Full Circle Communications

April 2015
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ease in writing?
"Ease in writing" comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, the British poet:
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, 
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance. 
Note he (and I) didn't say "easy writing." But just as dance lessons can help get you around the floor more gracefully, the goal for this newsletter is to share a tip or two to improve your writing.

Recipient of Constant Contact All Star Awards, 2011 through 2013!

Long-Form Content
giraffe.jpg Forget 140 characters for a while, and think thousands of words--preferably with images, interactivity, and lots of well-presented data.

What It Is and Is Not

At a 2013 conference at the Columbia Journalism School, New Yorker editor David Remnick defined long-form* content as "lengthy, relaxed, deeply-reported, literary nonfiction."

Other ways to describe it:
  • Numerical: 1,200 words or longer (often much longer)
  • Formatted: HTML-based
  • Sensory-rich: Visual and perhaps audio content to engage users, beyond straight text.
Long-form content is not posting PDFs on a website for users to download. Yes, your PDFs are long forms of writing. But a PDF does not bring the same benefits as well-done HTML-based long-form content.

Just when I planned to write about long-form for this month's newsletter, Forum One Communications had an excellent webinar and blog post on the topic. With permission, I refer to their insights below. (Full disclosure: I do some work on contract for Forum One.)


In a webinar at the end of March, Lisa Drobek, Forum One's senior user experience designer, pointed to four reasons to long-form content on websites:
  • Easier accessibility: Easier to scroll down than move from screen to screen, especially on mobile devices
  • Improved SEO: Google ranks longer content higher
  • Increased engagement: Metrics show users are more likely to read and share content in this format
  • Great platform for stories.
Levels of Effort

In December 2012, the New York Times ran a much-praised piece entitled Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek. In highlighting the piece, Lisa acknowledged the resources necessary to create it. Most of us do not have these resources, as wonderful as the end result is.

Rather than throw up our hands, however, she suggested three levels of effort to implement "digital-first" publishing. Whichever the level, it's important first to think through your audience and goals, as you would with any print or online effort.
  • Flagship experience (highest level of effort): A major research project, annual report, or other signature piece might merit special attention to a long-form piece that includes video, data visualizations, and other graphics. In addition to the Times piece, she pointed to the 2015 Gates Annual Letter, Pew Research Center's "Next America," and AAMC Diversity Facts and Figures as examples.

  • Noteworthy reports (medium level): Not quite as complex, you can transform, for example, a series of reports you regularly produce and distribute into interesting long-form content. She noted several tools, including Hatch and Marquee, that create templates (although still with a learning curve). Her examples: Opportunity Survey and the CUPS annual report in Canada.
  • Longer detail pages of publications (lowest level): You will still have an inventory of PDFs, Word docs, and other pieces with important information. Convert these to HTML (one suggestion: with Word2CleanHTML), with some style adjustments for fonts, heading levels, etc. You won't have all the interactive bells-and-whistles, but Google will be able to "see" the content and you can also track traffic.
In the webinar and Lisa's blog post, John Osterman, the deputy director for communications and publications at the Center for Global Development, reported on how his organization uses this last approach. It's a good case study on how small changes will still yield results.

Best Practices

At whatever level, Lisa shared these best practices:
  • Readable one-column of text, not too wide
  • Imagery to break up the text
  • Call-outs and quotes to emphasize key information
  • Context to data visualizations and timelines
  • Video to explain complex pieces
  • Animations to delight users

Finally, she urged starting small, recognizing that the first piece will be the hardest and most-time consuming.  


*For the copy editors among us, CJR refers to it as "longform" (closed up), but I am sticking with the more common hyphenated version for now.   

Julia Wilbur and Mercy Street

As many of you know, I research, write, and present information about Civil War Alexandria, mostly through the eyes of abolitionist Julia Wilbur.

Lo and behold, PBS is filming a scripted series called Mercy Street, set in Alexandria during that time and centered on Mansion House Hospital.

Although the show will take liberties--for one thing, no street was called Mercy--Mansion House was a hotel that operated as a Union hospital on Fairfax Street, across from the current side entrance of City Hall.

Wilbur visited patients at the hospital, although she did not work there. This hasn't stopped me from "helpfully" providing background information to the producers. Last week, for example, I came upon a great letter at the Library of Virginia in which a New York soldier describes to his sister his meanderings to attempt to find a cousin who he believed was hospitalized someplace in the city.

The series films in Richmond from late April through June, and they held a casting call for extras last week. I couldn't resist--even though the main need was for "thin, young men without tattoos" and "amputees." Some people who showed up had faces so evocative of the period that I am sure I will spot them in the background when the series airs at the end of 2016.

In the meantime, my next presentation is on May 27. 7:30 pm at the Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria, is free and open to the public. Email me for more details.
Full Circle Communications, LLC / Alexandria, VA / 703.212.0350