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  1. #1
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    Which Copy Formats Do You Use?

    The other day, there was some discussion around SPHQ about the inverted pyramid as a style of writing, and I wanted to see whether you guys used this -- or any other particular approaches -- to write content. My question here was also sparked by the Ideal Article Length thread and its "it-depends-on-the-site/audience/etc." responses, as well as the assertion that readers are evolving all the time, though in most cases they still want to get to the guts of the content as fast as is humanly possible.

    At heart, I'm curious as to whether there are existing structures or formats that web writers can use to good effect in what are perhaps unconventional circumstances.

    Here at SitePoint, we generally use what I'd call "essay" format for tutorials and articles: intro, body content, summary. Currently, press releases are the only thing we write to an inverted pyramid (news-article-style) format. But what about blogs? They're more nebulous -- some are essay-style, others are essay style without the intro and summary (almost like stories).

    I'm wondering, though, if the inverted pyramid might be a style that's well suited to blog posts. I don't know that you could work it into articles very easily (though the intro paragraphs could be built that way to draw readers in, before they get to the essay-style, informational body content), but I think it might be worth testing.

    Finally, the thing with both the essay and inverted pyramid formats is that they preempt the content that follows. So if you were to write something, such as a blog post, in the "story" format mentioned above, which doesn't preempt the content, is there anything you could do (apart from writing compellingly and choosing a good headline!) to entice readers to keep reading even if they didn't know specifically where the content was going (within limits of course)? I remember one site I used to visit that would provide an estimated reading time for each story, which could be an okay way to preempt the content on some level, but I'd be interested to hear if you're using any others.

    Note: I realise that your answers will depend on the content you're writing, so please don't just write "it depends on the topic/audience/etc." I'm keen to get an idea of the approaches you're actually using, or any ideas you might have in this area.

    Your thoughts?


  2. #2
    SitePoint Guru bronze trophy
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    FYI, inverted pyramid was primarily developed to fill "the news hole" in newspapers. Inverted pyramid allows ad paste-up, where the articles are then trimmed -- from the bottom up -- to fit.

    Yes, over time people came to think of inverted pyramid as proper writing style. However, it was initially developed for the mechanical requirements of the print publication.

    So what to do for web writing?

    One, use subheads. This allows the scanning reader to get the gist and move through text quickly to target a certain passage. And, if the text is long enough, you can use a table of contents with anchor text, so clicking scrolls you directly to the text you want.

    Publications like MarketingProfs have moved to split articles. For something like this, you want to use a cliffhanger. End one page in the middle of an interesting "must read" point. Give the impatient reader a reason to go to that second page.

    Another way to use a lot of text is call progressive disclosure. For example, the catalog where you click on a thumbnail and get more pictures and text about the subject. News-based web sites and blogs use an introductory blurb and a clickable headline or link to "read more."

    Unfortunately, techniques like progressive disclosure rule out content-irrelevant web design practices. Where layout and text are not just separate, but isolated -- the layout literally has nothing to do with the text.

    Progressive disclosure is what content-driven web design would look like -- if it existed.


    Progressive Disclosure -- The Best Interaction Design Technique

    The News Hole is determined by advertising not by the news room.
    Last edited by DCrux; Sep 26, 2007 at 06:40.

  3. #3
    Word Painter silver trophy Shyflower's Avatar
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    Good link on progressive disclosure, DCrux.

    Spillers makes a very astute observation in his article. Hypertext is a non-linear media. You can neither depend on your reader to read to the bottom or to click the next page.

    I don't think you can pigeon hole writing for the web into one format because (although you didn't want to hear this) it does depend on what you're writing about, why you're writing it, and who will read it.

    I also don' t think the inverted pyramid is a good format in most web writing, especially if some sort of conversion is your goal. To paraphrase an adage, if you milk the cow dry at the beginning, why should your reader buy the cow at the end?

    In most cases, you do need to introduce your topic. A headline draws attention, but a short summary gives the reader an overview of what they'll find in the content and helps them decide if it's the information they're looking for.

