Book Review: “Letting Go of the Words” is Worth Holding On To

"Letting Go of the Words," by Janice (Ginny) RedishI bought “Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works” by Janice (Ginny) Redish because of the excellent word-of-mouth recommendations I saw on the Web. As a writer, I was familiar with its basic premise. Writers of any sort are admonished to “murder their darlings,” or, in other words, to “let go of the words.”

Okay, so I’m a technical writer by day, and a copywriter by night. Can Ginny help me say what needs to be said and then shut up before I get boring? Let’s look at the topics in the book that stood out the most to me.

I’ll say this up front. I read the introduction to Yeah, I’m one of those people who reads introductions, forwards, and footnotes. I’m a voracious reader and I like to know where the author’s head is at. I want to know what they’re thinking and if my purchase was worthwhile. I enjoyed the introduction because she addresses two of my interests. When Ginny discusses those who may benefit from her book, Copywriter and Technical Writer are right at the top.

“What’s the Book Like?”

There is actually a section in the Introduction called “What’s the book like?” section. This is incredibly useful in figuring out the best way to use the book. This section should be legally required in every single reference book.

Authors of reference books seem to want you to read their works in linear fashion, but it never works out that way for me. When Ginny says, “You can jump around in the book,” it’s like she knows how I’m going to use “Letting Go of the Words” and she’s okay with it. It is great to have the nod to do something I intend to do anyway.

Content is Conversation

Ginny says your content is a conversation. I had to stop and think about it, but that makes sense. When you visit a website, you have questions in mind and you’re looking for quick answers because you’re short on time (as we all are). Each time your website is used by a visitor, that’s a Q&A session, hence, a conversation.

Realizing that content is conversation is realizing that the way we were taught to write is all wrong for the web and most other venues. I was taught to (1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, (2) tell them, and then (3) tell them what you told them. If I didn’t write in the specified convoluted fashion, I was marked down for it. So that’s how I wrote my papers and theses.

That’s how I learned to write, but that’s *academic* writing, not writing in the real world, which is done to relay information. Newspaper writing, recipes, magazine articles, and websites are there to relay information quickly and cleanly in as few words as possible.

Don’t use 10 words what you could say using just five words. Why? People rarely read now. They skim. Fast. You need to tell them what they need to know just as fast or your readers will lose interest. Murder your darlings. Cut your words. Let go of the words. Get it? It’s easy once you know how.

computer-tablet-phoneWeb Equals Phone

Ginny ties the concept of content as conversation to another argument that makes lots of sense: the web is more like your phone than it is a file cabinet. “File cabinets house documents,” Ginny says. “We use phones to converse.” That sounds about right. Some poorly run sites still make you rummage around until you find what you need. But seriously, who is going to do that? Do you have time for that nonsense in 2014? I sure don’t. You have questions and you want answers. And you want answers fast.

We turn to the web looking for answers. And yet, we don’t read comprehensively. I skim until I find the answer I need, then I scram. So why don’t people read? Ginny spells it out for us.

  • People don’t read anymore because because we’re too busy (check!).
  • We find stuff that isn’t relevant to what we need (double check!).
  • We are on the business end of a firehose of information every waking minute (ding ding ding!).

Writing well means having successful conversations where visitors can grab what they came for and then run along.

We all know that people browse the web to find information. They aren’t looking for Word or PDF documents. They are looking for answers to questions. They want small, manageable pieces. Bite-sized conversations. Think in terms of “information” instead of “document.”

Guiding Online Conversations

Being a good conversationalist is not easy, online even less so. To help us have successful conversations with website visitors, Ginny shares seven guidelines:

  1. Give people only *they* need (not what you want to give them)
  2. Cut! Cut! Cut! And keep cutting.
  3. Think “bite, snack, meal.”
  4. Start with your key message.
  5. Layer information.
  6. Break down walls of words.
  7. Plan to share and engage through social media.

She then goes on to explain her points in detail with examples and case studies. For an information nerd like me, this is heaven!

Tuning Up Your Sentences

But Ginny is just getting started. More goodies are found in the chapter on “Tuning Up Your Sentences.” She makes an excellent point in saying, “Writing conversationally is not ‘dumbing down.’”

You see, management may fear that you’re going to turn official support documents into something that looks like the average post on Facebook or Twitter. Quite the contrary. When you write clearly with short sentences and short words, as Ginny says, “you are respecting your busy site visitors’ time.”

I’ve already encountered and parried the “dumbing down” argument in the office. For some reason, people seem to think that documentation should sound like your high school English teacher droning on in endless lecture mode. Or even like a fire-and-brimstone preacher screaming and thundering at you about the evils of dangling prepositions, misplaced modifiers, and so forth.

I countered that I want my documentation to sound like your friendly neighborhood computer nerd. Someone you call when you’ve screwed up (again). No lecturing. No finger-pointing. No gentle scolding. Just information, delivered in a plain and simple format.

Okay, So how DO I tune up my sentences? What if I have forgotten how? Ginny comes to the rescue with 10 guidelines on hammering your sentences into shape:

  1. Talk *to* your site visitors — use “you.”
  2. Use “I” and “we.”
  3. Write in the active voice (most of the time).
  4. Write short, simple sentences.
  5. Cut unnecessary words.
  6. Give extra information in its own place.
  7. Keep paragraphs short.
  8. Start with the context.
  9. Put the action in the verb.
  10. Use your site visitors’ words.

I confess, I was a bit confused with items 8 and 10. Ginny once again comes to the rescue with detailed explanations and case studies. The fog soon lifted for me.  If you’re reading this book and you get confused, don’t forget to read through all the material.

“Key Messages”

I don’t know about you, but it takes me at least two and more likely three go-rounds in a book before the ideas therein really start to sink in. Ginny has thoughtfully included a “key messages” summary section at the end of every chapter. So if you need to cut to the chase, or you simply have to refresh your memory, all you really have to do to get the gist of any chapter is to head for this section. Extremely handy.

“Let’s Continue to Converse”

This is another section of the introduction. Just because you bought her book doesn’t mean Ginny is finished with you. Quite the contrary. Ginny invites you to her blog, the book’s website, and her Twitter feed. I’m on all three. This is great for working communicators who want to stay in touch.

Conclusion

The book is brimming with advanced knowledge for perfecting written communication in our mobile digital age. Happily, Ginny also includes more basic wisdom, such as outlining first and writing later, and running the spell checker (but not relying on it too much).

I’m an enthusiastic fan. If you write anything at all (you send emails, don’t you?), you need to grab a copy of “Letting Go of the Words” and keep it close at hand. I have stuck Post-It notes in mine for reference and let my highlighter run rampant. This book has joined my writer’s bookshelf as a valued aid I refer to every day.

 

Title: Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content That Works
Author: Janice (Ginny) Redish
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Morgan Kaufmann; 2 edition (August 28, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0123859301
ISBN-13: 978-0123859303

Craig Cardimon

Craig Cardimon wears many hats and loves all of them -- technical communicator, content curator, and freelance copywriter. In his not-so-copious spare time, he reads, writes, runs on the local trail, and watches way too much "retro" TV.

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