Day 27: Using Real Headers. In all the training I’ve done, accessibility and otherwise, for some reason this is one of the hardest things to get people to understand: using markup for structure. For example, using headers to identify, well, headers.

I’m not sure why. I think that at first it may be a fear of the default style in most browsers for the <h1> and <h2> elements, but demonstrating how easy it is to use CSS to control the appearance of headers does little to alleviate the hesitation to use those elements.

I think it also has to do with a lack of understanding of how documents — writing — can be structured, period. Years of experience using word processors as little more than typewriters hasn’t helped. Neither have the increasingly powerful desktop publishing and layout features in word processors, emphasizing how a page looks rather than how the content is organized.

Until I learned HTML, I never used the outline features in MS Word, or even the headers or styles. I saw them there, but they never seemed useful or even interesting. Every paper I wrote was an unstructured document. If I decided to change the appearance of the headers, I had to painstakingly change each one and hope that I was consistent. Ugh. HTML opened my eyes, and now every Word doc I create is in outline form.

(I had never used tables in a word processor, either, until I discovered them in HTML. I’m a better word processor user because of my work on the web.)

I’ve found that this has improved my writing, too: structuring a document’s content encourages me to structure my ideas more coherently. In academic papers, in documentation, in white papers . . . in all these things I write, coherent thought and communication are essential. They’re the whole point.

None of this, I’m afraid, helps people understand what seems to me a rather basic concept: using markup for structure. What will it take?

Teaching people to write clearly, I suppose. That’s a good start. I’m not sure how much I agree with what Brendan O’Neill has to say about blog writing, but it is worth consideration. I’ll try to post something more on this soon.

In the meantime, back to the point: use markup for structure. Structure everything you write. The two are intertwined.