Section 508 for Writers

The term Section 508 first came to my attention in a blitzkreig class on web design in the summer of 2010.  I’d never heard of it before, probably because I’d never done anything with a website before.  When it was explained – it is common courtesy to make websites that are comparable with screen readers for individuals with visual impairments – I made a mental note of something that made sense and moved on.  My career as a web designer is pretty much non-existent and I kind of forgot about Section 508.
Fast forward a couple of years and I was suddenly looking at more requests for proposals from the federal government, many of which talked about Section 508 compliance being a requirement for any/all deliverables.  As I got into the requirements and did some more reading on what exactly was meant by applying Section 508 beyond the web environment, I have to admit, I got a little excited.
Screen readers have to be built to interface with the standard software applications.  At least I assume they do.  And based on that assumption, it follows that the screen reader is going to be looking to the formatting in a document for clues on how to convey the information in the absence of visual cues such as indentation, bold, or other formatting choices.  To take it a step further and presume documents that should be inclusive to all kinds of individuals…  Section 508 is basically a mandate for clean formatting and consistent, straightforward document design.
Finally, a justification for my obsessive abhorrence for document formatting accomplished by space bars and manual line breaks all in the service of inconsistently designated information.  I’m not crazy, damn it.
So what makes for a document that is consistent with the principles behind Section 508?

Font

In the federal government, the standard fonts are Arial and Times New Roman.  These are not among the most highly recommended fonts for accessibility, but they are acceptable.  Times New Roman at 12 points or higher is the standard choice for readable print documents.  Using a font size smaller than 12 points is discouraged.   In another industry, consider checking here for more accessable font choices.

Tables

Tables should be used exclusively for data.  Screen readers interact with the formatting code behind the document, so they process and present a table differently than the eye processes a table.  If you have a list, for example, don’t put it in a table just because you want to offset it - use the tab bar to set the margins in to the desired location.

White Space

White space refers to the gap around and between paragraphs.  Large blocks of text can be difficult to read and retain.  Shorter paragraphs with white space between them gives the eye a break from text and allows the brain to better compartmentalize and retain the information being presented.  Where possible, graphs and charts are a great way to ensure that your information is presented in multiple ways.  This eases the reading burden in the audience and also makes for greater retention as the one format serves to reinforce what’s being presented in the other.

Information Design

Information design can be simplified down to intentional usage of formatting and presentation within a document to make it easier for the audience to process the information.  Intentional information design helps everyone interact with the information you’ve pulled together efficiently, including busy executives, recent hires, individuals with alternative learning/information processing preferences, and individuals using assistive technology.
Using Word to its full capacity to implement strong Information Design principles can be challenging if you don’t know MS Word well.  Consider finding tutorials or taking a class if you find yourself lost in Word, yet required to create many documents using the program.

Styles & Headers

At the top of your Window’s page, under the “home” tab are your styles.  Styles, in essence, tell the words how to arrange themselves on the page.  Every cluster of words marked with a certain style are treated in the same way.  Using Word’s “Styles” function also saves you time.  If you have a document that contains multiple block quotes, you can impose formatting once and then just mark future quotes with the same style and the formatting is automatically updated for consistency across the document.
Word’s Style’s function also allows you to automate the Table of Contents and therefore makes it easier for your audience to quickly navigate through your document.  Say you’ve written a Standard Operating Procedure for using the telephone system, but your user only needs to know how to access voice mail.  An electronic document with headers formatted properly allows the audience to click on the section that contains the information they need without having to scroll through the whole document to find the section relevant to their immediate concerns.
This matters because when you’ve got an audience that includes individuals who don’t do well processing a large quantity of information, they can quickly access the information they need.  Someone utilizing assistive technology, such as a screen reader, will appreciate the consistency and clarity regarding how the information present should be categorized.

References

Microsoft Word has automated references, which are under the “references” tab at the top of the Word screen.  Using automated references for footnotes and endnotes makes your job as an author easier as the program will automatically generate lists of figures and tables, and will keep footnote/endnote numbering organized and consistent.  Again, using the automated function will help screen readers interface with your written documents.

