Why your online writing should use built-in styles

spacespostA website client of mine created a blog post and manually styled nearly every paragraph differently with formatting like boldface, color, and centering because she wanted her posts to attract attention.

But I cautioned her about using too many different manual formatting techniques and urged  her to use the built-in styles I developed as part of the theme design.

Why use styles?

If you use a WordPress or other blog software, you’ll notice that the menu for the word processing part of your entry screen has styles set up. In mine, the main style is “Paragraph” and there are styles called Heading 1, Heading 2…all the way to Heading 6.

Styles will help you make a post that your readers will comprehend more easily


From a reader’s perspective all this difference can be a little jarring, even if they don’t consciously notice it.

Their brains wonder, should I pay more attention to the bigger things? And what about the colorful things? And the things that set up in the center of the page?

With consistent styles, readers don’t have to navigate the differences between text pieces. Their familiarity with the web as well as with nonfiction books allows them to comprehend what “headings” are. They understand: biggest headings cover the biggest sections; smaller headings inside of them carve up the different subjects within that big section.

Clear signposts help readers navigate.

Clear signposts draw in readers

Consistent styles also help readers skim. Let’s face it: you have about 7 seconds to persuade a reader to stick around and read your post. Headlines are eminently skimmable because they’re large and (if you’re using styles) really well organized.

A visitor can get a good sense of the article with good, scannable headlines. Even if they don’t read the article word for word (and most don’t), that skim could persuade them to click your Products link or sign up for your mailing list.

They will also reduce your posting time

Let WordPress and your Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) do their jobs. As a database system, WordPress houses your words and images, tagging them appropriately. Your CSS uses the tags to display the post to the reader in a pleasing, consistent manner. Why take time to manually boldface, italicize, upsize, or color each piece of your post when these existing technologies can do it?

Using styles will also save you time later. If you recreate your design or choose a new theme, CSS will apply the new style of Heading 3 to all instances of text you have identified as Heading 3. If you have manually applied color or effects, your posts could clash with the new look of your site or you will spend hours going through all of your old posts to update the text applications to reflect your new theme.

Use styles

In this post, for instance, I use Heading 1 to ask the question and answer it three times using Heading 2. The title is its own style, and in some themes it displays large or smaller than your highest heading, Heading 1. Know this about your design. My post titles are larger than my Heading 1, so I’m okay with using that top level heading in the post.

When you’re investigating a new theme, pay attention to the preview provided. On any theme preview, you’ll see all the headings listed and styled. You’ll also see the styles of things like indented quotations, lists, and tables. Although you can alter these by delving into custom CSS, a good theme for you is one that starts with elements that work for you and your writing.

The value of editors

Writer Ann Handley, a content marketer. Her eighth writing tool is a human editor, about which she writes

I think of a good editor as the best advocate for the reader, which is why companies that don’t use editors end up hurting themselves.

8 Writing Tools I Use Every Day

One of my ongoing struggles is to explain why editing matters. Often I liken it to how carpet just looks better after it’s been vacuumed, but you don’t walk into your friend’s family room and immediately think, “Oh, how nice—they vaccumed for me!”

You don’t normally read an informative report that tells you exactly what you want to know clearly and think, “Oh, how great—they edited this just for me!”
How to Self Promote without Being a Jerk

But I read a small book called How to Self-Promote Without Being a Jerk; author Bruce Kasanoff writes in the chapter that cautions “Be perfect,” that most of the information we receive when we meet other people is composed of

…subtle clues: how the person stands, the tone of their voice, whether they look you in the eye, how they dress, etc.

He adds,

The number and manner of your mistakes is another category of clues.

Four words

If you don’t buy the “impressions” argument, here’s another example of the value of copy editing on the other end of the spectrum, supplied by the New York Times in its article about theAffordable Care and Patient Protection Act challenge in the Supreme Court based on

four words — “established by the State” — buried deep within the 900-page law.

Or as Paul Krugman puts it, an “obvious typo” that may have serious repurcussions for hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Most typos aren’t that serious.

 This just in: How a Typo May Have Turned a Drum of Radioactive Waste into a Bomb

 A big tip

Give your resume, executive report, or research paper a word-by-word read. Better yet, have someone else do it. Spending $5 a page for a solid copy edit for your master’s thesis makes more sense than spending your research time looking for grammatical errrors, especially if you’re not an English major.

Why copy edit

Shooting your business thru the foot

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a local research organization whose subject line and title was something akin to

“Understanding Your Community Thru Historical Data.”

I know my grammar and usage; I do a lot of copy editing for a variety of academic and research organizations. So I’m a stickler about being correct. Mostly. But I’m not such a hardass all the time because I know that in some situations, using slang, misused words, and improper grammar gets the message to your audience.

But using “thru” isn’t appropriate in this context. So I quickly played with an online tool I’ve been wanting to try, Piktochart, which makes infographics online that you can download as image files.



