The Blog of John Hewitt

Usability: People really don’t like surprises

People don’t like surprises. They especially don’t like to be surprised when they click on a link. A click surprise occurse whenever you click on a link and get something other than what you were expecting. In the e-commerce world this happens far too often.

  • You click on an item you want to buy but instead get routed to a page full of different merchandise.
  • You click on on “more information” and get routed to a sales pitch or a form.
  • You click on on the OK button to complete a transaction, only to be asked to give additional information.
  • You click on on a story title, only to be taken to a huge selection of sponsored stories, of which your original selection is only one choice.
  • You click on a video that claims to answer an interesting question, but soon derails into a sales pitch.

Click surprise isn’t just limited to e-commerce sites. Any time you give a customer, visitor or user something other than what they expected, that’s click surprise. If the user clicks on a headline that promises more information than it delivers, that’s click surprise. If the user clicks on a link (on site or off) and gets an error, that’s click surprise. Each time it happens, you run the risk of alienating the user.

The solution is simple. Deliver what the user expects. Always be honest. If you think you have to fool the user to get a sale, then you are probably selling the wrong thing.

Usability: Do you want the data or the conversion?

Over at Usability Counts they ran an article a while back about how Expedia generated $12 million a year in additional income just by eliminating a single, optional field from their form. The field was confusing to customers and resulted in many people abandoning their transaction right at the end of the process, just because Expedia wanted a little extra information and people didn’t know what to put there. Expedia might have looked for ways to make the request clearer, but instead they took the smarter step of just eliminating the field entirely. The extra information was a nice to have, the sale was the goal.

This struck a chord with me because I recently started an email account just for coupons, especially restaurant coupons. I then began going to the sites of all the restaurants I like and joining their email clubs. Thanks to Google, I can fill out most of a form automatically and the process goes quickly. The problem comes when a web site asks for more information than is necessary or expected.

All I want is for the site to email me their coupons so that I can use them for the occasional night out. I believe this is all that most people want when they sign up for a restaurant’s email list. We don’t want them to send us text updates. We don’t want them to call us. We certainly don’t want to register as a user on their site and give them a user name and password that we’ll never remember. Unfortunately, many restaurant web sites want us to do all of these things. It’s a waste of our time, and an abuse of our interest in them. I have to wonder how many potential customers give up when they see these fields.

The key, when you are trying to convert a lead, is to make it as easy as possible for the lead to say yes. That’s why I appreciated one site that simply asked for my name and my email address. That’s all they needed and I was happy to give it to them. A few seconds later, they emailed me a coupon and I used it the next day. That, my friends, is usability.

John Hewitt’s Writing Newsletter #8

Here is the web version of my newsletter. Feel free to subscribe.

Writing Prompts

Writing Skill Builder (A Quick Exercise)

Write at least 100 words about a piece of clothing that you own or for some reason find interesting.

Poetry Prompt

Write a poem about giving away something you wanted to keep.

Short Story / Fast Fiction Prompt

Write a story in which a character must clean something.

Essay / Non-Fiction Prompt

Write about the first place outside your home you remember visiting.

How Important Is It for Authors to Do On-Location Research?

On-location research allows us to walk through the physical worlds we create as writers and lets us fully live in the fantasies we create. The stories we tell when we return from those journeys are the kind every eager reader craves.

  • Don’t Just Write Your Notes–Draw Them
  • Plan to Be Surprised
  • Beat the Bushes for Details
  • Live in the Fantasy


Nonfiction Authors: How to Find Your Ideal Reader

  • Identify your topic.
    • What topic-related problem is addressed in your book?
    • What is the outcome behind the need?
    • What is book’s tone and personality?
  • Hang out with end users: the people with the problems.
  • Create a Targeted Marketing Plan

Look at What You Have to Identify Your Audience


Your Best Productivity Tips

Productivity Boosters

  • Accountability Partners
  • Public Accountability
  • Making Lists
  • Starting the Day Off Right
  • Having a Routine
  • Begin the Day Writing
  • Exercise First Thing
  • Get Enough Sleep
  • Rising Early


How to Get Readers into Your Story—and How to Keep Them There

The Wilson Principle – To hook your readers and get the story going quickly, your POV character needs someone to interact with.

