CSUN 2017: Words matter - writing for everyone


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By Allison Ravenhall.
Do you write anything? Advice about using plain language, identifying your audience and visual presentation. Also includes a fun xkcd reference to show you can write about complex stuff without using technical jargon.

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  • Good morning! My name is Allison Ravenhall and I’m a Digital Accessibility Sensei at Intopia. It’s the same as a digital accessibility consultant, ... I also have a black belt in karate so people think I’m going to beat them up if their stuff isn’t accessible. As if I would!
    You can find me on Twitter at RavenAlly, r-a-v-e-n-a-l-l-y, and you can find Intopia at intopiadigital.
  • So, I’m here to talk about words. They’re so important, but I think sometimes they don’t receive the attention they deserve. There’s often a lot of focus on meeting technical standards, the code, the assistive tech. They’re definitely important, but consider – your website can be totally compliant and meet all of the technical standards but if your visitors can’t read or understand what you’ve written, they’ll leave.
  • We all write in lots of ways. This session isn’t just for content writers or people who prepare big long documents. If you write anything to anyone, this is for you. As an example, I thought we’d take a quick look at all the writing that happens at Intopia. There are lots of different formats and audiences.
    What you’re writing about should influence how you present it, and the type and number of words that you use.
  • <single audience examples>, <large audience example>
    Think of best words, level of detail. Best chance of understanding your message. If you’ve got an audience of one or two people, you can get specific: <examples>
    Audience qualities: Age, role, experience, formal education, reading ability, opinions, biases, prior knowledge, nationality, native language, state of health, cognitive ability, interest level, available time, when and where they’ll read your content, their assistive tech. Adjust to communicate most effectively.
    Often you won’t know many or any of these. The failsafe fall back? Use plain language and don’t assume.
  • OK, that was a lot of stuff. Deep breath, remember no one writes perfectly the first time. To begin with, just write. Let it flow, no spelling, layout, level of detail, logical order. Use bullet points, sentences, paragraphs, key words, and phrases, it’s all good.
    Take your writing from OK to awesome, with the next bit – proofreading. Reread what you’ve written, even if it’s just a tweet. Think back to those audience, or that you’re generally trying to write clearly. Will they understand the words you’ve used? Will they follow the path of your argument? Is the level of detail suitable for their knowledge or experience?
  • How much jargon or technical language did you use? Will your audience know these terms? Have you used long, fancy words or sentences to pad out your document or your ego?
    Professions that rely heavily on jargon and tech language: science, law, finance, and IT. Some in these groups that say their specialist languages are necessary, that they can’t capture the complex nature of their work otherwise.
    I call BS on that. It just takes time/effort to convert a jargon-heavy, fancy word salad into a more readable version, time that some people can’t afford/bothered to take.
  • xkcd, Randall Munroe, draws about CS, tech, math, sci, phil, lang, pop, romance.
    Up Goer Five: Munroe Saturn V rocket, Apollo, 1960s and 70s. Twist: only 1000 most common used words in the English language. Explains machinery without acronyms, jargon or tech language.
    Command module: “part that flies around the other world and comes back home with the people in it and falls in the water”. LEM: “part that flies down to the other world with two people inside”.
    Clunky language, but accessible.
    Websites to try yourself, not a gold standard, but fun challenge.
  • I can’t resist a challenge, so here goes: this is my job description, like I might put in a sales pitch or my LinkedIn profile or something. “…” What do you think? It’s full of IT jargon and complicated words. There are plenty of readers who wouldn’t have a clue what I do for a living after reading that. And check out all those red underlines! They’re words that aren’t in the top 1000 common used words list.
  • Here’s the Up Goer Five version: “…” Wording is a bit awkward, but that’s because there were so many words that I couldn’t use! However, I think this version describes my job in a more “real” way. I’d certainly use it as a basis to describe what I do to people who don’t have an IT or accessibility background.
  • One way that you can quickly confuse your readers is by using slang or local references. It’s another form of jargon or technical language, just that the group is based on area rather than profession or knowledge. I reckon there’s a lot of things that I say that would mystify people that aren’t Aussies, but as an example:
    My husband Leigh and I went to my cousin’s wedding a couple of weeks ago. As we were preparing to go, I asked Leigh how many pineapples we should give them, and if he had any I could use. A bit weird, right?
  • It makes more sense when you know some Aussies call our fifty dollar note a pineapple because it’s yellow. We also have lobsters. Side note: I’m proud to say that we’ve finally started to put tactile marks on our notes. The one-dot five dollar note was released last year, and the two-dot ten dollar bill was put into circulation just recently.
    So don’t talk about pineapples and lobsters, talk about cash. And try not to use slang, particularly when you’re addressing a wide audience, and when you’re online, don’t talk about the weather or the season as if everyone is going through the same thing – Xmas in summer!
  • Read stats useful to check clear writing. Count words and sentences, give you a readability rating. Two factors: average syllables per word, words per sentence.
    Word length: + syllables = harder to understand than a short word with the same meaning. E.g. “utilise” or “leverage” to “use”.
    Similarly, long sentences hard to process. As we read, we add to short-term memory until the end, then process. Multi clauses gets harder and harder to keep links and information straight. Are you out of breath when you finish reading a sentence out loud, or can’t remember how it started? You might want to split it up.
  • Intro “from my submission”. Sections of panel. Word incl. Flesch, Flesch-Kincaid. Most processors have read stats, and sites will crunch numbers. Other stats: Dale-Chall, Gunning fog, Fry graph, SMOG.
    My score: 57.2. Most Flesch RE scores are 0-100. > number = readable. 0-30 = v hard, long sentences/words. 90-100 = v easy, av primary student.
    Flesch RE sweet spot=60-70=“plain English”. My score, slightly hard.
    Remember sweet spot? No, Flesch-Kincaid easier. Average 8/9th grade can read my paper.
    Don’t match the Flesch-Kincaid to actual education. How high you’re setting the bar to understand. If I get a Flesch-Kincaid result in double digits, I usually start looking for long sentences and words to see if I can break them down, rearrange them, simplify them. At this point, the thesaurus is your friend. Shift-F7 is the Microsoft Word shortcut, by the way.
    Readability stats are useful, but you should know their limits. It’s only arithmetic, so it can’t tell you if your words make sense. You and any other proof-readers need to check that your message is clear, complete, and convincing.
  • Speaking of checking the quality of your message, one of my favourite ways to check my writing is to read it out loud. You find out really quickly if your sentences are too long, if you’ve written a tongue twister or something that’s ridiculously complicated.
    The thing I listen for when I read my work aloud is if I sound natural. I like to think of my writing as a one-sided conversation that I’ve written down. If I’ve used fancy words or super-formal language, then reading it out loud sounds stuck-up or weird. That’s when I know I need to do a bit more revision.
  • Been talking about best words for who you’re writing for, manageable sentences. Proofreading with aud. in mind, time away, fresh perspective. Read out loud, slightly crazy, using read stats to check bar level.
    Not finished. Show the words. How to max the read. of our words on a screen? Layout?
    WCAG A, AA: contrast, images of text. Also AAA 1.4.8, visual pres, great guidance. OK to do, if designers know early!
    As a lover of plain language, I despair a little bit when I read WCAG, so I applied the Up Goer Five treatment to success criteria 1.4.8. Visual Presentation is now called…
  • … Showing Words. Showing Words contains five recommendations.
    First, “…”. For ppl who prefer/rely on colour to read comfortably.
    Second, “…”. Struggled to translate, no “whitespace”, “character”, “punctuation”. “Wide picture letters” are CJK glyphs. Limit line length to 80 chars b/c harder to eyetrack from end of long line to start of next.
    Third, “…”. A.k.a. “don’t use justification because it creates irregular spacing between words”. It’s distracting and hard to read.
    Fourth, “…”. Would’ve liked “paragraph” not “word-block”. Nevertheless, line spacing in paragraphs allows readers to focus per word in a line, less interference from above/below. Extra spacing between paragraphs to track progress. One topic per para, extra space betw para acts as a breakpoint, mentally prepare for next chunk.
    Finally, “…”, a.k.a. “support 200% text resize and don’t introduce horizontal scrolling on a maximised browser window”.
  • Philosopher. Quote in reference to his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1690.
    Source: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2012/04/28/shorter-letter/

