Siobhan McKeown Interview
Siobhan’s love affair with the web began at age 14 — when the crackling tones of her dial-up modem connected her to a new world outside the Irish countryside she called home. Today, she makes her living creating content for WordPress designers and developers around the world through her consultancy, Words for WP.
How did you fall in love with the web?
When I was about 14 my parents moved out of Belfast, N. Ireland, to the countryside surrounding the city. I suspect that this was a way of getting out of the rough area that we lived in. To them it must have offered peace of mind, to me it was hell. I wanted to hang out with my friends but I lived in a place with no bus service, I was too young to drive, and I felt completely trapped.
When we moved in to the new house we got a dial-up connection on our PC. I’m sure people of my generation can remember the excitement of the crackly dial tones of the computer as you logged into AOL for the first time. While I was physically isolated in the countryside of N. Ireland, I could connect to the entire world. It was a pretty liberating feeling. Since then I’ve always loved that feeling of being connected — there are so many possibilities on the internet.
That said, it’s certainly a love-hate relationship. I love it because it gives me freedom to create my own job, to communicate with people all over the world, and be a part of an international community. But sometimes I wish I could just switch it off. I get a definite feeling of mental peace and spaciousness when I am cut off from the web which is becoming more and more infrequent. That probably says more about my own ineffectual willpower than it does about the web though.
Why Words for “WP” (WordPress) in particular?
Writing has always been a huge part of my life. Everyone has something that they are just naturally good at, and for me it has been putting words together. At the same time, I also enjoy tinkering with the internet. I was building websites using WordPress when I saw that James Farmer was looking for bloggers at WPMU.org. I thought why not? And he hired me.
About a year later I interviewed Michael Kimb Jones (of WonderThemes). I was reading his website and there were a few places where the content was incorrect. I pointed this out to him and he said that he had hired a professional copywriter but that he guessed that she wouldn’t necessarily be all that familiar with WordPress. That’s where Words for WP came from. There were no content creators dedicated just to WordPress, and since I’m good at writing and know about WordPress, I thought why not me? I sent out a survey to people I knew in the WordPress community and some came back saying “when can you start?” I knew I was on to something — a whole niche just for me.
Tell us about your most favorite project — what was most challenging about the project, and how did you overcome those challenges?
The work I do gives me the opportunity to work with varied clients on different projects. But if I have to choose one, my favorite project has got to be my ongoing writing gig with Smashing Magazine. I’ve been writing there for about a year now and I still get a thrill whenever a post goes live. This is partly because I love seeing my avatar on Smashing Magazine (somewhere I only dreamed it would be when I started writing on the web), and partly because Smashing Mag is an amazing platform for showcasing the best of the WordPress community. I get to feature people who I know are doing interesting work who may not normally be in the limelight — that is a fantastic feeling.
Another thing I love about Smashing Magazine is that the team there is so supportive. Jeff Starr is a thoughtful editor who always gives useful feedback. And Vitaly Friedman is a big advocate of WordPress — so much so that Smashing Magazine sponsored my trip to the community summit in October.
The most challenging thing about writing for such a high profile blog is maintaining integrity and accuracy. There can be a tendency for standards to slip when writing for the web, and Smashing Magazine does an excellent job of implementing a rigorous editorial process.
The challenge of accuracy arose even before I started at Smashing. I published a blog post on WPMU.org about speeding up WordPress — I’d just researched it from other blog posts. All was going well when Mike Little, one of the founders of WordPress, pointed out that I had got a load of stuff wrong. That was pretty embarrassing — not just to be called out, but called out by a WordPress founder — ouch! It was a really important experience though, as it made me realize that I don’t just produce content for the sake of traffic generation, but I produce content to educate people. I’ve got a responsibility to make sure my content is accurate, both in terms of maintaining my own reputation, and in preventing the spread of misinformation (which the internet is so good at). As a result I became a much better researcher and fact checker, and Mike’s input was instrumental in that. Of course, the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know, and the more cautious I become.