Create a Red Wine Disaster – Start in the middle is to open the scene just before the conflict heats up.

The “No Crystal Ball” Rule – If you wish to foreshadow knowledge the character will later learn, use hints of body language or show the character trying to pinpoint why something seemed familiar, ominous, or surprising.


A long list of technical innovations semi-relevant to technical writers

Github, Bootstrap, Wikipedia, jQuery, Responsive design, SVG (scalable vector graphics), HTML5, StackOverflow, Static site generators, oAuth, REST APIs, JSON, WordPress, Google search, AJAX, Instant search, Youtube, Facebook, Reddit, Smartphones, Twitter and hashtags, Fitbit, Big data, Amazon, Netflix, Internet of things, Augmented reality, Swagger, Safaribooksonline, LESS and Sass, Codeacademy, Fontawesome, Markdown, Heroku, Jenkins, DITA,


How to write your first “how-to” blog post

  • Simple but effective headline
  • Introduction to the process
  • Titled steps
  • Conclusion
  • Additional Information


How to Become a Leader within Your Freelancing Industry


  • Read Books
  • Read Blogs
  • Read Magazines, Journals, and Papers


  • Create a Blog
  • Network, Network, Network
  • Join a Community

Stay Balanced

  • Get a Life
  • Read Other Literature
  • Use Time Wisely


Revision Prep: Create a Revision Plan

Things to look for:

  • Weak goal-conflict-stakes
  • Lack of character motivation
  • Sparse or missing descriptions
  • Heavy (or missing) backstory or infodumps
  • Slow or uneven pacing
  • Lack of hooks
  • Faulty logic
  • Weak or missing foreshadowing or clues
  • Areas that need more emotion


How to write Release Notes

About This Release

  • Where to find the software to download
  • Prerequisites
  • What’s New
  • Compatible companion products
  • System requirements
  • Documentation and Examples
  • Known Issues
  • Enhancements
  • Deprecated features
  • Removed features


Freelance Gigs

Freelance Content Writer – Robert Half

Robert Half Technology is searching for full time and freelance Web Content Writers for various clients in the Tampa Bay area. The Web Content Writer creates clear and compelling website content, including articles, product descriptions, online advertisements, promotional copy, social media content, e-newsletters, blogs and podcast scripts. The Web Content Writer edits and repurposes existing print copy for the Web, and plans and crafts email marketing campaigns. Requires strong writing and editing skills. HTML and search engine optimization skills are a plus. Candidates without professional writing and content samples will not be considered.
View at Robert Half

Freelance Headline Writer/Editor – Bloomberg

Bloomberg TV is searching for Freelance Headline Writer/Editors in our New York Office. Headline Writer/Editors are responsible for the new bulletins which appear on the screen. The role has two responsibilities: – Keeping up with breaking news and writing text for a TV audience. – Writing the ongoing news headlines that appear in the distinctive Bloomberg j-screen.
View at Bloomberg

Freelance Web Producers – YourTango

We are seeking freelance web producers to create content on our Drupal-based platform. This position involves taking already-existing content and inserting it into our system, making sure to fix formatting and to insert heds, deks, categories, tags, etc. The producers would also be responsible for conducting photo research, resizing and cropping images and uploading them to our site.
View at Indeed

Freelance Writer – UrbanBound

Freelance Writers for UrbanBound use their expertise and insider’s perspective to create content that acclimates fresh and soon-to-be-fresh residents to their new home cities. They research information about local hotspots and write about a range of topics based on their city’s unique qualities. Denver native? We might ask what outdoor excursions are musts (and how you cope with the weather). Live in Austin? We may ask you to create a guide to some of the top food trucks in the city. Other times we’ll rely on a writer to surprise us with information about a city’s unique awesomeness. From comprehensive City Guides to Top 10 Lists, projects span a wide range of subject matter and scope.
View at Urbanbound

Freelance Writer – Thrillist is hiring a freelance writer to contribute bar, restaurant, nightlife, and event articles for its Pittsburgh edition (launching soon) on an ongoing basis. Thrillist provides an opportunity to create exciting content that both local and visiting readers will find entertaining and informative, as well as share with friends on social media. The ideal candidate has an intimate knowledge of the restaurant and bar scene in Pittsburgh, as well as experience as a food, nightlife and/or destination guide writer in digital media. Additionally, candidates with strong photography skills are preferred. An understanding of SEO and social media is critical. This is a chance to work with a winning team in the men’s interest space and help build its future.
View at Indeed

Freelance Proofreader – Javelin Marketing

Javelin has an immediate opening for a FREELANCE Proofreader/Copy Editor onsite in our Irving, TX office.

