Crawford Kilian, Writing for the Web, 4th ed., Self-Counsel Press: Bellingham, WA, 2009.

I just finished reading Kilian’s Webwriting guide. I would enjoy teaching English from this text. Kilian does a good job of putting communication into our clickety-quick context.

Kilian maintains a good Webwriting blog with lots of useful resources. Here’s my summary of key points and resources from the text:

  1. The Interactive/Constructivist Communication Model: When you write online, you need to think beyond the standard instrumentalist model of communication. That model says your sender transmits a message to a receiver, with the intent of making the receiver do something. Kilian says nuts to that: online, you’re having a conversation. Sender and receiver constantly change roles, interacting to jointly construct message and meaning. Corporate writers often have a hard time getting this (see Chapter 6).
  2. 25% Slower: that’s the oft-quoted stat from Jakob Nielsen on how much more slowly we read online. Paper has better resolution than computer screens. Our screens are getting sharper, but even on the iPad and Kindle, Nielsen found reading speeds 6% to 10% slower than in printed books. Write acordingly online: keep it short (Kilian says 100 words max!).
  3. Orientation, Information, Action: These three principles should guide all writing. Online, first orient your readers: make it clear to them where they are and how to get around your site. Inform them: be clear and correct (spell things right!). Then direct them toward action, whether it’s leaving a comment, contacting Congress, donating money….
  4. Advocacy and Marketing: Chapter 8 concisely summarizes tips for persuasive writing. The section on propaganda types, myths, and devices could make nice bite-size handouts and classroom activities.

Some online style guides cited:


Roddenberry had the wisdom to realize that ‘advanced’ didn’t mean ‘more complicated.’ He actually wanted things to be much simpler. So we took that to mean that it was cleaner, better user interfaces, fewer buttons, fewer things to learn how to operate.

—Michael Okuda, Star Trek production designer, in Chris Foreman, “How Star Trek Artists Imagined the iPad… 23 Years Ago,” 2010.08.09

James Bond, backseat driver:

Apple iPhone Apps Store: Remote Control

Conducer culture: CafePressEtsyImageKind

You are here: WordPress

Harvard’s Dr. Mankiw highlights a spectacular presentation on the wealth and health of nations by Dr. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor who studies global health and schools us all in how to use visual aids:

So how’s your slideshow coming along?

Rosling’s presentation epitomizes the proper use of visual aids. He condenses an enormous amount of data into a clear, memorable visual format. He doesn’t let the visual do all the work for him. He explains the visual format. He interacts with the graphics. And even amidst a really engaging and dynamic visual presentation, he keeps our attention with his own voice and enthusiasm. (A cool Swedish accent also helps. :-) )

You may not have the time, tools, or tech team available to put together a four-minute animation for your next speech. (Actually, Dr. Rosling may be able to get you the tools on his Gapminder website.) But even if you’re just working with a marker and a flip chart, you can take lessons from Rosling on clear, engaging visual aids.

Intrepid English instructor Samantha Walder is teaching her journalism students at Deuel High School in Clear Lake the joys of blogging. Even more daringly, she’s inviting me to come to talk to them about blogging. On November 9, I’ll talk a roomful of eager young journalists about what makes this South Dakota blogger tick.

As I prepare for the talk, I’ll link a few articles here that Mrs. Walder and her journalism students (and the rest of you!) might find interesting. If nothing else, I’ll use this page as an example of using hyperlinks and citing sources!

  1. Robert Wright, “Privacy vs. Profits,” New York Times: Opinionator, 2010.10.19. Wright mentions that in 1996, he made $2000 per monthly column for Slate. Now such fees have dwindled, due to the deluge of online content and the inability to reach the same big audience chunks with advertising. It’s hard to be heard when everyone has a megaphone; it’s even harder to make money through advertising (and ads pay the bills, journalists!).
  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger, “Blogging as Invitation to Participate,” IgniteSD talk, Brookings, SD, 2010.04.21. If a whole class period of me is too much, try this five-minute dose.
  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger, “Pipeline Through the Heartland: TransCanada on the Farm,” Madville Times, 2009.09.04. Best original online journalism I’ve done. This post tells the story of farmers Mike and Sue Sibson and their experience with the TransCanada Keystone oil pipeline.
  4. The Dakota Day. Produced by Sam Hurst and based in Rapid City, The Dakota Day bridges the news magazine and blog genres. Hurst, a freelance journalist, writes articles that are much more like feature essays in Harper’s than the usual quick-shot blog post.
  5. Academic uses of blogs: I’ve used blog technology for teaching parliamentary procedure in speech class, distributing review materials for spreadsheet class, organizing notes for a future research project on the South Dakota blogosphere, and sharing articles for an upper-level business/IT class.

