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Webmentions: Enabling Better Communication on the Internet

Thu, 07/19/2018 - 09:00

Over 1 million Webmentions will have been sent across the internet since the specification was made a full Recommendation by the W3C—the standards body that guides the direction of the web—in early January 2017. That number is rising rapidly, and in the last few weeks I’ve seen a growing volume of chatter on social media and the blogosphere about these new “mentions” and the people implementing them.

So what are Webmentions and why should we care?

While the technical specification published by the W3C may seem incomprehensible to most, it’s actually a straightforward and extremely useful concept with a relatively simple implementation. Webmentions help to break down some of the artificial walls being built within the internet and so help create a more open and decentralized web. There is also an expanding list of major web platforms already supporting Webmentions either natively or with easy-to-use plugins (more on this later).

Put simply, Webmention is a (now) standardized protocol that enables one website address (URL) to notify another website address that the former contains a reference to the latter. It also allows the latter to verify the authenticity of the reference and include its own corresponding reference in a reciprocal way. In order to understand what a big step forward this is, a little history is needed.

The rise of @mentions

By now most people are familiar with the ubiquitous use of the “@” symbol in front of a username, which originated on Twitter and became known as @mentions and @replies (read “at mentions” and “at replies”). For the vast majority, this is the way that one user communicates with other users on the platform, and over the past decade these @mentions, with their corresponding notification to the receiver, have become a relatively standard way of communicating on the internet.

Tweet from Wiz Khalifa

Many other services also use this type of internal notification to indicate to other users that they have been referenced directly or tagged in a post or photograph. Facebook allows it, so does Instagram. Google+ has a variant that uses + instead of @, and even the long-form article platform Medium, whose founder Ev Williams also co-founded Twitter, quickly joined the @mentions party.

The biggest communications problem on the internet

If you use Twitter, your friend Alice only uses Facebook, your friend Bob only uses his blog on WordPress, and your pal Chuck is over on Medium, it’s impossible for any one of you to @mention another. You’re all on different and competing platforms, none of which interoperate to send these mentions or notifications of them. The only way to communicate in this way is if you all join the same social media platforms, resulting in the average person being signed up to multiple services just to stay in touch with all their friends and acquaintances.

Given the issues of privacy and identity protection, different use cases, the burden of additional usernames and passwords, and the time involved, many people don’t want to do this. Possibly worst of all, your personal identity on the internet can end up fragmented like a Horcrux across multiple websites over which you have little, if any, control.

Imagine if AT&T customers could only speak to other AT&T customers and needed a separate phone, account, and phone number to speak to friends and family on Verizon. And still another to talk to friends on Sprint or T-Mobile. The massive benefit of the telephone system is that if you have a telephone and service (from any one of hundreds or even thousands of providers worldwide), you can potentially reach anyone else using the network. Surely, with a basic architecture based on simple standards, links, and interconnections, the same should apply to the internet?

The solution? Enter Webmentions!

As mentioned earlier, Webmentions allow notifications between web addresses. If both sites are set up to send and receive them, the system works like this:

  1. Alice has a website where she writes an article about her rocket engine hobby.
  2. Bob has his own website where he writes a reply to Alice’s article. Within his reply, Bob includes the permalink URL of Alice’s article.
  3. When Bob publishes his reply, his publishing software automatically notifies Alice’s server that her post has been linked to by the URL of Bob’s reply.
  4. Alice’s publishing software verifies that Bob’s post actually contains a link to her post and then (optionally) includes information about Bob’s post on her site; for example, displaying it as a comment.

A Webmention is simply an @mention that works from one website to another!

If she chooses, Alice can include the full text of Bob’s reply—along with his name, photo, and his article’s URL (presuming he’s made these available)—as a comment on her original post. Any new readers of Alice’s article can then see Bob’s reply underneath it. Each can carry on a full conversation from their own websites and in both cases display (if they wish) the full context and content.

Using Webmentions, both sides can carry on a conversation where each is able to own a copy of the content and provide richer context.

User behaviors with Webmentions are a little different than they are with @mentions on Twitter and the like in that they work between websites in addition to within a particular website. They enable authors (of both the original content and the responses) to own the content, allowing them to keep a record on the web page where it originated, whether that’s a website they own or the third-party platform from which they chose to send it.

