6.2 Chunking: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Linear and chunked narratives

This leads to the conclusion that a large body of information should be divided into manageable “chunks” that can be joined by links. The terms “chunking” and “nonlinear narrative” have been around at least since 1990.

The well-established model is that of taking the print document to the Web — the newspaper or magazine model. If that's your task, then you should try to edit the nonlinear (beginning-middle-end) story into one that is nonlinear. Instead of looking for the obvious "C follows B follows A" approach, you should be looking to break out chunks of information that can stand alone. Each chunk will require some rewriting so that it takes on the feel of a self-contained story.

Mindy McAdams writes:

If the chunk does not give the impression that it stands alone, the users will feel as if something is missing, as if the information is inadequate, incomplete; they will have to back up and read an introduction, or trudge on and read more. To make cybermedia work on both deep and shallow levels, it must always allow users to feel free to quit where they are, to create their own ending. (At the same time, they should also feel that there is always more to explore.)

Each chunk, then, will have its own headline and “lead.” Mario Garcia of the Poynter Institute and many others recommend paying special attention to headlines. Within the page, subheads break up the document further. When the information has been chunked in a logical way, the author then can organize the chunks into threads through the use of links.

Ground-up thinking

As you prepare your final projects, you have the opportunity to take a more logical approach, and that is to write with the Web structure in mind. When you write with a "ground-up" approach, you assemble each chunk as a unit, then impose a structure through the use of links. When you developed your Web Site Plan, you were asked to think of the kinds of information you wanted on you pages. These give you a rough idea of the chunks that are out there for you. Then you were asked to combine these into six “subsites.” These subsites represent the threads by which you string together your chunks.

In doing these tasks, you begin the procedure of writing the nonlinear story. McAdams defines the steps in producing this story as:

  1. Writing chunks. Once written, the chunks usually require revision as structure develops.
  2. Determining sequences. You must find order for the article chunks. The writer decides on possible reading orders for all chunks.
  3. Creating links.You create order in the document by creating links.

As a practical matter, you may find some chunks need further “chunking,” or that some end up being too small to be satisfying; these are combined with others.

In planning your Web articles, remember:

  1. Each chunk is tightly focused on a single idea, event, description or problem.
  2. No chunk substantially repeats anything stated in another chunk in the same article.
  3. Each chunk will average about 250 words. Some will be longer, up to about 350 words, and some will be shorter, usually no less than 150 words. But ask yourself if those 150 words are worth their own page.

Use common sense as the ultimate guide, and tailor your chunking to the material. The Web Style Guide authors advise:

Only use chunking where it makes sense. … Don’t break up a long document arbitrarily; users will have to download each page and will have difficulty printing or saving the entire piece. The key to good chunking is to divide your information into comprehensive segments. That way users will have direct and complete access to the topics they are interested in without having to wade through irrelevant material or follow a series of links to get the whole picture.

Some important things to remember: