by Nathan Wallace (May 18, 1999)
Clear, usable content is easily created by deliberating writing for many different levels of reader interest. Every person has a certain level of interest in every piece of information. A writer should help each reader get their desired level of information as quickly as possible. Knowledge of and writing to these levels will increase the satisfaction of all readers.
Every person has a certain level of interest in every web page. This may be:
Unfortunately, most of your audience will only have some interest. This may be due to limited time or a basic lack of interest. How often have you needed to know something but not particularly wanted to? Users may already know the information or may be seeking knowledge in a similar but slightly different area.
The levels of interest can be more clearly defined:
A web page which caters to each level of reader interest will result in more satisfied visitors. A user is happy when they get the information they want quickly and easily. Luckily there are specific techniques which can be employed to cater for readers at each level.
Hopefully people with no interest in your topic will never reach the page, saving them time and bandwidth. On the web most of these people will never even have the chance to reach your page, or at most will ignore the link.
Readers with no interest are a burden and better avoided. They are unlikely to be interested in your targeted advertisements, reducing your click-through rate. Their visit wastes valuable bandwidth and server resources.
We can help those with no interest in the topic avoid our page by:
The page title is the first piece of information that you give the user.
The web often relies on the title as the single piece of information which is used to invite (link) the reader to the page. Clear, meaningful titles will improve this first filter of users into your site.
Titles that contain the basic idea of the page can give some users all of the information that they need. InsWeb files for $57.5 million IPO is a perfect example. I don't care about the stock market all that much so the details of the IPO are not important to me. I am however interested in the continual growth of Internet companies so the fact that another has reached the IPO stage and the size of the offering are interesting. This title answers all of my questions.
The main purpose of the one sentence summary is for links to this page. It is the final line of defence against readers with no interest in your page.
Many hub or directory sites use a one sentence description with each link. Providing this one sentence description at the start of the article will:
Making it simple to link to your site will probably increase the number of links you receive. Most people creating links will save time and defer to your judgment by using your one sentence summary in describing their link. This is preferable since the writer of the article can probably write this better than anyone. The result will help readers determine their level of interest in your article more accurately.
The one sentence summary is also useful within the context of the page itself. Visitors thrown in through search engines want to determine their interest in your page quickly (since they probably have 1 million other search matches). Using the very first sentence to summarize the complete page introduces a small interest level filter. It also gives those skimming the page an insight into the major point of the page.
The one sentence summary should be the first sentence on the page and be the first sentence in the one paragraph summary.
The one paragraph summary is a higher quality version of the one sentence summary. It will be used by high quality hubs. Readers who have reached this level clearly have some interest in your page.
This paragraph gives you a few seconds to influence your reader. The purpose of this paragraph is not to entice people to continue reading. It should give people an insight into your information in a few short sentences. This is a powerful opportunity to impact the thinking of people whose interest in your topic is only small.
Remember that you are selling your information, not your article. Often I will bookmark a page on the strength of the opening paragraph. I do this when I know that the topic will be of interest but I don't have sufficient time to read it properly now. If this paragraph is just an enticement into the article then I will probably leave before I reach any information. An interested reader is lost.
Use headings to make major points. The reader should be able to scroll down the page and read the major points without even stopping. These headings need to convey the main ideas presented in this page.
Like the summaries, headings should be informative. Cute newspaper-style headlines are not appropriate on the web. A newspaper has already won the users attention and trust. You will probably only have a few seconds to impress the reader, don't waste their time with fluff.
Each major heading should be a sub-anchor. Sub-anchors allow links to be made straight to the relevant section of a page. Creating these anchors is simple <a name=#majorpoints>. Even if you don't use them, other linkers might find them useful. This small technique adds value to your information by making it more specific. Writers who want to link to specific details from their higher level page can use these anchors.
There is an increasing trend to break a single article into a number of different pages. Each page focuses on a different major point. Clearly the major motivation for doing this is to increase hits and advertising opportunities. Do not break a single article into a series of pages. Most readers will want to scan your information, breaking it up makes this impossible. Every page download will lose the attention of the reader and damage the flow of your writing. You will probably even lose those readers that are interested in everything you have to say.
Breaking information up into a number of smaller topics on separate pages is not the same as breaking up a single article. Each of these pages provides useful information in its own right.
There are many benefits to emphasizing minor points:
Minor points detail the arguments behind a major point. There are three principal techniques for highlighting minor points:
Using a combination of these techniques is most effective. I use topic sentences the least. Bold text highlights are easier to scan and having a topic sentence at the start of each paragraph can interrupt the informal, personal writing style that I try to use.