    We don’t have to meet arbitrary word limits or demonstrate “minimum knowledge”
  • CSUN 2017: Words matter - writing for everyone

    1. 1. Words Matter: Writing for Everyone Allison Ravenhall  @RavenAlly Digital Accessibility Sensei Intopia  @Intopiadigital
    2. 2. Hello! I like LEGO, cats, karate, and making stuff accessible I’m from Melbourne (“mel-bun”) Australia
    3. 3.  Internal messages  Email  Video transcripts Writing at  Blogs  Tweets  Facebook posts  Proposals  Testing & usability reports  Defect lists  Presentations  Website content Braille cupcakes
    4. 4. Before you write anything… … who are you writing for?
    5. 5. First, just write. Proofread later.
    6. 6. Cut the jargon and fancy words You’re not impressing anyone
    7. 7. My job description I am a digital accessibility consultant. I advise organisations about training, requirements, design, testing and implementation of accessible web sites and native mobile apps. I am particularly interested in the wording and presentation of text, instructions and errors. I am a digital accessibility consultant. I advise organisations about training, requirements, design, testing and implementation of accessible web sites and native mobile apps. I am particularly interested in the wording and presentation of text, instructions and errors.
    8. 8. The Up Goer Five version In my job, I help computer-people build things that lots of people can use, considering different sight, hearing, moving and thinking. I give ideas and try things and suggest fixes to problems. I also write and present training. I like to focus on how we use words.
    9. 9. Slang and local references …can confuse and exclude
    10. 10. Lies, damned lies & readability statistics
    11. 11. Flesch Reading Ease 0 – 30 = Very hard to read 60 – 70 = Plain English 90 – 100 = Very easy to read Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level More focus on sentence length Passive Sentences “Mistakes were made by the presenter” vs. “The presenter made mistakes”
    12. 12. Do the “read aloud” test
    13. 13. Great words suck if you can’t see them
    14. 14. 1.4.8 Showing Words: When showing words: 1. Let people pick their own colours for words and the area behind words 2. Show up to 80 letters and things in a line (or 40 if wide picture-letters) 3. Don't put words against left and right edges of the area at the same time. 4. Make line spacing (leading) at least space-and-a-half within word blocks, and word-block spacing at least 1.5 times larger than the line spacing. 5. Let people make words up to two times bigger and not have to move their full-big window across to read it.
    15. 15. Haiku Choose your words wisely, Present them clearly on screen, Know your audience.
    16. 16. xkcd • Current comic: http://xkcd.com • Transcript + explanation: http://www.explainxkcd.com • Up Goer Five: http://xkcd.com/1133/ • Transcript + explanation: http://www.explainxkcd.com/1133 • Simple Writer text editor: https://xkcd.com/simplewriter/ • Up Goer Five text editor (third party): http://splasho.com/upgoer5/ • Scientific American blog: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest- blog/science-in-ten-hundred-words-the-up-goer-five-challenge/ • http://tenhundredwordsofscience.tumblr.com/