The role of the copywriter is to produce all the program's voiceover scripts and written content: the screen text and captions that will appear throughout the program and, also, any online help text and support materials text. It may be that the copywriter is also the content specialist. Normally, though, the content expert does not have the requisite experience to produce program-ready copy. In this case, the copywriter performs the job of an editor in converting for the program text produced by others.
In this work, the copywriter liaises mainly with the interactive designer, content specialist and project manager. Normally, the interactive designer, after consultation with the content specialist, draws up a specification for the copywriter which details the maximum word/character length of each text chunk to be written and the maximum or desired duration of voiceovers in minutes and seconds.
The copywriter editor should possess good oral and writing communication skills. A background in teaching, training or another discipline which involves presenting ideas and responding to learner's difficulties is advantageous. They should know their audience, to the extent that 1. they can see things from the other's point of view, to anticipate and avoid potential user difficulties; 2. they anticipate user expectations is also desirable; 3. they can write in appropriate language. They should be able to write for voice, if voiceovers are to be included.
The page is a more-or-less linear medium from the point of view of the expression and flow of ideas. Interactive media often involves random access, and information has to be separated into screen-size chunks. As a result, any expression of the flow of ideas through several screens in problematic.
In the composition of that screen text, try to anticipate the myriad ways in which that information viewed at that particular moment has been accessed and depends for its successful communication on previously presented knowledge or hyper-links.
Keep handy a writer's or editor's styleguide book, a good printed dictionary (not relying totally on your wordprocessor's spell-checker dictionary) and a grammar (if you are unsure about grammar and punctuation).
Adapt the dialogue to the user. Use language appropriate to the reading age of the target user. Many public galleries follow a principle of writing captions for the general public that an average twelve-year-old will be able to read comfortably. The trick is to produce text which is neither condescending in tone or beyond the comprehension of the reader. When writing materials for young children, an educational adviser should be consulted on the appropriateness of the language. Alternatively, studying the test methods used by primary-school teachers in establishing a pupil's reading level is a useful preparation for originating or converting materials for younger children.
Express ideas precisely. Sentences should be short and to the point, without being abrupt. Avoid rhetoric. Unless you are deliberately intent on mystifying your subject matter with long words and jargon, ideas should be expressed in simple language.
A program may be thought of as a play in which the user participates. (See Brenda Laurel) Consequently, at the end, assessment might include not just the user's enjoyment and knowledge or skills gains, but also their own performance in the playing-out of the interactive drama which was their experience of the program. Like a play, too, the structure and design of sectional episodes are critical to the success or failure of the work. The user's experience in each interactive session may be conceived to be composed of a beginning, middle and end, and this contributes to the user's sense of direction, completion and satisfaction with their experience. Approaching writing in this way is important if problems are to be avoided in which the user enters the program to wander aimlessly through its various branching information corridors.
Program content may possibly be constructed to have a beginning, middle and end, that is, to develop progressively. This is the case with many computer-based-training packages. If that is so, then the extent to which user's are locked out of some sections until the successful completion of more elementary ones is problematic. In this case, random access to sections opens sections which depend on understanding acquired in earlier modules or on previous pages. As much as possible, tools which permit cross-linking/cross-referencing should be devised. Failing that, information should be restated in the text which would otherwise not be restated if the materials were presented on paper.
Lessons from screen-play writing...
If you must use acronyms, then remember to explain the acronym. And bear in mind that, because interactive programs typically permit random access, it is particularly important to ensure that the user will everywhere know how to check the meaning of the acronym.
Check for, and adjust, language that could be interpreted ambiguously. For example, when testing a chidren's program one time with a group of five-year-olds, I was amused to learn that several of them interpreted the phrase "with little problem" to mean that there was "a little problem". The phrase was changed to "with no problem". Sexual euphemisms are so varied and changing all the time that avoiding otherwise innocent words and phrases that carry slang sexual overtones can be difficult.
Write for the literal-minded user, as Harley puts it. In an example, she suggests that the command Enter "Go." may result in a user entering not just the word GO but the terminal period also. She does not point out that the user may type in the inverted commas, also. Nor is it clear that the letter case (whether upper or lower case) may be important to the successful completion of the operation.
Captions to accompany multimedia assets (photos, graphics, animation, movie and sound files) should be short. They should have descriptive titles and may indicate the provenance of an item and carry copyright or other acknowledgements. The maximum number of characters should be set by the interactive designer.
Should text be presented in scrolling text boxes or split between consecutive screens? This is a matter of preference for the interactive and screen designer. Both affect the readability of the text and consequently its composition.
When captioning photographs or scripting voiceovers, there is a case for letting the images speak for themselves to some extent. Phrases like "In the picture you can see..." are redundant and a waste of screen space.
Be consistent throughout the document, grammatically, stylistically and technically (from the point of view of the use of terms). For example, throughout these Guideline materials, the term "content specialist" has been used consistently. Mixing the terms "content specialist" and "content expert" has been avoided, to avoid confusing the user as to whether a deliberate distinction is being made or not. It is not acceptable that the point has been clarified in one part of the program if the ambiguity arises later in a section randomly accessed.
Ideas should be presented in a natural, logical order or sequence. They should be developed from elementary to complex. Patterning information in this way improves the ability of the user to understand and retain it.
Use illustrations to explain and describe
Choose picture types which support the subject
Use sound selectively. The use of sound to provide feedback can be helpful. Sound can also be used to encourage a particular attitude
When possible, present instructions audibly
Use animation to lead the user through the presentation
Respond to the user
Consider the proposed environment for the presentation
Incorporate rest breaks
Consider multiple media
In addition to the above, pedagogical priciples (hypertext link here) are important to the copywriter in framing his/her ideas.
Harley mentions two points related to user expectations of computers. She recommends avoiding making the computer sound human because, according to Hartley, users expect computers to "act like computers" and are uncomfortable if they do not. She suggests that attempts to give the computer a persona by using the first person, "I", in messages should be avoided. Secondly, she suggests that users expect computers to be exact, and so phrases like "a couple of" should be translated as "two", because in everyday speech "a couple of" could mean three or more. On both points Harley may be correct, but whether we should accept or challenge user's expectations is an open question.
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Hartley, R. (1993), "Guidelines for Multimedia Usage", Proceedings of the 11th Annual Conference of SIGDOC '93: 95-106
Horton, W. (1989) Designing and Writing Online Documents: help Files to Hypertext (New York)
Horton, W. (1991) Illustrating Computer Documentation: the Art of Presenting Information graphically on Parer and Online (New York)
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Quality Documentation Process: Conducting and Interpreting User Surveys (Dayton, OH: national Cash Register Corporation, 1990)