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.

Nancy White offers a list of ten articles on the topic, with five arguing for its use, and five against. A brief search will reveal many, many more.

One argument in favour of this comma points to ‘ambiguous’ sentences like the following, taken from Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style:

  • Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
  • Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.

Another example triggered headlines around the world when a Texas schoolteacher turned it into a cartoon to illustrate the distinction between its meanings with and without the final comma.

I have two problems with all these examples:

  • They are carefully constructed to appear ambiguous.
  • While they are funny and clever, they don’t really demonstrate ‘why the Oxford comma is important’. Each sentence could be clarified in many other ways.

Thanks to the writer’s parents are frequently used as examples. But if I wanted to thank and name my parents, I could simply write:

I’d like to thank my parents: Max and Betty.

or

I’d like to thank Max and Betty, my parents.

If I wanted to thank my parents and two other people, I could write:

I’d like to thank Max, Betty and my parents.

Even if the Oxford comma is the best way to resolve ambiguity in a few, carefully constructed sentences, does that mean it should be used all the time? What’s more, in some cases the Oxford comma doesn’t remove ambiguity: Joe Kessler points out that if the Texas schoolteacher’s strippers are replaced by a single stripper, the sentence with the Oxford comma is the ambiguous one.

I prefer to avoid the Oxford comma. The trend in recent years has been towards reduced punctuation, so why use this comma anywhere it’s not really necessary? Since I write and edit primarily for the web, my lists are in any event more likely to be set off with bullets than run on within a paragraph, so the issue rarely arises for me.

In the end, your decision to use the Oxford comma, omit it, or use it only where required for clarity (as recommended by the Australian Style Manual) is a question of style, not substance.

So make your decision and record it on your editorial style sheet.

Then relax!

Structural editing, copy editing and proofreading

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:

Structural editing

A structural edit involves the editor reviewing the work as a whole:

  • Does it flow naturally and logically from start to finish?
  • Is there too much (or enough) repetition?
  • Is anything missing?
  • Do headings provide clear signposts to the content which follows them?

A structural edit of website content should also consider how it fits into the site as a whole. Editing a suite of content for a site means thinking about its information architecture: how does it fit together and how will readers make their way through it?

Copy editing

Ideally, a copy edit is done on a piece of work which is structurally sound. It includes:

  • checking spelling, grammar and punctuation
  • applying consistent style choices, such as e-mail or email, website or web site
  • ensuring that all references are accurate and clear.

On the web, a copy editor may also be the appropriate person to check:

  • each page has appropriate metadata
  • content is attractive to search engines
  • the alt text for images is appropriate
  • the wording and placement of hyperlinks provides clear guidance to the reader.

If I’m carrying out both structural and copy editing tasks, I may switch from one to the other so that spelling errors don’t distract me when I’m focussed on the structure of the piece. Proofreading, however, must always be the final quality check.

Proofreading

The term ‘proofread’ is often misused to mean a light copyedit, but it is traditionally that stage in the publishing process when a proofreader checks the proof – copy which is in its final form, ready to print – to ensure that all corrections from the editor or author have been incorporated into the final work. Proofreading should always be the last step before a document is printed or published.

Ideally, web proofreading is done in a preview environment, before content is moved live. However, not all content management systems allow for this, so it is sometimes done immediately after publishing. In this case, it’s important that corrections can be made quickly.

Proofreading a website includes checking that:

  • previous changes have been incorporated
  • no new errors have been introduced
  • all hyperlinks work correctly.

Establish a shared understanding

There are other terms for different levels of editing – some people refer to developmental, style and verification edits – but what’s important is that both the client and editor have a shared understanding of what is needed, and what is to be done.

Writing for the web: Hyperlinks

Hyperlinks create connections

Hyperlinks connect 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. If it isn’t clear where a link is supposed to go, there’s something wrong with the link: on most sites, a visitor should not be surprised by the result of clicking on a link.

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: sometimes a small icon is used for this.

Text hyperlinks should rarely be more than five or six words long – button text is generally only one or two words. Avoid ‘clever’ names for programs or products unless your audience is already familiar with them. Ginny Redish gives the example of a link ‘Children’s Compass’ on the British Museum’s site which led to online tours. (The site has been redesigned and this link no longer exists.)

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.

Linking to download files

When you link to something other than an HTML file, or a point within an HTML file, the file must be downloaded to the user’s computer. It may appear within the existing browser window, within a new browser window, or within its own application (PDF files may appear within the browser or within an Acrobat Reader window).

Before including a download file, consider what advantages it has over HTML. PDF is often used where a particular format needs to be preserved (e.g. for some forms). If you provide content in an HTML page and also offer a second copy in another format, you need to ensure that both are updated together.

Within the link to a download file, include the file type and size, so that users can be confident that they have the right software to read it and that it isn’t likely to crash their system (e.g. download A guide to writing hyperlinks [PDF, 3MB]).