Arguably one of the most important yet least heralded roles in the agency, the proofreader represents one of the last lines of quality control before work is released. This role reviews all assigned materials for accuracy, clarity and consistency of content/format. Strong knowledge of Chicago, AP and/or MLA style guides is a MUST.
View at Javelin

Freelance Soccer Editor – Heavy Inc., a news and information site with 13 million monthly unique visitors worldwide and a rapidly growing sports vertical, seeks a freelance writer/editor to plan and produce soccer coverage.

Join a lightning-fast newsroom that reacts in real time to breaking news and emerging trends. Get training on methods to rapidly add value and harness massive audience. We’re seeking motivated self-starters with an entrepreneurial spirit and a desire to make Heavy the go-to destination for soccer coverage worldwide.
View at Indeed

Freelance Junior Marcom Copywriter

Liaison has a range of upcoming project opportunities for an Austin-based freelance Junior Marcom Copywriter. Our Round Rock high tech client would like to build a long-term relationship with a new go-to pool of freelancers to help us serve all of our clients on an as-needed basis. The ideal candidate would help in creating quick turn collateral for a variety of programs and products, including infographics, solution kits and tool kits to name a few.
View at Indeed


Content Writer – Insight Global

Insight Global is looking for an experienced Content Strategist to join a versatile, strategic and entrepreneurial team. The right candidate will be a talented high-performer who is able to hit the ground running and take ownership of content strategy. This position will be focused on planning, creation, management and analysis of content to align with marketing and business objectives specifically maximizing customer conversion and retention.
View at Insight Global

Content Writer/ RFP Specialist – FlexPrint

The Marketing team is responsible for organizing, writing, publishing, and responding to request for proposals (RFP). As a Content Writer/RFP Specialist, you’ll be responsible for managing internal relationships with our business partners to understand our solutions. You will gather the necessary information needed to design and develop relevant and complete content, analyze submitted content and review for accuracy, relevance, brevity, and readability, and above all, ensure our audience finds our content useful and easy to understand. You’ll be expected to collaborate across multiple teams and locations in order to provide the best information possible. Researching, reviewing, creating content and RFP development will be your primary responsibilities.

Marketing Content Writer – World Wide Technology

World Wide Technology, Inc. is seeking a Marketing Content Writer to assist the Creative Services department to lead in the planning, development, coordination and execution of various written and visual marketing materials. This position is located at our headquarters in St. Louis, MO. The Marketing Content Writer is responsible for the positioning and messaging of products and solutions for various audiences in a variety of mediums. This role will interact with multiple areas of the company as well as vendors agencies.

Blogger/Content Writer – Abels & Annes, P.C.

Law firm seeks motivated writer to blog and create content to increase web presence in the Phoenix area. The position is unique in that it will allow the employee to work primarily from home but may require some in-person meetings with attorneys, clients or others associated with the firm. Desired candidates should be experienced writers and blogging experience is preferred but not required.

Content Writer – TiVo

We’re looking for a content writer to help us create technical documentation and training for internal Services & Support and Data Center audiences, and for external customers.

Work with technical subject matter experts to gather necessary information to develop content that is suitable for the intended audience. Write knowledge base articles, training slides, operations documents, and quick reference guides. Take direction from team manager or lead to develop engaging learning solutions that are consistent with department standards. Help identify and implement process improvements.

View at Jobvite

Staff Writer – California Medical Association

The Staff Writer will research, write and edit content of enterprise stories designed to elevate the image of CMA to public and non-member physicians. Help implement a comprehensive and proactive mass media strategy including newspaper, print, broadcast and web focusing on content around the areas of legislative, legal and regulatory advocacy. Develop content for hard copy and electronic publications highlighting the activities of CMA, targeted to recruiting new members and retaining current members.