Interaction examples with Webmention

Webmentions certainly aren’t limited to creating or displaying “traditional” comments or replies. With the use of simple semantic microformats classes and a variety of parsers written in numerous languages, one can explicitly post bookmarks, likes, favorites, RSVPs, check-ins, listens, follows, reads, reviews, issues, edits, and even purchases. The result? Richer connections and interactions with other content on the web and a genuine two-way conversation instead of a mass of unidirectional links. We’ll take a look at some examples, but you can find more on the IndieWeb wiki page for Webmention alongside some other useful resources.

Marginalia

With Webmention support, one could architect a site to allow inline marginalia and highlighting similar to Medium.com’s relatively well-known functionality. With the clever use of URL fragments, which are well supported in major browsers, there are already examples of people who use Webmentions to display word-, sentence-, or paragraph-level marginalia on their sites. After all, aren’t inline annotations just a more targeted version of comments?

An inline annotation on the post “Hey Ev, what about mentions?,” in which Medium began to roll out their @mention functionality. Reads

As another example, and something that could profoundly impact the online news business, I might post a link on my website indicating I’ve read a particular article on, say, The New York Times. My site sends a “read” Webmention to the article, where a facepile or counter showing the number of read Webmentions received could be implemented. Because of the simplified two-way link between the two web pages, there is now auditable proof of interaction with the content. This could similarly work with microinteractions such as likes, favorites, bookmarks, and reposts, resulting in a clearer representation of the particular types of interaction a piece of content has received. Compared to an array of nebulous social media mini-badges that provide only basic counters, this is a potentially more valuable indicator of a post’s popularity, reach, and ultimate impact.

Listens

Building on the idea of using reads, one could extend Webmentions to the podcasting or online music sectors. Many platforms are reasonably good at providing download numbers for podcasts, but it is far more difficult to track the number of actual listens. This can have a profound effect on the advertising market that supports many podcasts. People can post about what they’re actively listening to (either on their personal websites or via podcast apps that could report the percentage of the episode listened to) and send “listen” Webmentions to pages for podcasts or other audio content. These could then be aggregated for demographics on the back end or even shown on the particular episode’s page as social proof of the podcast’s popularity.

For additional fun, podcasters or musicians might use Webmentions in conjunction with media fragments and audio or video content to add timecode-specific, inline comments to audio/video players to create an open standards version of SoundCloud-like annotations and commenting.

SoundCloud allows users to insert inline comments that dovetail with specific portions of audio. Reviews

Websites selling products or services could also accept review-based Webmentions that include star-based ratings scales as well as written comments with photos, audio, or even video. Because Webmentions are a two-way protocol, the reverse link to the original provides an auditable path to the reviewer and the opportunity to assess how trustworthy their review may be. Of course, third-party trusted sites might also accept these reviews, so that the receiving sites can’t easily cherry-pick only positive reviews for display. And because the Webmention specification includes the functionality for editing or deletion, the original author has the option to update or remove their reviews at any time.

Getting started with Webmentions Extant platforms with support

While the specification has only recently become a broad recommendation for use on the internet, there are already an actively growing number of content management systems (CMSs) and platforms that support Webmentions, either natively or with plugins. The simplest option, requiring almost no work, is a relatively new and excellent social media service called Micro.blog, which handles Webmentions out of the box. CMSs like Known and Perch also have Webmention functionality built in. Download and set up the open source software and you’re ready to go.

If you’re working with WordPress, there’s a simple Webmention plugin that will allow you to begin using Webmentions—just download and activate it. (For additional functionality when displaying Webmentions, there’s also the recommended Semantic Linkbacks plugin.) Other CMSs like Drupal, ProcessWire, Elgg, Nucleus CMS, Craft, Django, and Kirby also have plugins that support the standard. A wide variety of static site generators, like Hugo and Jekyll, have solutions for Webmention technology as well. More are certainly coming.

If you can compose basic HTML on your website, Aaron Parecki has written an excellent primer on “Sending Your First Webmention from Scratch.”

A weak form of Webmention support can be bootstrapped for Tumblr, WordPress.com, Blogger, and Medium with help from the free Bridgy service, but the user interface and display would obviously be better if they were supported fully and natively.