Consistency in Presenting Information

The human mind looks for patterns and quickly establishes an understanding of what to look for.  If two examples of lessons learned are indented on both sides by an inch, the next time you see text that is indented by an inch, you’re going to expect that to be another reference to previous experiences through a lessons learned example.
Another common way of designating information that is different or requires special attention is to bold that text.  Unfortunately, when different categories of information are bold, the reader begins to become frustrated because the bold text doesn’t mean the same thing every time.  Information design recognizes that we look for patterns and intentionally presents information in a way that respects the reader’s expectations and makes it easier for the reader to navigate a document.

Conclusion

Section 508 compliance isn’t mandatory for printed documents in the same way that it is mandatory for a web page.  However, applying Section 508 principles to all of your Word output does make for a more inclusive body of documentation.  It makes your documents more portable as they are exported to PDF, for example.  And it will save you time and frustration as you avoid those pesky paragraphs that just won’t behave no matter how many times you put a space in front of the first word.

More Ruminations on Story

In professional writing, we use the term “story” in a lot of ways.  A former boss used to say “tell me a story” to contributors to proposals.  The unwitting recipients of this instruction were always confused by it.  Somehow “once upon a time” doesn’t make much sense when writing a proposal response.

So what does it mean when a proposal manager tells a SME to “tell a story”?

Let’s start with basic story structure.  Who knows if a child raised by wolves would have the same expectations about stories that someone raised with language would have.  But for those of us immersed in language, it’s pretty innate.  Harry Potter, structurally, isn’t that different than Star Wars.  We expect three acts.  The first to get us immersed in the story; the second to raise the tension; the third to resolve the tension.

There’s a logic in stories, and we get irritated with writers that ignore that logic.  Things happen for reasons in our story world, cause and effect are easily followed.  The language is active and engages our participation by using details that the audience can relate to, language that elicits a response (metaphor and simile both elicit the audience to participate through their imagination).

The best authors play with this all the time.  They surprise the audience with unexpected plot twists, but even those have to be justified by cause and effect.  Betray that and find your audience irritated to the point of putting down what you wrote.  Take the move Memento.  The story unfolds backwards.  You’re just as bewildered as the main character.  But the story does unfold and the pay off when it all shifts into focus is incredibly satisfying.

My point being that you can play with the structure in fiction.  I’m not sure how recommended it would be for technical or proposal writing…

It’s probably best to stick with the essence of story in a professional application:  Effect must be preceded by cause.  An assertion must be backed up with evidence.  Proposed activities have to follow each other in an orderly fashion and they all have to tie back into what the audience can relate to.

So next time your boss tells you to tell them a story and you aren’t entirely sure what that means, start by making all of your thoughts line up like dominoes so that the first inevitably leads to the second, all the way down to a conclusion that feels as inevitable as it does right.

When is it Okay to be Bad?

For those of us who have snobbish tendencies, never.  But it seems more and more common that people who don’t write well are making a whole lot of money off of writing badly.  Yes, I’m looking at you, 50 Shades of Dreadful.

A work of fiction is comprised of five basic elements: premise, character, plot, pacing, and the writing.  (By writing I mean sentence structure, imagery, word choice, etc.)  My thesis is that our patience for opulent writing (see Charles Dickens) is declining.  Instead, we (the collective we) are looking for an intriguing hook (the premise), fast-paced writing, and strong plots.  Consider some of the top sellers:

  • The DaVinci Code
  • 50 Shades
  • Harry Potter

Dan Brown’s writing wasn’t going to win the Nobel Prize for literature.  But the premise was fascinating and the pacing was breakneck.

50 Shades…  the dissection of how bad the writing is has happened elsewhere, as has extensive discussion about what it means that a book about dominant/submissive sex turned into the runaway bestseller that it is/was.  I admit that I picked it up in my local target, arrived on a page of writing that was in the form of an e-mail.  According to a friend, the characterization was poor.  She’s a chronic entrepreneur herself and the idea that a 28 year old would make it to the billions was simply too unrealistic to swallow.  She also said that the sex wasn’t nearly hot enough to make it worth the read.  Another friend says she just has to know what happens next.  So I’m going to go with the pace/plot explanation with an extra dose of sex for extra sales.

And finally, the best of the group…  As much as I love Harry Potter, JK Rowling’s stunning achievement with the story was not in the writing.  It was in the plotting and the characters.  No plot point went wasted in Harry Potter.  Ever.  And that makes her worthy of study, emulation, and outright literary worship.  For use of plotting and character alone, it pains me to lump her in with Dan Brown and whoever the 50 Shades lady is.  Her crimes are not nearly as egregious.  I just find the later books impossible to read…  She takes way too long to get to a point.