Staff Writer & Communications Coordinator – Illinois IT

The CTBUH Staff Writer & Communications Coordinator will develop, write, and coordinate content for the increasing amount of written output of the Council, including digital and print publications; write and coordinate press releases and address media inquiries. The CTBUH is an international not-for-profit organization supported by architecture, engineering, planning, development and construction professionals, designed to facilitate exchanges among those involved in all aspects of the planning, design, construction and operation of tall buildings.

Staff Writer/Reporter – 1105 Media

We are expanding our editorial team, and seek an experienced staff writer to broaden our coverage of the business of federal technology.This individual will be an integral part of a highly collaborative newsroom, reporting and writing on both the latest news and big-picture trends. We need a hard-charging reporter, talented wordsmith and a curious mind to help tell our readers where their world is headed. Cover industry and government events, newsmaker appearances and other spot news throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, filing an average of 7-10 short articles per week. Research, report and write 2-3 longer pieces each month that get ahead of the story and can drive the conversation on key issues. Cultivate sources; deepen own expertise on the intersection of technology and government. Help conceive and develop story ideas both large and small

Staff Editor – R.H. Boyd

Reads and edits manuscripts for accuracy of doctrine and grammar. Reads and edits manuscripts for content of Baptist doctrine, grammatical errors, topic corrections, Scripture in printed text or added by writers. Deletes and/or adds material when necessary on the computer and hard copy.

Staff Editor – JSH Editorial

The staff editor is responsible for reviewing and editing articles, testimonies, and blogs for publication in The Christian Science Journal and Christian Science Sentinel or for posting on The staff editor works with authors during the editing process or as authors revise their articles. Editing skills include writing and editing for a wide audience. The incumbent may be asked to write articles, features, and columns, and to conduct and edit interviews. He/she seeks and cultivates individuals to write articles and testimonies. This individual maintains a standard of excellence while editing a high volume of manuscripts and ensures that Mary Baker Eddy’s purpose for the Journal and Sentinel is evident in the magazines’ content.

Staff Writer – American Bankers Association

The successful candidate must have a background in legislative and policy coverage, whether in economics, finance, regulation, transportation, energy or the environment. The candidate will have demonstrated the energy and determination to dig into the details of policy and the ability to explain them in a clear, fast and smart way on multiple platforms including blogs, mobile, tablets and podcasts. Candidates with a background in parsing complicated sets of data and tracking the state legislative process are preferred. This is a senior role for an experienced journalist, who is comfortable both offering quick assessments of daily news events for the website, as well as producing reported long-form policy features.

How to Talk About Yourself in a Query Letter

QueryA great article idea is the most important aspect of a good query letter, but it isn’t the only thing that matters. You don’t just need to sell the publication on your idea; you need to convince the publisher that you are the best person to write the article. Part of this process has to do with your overall writing style and the professionalism of your presentation. The other part is your discussion of your experience, writing credits and other qualifications. You need to show your potential publisher that you can handle the assignment. This is not the time to be humble. This is the time to brag a little about your abilities and experience.

Before I discuss what you should tell a potential publisher, I should make sure you know what you should NEVER tell them:

  • Never tell them that you are a first time writer who is looking for a break.
  • Never tell them about your personal or money problems.
  • Never tell them you don’t know the subject well but are looking to learn more.

Publications don’t care about your problems. They are looking for good writers. The last thing a publisher wants is to take a chance on someone who may not be able to deliver what they promise. Your goal should be to fill the publisher with confidence, not pity.

The best location to discuss your qualifications is just before the concluding paragraph of your query letter. You don’t want to waste time or space, so limit the discussion of your qualifications to those that are most relevant to the article you are proposing. For example, if you are proposing an article about retirement investment tax issues, it is relevant to mention that you are a financial planner with a track record in retirement planning, but those same facts would be irrelevant in a query for an article about living with chronic back pain.