Where to place your link

A link is an invitation to go somewhere else. Each time you add a hyperlink, consider whether it would be better placed within the flow of text or at the end of a document: on the one hand in-text links are immediate and their context is clear; on the other they may break up visitors’ ‘flow’.

The test is to put yourself in a reader’s shoes, thinking of the task they’ve come to your site to complete. Will the link move them forward or distract them? There is no one right answer.

Further reading

Redish, Janice (2007) Letting go of the words: writing web content that works. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Writing for the web: Managing content

Why does content need managing?

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

  • impatient users
  • missing context
  • content management.

In this article, I’ll address the third of these: 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 enforced. 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 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!)

Getting started

Before you can start writing or editing anything, you need to know what the site is for. Many websites exist because someone told the owner they needed one. Every piece of content on a website should help a visitor complete a task, or support a key business objective. So you need to know what the objectives of the business are, and what tasks a visitor is likely to want to complete.

Once you have documented that, you can start on the content inventory. This means identifying every piece of content on the site and recording information about it. At the very least, you need to know:

  • what’s on the site (or what should be)
  • why it’s there (what visitor task or business objective it supports)
  • when it was last reviewed
  • when it should be removed.

You can record additional details if you wish – file type, word count, location, file name, language, an assessment of quality, metadata and more – but these first four are essential.

Establishing style

Most editors would create a style sheet for virtually every editing job. Mention style sheets in the context of a website, and many people will assume that you’re referring to the visual design of the site, not the language.

Nevertheless, an editorial style sheet is an important tool for maintaining the quality of a website’s content. It is arguably more important in web writing than in other forms of publishing because content is likely to be developed and updated over time by a variety of writers and editors. Without a comprehensive style sheet, each person will make the decisions that seem best at the time, and they won’t all be the same.

It is also worthwhile including guidelines about the voice and tone to be used, the approach you will take to writing hyperlinks, and tips on web writing.

Finding content

When you write or edit content for a website, it’s important to know how visitors are going to find it. Menu structures and labels should be flexible enough to allow for the addition of new content.

Don’t be too concerned with optimal Google page ranks, but do think about the search terms your readers are likely to use. If your potential customers want to know about shoes, don’t refer to your products as footwear.

Establishing workflows

Every site needs a well-documented process by which content is developed, approved, published, reviewed, updated and eventually removed from the site.

This document must specify who’s responsible for making sure that the process is followed – ideally, this is part of the site’s managing editor’s role.

Maintaining content

On most websites, visitors are looking for current information: what’s the price of that fridge today? If a site has information about past events, that information must be separated from current and future events, and clearly labelled. That means that content management requires a review plan – every piece of content must be reviewed and updated regularly (how regularly depends on the site and the individual piece of content).

Where next?

For more on managing content, read:

  • Halvorsen, K (2010) Content strategy for the web
  • Sheffield, R (2008) The web content strategist’s bible: A complete guide to a new and lucrative career for writers of all kinds

Writing for the web: Introduction

What is writing for the web, and how does it differ from writing for other media?

Three of the key challenges for web writers and editors are:

  • impatient users
  • a lack of context
  • the need to manage your content.

Users are impatient

Website visitors are busy, impatient, multi-taskers. They may also be busy and impatient when they’re using other media, but the web seems to magnify these qualities.

They’ve come to your website to find out something or to do something: they want to do it quickly and get on to the next thing on their schedule. There is a good chance that if you don’t have what they want, someone else does: if you do have it, you need to make sure they can find it, understand it, and act on it, quickly.

They will scan a page for their key words: the words they associate with the task, not necessarily the ones you (or your organisation) use. If the words are there, they’ll read a bit more – if not, they’ll try somewhere else.

Context is missing

When you read a book, you are dealing with a physical object. You can see how large it is, and how the sections relate to each other. You can (usually) identify its author, editor, publisher, publication date – all of which help you to assess how trustworthy it is. Thanks to the skill of the designer and other members of the publishing team, you can see how each piece of information you’re looking at relates to the rest of the book.

On the web, your readers may have bypassed your home page and come directly from Google, from Facebook or via a Twitter feed. You (and the site designer) need to make sure that they can answer the following questions:

  • Where am I (what site am I on, and where am I within this site)?
  • What can I do here (on this page/on this site)?
  • Can I trust this page and this site (to tell me the truth and not steal information or infect my computer)?

Content needs management

Because a website is not a physical object, it can be difficult to appreciate its size. It is also easy for published content to languish, unloved and unrevised.

A well-managed site has a clear content management strategy and a content inventory: most sites don’t. To manage a site, you need to know:

  • what’s on the site
  • why it’s there
  • when it was last reviewed
  • when it should be removed.

Content which doesn’t actively contribute to your visitors’ goals makes it harder for them to find the content which does.

What can I do about it?

In my next article, I’ll explain how you can start to address these challenges.