Paper phrases

Back in the days when communication relied on a cleft stick, paper was the perfect format.  It beat cave paintings and even clay tablets in the portability stakes. It was – depending on the servant holding the stick – reasonably fast. Eventually a whole system was built around moving paper about. The fax machine may have introduced a non-paper stage but it was, to all intents and purposes, PIPO – paper in, paper out.

We built our skill with written language around this wonderful medium. We bound it into books. Men in brown robes and tonsures used exquisite caligraphy to create copies of the bible. We developed machines that could print onto paper. There were both desk top versions (typewriters) and mainframes – giant printing presses turning out books, magazines, academic journals, newspapers and catalogues for swimwear.

We came up with protocols for laying out words; upper and lower case, underlining and indenting. Red ink, black ink and green ink. Purple prose. Colour and position had specfic meanings. Overturning or advancing a protocol took time. Be too forward in the layout of your business letter and people might asume you didn’t know how to lay one out (or you were too unsuccessful to afford a decent secretary).

But computers and the internet have changed all this. The range of fonts and colours at our disposal are infinite. Images can be added with ease. With so much choice, it’s harder to proscribe and restrict. We can place text vertically, or upside down if we’re so moved. And if we come up with some particularly clever idea it can be copied by others in a nanosecond. Nobody’s right. Nobody’s wrong.

But while we’re all having great fun exploring the visual nature of the medium we can still end up turning out the same old paper phrases, first used back in the days when upright typewriters thumped and rattled. In large and small organisations, tensions can develop between operational areas (meaning) and marketing departments (messaging) when it comes to how products or services are described online.

So here’s my SMART benchmarking tool, designed to quick-test your content for paper phrases:

Source What was the source documentation for the web content? Was it brochure, a press release, a product blue print… Where the source material came from will influence the language that finds its way online. The more internal the document the more likely it is to contain paper phrases and inhouse language.

Method How was the source material turned into web content? Simply subbing source material to make it shorter won’t turn it into good web copy. Ideally you want to review the source material, put it away and then write from memory, only returning to the source to check facts. The more complicated the material, the more important it is to atomise and reconstite the content, rather than simply edit. Subbing often leaves in paper phrases.

Approval Who gets to sign off on the content and why? The best approval processes incorporate compliance and legal perspectives early on, rather than as a final stage, when formal langauge may be reintroduced and everybody’s too tired to argue. Some of the worst give the final say to senior management.

Review When the copy has been signed off and published online it should always go through a final discreet review about a week or so after publication. Once the pressure is off and the deadline has been met, it’s suprising how easy it is to refine and improve what you already have. And if you’re more relaxed, so is your language. Small changes should not require a further approval process.

Test You may be convinced you’ve written spot-on, online copy but the only person who can really tell you that is your site users. Check site metrics looking for pages that people are leaving to soon (boring) or spending too long on (complicated). Make changes and check again. Then make changes and check again.