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The New Editorial Process: When Good Habits Become Bad

Nov 26, 2007
Editors are funny people. They really are. Not so much in the form of laughter funny as in the way they view the world and the language used to describe it. Pity the poor novice writer who brings a piece before an editor that has violated the rules of the AP Stylebook. That is a sin tantamount to blasphemy. Typically, the editor's response starts with the twitching of an eye as the face takes on a deep red color. This is usually followed by a glassy-eyed stare that one would expect to see in the recipient of a ten-thousand cc shot of Novocain. Voice low and trembling, he will then announce the writer's transgressions in the form of broken Commandments:

"Thou shalt not use a passive voice,"

"Thou shalt not place a preposition at the Alpha or Omega; the beginning or the end,"

"Thou shalt honor the rules of the Inverted News Pyramid in all you write,"

"Thou shalt not place a comma before a conjunction,"

"Thou shalt not start a sentence with a numeral, spell it out and spell out numbers less than ten as well."

The list goes on and on and the editor seems to know them all by heart. The young writer will usually tuck his tail between his legs and slither off to make corrections in hopes of gaining forgiveness and approval. But just for the sake of argument, let's assume for a moment that the editor may be wrong in some of his rulings ( if you are an editor and reading this, now would be good time to pour yourself a stiff one and hear me out ).

There is a new school of thought emerging in the world of the editorial process. It is the school of thought that encompasses writing content for the Web; including search engine optimization -- SEO. Most of the basic rules of good grammar and writing are still in play. There are, however, great deviations in certain aspects of content written strictly for use online as opposed to copy for print.

Passive Voice: Passive voice should be avoided when possible because it reads slow and creates confusion. Active voice allows the reader to run through the work without stumbling. It assists in the flow. This is very important when writing for the Web because it takes about 20% longer to read from a screen than it does from a printed page. You can learn more about passive/active voice here, if you need to brush up a bit. This rule will stay in effect for the most part when writing for the Web. There are exceptions, however:

Passive voice can and should be used, at times, to facilitate getting important keywords at the front of headings, blurbs and lead sentences. Readers scan web content differently than they do printed copy. When reading printed copy, people scan headlines and the first several paragraphs in hopes of picking up the "information scent." Web content is scanned in an "F" pattern; the first two or three words of the title, subtitle and subject lines of the leading paragraphs. The search is for keywords that give off the "information scent" for the topic the reader is looking for. If they don't find these keywords, they lose the information trail and you lose the reader.

Search engine spiders, which crawl across your work online, also look for keywords in titles, subtitles and the subject lines of paragraphs first before moving on to "read" the body of content. This plays a crucial role in how, and for what keywords, your piece is indexed.

Keeping this in mind, there are times when the passive voice would be preferable to the active voice in the structure of your piece.

Structure: While the inverted news pyramid is the preferred method of structure for print copy, it simply does not play well for web content in most cases. It places the bulk of information contained in the work at the top of the piece with less important details and facts filtering in to make up the body.

Internet users have most likely arrived at your page via a search criterion they have established. When they get to your page, they typically are not going to read the first paragraph. Instead they will perform the "F" scan of the first several words of the title and initial paragraphs trying to pick up the "information scent" that brought them there. If they find the trail, then they will stay and begin reading the piece. If they lose the trail, then they will be gone off to other places to try to pick it up again.

Numbers/Numerals: Editors of the traditional ilk are prone to have writers shot at sunrise for starting sentences with a number; worse still, using a numeral there instead. Almost as bad is the failure to spell out numbers less than 10 anywhere in the text. All of this has changed to some degree when writing web content.

It is now acceptable, in some cases preferable, to start titles or sentences with a number/numeral. It lets the reader know at a glance what they are in for: "5 Ways to," 7 Things You Can," or "3 Best Sources of." It also appears that the search engines love them, too.

Readers do not usually count a numeral as a word when scanning and this extends the amount of keywords read in titles and subject lines from 2-3 to 3-4 (two-three to three-four). Numerals stand out conspicuously in a body of text, too and may help serve as an attention grabber.

This post should serve as a starting point for your own "information trail" to get you started on the hunt for other things you need to know. As time passes and writing for the Internet evolves, you will be served well by staying abreast of the current trends and best practices to use in your writing. I hope this piece piqued your interest and curiosity.
About the Author
Brad McGovern is the Marketing Manager at Article Marketer, and offers advice and news of note to article marketers. Watch for more from Brad in the coming days!
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