Working Backwards to Paper

I’m speaking [for literally the umpteenth time] on protecting confidentiality in a law practice that uses technology.  This year, instead of starting my CLE materials in a word processor, I’ve started on the web and worked backward.  For me, it required a bit of a mind shift.

The CLE organizer distributes a print binder of materials to participants.  Except for my paper which, over the years, has been exempted because it relies heavily on links.  Instead, my paper is placed with the other materials on a USB drive that is also given to the participants.

Born digital.  We see that term a lot but there’s a lot of ways that happens.  In the past, I’ve worked from a Microsoft Word document.  I’ve kept it clean of multimedia, used hyperlinks, and consistent application of styles.  That way, when I was finished, it would be easy to:

  • Save as a PDF for sharing online
  • Save as HTML for [extensive cleanup and] potential reuse

One year, I took the paper and turned it into a free ebook that can be read on the web or downloaded for an offline e-reader.

But I spend a lot of time on the web and, as I was working through some recent WordPress site theme upgrades, it made me realize how backwards my process was.  Even if the Word document lacked features that I could put online, I should start with the best and just remove elements as I went.

Here’s the web version of the paper.

Adding Multimedia and Callouts

The Automattic TwentySeventeen theme is what this site is currently using.  On pages, it can show a wide side margin, which I’ve started to use to put some of the page headings, and other marginalia.

One reason I like this margin is that I dislike endnotes in online resources.  They pull you out of what you’re reading and, unfortunately, are often just links to other sites that could have been linked in context.  When I speak on the topic, though, there are sometimes examples – data points, web sites – that I mention specifically that aren’t in the paper, but that still deserve a call out.  That’s what I’m using the margin for.

Right at the top, I used it to highlight the availability of an epub version of the web page.  The margin shows the cover image for the ebook, and a link to a free download.

Screenshot of part of the Lawyers, Tech, and Confidentiality page from 2018, showing part of an ebook cover.

Once the web page was complete, so as to be submitted a month early for the CLE publication deadline, I was able to convert it to other formats.  The easiest was to save the page as HTML and import it into Sigil, an open source ebook editor.  I’ll touch on that more, below, but I want to give a couple of other examples of the margin.

The second example is similar to what I might mention in a presentation.  Listing all of these items in a paper is boring and disruptive.  Endnoting them is distracting.  Here, I can create the equivalent of a footnote that can be glanced at or ignored by the reader.

Screenshot of the paper’s margin, showing hyperlinks and IP addresses for using public DNS.

Those of you who are Microsoft Word experts will note that both of those examples are things you can do in Word.  Create a large left margin, and use free-floating text boxes or some other method to fill the margin.  You can definitely do that, but I think it’s easier to work backwards from the web to do that than from Word up to a content management system.

The third item is multimedia.  There are lots of reasons not to put them in a Word-initiated paper, let alone that they get lost when you get to PDF.  This way, someone who views the paper on the web can immediately (a) listen to some example podcasts related to the paragraph adjacent and (b) jump out to listen to other episodes.

Screenshot showing audio players for technology podcasts hosted by Phil Brown, the “Podcast King”.

None of this is revolutionary.  As I said at the start, it’s more of a mind shift than anything.  By starting in Word, I was creating the paper from the narrowest possible set of elements possible.  While I could have added these elements in at any time – I’ve attempted this exact thing in Word – I didn’t, at the time, have the interest in theming my site to enable it.  It’s much easier to strip these elements out as I prepare to publish in less capable formats.

The eBook and the Word Document

Any browser should allow you to save your web page as HTML.  Use the version that says complete.  This is the opposite of what you’d do if you were going from Word to the web.  It will save all of your HTML code as well as supporting files, as if you were going to use an offline browser.

When you open up your HTML file in Sigil, it will import all of your supporting files into the epub.  That includes everything, even if it is not supported within an ebook format, like audio files.

At this point, the cleanup is pretty much all you have to do.  Tip:  if you use WordPress, view the page as someone who is not logged in to your site, or in an incognito window or different browser.  Otherwise it will import all of the styles and elements that are used to create the administrative toolbars and editing tools.  For the most part, I just selected CSS files and hit delete.

The reason to do the ebook before the Word document is that (a) Word will like your clean HTML and the cleanup is a lot less coming from the web rather than from Word and (b) most of the elements, like audio, that won’t work in your ebook will also not work in Word.  The epub content is almost entirely ready to drop into a Word document.

Sigil has a toggle at the top of the screen so you can switch between normal view and code view.  Once your epub is ready, you can copy the book contents into Word.  Toggle to the normal view, select all (CTRL + A) and cut and paste into a blank Word document.  My experience is that it will accurately bring over text and styles.  It will not bring over the images, but you can do that manually.

You’ll still need to do some work to get the Word document entirely presentable.  CLE conferences often have a specified template or footer for consistency, and so that has to be added in.

And Measurements

This was a much easier process for me to manage, since, when I was stopped writing, my most important document – the web page – was finished.  I had another hour or two of formatting, first in Sigil and then in Word, before the final paper was ready to PDF and send to the CLE staff.

An added benefit is that I can measure usage better than in any other format.  I have no idea if people are reading the PDF, or the paper document.  You can enhance links to try to see if anyone clicks on a resource from within the PDF – either using the Google Analytics code, for example, or a shortcode – but I’ve seen little pick up there.  Online, the document lives past the presentation and the 100-odd attendees, and so I can see if it resonates for a wider audience.

The only downside I can see so far is that I’m tempted to tinker with the web version, with my extra time before the session.  But I don’t want the formats to be too far out of alignment, content-wise.

Screenshot of page-contained CLE paper, without links.

The end result was 4 different formats of the same basic content – web, epub, docx, and pdf – with a lot less work.  Each one, born digitally, but containing different features and functionality and aimed at a different type of reader.