So here’s my wordnerd advice: make sure your your fiction respects all five points.

  • Strong Premise
  • Believable characters
  • Plot that hangs together
  • Quick pacing
  • Writing that is interesting, with varied sentence structure, and avoids cliches.

No promises of a book deal out of it, but at least you’ll be able to bask in the superiority of getting it right.

Resistance

The communicator’s job has gotten a lot harder over the past 30 years.  We’re all consuming content faster, with more options than have ever been available before.  The volume is staggering, and information about anything is just a google search away.  The proliferation of the blog has diluted the automatic authority that used to be associated with having written something.  Writers/Editors – communicators – can’t just show up in the same way they used to.  The audience is resistant.  There’s no automatic trust just handed to the voice behind the words on the page.  We have to earn our way past the resistance.

The first and best way to do this is to avoid adding to it.

  • Get your grammar correct.  Anything else reads sloppy and you will have a hard time convincing people of your authority with your literary fly open.
  • Don’t make your audience feel stupid.  Easy ways to make your audience feel stupid are:
    • Overusing jargon
    • Not explaining your acronyms
    • Drawing conclusions without explaining the rationale behind the conclusions
    • Assuming that their baseline of expertise matches your own
    • Using language that is hard to understand – just because you k now $10.oo words doesn’t mean you need to spend them all in the same place
  • Don’t give them a reason to step away from your material.  Reasons to set your writing down include:
    • Factual errors
    • Convoluted sentence structure that requires them to read one sentence repeatedly to untie the knot of clauses, commas, and semicolons
    • Chapter/Section breaks at a place where all of the current questions are answered and you haven’t set up any new questions that the reader must keep reading to answer
    • Hiding your enthusiasm for the material in language that is more about your ideas about how a serious writer should sound than it is about conveying information
    • Never getting to the point
    • Not drawing a thread through your reasoning that the audience can follow
    • Illogical flow of information
    • Leading with an assertion they disagree with instead of setting up your reasoning first and letting them draw their own conclusions…  This falls under the “show, don’t tell” maxim of good writing.
  • Don’t over-manipulate the audience.  One of the reasons why I’m anti-The Notebook is because the whole thing is deliberately designed to make you cry.  It feels exploitative to me and I don’t like it.
  • Don’t be boring.  You can avoid being boring by:
    • Using active voice
    • Varying your sentence structure
    • Sounding like yourself
    • Using metaphors and/or similes to involve your reader’s imagination

Particularly when you are helping other people articulate their ideas, your first job is to identify the things that are going to spark the audience’s resistance and edit/rewrite/reword.  Like a spy in the house of prose, you want to slip past the guards who are waiting for a good excuse to dismiss you, and get inside to plant your idea before you are identified as an interloper.

And really, if you can deliver a written product that doesn’t trigger the audience’s resistance, you’re most of the way there and a great deal further than most of your competition gets.

Metaphor

Too often metaphors and similes get relegated to the poets and dreamers (aka fiction-writers).  This is a shame because they are a wonderful asset for the communicator.  There are two main reasons for this:

1) By using a metaphor or a simile, you are demanding the audience’s participation, but in a subtle way.  Particularly if you avoid the cliches.  When you say “his presentation was as dry as a sheet of drywall,” you’ve encouraged your audience to create that sheet of drywall in their mind.  Now it isn’t just that you’re dumping information, you’re demanding their participation.  They have an investment in what you’re saying because it is pulling on their imagination.
2)  Corporate america seems (in my humble opinion) to be drowning in words that don’t mean what we all think they mean.  You can have a conversation with a client, colleague, or supervisor and think that you’re in agreement only to discover that the project that what they meant when they said they had an exciting challenge and an opportunity for growth for you, what they meant was “this project is underfunded, under-staffed, and has on competent leadership.  If you can pull it off, it will be a miracle.  If not, you’ll be fired.”

Metaphors and similes are hard to wiggle out of because they are concrete.  When you find the right metaphor/simile, there’s no confusion,  no doubt about what you meant when you expressed yourself.  One of my favorite people says “that’s just wrong like a soup sandwich.”  There’s no mistaking what that means.  You can’t back away from that.  It’s concrete, it’s clear, and it stays with you.

