Book Review: Letting Go of the Words, by Ginny Redish

Letting Go of the Words, by Ginny Redish

Letting Go of the Words (2007), by Ginny Redish, puts forward an idea that many readers will eagerly embrace: think of writing as you would a conversation. Anticipate the reader’s questions as you craft your content. Redish explains,

If you think of the web as conversation, you’ll realize that much of your content is meant to answer the questions that people come with. you do not want an entire site to be in a section called frequently asked questions. You do want to think about what people come wanting to know and then about how to give them that information as concisely and clearly as possible. (5)

In other words, for Redish, to think of the web as conversation means to anticipate the main questions your users will have, and then to structure your content as answers to those questions. You might use subheadings phrased as questions, but it’s not necessary. She’s not urging every page to look like an FAQ page, but to simply keep the user’s questions in mind as you write.

This technique is brilliant for two reasons. First, it gets you thinking about your users. It’s hard to consider what questions your users would have if you haven’t already defined who your users are. So immediately you’ll begin to think carefully about who your users are, and what sorts of backgrounds, scenarios, and contexts they have.

Second, the web as conversation technique prompts you to consider your user’s pain points. Rather than wandering about in obvious information, by answering questions you’re tackling the user’s real problems. You’re addressing why your users came to your site in the first place — to get answers to issues and problems they’re experiencing.

Redish also suggests that you start by answering the most important questions first, and then in inverted pyramid style work your way down to questions of lesser importance.

This web as conversation technique is the most appealing and novel idea in the book. But while the “web as conversation” is a model that feels right, Redish’s take on writing as conversation doesn’t involve social media. Granted, Letting Go of the Words was published in 2007, and probably written during the several years prior to that, before social media saturated the web.

But today, when we refer to the web as conversation, we’re referring to the idea of the reader as an active participant in a content dialogue — not just metaphorically. As a reader, you can speak to me by writing comments on this post. You can write your own post discussing points you agree with or disagree with. You can publish responses on Twitter, Facebook, or other social tools. You’re not a silent reader whose questions and thoughts I have to merely anticipate. The web as conversation means the content flows both ways. I write, you respond, I write back, you respond, and so the conversation goes. As a result, an initial post might triple in word count when you consider all the conversation that takes place from that initial post. (See Post Publishing Word Count Can Be Three Times as Long.)

Unfortunately, Redish never gets into social media in Letting Go of the Words, so it feels a bit dated. But even dated, Redish’s technique to consider the user’s questions is still right on target. It’s advice that, if everyone followed, would make the web a much better content experience.

As for the title, “Letting Go of the Words,” Redish returns again and again to the idea that writing needs to be concise and goal-oriented. “The key to successful writing on the web is to let go of the words without losing the essential messages,” she explains (98).

Omitting needless words is nothing new, of course. It’s solid writing advice that you find in classics such as Strunk and White. Because of this and many other basic writing principles that receive constant attention and emphasis, seasoned web writers familiar with web conventions may find this book too introductory. Additionally, the initial appeal of the web-as-conversation metaphor gets diluted by the ever increasing scope of the book. By the end, she covers so much territory (lists, tables, illustrations, links, headings, paragraphs, white space, etc.),  that the book becomes more of a general guide on “writing for the web.”

Still, as a general guide on writing for the web, it’s useful to have next to your other books on style. For example, last week my colleagues and I were discussing list alignment (whether to indent lists or keep them aligned with the paragraph’s left edge). I opened to Redish’s chapter on lists to review what she had to say on the issue. Did she anticipate our questions? She does note that text should wrap under text, not under the bullet or list number. It wasn’t exactly our question, but by not addressing it, we decided either way was acceptable.

If you’re working with web content, Letting Go of the Words is a good book to ground you in the basics. You get a taste of a lot of disciplines mixed together here — usability, information architecture, typography, copywriting, and more. If you’re a digital native, however, who spends more time online than offline, you may be better off reflecting on the writing as conversation metaphor and then jumping into a book that discusses more social media strategies.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), API documentation (code examples, programming), and web publishing (web platforms, interactivity) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS, email, or another method. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Letting Go of the Words, by Ginny Redish

  1. Eddie VanArsdall

    Nice review, Tom. Although the advice that Ginny gives may be basic for more seasoned writers, I recommend that every writer read her book. We can all benefit from it, even if it serves as a refresher.

    In my most recent web project, I used Ginny’s book as our standard baseline for web writing guidelines. I listed it among the resources in our Editorial Style Guide.

    I’m curious as to what you mean about the omission of social media in the book. Do you feel that it should have included a section on writing blog posts, wiki content, and tweets? (I’m just trying to think of possible examples.) Tweeting does create interesting writing challenges, but I believe that Ginny’s advice generally applies to blog and wiki content.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Eddie, thanks for your comment and question. I think Letting Go of the Words would be a great web style guide, especially if you are trying to leverage writing from a lot of SMEs or other groups. It covers excellent principles about how to write for the web — for example, I especially enjoyed the chapter on subheadings.

      But the book seems to be written in a world where blogging and other forms of social media are absent on the web. It addresses the web in 2005. Today, the blog is becoming the most interesting aspect of a website. It’s where you see the voice, the personality, and the non-marketing honesty. This applies to both personal and corporate websites. However, discussion of this was missing from the book.

      Especially when she uses the web-as-conversation metaphor, it seemed like a gap to not address forms of writing that are actually conversations, such as blog posts with comments. Rules for writing an engaging blog post or inviting user interactivity on your site seem unique enough to merit a little more discussion. The only guideline she gives about blogging is that it’s okay to use “I.”

      I think if you look at the book as a style guide for the web, it does an excellent job. So maybe I came into it with the wrong expectations. I was hoping to read more interesting techniques for creating web content, esp. with her conversation metaphor, but I kept finding the ideas too basic. Each chapter seemed to be a laundry list of guidelines, and it became somewhat of a chore to read, even with the many excellent illustrations and examples. Perhaps as a reference book, it would be much better.

      Tell me more about your thoughts on the book. It seems like it would be great to give to contributing SMEs as a writing guide, but it’s a bit long for that.

      1. Eddie VanArsdall

        Tom, you’ve made some great points. I see what you mean about the social media aspect. And you’re right about my take on the book’s purpose. I see it as a guide to writing for your customers, enabling them to easily scan for information, and simply getting to the point.

        I agree that the book would be too long to give to business owners/SMEs who are contributing content. I see it more as a handbook for web copywriters–you know, the people that I wanted to hire for the last year! (Forgive the inside joke.)

        I guess I see blogging as personal expression, even in the professional world. In my favorite blogs, the writer’s personal voice shines through. YOU certainly have a distinct voice. I hope that I have one. But I also agree that blogging can certainly use some guidelines. I believe that some of Ginny’s points apply to writing content for blogs, but I would like to hear her expand on that. Tweeting and other forms could have been covered, too.

        Maybe a second edition is in the works.

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