(Updated the Piktochart so that it included better images and so I could post it on LinkedIn.)


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Cover image of Mini Habits bookI recently read the book Mini Habits by Stephen Guise, and during the past couple of weeks I’ve put into practice the principles I learned there.*

The premise of this book is that mini habits—small, daily activities that should not take more than 5 minutes at a time each—are the steps to getting toward some of our bigger goals. Stephen Guise calls these “too small to fail.” His argument is that consistent success in meeting these mini habits energizes us and  supports the larger changes we want to make. Science backs him up on this (see this Huffington Post article).

One of Guise’s examples is his mini habit of one push-up a day. Instead of making, say, an ambitious New Year’s resolution like “I’m going to run a 5K every week” or “I’m going to work out at the gym three times a week,” Guise made his goal one push-up a day. His point is that although 1 pushup a day is not going to bulk up some muscle, it paved the way for him eventually to get to the gym three times a week.

The key, he says, is not to rely on motivation. Guise writes on his website

When I decided to start exercising consistently 10 years ago, this is what actually happened:

  1. I tried “getting motivated.” It worked sometimes.
  2. I tried setting audacious big goals. I almost always failed them.
  3. I tried to make changes last. They didn’t.

Like most people who try to change and fail, I assumed that I was the problem.

Then one afternoon—after another failed attempt to get motivated to exercise—I (accidentally) started my first mini habit. I initially committed to do one push-up, and it turned into a full workout. I was shocked. This “stupid idea” wasn’t supposed to work. I was shocked again when my success with this strategy continued for months (and to this day). I had to consider that maybe I wasn’t the problem in those 10 years of mediocre results. Maybe it was my prior strategies that were ineffective, despite being oft-repeated as “the way to change” in countless books and blogs.

My mini habitsScreen shot of my Android phone with Habit Bull mini habits

To start slow, I set four daily mini habits:

  1. Walk through one 80s song
  2. Meditate 5 minutes
  3. Do one situp
  4. Write 50 words

Guise recommends writing these mini habits on a large wall calendar. But because my phone houses pretty much everything I need, I investigated his resources list and found Habit Bull. It’s very simple: I typed in my four mini goals, identified the days of the week I wanted to accomplish them, and then chose the widget to display them on my screen (shown at right is my actual Moto X screen; I used the app Easy Screenshot). Voilà.

I have a 95% success rate so far at completing these daily habits.

I also realized in the midst of this experiment that my strategy for copy-editing really long, practically unreadable academic journal articles—using the Pomodoro technique (again using an Android app for a timer, ClearFocus) of 25-minute chunks of solid, concentrated effort followed by 5-minute breaks—basically strings together work-based mini habits to complete a specific project. So I already had some mini habit mindset going; now I am applying it to other parts of life.

At this point, I’ve never walked through only one song. Once I’ve got my shoes on and my music playing, I tend to walk for 1-2 miles each day (about 6 to 10 80s New Wave/punk songs). And I’ve rarely written only 50 words; that’s a short paragraph, and I’m more verbose than that! And while I’m on the floor doing one sit-up, I may as well do five. Getting started when I know my goal is “walk 2 miles”? Sometimes pretty hard in the midst of a busy day. But getting started when I know I can stop after “Blitzkreig Bop” and still count it as success?—much easier.

But Guise’s point is that even if I did not overachieve these habits, it’s okay: checking off these small wins boost my confidence as well as my motivation. This pattern of action and reward is part of what will keep these habits going and growing.

*I don’t do any affiliate marketing, so I don’t make money off the book or your clicking the link.


Mini Habits

What I’m reading: Show Your Work by Jane Bozarth. I have read her blog and now her book, both of which inspired me to think more carefully about how my website could show my work.

Show Your Work

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First step to new WordPress website

WordPress is simply another way to render communication, especially in a public forum. I’ve created a few websites for clients, but primarily I’m interested in helping people learn to do it themselves. Tutorials for WordPress abound online, and the WordPress Codex contains all the technical information—as well as support and oodles of plugins—that anyone could want.

planning_website_notesBut I don’t find a lot of information about the thinking behind setting up a WordPress-based site, why I should use Plugin A versus B for what I want to accomplish, or how to decide when to delve into the mysteries of coding things myself. Here, I’m showing my work as I render my new site. It’s too long to do as one post, so each new post will describe the steps I take. My first one is simply planning what I want.

Goal: create an online portfolio

My primary goal was to create an online portfolio for my past and current work, with a secondary goal to create and maintain a weekly blog. However, I wanted to connect my thinking about various subjects with these portfolio projects. I think that this two-part structure might be attractive to potential clients: they get a view of “what I’ve done” along with the sense that I’m always learning and thinking.