As a last resort, if you’re using Tumblr, WordPress.com, Wix, Squarespace, Ghost, Joomla, Magento, or any of the other systems without Webmention, file tickets asking them to support the standard. It only takes a few days of work for a reasonably experienced developer to build support, and it substantially improves the value of the platform for its users. It also makes them first-class decentralized internet citizens.

Webmentions for developers

If you’re a developer or a company able to hire a developer, it is relatively straightforward to build Webmentions into your CMS or project, even potentially open-sourcing the solution as a plugin for others. For anyone familiar with the old specifications for pingback or trackback, you can think of Webmentions as a major iteration of those systems, but with easier implementation and testing, improved performance and display capabilities, and decreased spam vulnerabilities. Because the specification supports editing and deleting Webmentions, it provides individuals with more direct control of their data, which is important in light of new laws like GDPR.

In addition to reading the specification, as mentioned previously, there are multiple open source implementations already written in a variety of languages that you can use directly, or as examples. There are also a test suite and pre-built services like Webmention.io, Telegraph, mention-tech, and webmention.herokuapp.com that can be quickly leveraged.

Maybe your company allows employees to spend 20% of their time on non-specific projects, as Google does. If so, I’d encourage you to take the opportunity to fbuild Webmentions support for one or more platforms—let’s spread the love and democratize communication on the web as fast as we can!

And if you already have a major social platform but don’t want to completely open up to sending and receiving Webmentions, consider using Webmention functionality as a simple post API. I could easily see services like Twitter, Mastodon, or Google+ supporting the receiving of Webmentions, combined with a simple parsing mechanism to allow Webmention senders to publish syndicated content on their platform. There are already several services like IndieNews, with Hacker News-like functionality, that allow posting to them via Webmention.

If you have problems or questions, I’d recommend joining the IndieWeb chat room online via IRC, web interface, Slack, or Matrix to gain access to further hints, pointers, and resources for implementing a particular Webmention solution.

The expansion of Webmentions

The big question many will now have is Will the traditional social media walled gardens like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like support the Webmention specification?

At present, they don’t, and many may never do so. After all, locking you into their services is enabling them to leverage your content and your interactions to generate income. However, I suspect that if one of the major social platforms enabled sending/receiving Webmentions, it would dramatically disrupt the entire social space.

In the meantime, if your site already has Webmentions enabled, then congratulations on joining the next revolution in web communication! Just make sure you advertise the fact by using a button or badge. You can download a copy here.

Categories: Technology

Order Out of Chaos: Patterns of Organization for Writing on the Job

Thu, 07/05/2018 - 09:18

A few years ago, a former boss of mine emailed me out of the blue and asked for a resource that would help him and his colleagues organize information more effectively. Like a dutiful friend, I sent him links to a few articles and the names of some professional writing books. And I qualified my answer with that dreaded disclaimer: “Advice varies widely depending on the situation.” Implication: “You’ll just have to figure out what works best for you. So, good luck!”

In retrospect, I could have given him a better answer. Much like the gestalt principles of design that underpin so much of what designers do, there are foundational principles and patterns of organization that are relevant to any professional who must convey technical information in writing, and you can adapt these concepts to bring order out of chaos whether or not you’re a full-time writer.

.row{margin:0 132px 24px}.col ol,.col ul{margin-left:40px}.row:after{clear:left;content:"";display:block}.col{float:left;width:50%}.col ul{list-style-type:disc}.col ul li{margin-bottom:9px}@media only screen and (max-width:37.5em){.row{margin:0 0 24px}.col{float:none;width:100%}.col+.col{margin-top:24px}} Recognize the primary goals: comprehension and performance

Not long after I wrote my response, I revisited a book I’d read in college: Technical Editing, by Carolyn D. Rude. In my role as a technical writer, I reference the book every now and then for practical advice on revising software documentation. This time, as I reviewed the chapter on organization, I realized that Rude explained the high-level goals and principles better than any other author I’d read up to that point.

In short, she says that whether you are outlining a procedure, describing a product, or announcing a cool new feature, a huge amount of writing in the workplace is aimed at comprehension (here’s what X is and why you should care) and performance (here’s how to do X). She then suggests that editors choose from two broad kinds of order to support these goals: content-based order and task-based order. The first refers to structures that guide readers from major sections to more detailed sections to facilitate top-down learning; the second refers to structures of actions that readers need to carry out. Content-based orders typically start with nouns, whereas task-based orders typically begin with verbs.

