It’s summertime and we’re thrilled to present our next selection of great articles and reports about what’s buzzing in the writing business.
Thousands of articles covered May’s launch of Google Duplex, the AI “real world tasks” assistant. In her introduction to Duplex, Google CEO Sundar Pichai played two live phone calls between Duplex and a real person. In the first, the virtual assistant booked a haircut appointment at a salon; in the second, the assistant made a restaurant reservation for a party of four.
“I think it was the first “um.” That was the moment when I realized I was hearing something extraordinary,” wrote Lance Ulanoff on Medium, referring to the almost-human interaction between the computer and the people on the other side of the call. “In addition to the natural cadence, Google added speech disfluencies (the verbal ticks, “ums,” “uhs” and “mm-hmms”) and latency or pauses that naturally occur when people are speaking. The result is a perfectly human voice produced entirely by a computer,” added Ulanoff.
The Medium article explains that the Duplex conversations were the closest thing he’s seen to passing the Turing Test, an assessment designed in the 1950s by computer pioneer Alan Turing to determine whether or not a computer counts as “intelligent.”
While Duplex and other AI innovations are fascinating from a technological standpoint, developments in this field are also crucial for 21st century content and writing. As writers, we keep exploring new, cutting-edge ways of expressing ourselves and communicating with our audiences. So when the industry celebrates the ability to imitate the sounds that seem basic to us: the umms, the ahas and even the long silences, we know that the dialogue between humans and the machine is only getting started.
The writing and style of American writer Tom Wolfe were celebrated in thousands of publications. So when he passed away this spring at the age of 88, professional writers around the globe paid tribute to his genius and his gifts to the world of literature.
The Guardian remembered him as “a great dandy, both in his elaborate dress and his neon-lit prose.” Wolfe started writing for national and international publications soon after he received his PhD from Yale University. He was one of the forefathers of neo-journalism, a style defined as, “the art of using fiction techniques in nonfiction.” The Guardian described this unique genre and told of a time when Wolfe was sent to cover a music concert and wrote a “long piece about the way people sat on the grass listening to it.”
Wolfe was the author of award-winning novels such as The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of Vanities. The Times described Wolfe’s rigid daily routine. “Every morning he dressed in one of his signature outfits — a silk jacket, say, and double-breasted white vest, shirt, tie, pleated pants, red-and-white socks and white shoes — and sat down at his typewriter. Every day, he set himself a quota of 10 pages, triple-spaced. If he finished in three hours, he was done for the day.”
“I’ll rewrite until they take it away from me,” Wolfe told a Columbia Journalism School classroom in 2007. RIP Tom Wolfe, with your unique style, passionate writing and love for rewriting.
Imagine you’re a fly on the wall when someone reads your story. Better, imagine you’re a fly on the web, able to follow — from the inside — how users read your content. A recent paper, published by Nieman Lab, offers a new set of insights about “The Five Ways We Read Online.”
Curious? So were we. Instead of looking at the time spent on a page or how far down the page readers go, the paper’s author, Nir Grinberg, examined the percentage of visitors who actually read the text. He then identified five types of reader behavior: Scan, Read, Read (Long), Idle and Shallow.
Grinberg analyzed Chartbeat data of more than 7.7 million pageviews, published on 7 different publishers’ sites on a variety of topics such as financial, how-tos, sports and more. He discovered that different kinds of content evoke different types of user behavior. For example, sports readers scan the articles, looking for the results, while readers of how to articles tend to linger. In Grinberg’s words, they “idle for a little bit, then continue.” Grinberg went on to define a “semantic information gain” metric, which captures how quickly an article moves toward its final point. Content managers can use this system to predict user engagement and make better strategic decisions.
Copy editing. Grammar. Proofreading. They’re our pride and joy, our bread and butter. So, isn’t it just fantastic when they make international headlines?
Two articles we came across recently focused on President Donald Trump’s…grammar. The first tells the tale of Yvonne Mason, a high school English teacher from Atlanta, GA. She wrote to Mr. Trump to ask if he had visited every family of the Parkland, FL massacre victims. The administration’s reply angered Mason, both in its content and its grammar. According to The New York Times, “When she received the letter, she pulled out her go-to purple pen and started making corrections.” Mason pointed out the abundance of capitalization and styling errors. “Have you tried grammar & style check?” Mason wrote at the top of the White House’s printed reply.
It seems Trump may have read her response since capitalization seems to be on the President’s mind. The New York Times also reported on a recent Trump tweet where he defended his use of capitalization. Trump explained that he capitalizes certain words for “emphasis.” The Times went on to examine some of the grammar rules that the most powerful man in the world intentionally ignores. Trump aside, the article is a good read about the dos and don’ts of capitalization, especially if you are, as one grammarian quoted in the story points out, “next-level nerds.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to describe our writing jobs. What is it that we do, day in day out? In a recent article, Prototypr attempts to make sense of it all. “What’s the difference between UX writing and content strategy?” asks Dropbox’s Andrea Drugay. “The main goal of UX writing is to provide the “user” of a product or piece of software with a positive and easy experience. The main goal of content strategy is to plan, map, manage, create and publish a defined set of messages to achieve a particular outcome or set of outcomes,” Drugay writes. The article goes on to describe in detail the differences — and similarities — between these two jobs.
So the next time you’re asked about your job by an “outsider,” try taking a cue from Drugay. She said, “Content strategy thinks about how to get content in front of customers or prospects… since UX writing focuses on the words, many (but not all!) UX writers have “word nerd” backgrounds in writing, editing, publishing, linguistics or similar fields.”
Word nerds. I couldn’t imagine a better way to describe ourselves. We’re word nerds, and we’re proud of it!
And finally, a challenge:
We’re in the web business and, as such, we’re surrounded by developers. As coding isn’t always synonymous with puns, literary references or grammar-perfect sentences, we were thrilled to learn about the challenge posed to developers attending Abstractions, a Pittsburgh-based conference. (Did you catch our recent article about the similarities between Developers and Writers?)
As reported by Business Insider, the challenge was simple, but fun: Describe programming in a five-word tweet. The responses? Some of them were truly priceless: “Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance,” tweeted one participant; “It worked on my machine,” tweeted another. Our favorite? “World never says hello back.”
Think you’re the masters of language? Want to see these coders and raise them? Describe writing in 5 words in the comments below, or on Twitter with the hashtag #WordsMatter.
Here’s our contribution:
A great closing sentence required.
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