Lessons for the aspiring screencaster from Strunk and White
Most Americans, at some point in their academic careers (could be high school, college, or in my case, both), have an English composition class foisted upon them by the local administration. This is done with the supposed motivation of churning out graduates who can express themselves succintly and coherently in written form. Persons armed with this knowlege will be able to master business reports, research studies, doctoral dissertations, you name it.
Or, at the very least, have the most eloquently written MacDonald’s employment application on the block…
One text that’s basically regarded as standard issue in these courses is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, and has been thus since its initial publication in 1959. I bought my first copy back in 1989, when the book was a mere pup at the tender age of 30. In its more than 50 years on the shelves, this tiny grey paperback has prevented millions of grammatical foibles the world over, defusing everything from awkward sentence structure to the careless use of non-words like irregardless.
I recently pulled my dog-eared copy of the shelf in an attempt to decide the correctness between “None of us were there” and “None of us was there” (it’s the latter, by the way), when I came across an essay at the back that I hadn’t remembered. It was called “An Approach to Style,” and moved away from the specific prescriptivist “grammar police” ruleset that comprised most of the book, and instead just offered up a list of basic guidelines to bear in mind when communicating with words.
I was astounded by how many of these suggestions were readily applicable to narrated visual media as well, despite the fact that it was written a good 45 years before Jon Udell ever coined the term “screencast.” I wanted to share a few of these with you.
Place yourself in the background. “Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author.”
This is a particularly sticky one for marketing screencasters. When crafting a video advertisement or marketing spot, it’s vitally important to focus on your audience. Their lives, their problems. With luck, you can be there to offer the solution. There are instances (such as this newsletter), where it’s appropriate for the author to be more “present” within the content. But you can’t ever lose sight of your users and the benefit to their lives that you’re attempting to bring to the table. More on this next month.
Do not overwrite. And this goes hand-in-hand with two other basic tenets of theirs, Write in a way that comes naturally and Avoid fancy words. “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”
As you write your narration script, you must take care to avoid the kind of thick, jumbled wordiness that makes your video impossible to penetrate without a dictionary in hand. Most people won’t bother, so don’t use a 75-cent word when a 10-cent one will do. This goes doubly for industry terms and other technical jargon. Only use a technical term when no other more common replacement exists, and when you’re certain that at least 95% of your audience will understand it. Take a second in your narration to clarify the term if you’re not sure.
Do not explain too much. “It is seldom advisable to tell all.”
Amen, brothers. Amateur screencasters often make the classic rookie mistake of explaining every field and button. Even a comprehensive tutorial should exist to show completion of a given task or set of tasks. Clarify only those features and aspects of the application that are directly involved in getting the user from point A to point B. In screencasting, the hackneyed slang phrase “Too much information!” really does apply, so don’t inundate your audience with a lot of extraneous info.
Revise and rewrite. “Revising is part of writing. Few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try.”
Revision is a necessity in the screencast production process. If possible, try to segment your revision as much as possible. What does this mean? Well, take a quick look at my workflow, which generally goes something like this:
Write narration > Craft storyboard > Record footage > Edit silent cut > Record and clean up narration > Produce final output
You should be giving the decision-makers (clients, managers, etc.) access to your work at nearly every point in this process. If there’s an unnecessary paragraph in your narration, it’s a lot easier to correct early on, when it’s just words on paper. If something’s destined to get the ax, you’re wasting valuable time by coming up with visuals, recording clips, and cutting it all together.
Don’t overstate. “When you overstate, readers will be instantly on guard, and everything that has preceded your overstatement as well as everything that follows will be suspect in their minds because they have lost confidence in your judgment or your poise.”
Overstatements are dangerous territory, particularly for marketing screencasts. Yes, you want to convey the benefit of your product or service, and yes, those benefits should be as compelling as possible. Just don’t promise them the moon. Or, promise them the moon, provided you’re ready to deliver on that promise and you can provide good testimonials and other proof that you’re not just full of hot air.
Good stuff. The advice of these two men from nearly a half century ago is as relevant as ever to those of us who create content for a living.