Content-Based Order Example

Product Overview

  • Introduction
  • Features
    • Feature 1
    • Feature 2
    • Feature n
  • Contact
  • Support

Task-Based Order Example

User Guide (WordPress)

  • Update your title and tagline
  • Pick a theme you love
  • Add a header or background
  • Add a site icon
  • Add a widget

Of course, not all writing situations fall neatly into these buckets. If you were to visit Atlassian’s online help content, you would see a hybrid of content-based topics at the first level and task-based topics within them. The point is that as you begin to think about your organization, you should ask yourself:

  • Which of the major goals of organization (comprehension or performance) am I trying to achieve?
  • And which broad kind of order will help me best achieve those goals?

This is still pretty abstract, so let’s consider the other principles from Carolyn Rude, but with a focus on how a writer rather than an editor should approach the task of organization.1

Steal like an organizer: follow pre-established document structures

In his book Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon argues that smart artists don’t actually create anything new but rather collect inspiring ideas from specific role models, and produce work that is profoundly shaped by them.

“If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original,” he writes, “we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.”

The same principle applies to the art of organization. To “steal like an organizer” means to look at what other people have written and to identify and follow pre-established structures that may apply to your situation. Doing so not only saves time and effort but also forces you to remember that your audience may already expect a particular pattern—and experience cognitive dissonance if they don’t get it.

You are probably familiar with more pre-established structures than you think. News reports follow the inverted pyramid. Research reports often adhere to some form of the IMRAD structure (Introduction, Methodology, Results, and Discussion). Instruction manuals typically have an introductory section followed by tasks grouped according to the typical sequence a user would need to follow. Even troubleshooting articles tend to have a standard structure of Problem, Cause, and Solution.

All this may sound like common sense, and yet many writers entirely skip this process of adapting pre-made structures. I can understand the impulse. When you face a blank screen, it feels simpler to capture the raw notes and organize it all later. That approach can certainly help you get into the flow, but it may also result in an ad hoc structure that fails to serve readers who are less familiar with your material.

Instead, when you begin the writing process, start by researching available templates or pre-made structures that could support your situation. Standard word processors and content management systems already contain some good templates, and it’s easy to search for others online. Your fellow writers and designers are also good resources. If you’re contributing to a series of documents at your organization, you should get familiar with the structure of that series and learn how to work within it. Or you can do some benchmarking and steal some ideas from how other companies structure similar content.

My team once had to do our own stealing for a major project that affected about half our company. We needed to come up with a repeatable structure for standard operating procedures (SOPs) that any employee could use to document a set of tasks. Knowing SOPs to be a well-established genre, we found several recommended structures online and in books, and came up with a list of common elements. We then decided which ones to steal and arranged them into a sequence that best suited our audience. We made out like bandits.

Structural SOP Elements We Found Our Assessment Overview Steal Roles Involved Steal Dependencies Steal Estimated Level of Effort Nah, too hard to calculate and maintain. Process Diagram Meh, kind of redundant, not to mention a lot of work. No thanks. Tasks Steal Task n Steal Task n Introduction Steal Task n Responsibility Steal Task n Steps Steal See Also Steal

But what if there is no pre-established pattern? Or what if a pattern exists, but it’s either too simple or too complex for what you’re trying to accomplish? Or what if it’s not as user-friendly as you would like?

There may indeed be cases where you need to develop a mostly customized structure, which can be daunting. But fear not! That’s where the other principles of organization come in.

Anticipate your readers’ questions (and maybe even talk to them)

Recently I had an extremely frustrating user experience. While consulting some documentation to learn about a new process, I encountered a series of web pages that gave no introduction and dove straight into undefined jargon and acronyms that I had never heard of. When I visited related pages to get more context, I found the same problem. There was no background information for a newbie like me. The writers failed in this case to anticipate my questions and instead assumed a great deal of prior knowledge.

Don’t make this mistake when you design your structure. Like a journalist, you need to answer the who, what, where, when, how, and why of your content, and then incorporate the answers in your structure. Anticipate common questions, such as “What is this? Where do I start? What must I know? What must I do?” This sort of critical reflection is all the more important when organizing web content, because users will almost certainly enter and exit your pages in nonlinear, unpredictable ways.

