6.3: Chunking Strategy

Jutta Degener identifies two problems with writing hypertext copy: links and emotions.

The American Society of Newspaper Editor’s literacy committee, in its 1993 report “Ways with Words,” described four styles of writing and tested them with readers:

The inverted pyramid
  1. The inverted pyramid style of journalistic writing, what the literacy committee called the “straight traditional” style, has only limited use in writing for the Web. It starts with the most important information at the top and fades into less and less important — or relevant — information. As mentioned before, Jakob Nielsen for one believes the form still is useful, but with the background information and history lessons way down in the story broken off into their own chunks. The problem is that in applying this story form to the Web, the basic chunk usually is the whole story. Just about any story from The Christian Science Monitor demonstrates this point. But look at the short inverted pyramid stories on the Associated Press Web site. For short news briefs on unrelated topics, the inverted pyramid still works well.
  2. Narrative mode. McAdams calls the narrative the “unsolved puzzle of hypertext.” How do you break up a story that is meant to be told in a time sequence, one with a beginning, middle and end, when the reader can go to any part of it at any time? One solution might be to treat the narrative as just what it is. Find logical breaks in it, like chapters and subchapters, and build a link structure that is more linear. After all, haven’t readers always had the option of reading the ending first? Still, most narratives on the Web are broken down with little imagination or not broken down at all. The cover story from the April 2001 edition of The Atlantic, is presented as one long chunk, with subheadings providing the only relief. But with a story this long, we could end up with too many chunks in a confusing array.
  3. Point of view. Where it’s relevant to the subject matter, a topic can be examined from various points of view, or chunks can be determined by various assertions made by the author. This approach works well when the author attacks a subject point by point. A piece by Frank Weinreich in CMC Magazine illustrates this style.
  4. Radical clarity. This is defined in the ASNE report as arranging material “in an order that maximizes reader understanding and explains everything the reader might need explained.” This style presents background information early to bring the reader up to speed. It “defines terms often and spells out motives.” Radical clarity works well with two strategies for chunking, the “mosaic” and the “schematic.”
    • The mosaic breaks the story into straight-forward chunks such as “What we studied, the methods, the findings, the conclusions.” It works well with lists presenting information in simple, direct language.
    • The schematic is a “news you can use” form. It might break down the information into who, what, when and where, with additional specific categories such as “the cost, sponsors, more information.” The schematic also works well with lists.

In searching the Internet, you can find many, many examples of the inverted pyramid or of the unfettered narrative, but few examples of a well-done mosaic or schematic, a sign of how far Web writing has to go. The first two forms aren’t always bad, but little rethinking of story forms is being done out there.