You will want to mention a few of your past article credits. Again, they should be the most relevant credits you have. If you have nothing relevant, go with the most prestigious credits that you have, but relevancy trumps prestige. If you are employed as a writer for a particular publication, be sure to include that. If you have very few credits, just include the best that you have and don’t apologize for them. Just put them in and move on. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Here is a sample paragraph from a query letter:

I have been a certified financial planner for twelve years and a freelance writer for eight years. I have written extensively about the tax issues associated with retirement preparation. For the past two years I have written a weekly financial planning column for the Springfield Business Journal and have made several appearances on Good Morning Springfield as their retirement planning expert. I have also published retirement planning articles in Savvy Investor, Golden Years,  and Family Advocate.

Finally, you should include, along with your query letter, from one to three writing samples. If you are emailing your query, it is acceptable to include links to articles, but if you are sending a query by regular mail, you need to include the actual articles. Remember that you want to include whatever samples are most relevant to your query.

Nostalgia Punches Me in the Face

John Stewart is Stepping Down

I just finished watching John Stewart announce that he is leaving The Daily Show. It was hard to watch him make the announcement. I am not a daily The Daily Show viewer anymore, but there was a time when I wouldn’t miss it. In a sense though, I had moved on, just as he plans to do now. His show became a challenge to watch, from both a perspective of time and of emotional fortitude. Stewart, and the show, are always funny and insightful. The problem is that no matter how on the nose his commentary has been, it really changed nothing. The world is not a worse place that it was in 1999. It is actually better. Unfortunately, politics itself is a carnival of angry voices and poor decisions designed to make us think the world is worse. That isn’t going to change. Stewart couldn’t make a dent in it. It doesn’t make me any less fond of his attempts though. Sometimes is the the attempt that matters more than the result.


John Hewitt is not Stepping Down

Right about the time Stewart started hosting The Daily Show, I started I had been writing (about writing) on the Internet since 1993, but in 1999 I formally committed to buying a domain and making the effort to run a successful web site. Amazingly, I succeeded. At the peak of its popularity (2005 to 2009), this site averaged over 150,000 page views a month. There were less than a half-dozen writing sites that were bigger. I was close to becoming a full-time blogger. At that point though, I made a series of decisions about life and the site that started a slow decline in traffic that was helped along by forces such as Facebook, Twitter, and hackers. There’s a lot I don’t miss about those days, but I do miss the excitement of having a successful site.

I could easily make a top ten list of things you should never do if you’re a blogger, and they would all be based on things I have actually done. I have made a lot of well-intentioned mistakes, and a few downright boneheaded moves. Nonetheless, persists. What was 150,000 page views a month now totters between 40,000 and 50,000, which is actually up from a year ago, when I hit a low of 18,000. I have slowly but surely been rebuilding. Recently I said I was going to stop doing a lot of things on this site (put that on the list of things not to do), but with a month to reconsider I am feeling like might have at least one good run left in her.

Bringing Things Back

I don’t know if it is possible to climb back to the top tier of sites, but I am going to try a few things. Toward that end, the jobs section is back (after a long absence) and the freelance section is back (after a much longer absence).

Beyond that, we’ll see what happens. I still plan to put in a new section for my fiction, but that is going slower than I would have hoped. As for new articles, we’ll see what I’ve got so say (and about what). One thing I can guarantee though is a lot of parenthetical statements (because that is just what I do).

What I’m Reading

Kevin Kaiser over at The Write Practice has an article about The Secret to Having the Most Productive Writing Year Ever. I could use a most productive year ever, and I like the advice about specificity and measurement.

Jamie Gold, paranormal author tells How to Place Turning Points on a Beat Sheet. Pay close attention to the four major beats and the four minor beats.

Tom Johnson at I’d Rather Be Writing asks Why do we need PDFs? I’ve been trying to move my company off of PDFs for a couple of years. In my opinion, they were once a great tool, but they lead to book-style thinking. In most technical communication cases, books are of limited use and PDFs do not age well.

Anne Wayman over at About Freelance Writing provides 10 Ways Writers Can Beat Self Promotion Fear And Market Themselves. Self-marketing is always a challenge. The balance between getting your name out there and annoying the hell out of people is a delicate one. Often, you think you are being worse than you really are. Sometimes though, you really do annoy the hell out of people.