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What we do when we edit web content

When we edit and structure web content, words are important. But having an understanding of why we’re doing it underpins everything.

When I first started at the Website Programme in 2010, I came from a writing and editing background, and that’s pretty much what I did all day – edit copy. Structuring came into it a little, but the majority of what I did was reworking content that other staff (often academics) had written so that it met better standards for Writing for the Web.

That means making sure that all content met the University Web Style Guide, and used things like:

  • Plain English
  • accessible link text
  • clear summary sentences
  • meaningful alt text

These things are still important. It’s crucial to remember that.

But nowadays, good content design is about much more than editing text. That’s why we renamed our flagship ‘Writing for the Web’ course ‘Effective Digital Content’.

Effective Digital Content training – what is it and why?

You’re a what, now?

I have one of those job titles that takes an explanatory paragraph after it for anyone to have a clue what I do: Editorial Development Officer.

Reviewing some of the unit’s job titles is on our to-do list, but it’s symptomatic of the evolution of not only my role at the University, but of digital processes themselves. In clarifying my job title, I’ve described myself as a variety of things, including:

  • content strategist
  • UX practitioner
  • content designer
  • information architect
  • editorial trainer

I’ve written, rewritten and structured more University websites than I care to count and the sticking points that really hold the process up are always the same:

  • Existing content – “I’m not sure if still we need that content. We’ll need to discuss it at next month’s meeting.”
  • New content – “We’ve just remembered another project/service/course that’s not on our site. We get emails about it all the time.”
  • Audiences – “Well, it’s sort of for everybody.”

Objectives v editing time

By kicking off the process with a workshop that brings together all the stakeholders and discusses the needs the websites should meet, the issues above are largely avoided. When going through potential content, there are only two questions to ask:

  • Does this serve the objectives?
  • Do editing staff have time to maintain this?

These two aspects always need to be considered together, because of the impact the second point will eventually have on the first. If you don’t have time to maintain your web content, it will go from meeting your objectives brilliantly, to barely meeting them, to actively detracting from them.

Counselling self help

In Counselling’s case, one of their objectives was to make sure students have access to self-help resources to support them alongside counselling sessions. However, the service has no more time available for web content maintenance than most University units – and less than many.

It might sound great in theory to clearly lay out all the available self help services, making it searchable by key words, and give lengthy descriptions as to what each service does. But at that stage you’re effectively maintaining someone else’s content, which is twice as hard as maintaining your own.

There were already 39 broken links on the site, mostly from the self help section. When students who are already feeling emotionally distressed students meet a journey with so many wrong turns, it begins to seriously undermine the whole ethos of the service.

Finding broken links: Content review – Why automated tools only take you so far

Maintaining someone else’s content is twice as hard as maintaining your own.

Instead, we brought the most useful helplines into a new top-level page, ‘Crisis support’, and restructured the self help pages significantly so they focused on content that was much easier to maintain, and would help students just as much.

The value of time spent up front

I was working on the Student Counselling project for weeks before editing a word. This meant that when I hit upon an issue like the one I’ve just described, I had a thorough understanding of the unit’s needs, and solving it didn’t take long at all. What we still refer to as ‘editorial’ work in fact often involves structural issues more than word choices – the way you structure a site has a massive impact on the user experience on that site and is key to this part of the process.

While the service weren’t initially convinced of the approach, it took very little discussion of the underlying issues for them to agree it could work – and was at least worth giving a try.

Suck it and see

The great thing about web content is that it’s changeable and measurable. Good content design makes things measurable – particularly when you’re trying something out.

Words are important – and in a sensitive area like Counselling it’s particularly important to get them right – but if you find yourself agonising over a word choice, you probably need to take a step back. Get the content up, make it measurable – and then measure it.

That’s why our last deliverable on this project will be a review document, detailing what they can measure to see if the site is still doing its job.

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