Writing for the Web, or how I came to be in Content Management
I graduated college with a degree in Technical Writing. I took editing courses, business writing courses, learned how to create brochures; and I learned some HTML, CSS, InDesign–along with quite a few other skills. There was a professor, Dr. David Hailey, who taught a course all about eBooks–he was also the first one to teach an English course online in Utah. It was my penultimate semester, and I wanted to take a course from him before I graduated.
He was offering a course called “Writing for the Web” which basically fit right into what I was looking to do for a living. Professor Hailey talked about getting a job in the industry, why starting as a Tech Writer and then adding another discipline would make you marketable, and, mainly, what good content could do for your audience. He talked about the difference between Content Managers and Information Architects, the different genres found in every web page, and a clever acronym for auditing/analyzing your content. I could hear the music.
Professor Hailey took us through a number of sites and pointed out the theory behind ReaderCentric Writing and Prosumers. We talked through corporate sites, wrote papers on our own ideas of what Writing for the Web really meant, and visited the good and the bad of Amazon–all the while Professor Hailey showed us the need for different styles, or genres, of writing for the web.
My first job managing content
As the Tech Writer for the IT Service Desk, I was mainly in charge of editing the Knowledge Base in ServiceNow. That included designing a template for the FAQs and building directories for the different groups. It was a very focused task, and I wanted to rip through it in order to be ready for when they would switch the site over. I had the template created that first day and then I spent the next week and a half editing over 500 of those articles. It wasn’t quite the elephant you eat a bite at a time–I would discover that later–but it was a lot of work to do.
It was this position that would give me the experience I’d need to take my first real job managing content.
Starting at CU
When I heard about a possible position working on content in Drupal, I researched Drupal until my brain nearly exploded. I hadn’t worked in PHP, I barely knew anything about databases, but I did know about writing and editing content. So when I learned enough to have a handle on how Drupal worked, I figured that as long as the CMS worked the way it was supposed to I could probably make the rest of it work.
I got the contract to work for a Drupal vendor from Boulder called Archetype 5 for three months of managing content for the Employee Services department at CU while they transitioned to a brand new site in Drupal. It was like learning to swim by grabbing onto the back of a speedboat. While it’s going. Obviously. It wouldn’t make much sense if the thing was parked.
When I showed up there was a pile of Google spreadsheets for me to work through with cryptic instructions in one column and a URL in the other. Keep in mind, they were developing the site as we began migrating and editing the content. It was as far from a one-to-one migration as you could get. The navigation was entirely new, some of the departments were changing, and a lot of the content on the old site was close to a decade old. Since I only had three months to get all of their content moved over, I basically had to triage it and stick with the basics.
I had come into the game at a very late date, so I rushed to just get the content outlined in those documents into the CMS. I was madly cleaning HTML, getting rid of old tables, and dumping random images. It was great, almost like copyediting. Then I ran into yet another huge roadblock–I needed to train Content Managers to use Drupal, and they’d been told that they wouldn’t need to do any HTML coding at all. Here’s a rundown of what I heard while training Payroll & Benefits administrators to use the web:
“I have eight hours of work to do every day, and they just told me to take care of the web stuff.”
“Where is it going to go? Why is our navigation all messed up?”
“I don’t like it.”
“If people can’t find my files, they’ll be furious.”
“The vendor needs to fix that.”
“Can you drag the URL into the editor and just have it bring in the content you want that way?”
“I want accordions.”
“My accordions are broken… I thought you said I didn’t need to know HTML?”
I was skipping along behind that speedboat and getting pretty beat up until the vendor I was contracting with said to send anyone with questions about development to him. I was barred from talking about design or development, and it was awesome. I could concentrate on the content of the pages instead of the damn colors or additional functionality. Managing content isn’t about web development. Web development is about web development. Managing content is about getting your users their information and making sure it’s authoritative and satisfying (Employee Services).
At the same time I was learning anything and everything I could about Drupal–my brains were fried by the end of every week, but I was learning and building on both Technical Writing and Content Management.I read about hooks, views, ctools. I delved into PHP, SASS, and anything else I happened to overhear from the vendor building the site.
What happened to the content?
One of the biggest issues, besides everyone agreeing that their content is the main reason people visit the site, is content that is written, published, and then abandoned. Someone eventually comes around to it and wonders why it isn’t working, and then they build something that does, and then it eventually gets abandoned as well.
This seemed to be the case for one of the sections explaining some of the PeopleSoft courses available to employees. For different jobs, you’d need different certifications; therefore, you’d need different courses. There were 14 pages with links everywhere–and it took you nowhere. You didn’t end up on the course–all set to get some certification or another–you ended up confused, frustrated, and calling someone instead.
I saw it as a personal mission to fix this one thing. I think it took me about three days of talking to SMEs to find out what it was, and what they wanted it to do. Once I knew its correct purpose, fixing the pages was logical and actually fairly simple.
I knew they needed a link that took them directly to the training, but they also needed a form, and instructions on which courses they needed for the certification they needed. I didn’t want them to have to leave the page at all–except for when they clicked on a course or certification. What I came up with was a mixture of tabular data and tabs.
They could navigate around all the information they needed without leaving the page–it was both authoritative because it carried all the information they needed; and satisfying because it led them directly to their courses. Feel free to check out the end-product.
Now I’m administrating the website for the City of Colorado Springs. We’re moving to a new site on Drupal, with the help of ClikFocus (a local Drupal shop), and we have about a decade’s worth of content laying around. I’ve worked with Police Officers, Museum Administrators, Parking Administrators, Human Resources, the Fire Department, Emergency Management, the Airport, and the list goes on. It is quite possibly the best job a content guy like me could ask for.
I don’t have any amazing stories yet, we’re still ramping up to the site launch here soon. I’m still training Content Managers, so I haven’t been able to really get into the content and start polishing it up–you know, working with SMEs to make it lean and mean. It’ll take us a while to get all of our content up to the level we all want it to be, but we’re on our way–one bite at a time.