Consistency and community-generated content

I’ve been collecting examples of wildly inconsistent writing lately. I’m not sure why these have stuck out to me, but when I think of book sprints and community writing events, consistency is an important, though sometimes difficult, goal and outcome.

Why consistency?

You may not be a big fan, especially if you’re a creative type, because you appreciate when something interesting and new pops out at you. Unfortunately, you may be one of the few who appreciates something popping out while they’re trying to learn a task or evaluate a concept or analyze a pending purchase. I don’t believe consistency has to mean “dull” but I do believe consistency gives you expected results both in reading paragraphs and in overall organization.

SkyMall – catalog copy example

For some reason, this bit of catalog copy stopped me in my tracks while I was reading the latest SkyMall, waiting for my plane to take off.
Catalog copy for a watch description:

When you want to raise some eyebrows or have an excellent ice breaker for you next sales meeting, the jaw dropping Gforce MatrixPC is your best resource. The stunning design will tell people that you are someone who is confident, secure, and successful; all traits that will attract the right people into your life. The MatrixPC makes everyone aware that you know what it takes in life.

The last sentence was the most jarring, I suppose. Compared to other catalog copy in the same publication, this one struck me as sloppy, not tight.

Little House on the Prairie – narrative example

I’m re-reading the Little House on the Prairie books as an adult after loving them as a child. This time through, though, I’m amazed at the differences in style and tone and the placement of quite technical descriptions of cheese making, contrasted with stories of children not listening to their parents. I didn’t notice these differences in voice and style as a child, but as a grown-up this roller coaster reading was making me a little nauseous.

Then I learned from this New Yorker article, Wilder Women: The mother and daughter behind the Little House stories that Rose Wilder added much of the “flourish” to the books before they would even be considered for publication. Fascinating. The books still hold together and offer a wonderful viewpoint into American history. But there will always be that reader experience of the feeling some paragraphs are misplaced.

How to achieve consistency with community writing projects

On the FLOSS Manuals site, Adam Hyde writes about tone and style swings in the Book Sprints book, saying:

A book can be frustrating if it switches tone in the middle. One author may write in a jazzy, loose style, such as “Don’t panic–we’ll reveal the wizardry in a minute,” while another might write in a more formal style, saying “The following example is complex, but will be understandable by the time you finish the chapter.” Each style is legitimate and useful, but the reader will feel queasy if the tone makes a big swing from one style to another.

I think that “queasy” feeling is one you want to avoid for your readers.

We’ve worked through this for book sprints with a couple of different techniques to ensure consistency in style, tone, and organization.

One is to hire an off-site editor who reviews and modifies new content nightly during a book sprint. By having that person be off-site, they do not get caught up into the intense group dynamics that happen during the sprint, which is such a focused documentation and working group that they may argue unnecessarily about edits.

Another technique is to start writers out with a simple style guide.On the FLOSS Manuals site, each manual has a link to Agreed conventions for writing this manual. It’s not complicated but it does give writers an idea of what expectations they should meet when writing content.

ottoutlineFor book sprints, we outline ahead of time, using simple Post-it notes or even laying out paper printouts on the floor.

These chapter or topic titles will give writers an idea of what type of chunking of information we’d expect for the manual.

And lastly, lead by example. By providing copy in the style and tone that you expect the entire body of work to follow, other writers are more likely to follow suit.

7 Comments

  • November 4, 2009 - 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I agree about inconsistency and queasiness, and how important it is to avoid both. As you say, this is a real challenge on a collaborative project.

    I think that style guides are a big part of the solution. Another is reminding writers to check their egos at the door. Everyone benefits when we save our writerly flourishes (“we’ll reveal the wizardry”) for after hours.

    Thanks, Anne, for a good and thoughtful article.

  • November 4, 2009 - 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Great points! I think voice is huge when it comes to consistency. I often change voice based on my mood that day, so I really have to work to keep consistency. I agree that style guides can be a huge help. Check out this article from Brain Traffic. They suggest even having a table of examples to show the kind of voice you want to use: http://blog.braintraffic.com/2009/07/5-tips-on-working-with-a-style-guide/

  • November 4, 2009 - 6:24 pm | Permalink

    Great article from Brain Traffic, thanks Rachel! I like their examples. I have always liked style guides with examples.

    I wish there was a better name than “style guide” for what we’re talking about. I keep thinking of the eye rolls that style guides generate from Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler. :) But for now, that term seems the best fit.

  • Melanie
    November 5, 2009 - 8:01 am | Permalink

    Good thoughts. Consistency takes work, but it’s worthwhile since it benefits the reader.

    On a side note, that copy example is awfully sloppy! It reminded me of a line that I heard in the 1983 “V” miniseries, which we just rewatched this weekend: “We’re the only thing that’ll be standing between the life you’re gonna have and the one you won’t have.” Laughable.

  • November 5, 2009 - 11:00 am | Permalink

    Quick addition to my previous comment: A minimalist approach to writing can help minimize the effects of divergent writing styles.

  • Mike Wethington
    November 13, 2009 - 10:22 am | Permalink

    I learned how to make charcoal from reading Little House on the Prairie books (they are not just for girls) 35 years ago. I still remember how to do it. Great books for people interested in how pioneers (albeit angelic ones) lived.

  • November 24, 2009 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    @Melanie Love the V reference – I watched the SyFy back-to-backs too! :)

    @Mike I’m still impressed when I read the Little House books aloud – the way the simple phrasing and descriptions bring pioneer life to my mind’s eye. I just saw this and thought of Little House – apparently mixing technical writing and family life is an award-winning modern combo as well – check out http://www.tradeonlytoday.com/home/500576-writers-group-hands-out-annual-award. “The article chronicles a family’s cruise of the Great Loop, weaving together technical information with engaging human insight, according to the judges.” Why that’s practically a formula for success. :)

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