Tag Archives: format

5 Reasons Format Matters In Your Writing

By:  Stacey J. Haseleu

usability 3

This is a picture of the A/C controls in David Cole’s car.  In his article entitled “Proximity in Design: Why I Can’t Use My Car’s A/C” he outlines how his daily commute to and from work is filled with frustrating moments of artctic blasts  or desert-like heat blowing “his beard off,” as he puts it.

Cole goes on to attribute  the drastic climate changes in his car to the proximity of the A/C controls on his dashboard.  He can’t afford to take his eyes off the road to find the control he’s looking for, and for some reason, the controls never seem to be where they should be.  He blames this on poor proximity.

There are several usability heuristics in the design principle world, and proximity is one of them.  The proximity heuristic suggests that similar objects should be placed closer together.  Cognitively, the human brain functions by discerning patterns and associating specific functions that are similar to one another.

So in Cole’s case, the “temperature” dial  is separate from the “A/C” dial which causes him to turn up the fan rather than cool down the temperature in his car.  As you can see in the figure above, in order to cool down his car, Cole would need to hit the A/C button furtherest to the right, then use the dial furtherest to the left to change the temperature to “cool.”

Although Cole has driven this vehicle for many years, his brain is somehow wired to hit the A/C button and turn the same control to cool down the temperature.  His brain is wired with the proximity heuristic.

Don’t look confused.  This article is about writing and format for writing, but I had to tell you the story about David Cole and his car to make my point.  If car controls, machines, and computers use the heuristics of usability, shouldn’t writing also use these same principles so that it’s easier for us to cognitively digest?  I’d say so… and that’s why formatting your content is just as important as making sure the content you write is high quality.

Without further ado, here are the top 5 reasons formatting matters when you write:

  1. Your audience is “King” — This is  Nancy Duarte’s statement in her “5 Rules for Presentations;” but it applies to writing too.  If your writing doesn’t resonate with your audience then your piece failed.  I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.  Your writing is only successfull if it affects your audience in some way.  With this in mind, if your audience is anything like David Cole (or any other human being), then the proximity heuristic is important.  How you organize your information will make it easier (or harder) on your audience.  If you use proper formatting, then you are cognitively feeding your audience little treats.

  2. Organization/Flow — How many people have read a user’s manual that makes them flip back and forth between multiple pages to find out how to complete a simple task?  Why isn’t this information put closer together?  Why didn’t the writer employ the usability heuristic of proximity?  When you write, if you don’t use proper formatting (ie headings, subheadings, bullet points) then the flow of your document suffers.  If the flow of your document suffers, you’ll find your audience skipping back and forth, frustrated that they can’t find the information they want to know.

  3. Aesthetic Appeal — Who wants to read boring, fifteen-sentence-long paragraphs?  If you were tasked with the responsibility of writing a one-page list of instructions teaching someone how to brush their teeth, would you write it in all paragraphs?  If you answered “yes” to that question, please keep reading this article, then go back and re-read it again.  No one wants to read a narrative on how to brush your teeth.  People want to be able to see the specific steps for brushing your teeth.  People want to view a document that looks like this.

  4. Usability — OK, so this ties back in to your audience.  You want your writing to be used, not just read and discarded.  If you write a piece and the length starts to drag on beyond 3 pages, you might want to consider adding some formatting.  Headers and subheaders give a document easy reference-ability (yes, I made that word up).  Instead of having to read through each paragraph to find the information needed, someone can easily reference specific points you make if you add headings and subheadings.  If you want to get real fancy, add a table of contents.  I know, I just blew your mind!

  5. Because it’s a rule — I’m not joking.  MLA, APA, and just about every other style of writing gives you guidelines on how to format a document, so why wouldn’t you follow them?  These formats were established because they make the documents you write easier to read and easier to reference.  So use these guidelines.  Follow them. Period.

You could, of course, choose not to format your writing.  But then you’ll run the risk of every one of your audience members turning into a David Cole.  Keep your readers’ beards on.  Format your writing.

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Editing for Digital Media: A Metadiscourse of my Own Writing

By Stacey J. Haseleu

The Importance of Editing

The shift from old media (such as printed materials in newspapers and magazines) to new media (like posts on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and privately run blogs) specifically impacts the way writers not only need to write, but how they edit as well.  In old media, writers were faced with the challenge of editing a piece of work down to the bare bones and essentials of a story line in order for it to fit in the allocated space designated by the newspaper or magazine editor, but with the shift to new media outlets, writers are now forced to self edit without the instruction of editors looking for a specific word count.

If editing is not a pre-requisite from an editor, why is it still imperative, perhaps even more important, for writers to edit their pieces?  The answer to this question is rooted more in audience than space constrictions.  Studies show that with the new media age, readers are looking for information in a quick, easy-to-read format allowing them to get the news and quickly move on to the next portion of information or to check their emails or to spread the word in a quick snippet on their own form of social media.  Brevity is power in the digital media age.

If writers can hook a reader’s attention and then maintain the attention of the reader until all of the important information is read, then the writing is acceptable by new media standards.  So in an age of Twitter “tweets” that are 150 words or less, professional writers aren’t competing with one another to edit their pieces down for the sake of fitting into a newspaper column print, but they are competing to grab and keep the attention of online readers.

