Morgan Bell is April’s Author of the Month. We have worked with Morgan on the Northamptonshire Heritage website project and been impressed with her enthusiasm, attention to detail and focus on high quality content.
David Bevan, Digital Improvement Officer, met with Morgan to discuss her approach to web authoring.
Hi Morgan, let’s start with the basics – what is the Northamptonshire Heritage website and what’s your role as part of it?
The aim of the website is to encourage people to visit more heritage sites and to identify with Northamptonshire as a county with rich heritage.
I’m not from the county and my view of it has changed since I worked on the site. I didn’t know much about Northamptonshire before but I’ve been surprised by how important it was in shaping significant historical events like the War of the Roses.
As far as my role goes, I’ve been building the website, concentrating on the content and laying it out using the new website templates. I have a list of historical topics that I research and I write up pages about them.
How do you approach researching the topics and writing about them?
The first thing we did was a consultation about what people wanted to see on the website. I worked through the subjects that came back from the public so I’ll look at a topic like the First World War, for example, and research how it affected Northamptonshire specifically.
I visit the libraries and archives and I also consult experts within the county to research Northamptonshire’s role in a historical event. Then I’ll write it up and make it easy to read and find images from different places such as the archives service.
You say you make the page easy to read – how do you achieve that?
I aim to write for a reading age of 12 in order to make the website accessible for people of different reading abilities. I try to keep my sentences short, words simple, and define any technical, archaic, or unusual words.
I also run each page through an online readability calculator to make sure it meets certain criteria – the target is a Flesch-Kincaid readability score of 60+, Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 8 or lower, and less than 15 words per sentence on average.
I also need to decide how to order the content. It depends on the topic – sometimes I’ll lay it out chronologically and I’ve done some by theme. The web team gave me feedback to use headings more to split up the information and make it more digestible so that’s something I always do now. Once I’ve finished writing, I get someone else in my team who doesn’t know the topic to read it and check it makes sense to them.
I try to put a summary at the top of every page so if a visitor to the site only reads that one bit, they’ll understand the gist of the topic.
Working on a website is a bit of a departure for me – my background and main area of interest is in museums, so I’ve picked this up from how museums put together their text panels.
Museums use something called ‘layers of interpretation’. They often display an introduction to a topic in larger text so that someone who’s not hugely interested might still read it. The Heritage website uses ‘Did you know?’ boxes to pull out key facts or interesting snippets of information, so I’m offering people with different levels of interest the same good experience.
Similarly with the Historical Figures section, some of the figures I’ve written about have their own page because there’s a lot to say about them and some have just an expandable image with a couple of paragraphs so you get an idea of what the person was like. It’s a case of adapting the content and using the layouts in different ways to reflect the importance or the depth of information on the topic.
I noticed a good proportion of the people in the Historical Figures section are women?
Yes, that’s a bit of an aim of mine. I read a story recently about Liv Jones, a girl from Buckinghamshire whose high school were renaming their classrooms after historical figures. Only 1 in 5 were named after women and she wanted to do something about it. She began a campaign called 'Rooms of our Own'.
I was really inspired by that so I’ve made an effort to make our Historical Figures section more equal. We’re still only at 35% of them being women at the moment but I have a few more to add!
There’s one I've just added about a woman from the Victorian era who wore heavy make-up, smoked in public when it wasn’t acceptable and rode around wearing her dead husband’s trousers! Stories like that are important to reflect the quirky side of history and heritage and get a wider range of people interested.
How do you measure the effect of what you’re doing on the website?
The web team have set up an automatic email report for me about the site telling me things like:
- what devices people are using
- the top ten pages
- the number of users
- the numbers of sessions
- how long people spend on the website
- the top search terms
From that, I can see which days had the most traffic on the site and check what was promoted that day. It gives me an idea of what people are interested in, the most popular pages and what people are searching for.
The report also helped me to flag up an issue that people were searching for things that wouldn’t display on the website so we developed the way the search feature works to bring these terms up in the results.
Thanks for your time Morgan and congratulations on being named Author of the Month.
You can visit the site at www.northamptonshireheritage.co.uk