading. We learn things superficially, just gleaning enough knowledge to skirt by.

This lack of depth in thinking causes a host of things - some good, some bad. We're better at multi-tasking now, and even though it's bad for us it's good for staying abreast in the fast-paced business world. Our spatial-awareness and reaction times are better - but we could get that playing video games. The downsides: anxiety and loss of creativity, comprehension, and original ideas.

That's right. All those tweets, texts, and Reddit browsing are whittling away your grade point average and your novel. Studies show that with the shallowness of thinking multi-tasking employs, users are more likely to accept the information put in front of them instead of thinking critically about it, and have a harder time analyzing it and drawing opinions of their own or thinking creatively.

Do I buy into this? You'd better believe I do. I've seen way too many people who are completely addicted to checking their phones for texts or tweets... and I watch the same students who text and browse the Internet during class whine to the teacher that they're failing and they don't understand why. I bounced around doing 3-4 other things while writing this post - how many times did you check another tab, glance at your phone or TV, etc. while reading this lengthy post (assuming you even read the whole thing)?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Web vs. Print & TV

The web has many advantages (and plenty of disadvantages) over older media like print and television, but mostly it’s simply different than the others. The Internet is new media, and it’s made to work in a completely different way than old media. 

First of all, it’s me oriented. I’m the reader, I do what I want! If I’m reading a book, I progress the way the author wrote it. If I’m reading an online article, I can pause at the flashy graphics, decide to skip to the next section, click links to other related (or unrelated) pages, and be horribly impatient and leave if I don’t get what I want in five seconds. I can turn off my graphics, I can block your ads, I can change my screen resolution to teeny-tiny so I don’t see half your stuff, I can change my default font to Ye Olde English and read your blog wearing a top hat and monocle. Once someone has produced and sold a TV show or a book or a movie, that’s it – they’ve got their money and whether or not you like the content doesn’t matter so much. But with the Internet, producers of content have to constantly and continuously please their readers … or we’re out of here, and they lose ad revenue and viewers.

When you watch television, go to the movies, or read a book or magazine, you’re a one-way audience. Stephen King doesn’t see you wince when he horribly murders a character; Johnny Depp doesn’t hear the squees and sighs of fangirls at the theatre. There is no immediate feedback and no two-way communication.

When you surf the internet, however, you’re engaging in new media. If you’re on a blog like this one, you can comment and tell the author how you feel… and that author can in turn respond to your thoughts, or delete your comment and block your IP address. Feedback is instantaneous (unless screening has been applied) and can be seen by whomever views the page. In the age of social media, everything is shared, commented upon, or liked/recommended.

With the social media boom comes a convergence of instant feedback with older media types. For example, when you watch your favorite TV show (say, FRINGE) on, you can now instantly share that video and your comments (“I love Walternate!”) to Facebook. That doesn’t mean J.J. Abrams or John Noble will ever see them, but they’re out there. The Internet also keeps fanbases alive and can bring back shows from the dead: Buffy the Vampire Slayer got an eighth season years later via the world of comics due to its still-present fanbase; talks of a Firefly reboot are in the works for the same reason. In the print media field, authors can offer immediate chapter snippets and free samples to their readers, as well as get feedback and reviews. If the creators of old media content – authors, actors, directors, producers, etc. – choose to get a social media account, they can get direct feedback from viewers. 

We take this instant feedback for granted now, but we’ve forgotten how little time it’s been. Less than 10 years ago, you’d have to go to Hollywood or be very, very lucky to catch a glimpse of a popular actor or hope to shout some adoration at them. Now, many in the limelight constantly post photos and chronicles of day-to-day life and behind-the-scenes info, and I can tweet Nathan Fillian about my love for him until he blocks me.