The piece I chose to edit is actually one of my blog posts.  During the first term of this semester, I was enrolled in a Political Writing course.  We wrote weekly “fact check” articles regarding the current political campaigns.  One of the most difficult concepts of these articles was keeping them at a length that provided three major components: what the candidate or campaign was claiming, what the opposing candidate said about the issue, and what was actually true.  This was difficult to achieve while also creating a piece that would hold the attention of an audience reading a personal blog.  It is for this reason that I chose one of these weekly blogs as my editing piece for this assignment.

Anecdote Removal

I first took out the anecdote I used in the article.  This was the part of the article where I made a comparison.  When writing the piece, I thought it added substance by providing the reader with a real-life example.  After I took this part out, though, I realized that the audience that was reading my political blog was, for the most part, intelligent and informed voters that already had somewhat of an understanding of the basics of Medicare.  Using the anecdote to allow the audience to relate was actually condescending to the reader and didn’t speak to the overall theme of the article.

Converting Citations

The second change I worked on was converting my parenthetical citations to actual links to the websites where I obtained my information.  In the age of writing for digital media I believe it is absolutely imperative to provide readers with in-text links to the actual sites where you get information.  No one reading on a digital media site will take the time to scroll down to the end of the article, copy down the link, and re-type it into their browser to see your source.

Format: Justifying Paragraphs

The other style change that I made was justifying the paragraphs.  In old media, such as newspapers and magazines, articles were justified so that the words could fit appropriately into the allotted column spaces.  In the age of new media, I also believe that format plays a large role in the audiences’ readability of information.  The justification of paragraphs allows the eye to continue to flow from one sentence to another.  When the paragraphs aren’t justified, they look rugged and make the eye stop at the end of the line instead of continuing throughout the document.

Eliminating Redundancy

The next edit I made to the piece was to cut out phrases that were redundant.  In political rhetoric, I find it a given that candidates use redundancy in their campaigns.  They can speak about one subject for twenty minutes and basically say the same sentence using different words.  So, when writing about politics, I found that my article did much of the same redundancy that the candidates and their campaigns are guilty of also doing; I was stating the same idea over again using different words and phrases, so I edited or changed these parts of my piece.

Cutting “Flowery” Wording

The final cut I made to the piece was adjectives.  When writing a news article, “flowery” adjectives aren’t necessary.  The point of a news article is to provide information to a reader, not to provide a Charles Dickens-like (I use his name when describing excessive imagery) account of events.  Taking away adjectives and adverbs doesn’t change the substance of the point you are making, it just gets to the point in a more reasonable and timely manner.

The Results

After achieving all of the edits, my piece dropped from 750 words to 511 words; a 30% decrease in words, but no loss of facts relevant to the central theme of the article.  The surgical cuts to the piece make it easier to read, quicker to read, and more likely to be read in its entirety.  It also looks much better on my blog!

The original article can be viewed by clicking here.

The Edited Article:

The Truth About Medicare

By Stacey J. Haseleu

Throughout the course of Wednesday’s Presidential debate, Mitt Romney made it clear that his talking point for Medicare was a broken-record account of Obama’s $716 billion dollar cut.

In fact, the transcripts of the debate show that Romney mentioned “$716 billion” and “Medicare” in the same sentence 10 times throughout the course of the 90-minute debate. He said, “What I support is no change for current retirees and near-retirees to Medicare and the president supports taking $716 billion out of that program.”

While it’s true that President Obama will cut $716 billion of spending from Medicare over the next 10 years, this figure is misleading.

Mitt Romney insinuated that the $716 billion dollar cut would negatively impact Medicare recipients; however, Factcheck.org’s article entitled “Medicare’s Piggy Bank,” states, “…the opposite is true. These cuts in the future growth of spending prolong the life of the Medicare trust fund, stretching the program’s finances out longer than they would last otherwise.”

Medicare has four parts: Part A (hospital insurance), Part B (medical insurance), Part C (Medicare advantage plans), and Part D (prescription drug coverage). Part A is at no cost to retirees and is what people pay for through their FICA payroll tax. These payments are placed into a treasury fund.

While some voters believe the money they contribute through each paycheck is kept in a “piggy bank” somewhere for when they retire, they are mistaken. The Medicare trust fund works on a “pay-as-you-go” system where funding is taken out on an as-needed basis. Individuals presently in the workforce are actually paying for those currently retired and on Medicare.

With the number of individuals in the workforce disproportionate to the amount of baby boomers on Medicare, the system is financially burdened.  There isn’t enough funding in the trust to cover benefits.

In fact, the current Medicare Part A trust fund only has around $244.2 billion. Factcheck.org says, “the Part A trust fund was expected to be exhausted in 2016.”

To make up for the rapid depletion of funding in Medicare, President Obama implemented cuts to spending.  If the spending of Medicare continues, it will be bankrupt by 2016. Obama had a choice; he could continue to spend and let the funds run out in 2016, or he could reduce the amount of spending and keep Medicare running through 2024. He chose to cut spending to increase the longevity of the Medicare treasury.

What type of “spending” did Obama cut to extend the life expectancy of Medicare? Romney would have you believe the cuts were directly taken from Medicare recipients, but the Congressional Budget Office’s report to Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner indicates that The Affordable Healthcare Act, aka “Obamacare”, diminishes the spending of Medicare Part A through major reductions in payments to hospitals in the amount of $415 billion.

With the cuts, the CBO estimates that Medicare will not exhaust in 2016. In fact, if the reduction in payments to hospitals continues, Medicare will not exhaust until the year 2024. This means “Obamacare” actually extended the life expectancy of Medicare by 8 years.

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