New research from Germany finds kids aren’t the Web wizards we think they are. They’re using the Internet for the same things that have fired kids up for decades: interacting with peers, finding entertainment, and goofing off. But all this fancy Web 2.0 collaborative creation we bloggers get all excited about?

Odd as it may seem, the first generation that cannot imagine life without the Internet doesn’t actually consider the medium particularly important, and indeed shuns some of the latest web technologies. Only 3 percent of young people keep their own blog, and no more than 2 percent regularly contribute to Wikipedia or other comparable open source projects.

Similarly, most young people in Germany ignore social bookmarking websites like Delicious and photo-sharing portals such as Flickr and Picasa. Apparently the netizens of the future couldn’t care less about the collaborative delights of Web 2.0 [Manfred Dworschak, “The Internet Generation Prefers the Real World,” Spiegel Online International, 2010.08.06].

Teachers, take note: this study finds “no evidence whatsoever that the Internet is the dominating influence in the lives of young people.” If anyone tells you the Internet has made kids so different that we can only reach them with high-tech hypermedia, ask them to show you some empirical studies to back their claims. Dworschak says they’ll be looking for quite some time: aside from a few outlying wunderkinder, today’s kids aren’t so different from yesterday’s.

Teachers, don’t let the media fool you into thinking the kids are experts. They may be pretty good at clicking around to find their friends and new music videos, but they still need a big dose of instruction in information literacy so they can use the Internet productively.

A good speech requires good grammar and word economy. Good grammar shows you paid attention in school and know how to use the language properly. Word economy shows you’ve thought about and revised your text so as not to waste even a second of your listeners’ valuable time.

One small step toward better grammar and word economy is the elimination of the “By…, it…” construction. Today’s example comes from this news article:

By moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks, it‘ll open up 20 acres of land for the redevelopment of downtown.

The grammatical problem: what is it? The subject of this sentence, represented by the pronoun it, will apparently “move thousands of feet of railroad tracks” and thus be able to “open up 20 acres of land.” But nowhere are we told who it is. Without knowing what it is, the initial prepositional/gerund phrase doesn’t have a clear subject with which to connect. This sentence stumbles into the room like a pair of untied shoes.

The speaker isn’t specifically referring to an entity that will do both actions. The speaker is saying that the first action will result in the second action. If anything, it represents “moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks.” In that case, the speaker is stacking a pronoun and an antecedent on top of each other, which in English is just flat bad (akin to saying “John he went to the store” or “Mary she don’t study grammar much”).

The proper form saves words:

Moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks will open up 20 acres of land for the redevelopment of downtown.

Now if you really, really wanted to, you could name the agent of action:

The city public works department will open up 20 acres of land for the redevelopment of downtown by moving thousands of feet of railroad tracks.

There’s nothing wrong with that wording, but the addition seems to change the speaker’s intent, just a little. The first proper version emphasizes the action and result; the second version gives the actor some attention. Both beat the original on grammar by getting rid of the detached prepositional phrase and the vague pronoun.

Hey, speech students! Here’s your chance to critique your instructor. (Well, actually, you had a chance with the course survey; here’s another one!) I gave the first talk at the inaugural IgniteSD event in Brookings on April 21. You could look at it as 60-some people coming to a diner to hear a bunch of visual aid speeches. You could also look at it as 60-some people spending a spring evening giving a darn about what their neighbors have to say.

Here’s my Ignite talk on blogging:

The video doesn’t capture all of the slide show. The Ignite format requires each speaker to put together a sequence of 20 slides, each timed to display for 15 seconds. That’s 5 minutes on the dot, no more, no less. To keep my main points in time with my slides, I had to practice more than usual and fight my urge to go off on tangents. I like the discipline of the format, although it does restrict a speaker’s ability to adjust to the audience — to hold for laughs, to elaborate on ideas the audience seems puzzled by, or even to stop and take questions. But at five minutes a pop, that just means you concentrate on interacting with the listeners before and after the talk.

My critique notes:

  1. Check position on stage: I started standing right in front of my slides! I’m used to my classroom, where the projector is on the ceiling and I can move freely without blocking the beam. At IgniteSD1, the projector was on a table, and I didn’t catch it right away because the beam was just below my eyes, at my chin. Eventually I realized what a shadow I was casting and moved stage left.
  2. Some enunciation gets mushy — I notice early on the word pajama-clad disappears. Part of this may be audio pickup from the camera mic, but no excuses: you should always spit your words with the intention of making your voice clear to the weakest microphone or hearing aid in the house.

Ignite is a lot of fun, for speakers and listeners. Keep an eye out for an event in your town!

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