Redact #3: Editing Digital Content

At the start of the Editing Digital Content workshop, our presenter, John Ryan, introduced a natty turn of phrase. He urged us to watch out for ‘the eleventh-hour content shitstorm’, as defined by a fellow content strategist, American Karen McGrane. It typically occurs when the ‘wireframes’ set up early on by IT specialists developing the framework for a website, and often filled in with random Latin ‘placeholder content’, must be filled with actual, meaningful words, written in English.

John Ryan, Editing Digital Content presenter (3rd from left)

L-R: Harriet Empey, Michaela Skelly, presenter John Ryan, Lorna Hendry (Credit: Liz Steele)

We were a diverse group of editors. Many of us were working solely in the digital environment, but a few (including me) had memories of the cut-and-paste days of print-book production. By helping us understand the vagaries of making websites, John’s fabulous workshop gave us all a better sense of what digital publishing can achieve. One of his key messages was that good websites are created when people who ‘love the content’ are involved early on in the production process, negotiating with user experience designers to develop a content management system that really meets the needs of the user and is flexible enough to accommodate changes of content in the future.

John focused on four purposes of online content: communicating, navigating, finding and acting. It’s a challenge to think of content living, not on sequential pages, but in containers that are ‘modular, stackable and sharable’. But the old index card system, which belongs in the toolkit of the content curator, was familiar. It can be used to identify the ‘top tasks’ and ‘tiny tasks’ of web users, and create the best structure for the content, making it quicker and easier to access. John referenced the ‘usability guru’ Jakob Nielsen who reckons people use the web to perform actions; they don’t actually read online. Well, that’s a challenge for the editor (are you reading this?), but, yes, I got the point. There is so much faff on the internet – a good reason to hone our scanning abilities, and it didn’t surprise me to learn of the company ‘We Cut Content’.

John illustrated how good web style is sparse and simple, with sensible conventions evolving, such as the use of underline for links to external pages, rather than boxes that say ‘click here’ and require the reader to take an unnecessary cognitive step. There are recognised differences between the ways people read on screen and on paper, as the F-shaped pattern typical of a reader’s eye movements across a screen indicated, and good web style acknowledges the challenges of online reading.

John outlined the basics of search engine optimisation (SEO), including the need for meta descriptions (which appear on a search engine results page) and headings that reflect the subject of a page or site. He explained the benefits of using keywords that will be picked up by Google, even though sprinkling these throughout a text is less important for SEO these days. We learnt about the need to structure and design websites that are accessible to all. Some flashing design features, for instance, can trigger epilepsy. And the latest screen readers for visually impaired people, such as JAWS, use voice recognition to read the content on different pages of a website aloud at lightning speed, and to read the ‘alt text’ of images. Pages within a site are accessed using new swiping and rotating hand signals on a touch screen, but the sitemap of the website must be logical for this to work properly.

This was a stimulating two days, with a knowledgeable presenter who has made a leap from editor to content strategist in a largely uncharted publishing space where our critical skills could play a much bigger role.

Astrid Judge

John Ryan provides content strategy to many well-known organisations through his business Sitegeist. He has worked as an editor, columnist and publisher in print and online. John can be contacted at