It is important to ensure that minor points are useful without their surrounding text. This means that each highlight should be clear on its own, and that reading the highlights in sequence presents a logical and clear argument.
Often in magazines there are small excerpts spread through the article in large font. These are taken directly from the article, but they make an interesting point on their own. Think of these excerpts when choosing and writing the minor points in your page.
Finally we have reached the readers who really care about our topic (or at least small parts of it). This is important as it means that we can use a writing style that assumes this strong interest.
Readers with a strong interest in your page are not just interested in the information. They are interested in you. They want to understand your perspective on the topic. They can relate to you and your experiences fairly closely since you have this common ground. The information you are presenting is probably available on many other sites, it's your perspective and presentation that are unique.
Use an informal and personal style of writing. The power of this type of communication is well documented in the ClueTrain Manifesto. Honest and personal writing invites interaction and sharing, the most powerful features of the web. The best example of this style of writing is Philip and Alex's Guide to Web Publishing.
The headings and minor points should not interrupt the continuity of the page. Those reading the entire page should rely on these as highlights for reinforcement.
There are some readers who will want more information. Hypertext is the perfect tool for giving detailed information.
Do not include extra information in the page itself, you will confuse readers and lose their interest.
Each web page should be extremely specific with links to related and detailed information sources. These links should be embedded in the relevant sections of the document itself. Providing links to outside resources is extremely important to add credibility to your site and arguments.
Now we have come full circle and your page is acting as the first filter for a readers level of interest in other web pages.
By approaching writing in a logical manner and stepping through these levels of reader interest, many of the recognized techniques for clear and effective web writing are included without deliberate effort.
Jakob Nielsen has shown that scannable, concise and objective language improves usability by 159%. Creating scannable pages is the primary focus of the multi-level model presented here.
By presenting information at a number of levels we allow the reader to choose how concise the page should be. Readers with very little interest can get the major points by scanning the headings, an extremely concise presentation. Those with a strong interest are not as concerned with brevity and can read the entire article. The emphasis on keeping each page extremely specific with links to related or more detailed information also aids the writer in their effort to be concise.
Objective language in Nielsen's study was reached by removing exaggerations and marketese from the pages. Honest, informal and personal writing is fairly objective by nature. Since most readers will only scan the page, making the major and minor points informational (rather than teasing) will make the page more objective for many users.
Initially the inverted pyramid style seems similar to the multi-level approach. The accessibility of levels of information in each method is similar. The way of extracting the information is completely different however. The inverted pyramid gives the reader information as long as they are interested, getting more detailed with time. When the user has enough information they will get bored and leave the article unfinished. In contrast the reader should always finish a multi-level article since the information is spread throughout the article. The reader will skim the entire article focusing in on areas which they find interesting.
The multi-level and inverted pyramid styles are not mutually exclusive. The inverted pyramid is based around the ordering of information within the article. The multi-level technique draws on the structure of the content. In fact, content ordered in the inverted pyramid style and structured with a multi-level approach could be easily produced.
Filtering information is our main requirement when writing in today's information heavy world. The summary and title techniques presented here encourage the writer to help filter their own information.
I am a technical, logical person. I always enjoyed math because the answer was right or wrong. English was harder because the rules were not so clearly defined. I struggle when writing as I never know where to start, my thoughts don't flow to paper eloquently. Unfortunately this is at odds with my desire to share my ideas with others. Hence I decided to try and create a deliberate logical technique for writing clear web pages. Multi-level writing captures the best web writing techniques into a logical layout process.
I was always taught to write the conclusion first, know what you are trying to say. In practice I find that my most interesting ideas only reveal themselves after I have started writing. I find that a top down then bottom up approach to writing works best for me.
Here is the top down methodology that I generally use:
At this point I generally work back up through the article. I check that my jargon is consistent, minor points are clear and that the headings are useful.
It is the style that is important, not the method by which it is written. Personally, I have found that the multi-level style lends itself well to my logical, technical brain.
The clear structure and style of the multi-level approach invites both testing and editing. As with any article, the writing itself needs to be edited. More interesting is the concept of testing your writing for readability at each interest level.
The different levels of reader interest have been clearly defined. Testing readability at each level is simple. Starting with the title, read the article at each level of interest. The article should be readable at each level. For example, the title, summary and major headings should give me a very broad overview of the topic. If I am skimming the minor points then they should tell a story. The reader should be able to piece together the bits that are in between, taking away the ideas without all the specifics.
A logical extension of this testing process would be to use special testing cascading style sheets which hide the more detailed content from the tester.
The final step in testing is for links. Ensure that your title and summaries provide information about the contents of the page, that is, make sure they would be good link descriptors. Finally check that you have included relevant, accurate and unbroken links from within your text.