At Smashing Magazine accuracy is even more important since traffic is so much bigger. By being published on Smashing Magazine, an article carries weight and credibility; it’s the writer’s responsibility to live up to that. This is why the majority of my articles are based on interviews and research. My own knowledge is limited, but the knowledge of the entire WordPress community is vast.
A recent article I wrote was on high performance WordPress. This is a topic that I know nothing about — the idea that I could talk about the details of caching is still a little bit crazy. Even though the article was interview-based, I had to ensure that I didn’t lose any of the sense by translating it from developer-speak to article-speak, especially since I was using information from some of the most respected developers in the community. Luckily, by being involved in the WordPress community, I had developers on hand who would read through it for me, and Simon Wheatley (of Code for the People) sanity checked it. Also, the Smashing Magazine editorial process is pretty rigorous, and I asked Jeff to send it to people who knew a lot about high performance. Still, I was incredibly nervous when the article went live and it was a huge relief that I pulled it off.
Tell us about the WordPress.org documentation project. What are the project’s goals? Do you need assistance? If so, and if someone wanted to lend a hand, what’s the best way to get involved?
The WordPress documentation project is really in the process of being defined by the various people involved. Of course, there’s always been people working on WordPress documentation, the Codex is testimony to that, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t scope for further development. Documentation isn’t simply about creating manuals that people learn from, it’s about communicating targeted knowledge so that users can achieve their goals.
When I launched Words for WP, I thought that I’d just be writing documentation for people, but it’s become much more involved than that. Creating documentation is a negotiation between the user interface and the documents. Where possible, the UI should be intuitive enough so that people can achieve what they need, and layers of documentation should support that. The best documentation in the world is no substitute for an impeccable UI.
The biggest challenge that I face when working with WordPress companies — and WordPress.org has the same problem — is that user documentation and developer documentation are mixed together, often in the same format. This is a problem for both groups. Users should only be provided with what they need with additional resources should they want to learn more. Throwing in information about hooks or APIs makes them feel inadequate because often it’s meaningless to them. At the same time, developers have to sift through a bunch of unnecessary information to get to what they need. It’s not surprising that it’s this way. The majority of WordPress products are built by developers and documentation is an afterthought. Developers are not always in touch with what users need.
With WordPress, I’d like to produce targeted documentation and learning material that fits specific use cases. The handbooks project is a great example. The use case here is people who what to contribute to WordPress. We need to provide them with a clear path to get what they need done, minus any additional fluff. Unlike traditional print manuals, we have the luxury of hyperlinks, which we can use to provide people with additional information should they need it. By layering documentation we can say “Hey, this is everything you need to get things done — but if you want to know more, go here.” As well as handbooks for specific contributor groups, we’re working on handbooks for plugin and theme development. These should provide developers with everything they need to develop a plugin or theme to the standards required by the WordPress repositories. At the minute we have around forty volunteers for this project, but we can always do with more. You can go to the make.wordpress.org/docs/ to learn more. And don’t feel that you’ve got to be an expert in a specific area to help out — we’ll also need proofreaders and copyeditors. Close reading of content such as this is a great way to both learn and help out.
Another way to get involved is to help out with the WordPress Codex. Anyone can write the Codex! I’m surprised by how many people I speak to who have no idea that they can edit it. All you need is a WordPress.org account. If you see a typo or an error on the Codex, fix it. If you can’t find a solution to a problem, but you do find it elsewhere, write it up for the Codex. Also, as you might imagine, when a new version of WordPress is released, the Codex needs to be updated. There is a list on the docs blog of things that need to be done — check out the list, fix up the page and tick it off when it’s complete. This is a massive help!
We’re also looking at other ways that the docs team can be helpful — for example, the UI group has been looking at the help tabs in the WordPress Admin Screens. We’d like to investigate how we can improve the content. This seems like a great time to work on it as we can work with UI to make sure we’re creating a fantastic experience for users.
To get involved, just drop by the make.wordpress.org/docs/ blog, stop by the weekly docs chat on Thursday at 2100 UTC in the #wordpress-sfd chat room on the IRC freenode channel, or feel free to message me on Twitter @SiobhanPMcKeown any time. Writing is a great way to learn, and there are people who can help out and mentor you so you won’t feel that you’re on your own.