If possible, you should also meet with your readers, and gather information about what would best serve them. One simple technique you could try is to create a knowledge map, an annotated matrix of sorts that my team once built after asking various teams about their information priorities. On the left axis, we listed categories of information that we thought each team needed. Along the top axis, we listed a column for each team. We then gave team representatives a chance to rank each category and add custom categories we hadn’t included. (You can learn more about the process we followed in this video presentation.)

A knowledge map my team created after asking other teams which categories of information were most important to them.

The weakness of this approach is that it doesn’t reveal information that your audience doesn’t know how to articulate. To fill in this gap, I recommend running a few informal usability tests. But if you don’t have the time for that, building a knowledge map is better than not meeting with your readers at all, because it will help you discover structural ideas you hadn’t considered. Our knowledge map revealed multiple categories that were required across almost all teams—which, in turn, suggested a particular hierarchy and sequence to weave into our design.

Go from general to specific, familiar to new

People tend to learn and digest information best by going from general to specific, and familiar to new. By remembering this principle, which is articulated in the schema theory of learning, you can better conceptualize the structure you’re building. What are the foundational concepts of your content? They should appear in your introductory sections. What are the umbrella categories under which more detailed categories fall? The answer should determine which headings belong at the top and subordinate levels of your hierarchy. What you want to avoid is presenting new ideas that don’t flow logically from the foundational concepts and expectations that your readers bring to the table.

Consider the wikiHow article “How to Create a Dungeons and Dragons Character.” It begins by defining what Dungeons and Dragons is and explaining why you need to create a character before you can start playing the game.

Writers at wikiHow help readers learn by starting with general concepts before moving on to specifics.

The next section, “Part 1: Establishing the Basics,” guides the reader into subsequent foundational steps, such as deciding which version of the game to follow and printing out a character sheet. Later sections (“Selecting a gender and race,” “Choosing a class,” and “Calculating ability scores”) expand on these concepts to introduce more specific, unfamiliar ideas in an incremental fashion, leading readers up a gentle ramp into new territory.

Use conventional patterns to match structure to meaning

Within the general-to-specific/familiar-to-new framework, you can apply additional patterns of organization that virtually all humans understand. Whereas the pre-established document structures above are usually constructed for particular use cases or genres, other conventional patterns match more general mental models (or “schemas,” as the schema theory so elegantly puts it) that we use to make sense of the world. These patterns include chronological, spatial, comparison-contrast, cause-effect, and order of importance.

Chronological

The chronological pattern reveals time or sequence. It’s appropriate for things like instructions, process flows, progress reports, and checklists. In the case of instructions, the order of tasks on a page often implies (or explicitly states) the “proper” or most common sequence for a user to follow. The wikiHow article above, for example, offers a recommended sequence of tasks for beginner players. In the case of progress reports, the sections may be ordered according to the periods of time in which work was done, as in this sample outline from the book Reporting Technical Information, by Kenneth W. Houp et al.:

Beginning

  • Introduction
  • Summary of work completed

Middle

  • Work completed
    • Period 1 (beginning and end dates)
      • Description
      • Cost
    • Period 2 (beginning and end dates)

      • Description
      • Cost
  • Work remaining

    • Period 3 (or remaining periods)
      • Description of work to be done
      • Expected cost

End

  • Evaluation of work in this period
  • Conclusions and recommendations

The principles of organization listed in this article are in fact another example of the chronological pattern. As Carolyn Rude points out in her book, the principles are arranged as a sort of methodology to follow. Try starting at the top of the list and work your way down. You may find it to be a useful way to produce order out of the chaos before you.

Spatial

The spatial pattern refers to top-to-bottom, left-to-right structures of organization. This is a good pattern if you need to describe the components of an interface or a physical object.

Take a look at the neighbor comparison graph below, which is derived from a sample energy efficiency solution offered by Oracle Utilities. Customers who see this graph would most likely view it from top to bottom and left to right.

A neighbor comparison graph that shows a customer how they compare with their neighbors in terms of energy efficiency.

