Comparing revisions

Being able to compare and work with the changes between two different revisions of a page can prove to be very useful when reviewing past modifications, making adjustments based on a previous version, or merging past and current content. Platforms like MediaWiki and WordPress have a feature called ‘diff‘ which shows the differences between two versions of a page, identifying the exact changes by line. While the WMS-Drupal system has an annotation feature which allows edit summaries to be logged by the editor, it is currently unable to highlight changes to the content. This is where external diff software becomes useful.

WinMerge is free and open-source diff software for Windows. The user pastes the content of each version of the text to be compared into the two main panes. A slight inconvenience to using it with WMS is that the editing screen of an old revision cannot be accessed without reverting to that revision. This makes it difficult to retrieve the HTML behind the page. A solution would be to display the older revision and use your browser’s ‘view source’ feature to see the HTML. Select the text within <div class="content">—this should be the actual main content of the page. Note that some elements, particularly those that are created by placing [ ] tags in the text (as course titles and embedded videos are) will appear as different HTML.

After text has been entered into the two comparison panes and the view is refreshed, the software will identify and highlight all lines with differences. The user can quickly skim through these or individually navigate through each one of them. Any necessary changes can be made directly to one of the versions, or the merge tools can be used to replace one or more lines in one version with the respective line(s) in the other. When all the changes have been made, the text can be copied and pasted back into the WMS HTML editor and saved.

In addition to text comparison, WinMerge has the ability to compare files and folders, which may be useful for syncing between two sources. For more information on WinMerge’s features, check out WinMerge’s about page. If you’re interested in other diff software (for another OS), see Wikipedia’s comparison of file comparison tools.

FAQs and the web editor

The Frequently Asked Questions section is a web standby, but personally, I’m not a fan. As a user, I only use the FAQ as a last resort, once the rest of the site has failed to answer my questions; as an editor, I tend to similarly view it as a last resort. What’s more, I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone to an FAQ, only to find that not only is the question I have not covered, but the questions presented seem hardly ‘frequently asked’ at all.

On the flipside, it can be easier to parse the conversational tone of FAQs, and some information might be inappropriate to put elsewhere. The real problem with FAQs is that they are simply not the most efficient way to encode information, as they can be very difficult to scan. There are a few things that you can do to help with this:

  • Rather than duplicating information available elsewhere on your site, link to it in the answer.
  • Keep it short! Try to limit yourself to 10–12 questions in a FAQ, and keep the answers down to a few lines.
  • Categorize your questions. This helps with scanning, and can make the page feel more directed.
  • Use the FAQ to collect the information you really can’t fit anywhere else, or information which might otherwise be difficult to parse (for example, technical or legal information). Do not rely on the FAQ format to present all your information.
  • Not every site needs a FAQ. If you can adequately convey your message and all your important information with standard pages, there’s really no sense in including a FAQ at all.

I admit, I had some difficulty writing up this post; like I said, I’m not a fan of using FAQs in editing, but I do find myself going to them fairly often as a user. I tend to attribute this to poor design choices (I’m much happier when I don’t have to pore over the FAQ), but maybe I’m wrong to do so. This is definitely something that warrants discussion, so let me know what you think (note that the login button for this blog has moved to the bottom of the page).

20 good Web writing tips

A Danish consulting firm call FatDUX has put together a list of 20 Web writing tips that could serve us all well. They echo some of the things we mentioned in our Web writing Lunch and Learn a while back, and while they aren’t exactly rocket science, if 80% of us applied them 80% of the time, McGill’s website would be one of the best-written around.

First on their list is the famous William Faulkner quote: “Kill your darlings:”

“Basically,” FatDUX says, “it means you should take a critical look at what you’ve written. I often discover that if I cut out my first paragraph, I will improve the text 100%. On the web, visitors want you to get to the point. They’re not on your site to admire your fine writing.”

Another good one: “Minimize instructions.” They write:

Here’s a fabulous example from Steve Krug’s outstanding book, Don’t Make Me Think:

“The following questionnaire is designed to provide us with information that will help us improve the site and make it more relevant to your needs. Please select your answers from the drop-down menus and radio buttons below. The questionnaire should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete.”

OK. Either folks know what a drop-down and radio button is or they don’t. Is there really a reason to tell people which techniques you’ve built into your survey? There’s also too much reference to “us” and “we”. You’re asking the reader to do you a favor. Act appreciative. ´

Here’s how Steve edited out the instructions and turned the message into something that was useful and potentially valuable to readers:

“Please help us provide better on-line service by answering these questions. It should only take you 2-3 minutes to complete this survey.”

Looks easy, but it requires thought. And you have to be aware of the problem, which you now are.

Left off the list is that concise gem from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Omit unnecessary words.” It’s a mainstay of good writers everywhere, and no one has ever said it better. If you do any writing at all and don’t own the book already, pick it up; it’s $12.38 at Amazon.ca, and its 105 pages are worth many times their weight in gold.

Check out the rest of FatDUX’s tips if you like, and try to apply some of them to the next piece of writing you do on the McGill site. Then get some students or co-workers together and see what they think. You may be surprised by the difference a few simple guidelines can make.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.