And really, what’s the point of communicating if you aren’t finding a way to stick with your audience?

Hypothesis

I think there are many kinds of editors, just not often housed in the same individual…

The first are grammar fanatics.  They’re the ones that can spot every stray comma and direct you to the exact page in both Chicago and APA to justify why that comma should or should not be there.

Next, you have editors who are into the structure of the information.  Does it flow?  How is the audience going to react?  Does one thought follow the next in a way that is convincing?  What happens if we push this sentence to the end of the paragraph?

Finally, there are the content editors.  Does the data back up this assertion.  Are the references correct?  Are the numbers right?

To have a (nearly) bulletproof editing team, you need at least one of each…

Even Word Nerds Get it Wrong Sometimes

I’ve been having trouble with my who’s and my whose.  The English language is such a fickle, idiosyncratic thing.  While the apostrophe-s combination would generally indicate possession, in this case, it is only used to denote a contraction.  

The way I’m going to remember this is by putting who and it in the same category.  If I can generally remember that its is possessive and it’s is a contraction, then surely I can do the same for who…  Right?  

Trade Show Conversations

I was at a trade show last week, talking to a federal employee who, upon learning that I am a word nerd, asked me how he could go about writing better.  “I’ve taken classes,” he said, “and I feel like I’ve got the grammar thing under control, but no matter what I do, my supervisor always has edits to what I write.  How do I write so that my supervisor doesn’t change what I’ve written?”

There are several issues at hand.  First, his supervisor’s edits are distressing because he’s taking them personally.  As previously opined, writing is a vulnerable act and to have someone suggest changes often feels like you’re being told that your thinking isn’t good enough.  It isn’t so much that an edit is a comment on your thinking as it is that, if someone else is going to sign the document, they have to feel like it is their own.  One official I wrote for used the term “moreover” a lot.  It was his verbal tic and so we knew we might as well drop the term in at the outset rather than waiting for him to work it in to the text at some later point.  When you write for someone else to sign, you just have to get comfortable with the idea that they are going to want to make it their own.

Second, we are all served by keeping the 5-paragraph essay structure in mind.  Even if you modify it for longer or shorter documents, it never hurts to tell the audience what you are going to tell them, substantiate your conclusion with evidence, then conclude by telling the audience what you told them and why.  Repetitive, perhaps, but you’re going to have a structured document that makes people think that your synapses are incredibly organized and logical.

Next, I brought up that wonderfully reassuring Earnest Hemingway quote – all first drafts are shit.  Good writing isn’t in the first draft, it is in your commitment to the second, third, fourth and fifth draft.  Good writing is about relentless rewriting.  Setting the piece aside, looking at it again a day later, rewriting, reading as your audience might and editing accordingly.

The fourth consideration I offered was to spend time getting inside your audience’s head.  You write differently for Congress than you do for your mother.  Know your audience and proceed accordingly.

Finally, and I didn’t think to bring this up over the course of our conversation, it might help to relax into it a little bit.  Often when we want to write really well, or we want to leave a distinctive impression with our writing, we try too hard and end up with stilted, unnaturally formal prose.  Let your writing reflect the ease of your face-to-face interactions.  Yes, you’ll cut out the “ums,” “ers,” and “you know’s” that often clutter oral communication, and yes, you’ll use full sentences instead of the fragments we often speak in.  But most of us don’t use $10 words when we talk to our colleagues over the phone, yet we tend to want to use them when we’re writing.  Use the right word, but don’t give in to the urge to impress by using every big word you know.   Have fun and play – they are only words and they can be rearranged endlessly, all until you press “send.”

Tools

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking/talking about what social media can and can’t do for an organization.  The challenge isn’t so much in the technology – Twitter isn’t exactly a difficult medium to interact with.  The challenge is in letting the tool transform how you approach business.  In construction, the automatic nail gun isn’t used the same way as an old-fashioned hammer.  The new tool brings with it a new way of working.  Similarly, using Twitter as an extension of your Marketing 1.0 strategy isn’t going to give you Marketing 2.0 results and frankly, using Twitter (or any other social networking platform) as an extension of your brochure is just silly.

