On the Oxford comma

When you write a list of three or more items, unless you display them as a bulleted or numbered list, you conventionally separate the items with either a comma or the word ‘and’ (or sometimes ‘or’). You may choose to separate the last two items in the list with just the word ‘and’, or with a comma followed by ‘and’:

  • Her shirt was red, green and blue.
  • Her shirt was red, green, and blue.

If you choose the second option, you’re using the Oxford comma, also called the serial comma. This little punctuation mark arouses surprisingly strong emotions: many people will be happy to tell you that omitting the Oxford comma is simply wrong. Others will assert it is both unnecessary and ugly.

Helping people find you

If your content is on the web, but the people who need it can’t find it, it might as well not exist.

Search engines work by analysing pages, working out what they are about, and matching them to search requests. Whether you’re a business owner, a writer, or an editor, you want to make it as easy as possible for the search engine to do this accurately.

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is the art of helping potential readers find your content.

I will assume that your goal is to attract readers who actually want what your site has to offer – whether products, services or information. There are also techniques for drawing people to your site who aren’t looking for what you offer, but who might be persuaded to want it: these are sometimes described as ‘black hat’ SEO.

Managing web content

In my introduction to writing for the web, I identified three challenges for web writers and editors:

  • impatient users
  • missing context
  • content management.

If you Google ‘content management’ you will find plenty of advice about selecting content management software. A large site may indeed need this; most can get away with a spreadsheet or small database.

Even if a site doesn’t need content management software, it does need a content manager (whatever their title). Someone needs to take responsibility for ensuring that content standards, policies and procedures exist and are followed. In an ideal world, every site would have a managing editor with the skills, knowledge and – perhaps most important – the clout to undertake this role.

We don’t live in that ideal world, but if you are creating or editing content for a new or redeveloped site, you have an opportunity to establish the standards, policies and procedures that person will need. (Of course, a site owner who has hired an editor can already be counted among the enlightened few who value their content!)

Creating connections

When Vannevar Bush wrote ‘As we may think Link to other site - opens in new tab‘ in 1945, the idea of  machine-made links between pieces of information to create a trail of related information was innovative. Today, hyperlinks , or just ‘links’ underpin our use of the web, whether for entertainment, for work or for everyday tasks like paying bills.

Links create connections

A link connects one image or piece of text with another part of the same web page, a page somewhere else on the same site, or a file somewhere else on the web.

Links to other sites can be risky, as you have no way of knowing when the other site is rebuilt: the domain name could be sold and the content completely replaced, so site maintenance must include a regular program of checking all external links. It is good practice to let people know if they’re going to leave your site, perhaps with a small icon like this one Link to other site - opens in new tab.

Avoid ‘click here’ (and ‘more …’)! If it looks like a hyperlink, anyone who has been using the web for more than five minutes knows they will need to click to activate it. Ideally, every link should make sense out of context, and be unique on the page: this means that when someone using a screen reader chooses a list of the links on a page, each of them makes sense.

Writing – and editing – with style

Whenever you write, you’re making style decisions.

Sometimes they’re big decisions, which affect a whole book or website: will I use US spellings or Australian ones? Sometimes they’re small ones: is haute cuisine a foreign term to be italicised, or has it become an English one? Sometimes they’re made for you – if you’re writing a thesis, your university or department is likely to specify the referencing system you are to use.

If you want to be consistent – and consistency makes life easier for your readers, so you probably do – you’ll find an editorial style sheet useful.

Access all areas

It is nearly two decades since the first version of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 1.0) were published. And yet major companies are still failing to take the steps required to make their websites accessible to people with disabilities, and are still being sued. Minh Vu and Susan Ryan’s January 2018 article Link to other site - opens in new tab lists a number of lawsuits on their way through the US courts. Few Australian cases get as far as the courts: Gesele Mesnages suit against Coles Link to other site - opens in new tab made it to the Federal court but was settled in 2014.

But my customers aren’t disabled…

Website accessibility isn’t just about social justice or avoiding law suits; designing with accessibility in mind provides benefits for all your clients.

In Australia, perhaps the most high-profile case to examine web accessibility remains McGuire v SOCOG Link to other site - opens in new tab. In this landmark case, SOCOG (the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games) was ordered to pay Bruce McGuire (a blind man who uses a screen reader to access the web) $20,000 compensation for the fact that their website had been constructed in a way that made it impossible for him to use certain features. Despite this cautionary tale, it is tempting for small-to-medium-sized businesses to ask whether the ‘extra’ effort is worthwhile to limit the fairly low risk of a lawsuit.

But how much extra effort is genuinely required to create an accessible website, and who actually benefits?

Do-it-yourself discontent

In her 2006 book, Talk to the Hand Link to other site - opens in new tab, Lynne Truss identifies her discontents with twenty-first century manners. One of these is ‘why am I doing this?’. While she acknowledges that ‘do it yourself’ was ‘a refreshing and liberating concept in its day’ it is now, she asserts, ‘completely out of hand.’ Her complaint is built around two areas of self-service: wading through ‘self-service’ menus on the telephone and using the internet. In both cases, she objected to the ‘unacceptable transfer of effort in modern life … Why do these people never put themselves in my shoes? … Fuming resentment is the result.’

While Ms Truss may express herself more forcefully and more publicly than most of your customers, she is not alone in her resentment. And whether the purpose of your site is to sell a product or promote a cause, resentful visitors aren’t going to help. So why don’t you put yourself in the shoes of the people who visit your site?

I love being able to pay my bills in ten minutes online, rather than standing in a series of queues for half an hour or more, but because this is a chore I need to undertake regularly, it’s worth the effort to learn the layout and logic of my bank’s website. For something I only need to do occasionally, I do not want to invest a significant amount of my time learning to do it your way.

What an editor does

Editing is a process in which an author’s text or other material is corrected, reorganised, condensed, expanded or modified to create a product which meets the needs of both author and audience. An editor’s level of intervention may range from the very lightest touch – identifying spelling and grammatical mistakes – to completely rewriting and reorganising the whole work.

Levels of editing

The range of editing work is often divided into three stages or levels: