Letting Go of the Words

I finished reading Letting Go of the Words by Ginny Redish this week. Redish is a usability and communications expert, and this book takes a shotgun approach to writing good, usable content for the web. I don’t say this to be disparaging. As any of my friends can tell you, I’m a big fan of shotguns. She covers everything from organizing content in a way that makes it easy for readers to scan, to ways to improve your site for usability, to some basic tips on SEO.

Some background: I used to consider myself an SEO. I spent a couple miserable years working on an ecommerce site, and I learned a lot about the basics of SEO in between hours of painstaking, mind-numbing data entry. My job eventually devolved to the point I was simply adding products to an online catalog, by hand, most days.

But I learned a lot about how to write a description. I learned about keywords, and keyword research, and measurement. And I don’t work there anymore, so it wasn’t a total wash.

I don’t consider myself an SEO anymore. SEO is a cornerstone of writing for the web, and it’s important to keep in mind, but it’s not my primary interest these days. I’m more interested in writing content that helps people solve problems, and less interested in making sure every blog post, article, and piece of sales copy I write has the correct keywords.

Redish offers a hands-on, practical approach to writing for the web. I like practical books. I’ve never considered myself a philosopher. I like doing work, and I do well with a list. With a framework. There’s a reason I’ve always gotten such joy from putting together a new Lego set.

You will have overall purposes for your site or app or blog. You will have even more specific purposes for each part of the site, for each piece of content, for each blog article, for each part of a mobile app, for each social media message. Always ask: What do I want to happen because I wrote this?

This is a simple, effective way to start outlining any piece of content. Good web content should always focus on the reader. How well does your product solve your reader’s problem? How quickly can you make that point? What is the least amount of time you can demand from your reader?

Web content isn’t the same as fiction. Fiction is a luxury. Web content needs to cut the bullshit, kill the preamble, and get to work. I love this quote by Redish. It’s about staying on task. It’s about writing with purpose, about creating content with a specific goal in mind.

At a recent talk in a room full of designers, I declared "No more lorem ipsum!" The designers applauded loudly. Many designers want content early. But they tell me that clients often push them to design without content. They have trouble getting content early enough. So we need to educate clients, too, to understand the importance of content strategy and how critical real content is for successful design.

The roughest draft copy you can possibly imagine is better by far than a wall of dummy text. I don’t have much more to say about this idea. I’m mostly quoting Redish here because she’s stating my own opinion. I’m a human being, and human beings like to hear our own opinions reinforced, especially by those we respect.

I came in expecting Letting Go of the Words to be a copy writing book. And it is, sort of. It’s also a usability book, and a content strategy book, and an informational architecture book. It’s about creating useful content, and it covers more than simply writing with clarity. It’s about making content accessible to disabled visitors, and structuring your content in a way that makes it easy to digest.

Like all good books on the subject, Letting Go of the Words is about doing good work. About giving a shit about the details. Even though a lot of it was review, I consider my time reading it a couple weeks well spent.

I'm Tyler, and I blog about marketing, programming, writing, and things I'm working on.


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