    Navigation is the key to good web writing and it doesn't stop with the top navbar or sidebar. Eventually, your reader is going to click somewhere. That's why contextual links are so important. If you give your readers the opportunity to click in your content at least you'll be directing them to where you want them to go.

    The best advice I ever received in writing is to "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them". The second best piece of advice comes from sales training— "close, close, and close again." If you can integrate a call to action into each of the introduction, body, and summary, you're miles ahead of what most others do.

    Finally, in writing for the web, although the conversation is one-sided, you need to converse with your reader. One resource that helped me jump that hurdle is Joel Saltzman's book, If You Can Talk, You Can Write.

    Too often we try to dazzle our readers with our brilliance, whether we shine in writing skills or expertise about our topic. We try to be the doctor talking to a patient... and we all know what that's like!

    We need to keep in mind that we may be talking to a phd or a high-school drop out, a teenager or a grandma. (Another observation Spiller made in his article.) If you can make your points in a conversation with anyone you talk to, then you can make your points with your reader without being either condescending or boring.

    So what does that have to do with format? Format you content in the same way you would present your topic if you were face to face with your reader. Let them see that there's a real person on the other end of their connection.
    Linda Jenkinson
    "Say what you mean. Mean what you say. But don't say it mean." ~Unknown

  4. #4
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    Hey there
    Thanks for the very thoughtful responses! What an interesting discussion

    One thing that I need to clear up right now -- when I was talking about using the good ol' inverted pyramid, potentially in blogs, I was referring to using it for newsy blog posts, not just any old content. This goes for this whole conversation -- I'm not just looking for prescriptive approaches to presenting words, or pigeon-holing anything into one format Far from it! I'm trying to get a broader picture of the factors impacting on the presentation of content (good or bad), starting from the question of formats.

    On a site like ours, for example, I wonder if the inverted pyramid used in a newsy blog post really would "milk the cow dry at the beginning". In some cases, like this post, it has the potential to grabs readers' attention and compel them perhaps not to read the entire post, but to get down the bottom there and make a comment, which is one of our goals for the blogs (that said, there's only one comment so far, though it's only been up for two hours. Hmm...).

    The argument for the inverted pyramid also seems to agree (though not prescriptively!) on a very basic level with Mr. Neilsen's eye-tracking study results -- at least in cases like some of those on SitePoint where we're trying, with our article and tutorial content, to get people to read on and gain value by applying the content's advice to their own work. Though I realise that those study results have implications for layout as well as content format. For example, that's where your suggestions for contextual links, subheads, as well as great headlines and teasers -- as well as "conversational tone" -- come to the fore. If you're not talking the language of your teen-high-school-dropout-grandma, and catching her eye as it scans down the page in a supposed F-shape, it doesn't matter what format you use, she just won't be interested.

    And shyflower, I don't mind you saying "it depends" at all (I just didn't want this thread to end up as a slew of "it depends"-only posts!) But among your points, your call to action comments made me realise that we're all talking about different types of content in this thread. I'm talking about article/tute content, shyflower's looking at marketingy-sales content, and DCrux, quite characteristically (it seems to me!) is talking objectively without particular reference to a type of content

    I really like the concept of progressive disclosure, and I can see how this can apply to a range of situations -- in fact, the news sites I keep banging on about as champions of the inverted pyramid, use progressive disclosure heavily with "related news", "see the video", and "send us your phone-cam-snaps" links, as well as secondary navigation (though they don't seem to use contextual links or even subheads within content that much).

    I think that beneath this discussion lies a truth that DCrux has raised, and which I find very interesting, asking, as I am, questions from a perspective of "here's a space for content; how should we present it?" And that point is:

    "...content-irrelevant web design practices. Where layout and text are not just separate, but isolated -- the layout literally has nothing to do with the text."

    So format has, to some degree, to be dictated by the site/page design/structure, which should be informed by the content you're presenting, which, ultimately, needs to achieve the business goals of the site.


    So, can you point to some examples of site that you know that do this -- have designed the site around the content with a view to having that content achieve specific business goals -- exceptionally well? I'd be very interested to see different approaches in action.

    Thanks again to you both


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