The Web 2.0 tools and environment has radically altered people’s expectations about how they are going to interact with the companies that want their money.  The customer/audience expects a conversation, one in which what they’ve got to say is at least as important to the company as what the company has to say, if not more so.  And if your company won’t listen and respond, your customers will find someone who does.  This is a wonderful revolution for the consumer and a terrifying one for companies that grew up with a feeling of having some control over the market.  The implications of this transformation are everywhere and spill out further than the scope of my personal obsessions.  Anyway, this line of thought isn’t my invention.  Read anything by Hugh McLeod or Seth Godin if you want to go to the source for how the market has changed.

My interest is in the interaction between the tool and the company.   Since all the cool kids are twittering now, many in Senior Leadership think that they need to get on the bandwagon, but they want to do it as a way to extend the brochure.  The terrifying reality is that, for the most part, people don’t care about your highly edited brochure.  They want to know what you think, and they want to talk back to you and have you respond.  They want to know that you’re human, and approachable, and passionate.  They want your company to be touchable and they want to be touched.  The audience wants your vulnerability, your openness, and your authenticity.  How many leaders do you know that are comfortable being seen as vulnerable and transparent?

No wonder social media is so terrifying to leaders the world around.  But unless you (as a company, as a leader) are brave enough to embrace the power that comes from the unvarnished truth and the ability to make decisions based on reality, not just what your underlings think they can get away with telling you without getting fired for for being the bearer of uncomfortable news…  Well, it’s better to be thought a dinosaur than to venture onto Twitter and erase all doubt.

Why does writing matter?

I’m not sure that I am the right person to answer this question because at the core, my feelings about this are about as inarticulate and visceral as someone who has deeply held religious beliefs.  And like a religious argument, it probably comes down to a question of values, emotions, and faith.  Again, like a religious argument, it has no meaning if we can’t come to an agreement about basic priorities and a common understanding of the world.

Which is to say that I’m not sure I’ll convince anyone of anything.  Perhaps better to try to articulate why writing matters to me.

As previously discussed, there has been a trendy consensus about our ancestors and the assumption that they sat around the roasting mastodon telling each other tales.  About what, we can only imagine.  But lacking Standard Operating Procedures and text books, I imagine that some of the content included the best places to find the stone for arrow-making, how to identify the most vulnerable flesh on the prey de jour, and all the reasons why your ancestors were superior to the ancestors of the guy at that other fire over there.   They were limited by proximity and memory.  We have the written word.

Perhaps Harry Potter’s wand doesn’t exist in the real world, but there is real power in imagination.  And throwing yourself at the task of sparking that imagination, sneaking past the barrier of skin to get inside someone else’s body and take them on a journey.  Is there anything harder?  Is there anything more fascinating?   Anything more powerful and therefore potentially dangerous?  This is magic, or at least as close as we get.  Creating a spell with the right words, the chosen cadence, the swell of action balanced with emotion.  Inhabiting another world in your mind and giving that world to someone else.

Anyone can destroy with words.  You don’t have to be particularly good to spread fear and hatred.  But to create comfort where there is none?  To reach out to people who you will never meet and, even briefly, let them know that they are not alone, that there is beauty in the world, to take their hand and say “come with me”…  How could that be anything less than one of the most amazing gifts ever?

Going back to Religion…  How many people have made it through the day with the voice of the Psalmist speaking to them “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”?  That idea, that voice is over 2,000 years old.   And it still gives me goose bumps today.  Not out of any particular religious feeling, but from the sheer power of the words.

Peter S. Beagle has never met me.  He may know vaguely that I exist, but only because he sent me a book a long time ago.  Before I was even born, Mr. Beagle had written a story called The Last Unicorn.  He didn’t write it with me in mind, he didn’t know that I’d be a thirteen year old in 1991 facing a very difficult day and that his words would serve as the thread that I’d follow out of the dark.  He didn’t write the book with a mind to saving me.  But save me he did.

The ability to take what you think and put it down on the page, not in a format that speaks only to you, but with the intention of extending that comfort and encouragement to a stranger you can’t possibly even begin to see…  It is the best gift I know how to give.

And since one shouldn’t give sloppy, half-assed gifts, it is incumbent on you to do it right – both in motivation and in using the tools of the craft to the very best of your ability.  Which is why writing matters.

Of course I’ve used fiction heavily here, but it applies equally across the spectrum of written products.  A well written memo is heard in the head of the reader just as a short story or a poem is.  The demands on the Author are the same.