I looked at a lot of portfolio plugins and themes (Justin Tadlock’s portfolio plugin and theme were helpful for inspiration), but they didn’t work “out of the box” for what I wanted. Rather than fiddle around with them, I decided to learn more and make my own way.

For my new website (this one), I wanted a more minimalist theme that I could also make my own. After looking at many themes, I chose the Chunk theme because I liked its stark simplicity.

Chunk has a lot of customization options, which I used to make an image header, change the colors slightly, and so on. Most themes allow you to do some or a lot of customizing—that ability is built right in. But I knew when I chose it that I was going to make more drastic changes.

The issue with manipulating a theme that comes from the repository at WordPress.org is that if the theme author updates it (for instance, he decides to add a new menu and change some of the styling code), those updates will essentially wipe out any changes you’ve made that are beyond those allowed by the theme itself. Enough tutorials I’ve seen and read make this point, so I made a child theme that I could manipulate and know that my time and effort on these changes wouldn’t be lost.

Planning exactly what I wanted helped me determine the changes I made (am making) to my site


Based on my research and thinking doodles—which got me down to the basic outline above describing the high level structure and function of my site—I knew I needed to do two things:

  1. Create a different type of entry for portfolio items
  2. Create categories of “skills” and “tools” that would link blog posts and portfolio items.

Once I decided these next steps were the crux of getting my site up and running, I investigated all the ways that WordPress helps me accomplish these tasks without my having to delve too deeply into the raw code. For #1, I knew custom post types were the answer. For #2, I thought that custom taxonomies were my best bet. Turns out, I was right and they are the solutions. They’ll be the next installment of showing my work in creating my new site.
Skills:ResearchPlanning and structuring

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In progress…

Thank you for visiting; I’m currently reworking my site for better functionality, to make it do what I want it to do. That means I’m busy figuring out WordPress, custom taxonomies, custom post types, CSS3…on top of what I do to earn a living. Below are posts from my former blog on Emerging Technologies in Learning at the University of Manitoba. Stop back again or contact me. My new blog posts will begin appearing in November 2014.

Professional Learning Portfolios…and questions

I recently enrolled in Jane Hart’s online workshop on Professional Learning Portfolios. What I was thinking about when I enrolled was that I wanted some ideas about an e-portfolio system to put in my website so that I could show samples to potential clients—i.e., a portfolio in the traditional sense of an outward-facing body of evidence that I can do what I say I can do.

There’s still a lot of value for me in doing this aspect of a portfolio, of course, but I’ve found even in the first few days of the PLP workshop discussions and suggested activity that my thinking has gone beyond that. The first thing I did was download the suggested WordPress theme for the portfolio and play around a bit with it , but then I got stuck. So instead of continuing to work with a tool, I took a step backward and reread our workshop introduction and documents…and realized I needed to do some thinking and planning first. I can get too caught up in cool tools, so I went back to what helps me think best, mapping out ideas on paper with different color pens.

And I realized while doing this that probably the most important thing for me, before trying to organize materials, is to determine my goals. My learning goals will be tied to the new areas I want to do work in. But I have to figure those out first!

I know that they have something to do with helping people learn what’s “out there” in terms of online resources and tools and, more importantly, convincing them that they won’t break the internet if they try to participate in it. I guess a term for marketing would be digital literacy; although I’m not crazy about that term, it may be a useful way to communicate what I want to do. I wrote in this blog for the Connectivism course about Ohio Computer Tutor, a goofy name for a serious idea. It’s morphed a bit into ways to help businesses support staff learning and development.

My biggest roadblock is that I have to “sell” this. If I take time to work on a new business area, then I am literally taking time away from earning income with the things I already do. I can’t tell you how scary that is for a freelancer—I just cannot say “no” to work! And I already take time away from my personal life to do business stuff, so it seems unfair to take even more time away from real-live relationships. Perhaps the biggest roadblock—as it always, always is—is simply fear.

Final Personal Learning Environment

I really like the CMap tool, which I’ve used before. I like the fact that the links can be labeled and thus clarify the relationships between the concepts (usually via verbs). In addition, it’s easily used to convey information but also to organize it because each concept is a kind of container. You can add links, images, and other types of files.

I learned doing this that for communicating and adequately capturing something like a personal learning environment (PLE), what I long for is a moving concept map that shows change over time and thus could identify things that fade in and out of importance (sort of à la Hans Rosling). Ideally, this PLE should also use layers to make three dimensional connections between concepts. When I started, I realized that what’s interesting to me is how the “past” stuff forms a clear link to something I do now: for example, the connection I have to database publishing using FileMaker databases (circa 1995 or so) means that HTML and XML make sense to me. Looking further backward, HyperCard was my first introduction to databases, so it set the stage for my 17-year use of FileMaker. It would be great to show clearly that kind of “ancestral” link because it shows what I keep thinking of as networked-learning curves.

(Clicking on this brings up a larger version that’s easier to read.)