A detailed description of this feature would then describe each component in that same order. Here’s a sample outline:

  • Feature name
    • Title
    • Bar chart
      • Efficient neighbors
      • You
      • Average neighbors
    • Date range
    • Performance insight

      • Great
      • Good
      • Using more than average
    • Energy use insight
    • Comparison details (“You’re compared with 10 homes within 6 miles …”)
Comparison-contrast

The comparison-contrast pattern helps users weigh options. It’s useful when reporting the pros and cons of different decisions or comparing the attributes of two or more products or features. You see it often when you shop online and need to compare features and prices. It’s also a common pattern for feasibility studies or investigations that list options along with upsides and downsides.

Cause-effect

The cause-effect pattern shows relationships between actions and reactions. Writers often use it for things like troubleshooting articles, medical diagnoses, retrospectives, and root cause analyses. You can move from effect to cause, or cause to effect, but you should stick to one direction and use it consistently. For example, the cold and flu pages at Drugs.com follow a standard cause-effect pattern that incorporates logical follow-up sections such as “Prevention” and “Treatment”:

  • What Is It? (This section defines the illness and describes possible “causes.”)
  • Symptoms (This section goes into the “effects” of the illness.)
  • Diagnosis
  • Expected Duration
  • Prevention
  • Treatment
  • When to Call a Professional
  • Prognosis

For another example, see the “Use parallel structure for parallel sections” section below, which shows what a software troubleshooting article might look like.

Order of importance

The order of importance pattern organizes sections and subsections of content according to priority or significance. It is common in announcements, marketing brochures, release notes, advice articles, and FAQs.

The order of importance pattern is perhaps the trickiest one to get right. As Carolyn Rude says, it’s not always clear what the most important information is. What should come in the beginning, middle, and end? Who decides? The answers will vary according to the author, audience, and purpose.

When writing release notes, for example, my team often debates which software update should come first, because we know that the decision will underscore the significance of that update relative to the others. FAQs by definition are focused on which questions are most common and thus most important, but the exact order will depend on what you perceive as being the most frequent or the most important for readers to know. (If you are considering writing FAQs, I recommend this great advice from technical writer Lisa Wright.)

Other common patterns

Alphabetical order is a common pattern that Rude doesn’t mention in detail but that you may find helpful for your situation. To use this pattern, you would simply list sections or headings based on the first letter of the first word of the heading. For example, alphabetical order is used frequently to list API methods in API documentation sites such as those for Flickr, Twitter, and Java. It is also common in glossaries, indexes, and encyclopedic reference materials where each entry is more or less given equal footing. The downside of this pattern is that the most important information for your audience may not appear in a prominent, findable location. Still, it is useful if you have a large and diverse set of content that defies simple hierarchies and is referenced in a non-linear, piecemeal fashion.

Group related material

Take a look at the lists below. Which do you find easier to scan and digest?

  1. Settle on a version of D&D.
  2. Print a character sheet, if desired.
  3. Select a gender and race.
  4. Choose a class.
  5. Name your character.
  6. Identify the main attributes of your character.
  7. Roll for ability scores.
  8. Assign the six recorded numbers to the six main attributes.
  9. Use the “Point Buy” system, alternatively.
  10. Generate random ability scores online.
  11. Record the modifier for each ability.
  12. Select skills for your character.
  13. List your character’s feats.
  14. Roll for your starting gold.
  15. Equip your character with items.
  16. Fill in armor class and combat bonuses.
  17. Paint a picture of your character.
  18. Determine the alignment of your character.
  19. Play your character in a campaign.

Part 1: Establishing the Basics

  1. Settle on a version of D&D.
  2. Print a character sheet, if desired.
  3. Select a gender and race.
  4. Choose a class.
  5. Name your character.

Part 2: Calculating Ability Scores

  1. Identify the main attributes of your character.
  2. Roll for ability scores.
  3. Assign the six recorded numbers to the six main attributes.
  4. Use the “Point Buy” system, alternatively.
  5. Generate random ability scores online.
  6. Record the modifier for each ability.

Part 3: Equipping Skills, Feats, Weapons, and Armor

  1. Select skills for your character.
  2. List your character’s feats.
  3. Roll for your starting gold.
  4. Equip your character with items.
  5. Fill in armor class and combat bonuses.

Part 4: Finishing Your Character

  1. Paint a picture of your character.
  2. Determine the alignment of your character.
  3. Play your character in a campaign.

(Source: wikiHow: How to Create a Dungeons and Dragons Character.)

If you chose the second list, that is probably because the writers relied on a widely used organizational technique: grouping.

