Have Books, Will Strategize

Melissa Joulwan   September 21, 2009


Food for the content strategist’s soul. (image via gadl)

The Breakdown: Melissa Joulwan, Senior Content Strategist from Austin, tells us what she’s been reading to keep inspired and maintain her CS edge.

A few months ago, Rachel Lovinger answered the question “What Makes A Content Strategist?”

It got me thinking about the experiences, conversations, and books that shaped my approach to putting the right content in the right places.

I’ve been a writer since my dad hung my first story on his office wall (one-sentence, illustrated in crayon, written at Blue Mountain kindergarten). As content needs have evolved, my thinking has also expanded to embrace interactive content, video, graphics, photography, and social interactions, in addition to the storytelling and wordplay I love.

In no particular order, here’s the list of books that helped me grow from writer to content strategist and are still within arm’s reach for inspiration.

Random House Webster’s Word Menu
What it is:
It’s like a mash-up of a dictionary, a thesaurus, and an almanac, with more than 75,000 entries categorized around 800 subjects. Need to understand electronics terminology? Searching for international synonyms for “house” to describe a conceptual model? The Word Menu can probably help.

Why I like it:
Its relevant for both its content and its structure. For word nerds, it’s an easy-to-use resource to become an instant expert on just about any subject, complete with jargon and related terminology. I once used the Word Menu to pretend to master the language of electronics for a Radio Shack pitch. I schooled the whole team on transducers and circuits; the client was duly impressed. (Ask me about the Data Transducer conceptual model!)

From a structure perspective, it demonstrates the ways people search for and understand information. This single reference acts as a dictionary, thesaurus, reverse dictionary, almanac, and a collection of glossaries, allowing the reader (user) to consume the content from within their individual mental construct.

Rapid Viz
What it is:
It’s a quick-read instruction manual and workbook to help non-drawers share ideas visually. Emphasizing speed and simplicity over technique, it requires only pen and paper and good ideas for the artistically-challenged to hold their own with more visually-oriented thinkers.

Why I like it:
My drawing skills? Mostly nonexistent. But in our work, much of what we do needs to be communicated quickly on a whiteboard with a group that could include designers, illustrators, animators, technologists, account people, and more. The easiest way to make sure everyone is visualizing the same thing is to draw it. Rapid Viz provides a hands-on class in just 150 fun-to-consume pages.

Elements of Style
What it is
It’s the most cited, best-known treatment of English grammar and usage, detailing eight elementary usage rules, 10 composition principles, a few matters of form, and a list of commonly misused words and expressions.

Why I like it:
Strunk & White are 100% convinced theyre right, and they leave no wiggle room which I believe gives writers the freedom to consider the S&W way, and to choose another path.

To be fair, most of the time, S&W are right. Simpler is better. Clarity is king. And when a writer does opt for another way, that deviation sings and sparkles in contrast to its Spartan surroundings. My advice? Read it once a year as a refresher.

Understanding Comics
What it is

It’s a comic book about comics. So meta! Author Scott McCloud explains the visual language of comics, both as entertainment/art and as a communications medium for effective storytelling.

Why I like it:
There are strong parallels between storytelling in comics and way-finding online. In a comic, much of the narrative happens between the panels, and it’s up to the author and artist to provide the right context and the right paths through the content to deliver the story to the reader. That should sound familiar to anyone tasked with creating an interactive, digital experience.

The book’s seventh chapter, which outlines a six-part creative process, is particularly valuable for helping teams create a shared sense of how to get from initial assignment through concept and production to launch.

Cook’s Illustrated
What it is:
It’s the anti-glossy food mag, a sepia-toned, bi-monthly that includes recipes, cooking techniques, and product recommendations based on the kitchen action featured on the TV show America’s Test Kitchen.

Why I like it:
Cook’s Illustrated is a master class in how to deliver a voice and tone that effectively communicates with the reader and defines an unmistakable brand. Marrying the scientific method with a true passion for food (and a wry sense of humor), a CI recipe could never be confused with a recipe from anyone else.

“Ever since pineapple came to town, apple upside-down cake has been a bit player. A successful comeback would require a flavorful topping and just the right kind of cake.”

Choose Your Own Adventure books: The Cave of Time
What it is:

The Choose Your Own Adventure books, first published in the late ’70s, are young adult novels that put the reader in the protagonist role. At every plot turn, the reader selects the next action, and the plot branches, leading to more decisions and to multiple possible endings.

Why I like it:
I remember reading this book in third grade and loving the idea that I got to pick what would happen next. It was fascinating to see how the plot fit together like a Rubik’s Cube, and I flipped back and forth, systematically working my way through the options because I wanted to see how each choice played out. From a content strategy perspective, these books are a tangible reminder that end users are calling the shots (or should be calling the shots) in an interactive digital experience.

Chicago Manual of Style
What it is:
The Chicago Manual of Style (known as simply “Chicago” around a newsroom) is a grammar and usage style guide for American English. It’s been the so-thick-it-doubles-as-a-weapon standard since 1906.

Why I like it:
The rules! More detailed than AP Style and even more persnickety than Strunk & White’s Elements, the Chicago Manual of Style has answers to questions about usage that I didn’t know I had.

It was challenging to narrow my selections to this meager handful of titles. Some of the other books that are worth dissecting to extract the useful bits are AP Style, any epistolary novel (I’m partial to Willie Collins’s The Woman In White because it’s one of the first mystery novels.), Wired Style (Did you know Wired declared internet a common noun in 2004?), DRAW! from the authors of Rapid Viz, and the vampire grammar series that bloomed around The Transitive Vampire.

Now that I’ve shown you mine… what are the books you turn to for a metaphorical kick in the seat of the pants?


6 Responses

  1. Joe Doyle says:

    Excellent resources, Melissa. Thank you. I look forward to adding a couple to my collection.

    Strunk & White is – by far – my favorite go-to manual. There’s a reason it’s the perfect size for my Levi’s.

    – jd

  2. James says:

    Excellent list. I’m especially glad to see the love for Understanding Comics!

  3. […] Have Books, Will Strategize: a reading list for content strategy. […]

  4. CoyleArt says:

    Great list Melissa – I’m particularly interested in Rapid Viz and Understanding Comics. As an illustrator, I never really thought about how a layperson would be interested in acquiring some basic drawing skill in order to communicate their ideas. I’m always encouraging my friends to draw, no matter what their level of skill. But so often people are really shy and self-deprecating about their drawing. It’s great to see an artist (in Rapid Viz) introduce some helpful basic concepts like perspective and composition in a friendly way – we all have untapped abilities that are worth exploring.

  5. Carol Monk says:

    Mel, thanks so much for sharing this. You gave me some great ideas. I’m excited to stock up my Amazon Wish List. After all, in marketing land Xmas is right around the corner. My friend [in the White House ;-)] still emails me for grammar tips at which point I also reach for my S&W, just to make sure.

  6. […] Have Books, Will Strategize: a reading list for content strategy. […]

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