The FAQ on FAQs

This month, I was going to write a post on writing FAQs, and specifically writing FAQ pages for the web.

Then I did some research and found this page on FAQs from a copywriter called Susan Greene, and it seemed so comprehensive and useful I thought I’d just link to it. Great writing, Susan!

The only point I’d add is to make sure your questions in your FAQ are actually questions that are likely to be asked by real people, let alone asked frequently.

Would someone really ever ask that obscure, detailed question you’re trying to shoehorn onto the page? If not, then perhaps the information is best presented in another format.

Particularly online, writing has to be all about authenticity, or you’ll lose your readers’ attention.

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Should I use jargon in my writing?

If you’ve studied how to be a writer, you’ve read blogs like mine, or you’ve stopped to think about your writing for five minutes, you will inevitably think of jargon as a bad thing. At best, it’s a necessary evil. But we’re all taught to cut it out.

That’s normally good advice. But don’t be scared to use jargon where appropriate.

What does that mean?

For a start, make sure you know your audience. If they’re all going to be familiar with your industry, you can go right ahead and use all the standard jargon – it saves everyone’s time, and it avoids being patronising. And everyone knows exactly what each term means, which can be particularly useful if your readers don’t all have English as their first language.

Remember your writing isn’t always about conveying the meaning of the words. You may, instead, be wanting to create an emotional reaction in the reader – and jargon can make them feel that writer and reader are somehow on the same side of the same argument, or in the same team. This shared knowledge creates a bond that pulls your readers in, and makes them feel a commonality with the writer. That’s worth a lot.

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The Penna – a qwerkywriter alternative

I’m still looking for that elusive retro keyboard – affordable yet stylish. The qwerkywriter is out of my budget, so I’m hoping the Penna delivers on its promise to bring us quality at a reasonable price.

It gets a decent review on The Verge, but I’m still not convinced about buying a product like this as a pre-production crowd-funded deal – particular as The Verge points out the company behind the Penna has never shipped a product before. Maybe I need to go for the Lofree instead; there are just too many choices. Or, more realistically, I’m sitting tight and spending nothing.

Or maybe I should stop worrying about a keyboard, and just, you know, get on with writing.

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Is Moore’s Law dead?

Its death has frequently been predicted, but there was an interesting article in The Register recently pronouncing that Moore’s Law has finally turned up its toes.

Moore’s Law has seen us through five decades of rapid growth in computing power, but this article argues that the Meltdown and Spectre design flaws will put the nails in its coffin. As optimisation techniques can become security holes, goes the argument, we’ll need to take stock and slow down our rate of progress.

I’m not sure I buy the premise, but it’s thought-provoking. Doesn’t Moore’s Law say that the underlying power of computing chips keeps on growing, as they get more and more transistors? What the software engineers do with that power, and whether they can harness it usefully, is a different question. There’s plenty of other evidence that the rate of improvement of useful computing speeds is slowing down. For example, just to pick one random comparison, this comparison of iMac benchmarks shows only a 40% improvement over five years – way short of the Moore’s Law’s compound doubling.

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20 years of Bluetooth

I normally blog about writing or related technologies, but this month I wanted to pick up on the 20th anniversary of Bluetooth. There’s a great article by Neil Tyler in this week’s New Electronics, looking at the creation of Bluetooth in the 90s. It made me suitably nostalgic, as I helped organise the European press launch for Bluetooth in Stockholm (when Ericsson was a client), and I also worked with CSR soon afterwards.

Who would have thought that two decades later Bluetooth would be quite so ubiquitous? There’s a lesson here on how to have a winning technology: not to over-simplify, but it’s something along the lines of make it useful, make it cheap, and make it simple to understand.

It’s worth remembering also that the original use case of Bluetooth was simply as a cable replacement technology, because it’s cheaper and more convenient to connect a phone headset or peripheral wirelessly, and it’s one less thing to forget when you pack your briefcase. It’s gone a long way further than that.

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Questions in headlines? That’s a no

You may not know it by name, but you may be applying Betteridge’s Law without realising.

Put simply, it states that any headline that’s a yes/no question can in fact be answered ‘no’.

Do aliens cause cancer? Will Facebook buy IBM? Does eating apples give you superpowers?

It makes a lot of sense. If the story actually was correct, then the journalist or headline writer wouldn’t need a question mark – therefore, you can safely assume that whatever is being discussed is not actually true or accurate.

When you think about it, it seems almost a truism, but it’s a big time saver in scanning the news. And as a writer, make sure you don’t write a headline that readers will see as following Betteridge’s Law – because they’ll simply assume a ‘no’, and skip your article.

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How do you know when you’re finished writing?

It’s always difficult to judge exactly when a piece of writing is finished.

You’ll know when it’s reached that ‘just about good enough’ stage – all the right facts are in place, and it’s got the look of a coherent whole. But how do you know when you’ve done enough polishing, and when it’s not really going to improve however long you spend tinkering?

Of course, in the commercial world you don’t have unlimited time, and the client’s deadline may dictate when you need to down tools. Or you feel you really can’t justify any more time spent moving punctuation around.

To know when you’re done, I’m a fan of leaving it alone for a while. Go away and do something else for a few hours, then come back to your writing. When you read it afresh, you’ll be sure to find at least something that stands out as a little clunky, or not quite right.

Like in many things, experience will guide you, and you’ll just know when it’s right, and when more tampering will weaken the message.

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Noun and verb confusion

I’ve seen lots of blog posts and articles talking about commonly-confused nouns and verbs, and explaining the difference between, for example, ‘advice’ and ‘advise’.

But to me there’s another angle that’s just as important. As writers, we need to think about words that can function both as a noun and a verb, and the confusion that can cause for readers.

Take a simple word such as ‘hit’. You can have a hit, which might be a film or song, or you can hit something, or be hit by it.

In a short sentence this double function can make readers stumble if they guess wrong as to the writer’s intent. For example, if you write ‘Tom Cruise’s latest hits the screen’ you might be just missing out the word movie to save space, and hoping the word ‘hits’ is obviously interpreted as a verb. But if a reader sees ‘latest hits’ and reads it as a noun, they’re going to get confused.

If at all possible, just find another way to write what you need to say. Commas can be your friend, to make it clearer which words go together.

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Peak hipster? The Qwerkywriter

I’ve blogged before about the Freewrite, a too-expensive word processor. That seemed, at the time, to be a peak of a particular kind of fashion, removing functions from devices to recapture the mojo of olde worlde typewriters.

It’s now been surpassed by the Qwerkywriter, a mechanical, metal Bluetooth keyboard. Love the name, think I love the concept, not so sure about the $249 price and nearly 2kg weight.

Seriously, is this thing genius, or a sad comment on how we have more money than we know how to spend?

I’m conflicted. I kind of want one, while simultaneously seeing it as all that’s wrong in gadget world. Hopefully I can resolve my conflict without having to go out and buy one of them.


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The new rules for good writing?

There’s an interesting article by Sam Leith in today’s Guardian newspaper, grandly titled ‘The new rules for good writing in the 21st century’, with just a touch of hubris.

I don’t agree with everything in the article, but there’s plenty of solid advice there and it’s definitely worth reading. I now feel suitably educated, not least having never previously heard of a right-branching sentence.

Just to pick up one thing, do we need to be told never to start our emails to strangers at work with the greeting ‘Hi’? Not in my world.

I do like that ‘be clear’ is ranked above ‘be correct’, with the lovely instruction on clarity to put simplicity first, but that ‘splashes of colour stand out better on a plain background’.

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