Grouping is the process of identifying meaningful categories of information and putting information within those categories to aid reader comprehension. Grouping is especially helpful when you have a long, seemingly random list of information that could benefit from an extra layer of logical order. An added benefit of grouping is that it may reveal where you have gaps in your content or where you have mingled types of content that don’t really belong together.

To group information effectively, first analyze your content and identify the discrete chunks of information you need to convey. Then tease out which chunks fall within similar conceptual buckets, and determine what intuitive headings or labels you can assign to those buckets. Writers do this when creating major and minor sections within a book or printed document. For online content, grouping is typically done at the level of articles or topics within a web-based system, such as a wiki or knowledge base. The Gmail Help Center, for example, groups topics within categories like “Popular articles,” “Read & organize emails,” and “Send emails.”

It’s possible to go overboard here. Too many headings in a short document or too many topics in a small help system can add unnecessary complexity. I once faced the latter scenario when I reviewed a help system written by one of my colleagues. At least five of the topics were so short that it made more sense to merge them together on a single page rather than forcing the end user to click through to separate pages. I’ve also encountered plenty of documents that contain major section headings with only one or two sentences under them. Sometimes this is fine; you may need to keep those sections for the sake of consistency. But it’s worth assessing whether such sections can simply be merged together (or conversely, whether they should be expanded to include more details).

Because of scenarios like these, Carolyn Rude recommends keeping the number of groupings to around seven, give or take a few—though, as always, striking the right balance ultimately depends on your audience and purpose, as well as the amount of information you have to manage.

Use parallel structure for parallel sections

One of the reasons Julius Caesar’s phrase “I came, I saw, I conquered” still sticks in our memory after thousands of years is the simple fact of parallelism. Each part of the saying follows a distinct, repetitive grammatical form that is easy to recall.

Parallelism works in a similar manner with organization. By using a consistent and repetitive structure across types of information that fit in the same category, you make it easier for your readers to navigate and digest your content.

Imagine you’re writing a troubleshooting guide in which all the topics follow the same basic breakdown: Problem Title, Problem, Cause, Solution, and See Also. In this case, you should make sure that each topic includes those same headings, in the exact same hierarchy and sequence, and using the exact same style and formatting. This kind of parallelism delivers a symmetry that reduces the reader’s cognitive load and clarifies the relationships of each part of your content. Deviations from the pattern not only cause confusion but can undermine the credibility of the content.

Do This

ABC Troubleshooting Guide

  • Introduction
  • Problem 1 Title
    • Problem
    • Cause
    • Solution
    • See Also
  • Problem 2 Title

    • Problem
    • Cause
    • Solution
    • See Also
  • Problem 3 Title

    • ...
  • Don’t Do This

    ABC Troubleshooting Guide

    • Introduction
    • Problem 1 Title
      • Problem
      • Root causes
      • How to Fix it
      • Advanced Tips and tricks
      • Related
    • Problem 2 title

      • Issue
      • Steps to Fix
      • Why did this happen, and how can I avoid it next time?
      • See also
    • Problem 3 title

      • ...

    This last principle is probably the easiest to grasp but may be the most difficult to enforce, especially if you are managing contributions from multiple authors. Templates and style guides are useful here because they invite authors to provide standard inputs, but you will still need to watch the content like a hawk to squash the inconsistencies that inevitably emerge.

    Conclusion

    In one sense, my response to my former boss was accurate. Given the endless variety of writing situations, there is no such thing as a single organization solution. But saying that “advice varies widely depending on the situation” doesn’t tell the whole story. There are flexible patterns and principles that can guide you in finding, customizing, and creating structures for your goals.

    The key thing to remember is that structure affects meaning. The sequence of information, the categories you use, the emphasis you imply through your hierarchy—all of these decisions impact how well your audience understands what you write. Your ideal structure should therefore reinforce what you mean to say.

    Footnotes
    • 1. The principles in this article are based on the same ones that Carolyn Rude outlines in chapter 17, pp. 289–296, of the third edition of her book. I highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in gaining an in-depth understanding of editing. The book is now in its fifth edition and includes an additional author, Angela Eaton. See Technical Editing (Fifth Edition) for details. The examples and illustrations used in this article are derived from a variety of other sources, including my own work.
Categories: Technology