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Stop and Think, Part I

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013 at 1:25 PM

How to persuade searchers to stop, think, and read.

By Jan V. White

We assume our targets are "readers". They aren't. They are investors who need our material (we hope!). First they are searchers, for what they hope will useful. They are in a hurry. That's why we can no longer afford the arrogance that puts our material in front of them and says, "OK, here is the hoped-for goldmine. Go dig." We must find the nuggets worth displaying and expose them on the surface. Those valuable nuggets are the bait in the hook. (How's that for mixed metaphors?)

Our duty to our investor/readers is to propel ourselves into their minds and understand how to dish out our stuff to them from their point of view. How their curiosity works.

Where am I? Orientation

To assuage immediate curiosity and foster reader confidence, the construction of the piece must be obvious. Chapters must be clearly demarcated. The sections must be discernible at first glance. Patterning must allow an intelligible rhythm to build. Sidebar elements must be instantly recognizable as non-mainstream matter. "How long is this thing?" It is all a matter of how much time the potential guesstimates of investing. Being lost in it -- skip it.

Planned skippability. Not all information is of equal weight. Readership levels vary according to the interest the material evokes. Each user has a different agenda. We must actively increase the velocity of understanding -- and appreciation -- by helping the reader to skip what we deem not immediately useful. We can write the information for skippability and use type to express the rankings. "Selective readership" is no mere slogan, but a concept demanding active response. Think of it as "two-level readership." Important/less important. Fast/slow. First read/later read.

Bite-size chunks. Information becomes understandable when spelled out in step-by-step fashion. A single thought presented as an individual element is easy to list, simple to find, fast to recognize, painless to access, effortless to absorb. Complex relationships can be assembled in such smaller bite-size chunks. They look like a long piece, but the small bits make it less unattractive.

Visual clues. Long blocks just look daunting. The typographic texture can be broken by narrow space separated into sub-units. Clusters of such units are identified by wider moats of space. Space is the most useful raw material always at hand to explain the segmentation.

Which comes first? Structured writing or its structured display? Which is forced to fit the other? Neither. They have to be developed together through trial and error, compromise, and goodwill. The typographic design must be tailored to fit the material, and we must learn to appreciate its capabilities of enticement with enthusiasm. We must also understand the reasons for the limitations it imposes, so that we avoid feeling constricted by them and recognize them for the positive factors that they are. It isn't eyewash but seduction.

Shall I come in? Welcoming doors

Their graphic makeup must be the user's first clue both to the organization of the volume and to the typographic expression of the writing style.

Story starts in print are always better on a right-hand page. Top left is where the screen's first glance is expected to be found.

Tables of contents are the front door into the volume. They represent the product in microcosm. To be the best guide, they must accomplish two purposes simultaneously:

1) List the intellectual content (verbally).
2) Explain the structure of the document (visually).

Indexes are the back door, typically used more often than the front for details. They cannot be relegated to secondary status as an afterthought. They deserve pride of place and setting in the same type size as the body copy. It is foolish to set them as small as we can get away with to save space. It is equally foolish not to invest the requisite effort of maximal usefulness: good indexing proves that more is more, not less is more.

Technical words scattered throughout are often used as a shortcut to search. That is why they must be clearly exposed (or "popped out").

Is type too small? Hard to read

That is often the wrong complaint. The fault does not usually lie in the size of the type, but rather in the frustration that readers can't find what they are looking for. The signals need to be larger and thus more noticeable. Once the labels have identified the section, the text type size can be as small as usual and nobody will notice. The clearer the signals and the more of them, the easier the document "reads," regardless of body type size.

Easy-to-read type to make the user comfortable. Readability results from a balance of many factors. The style, structure, and wording of the writing must be integrated with its typographic form. The type face chosen, its size, line length, and interline spacing must be in proportion to the size of the area as well as the number of type areas. The type must also be coordinated with the background, be it paper or screen.

Asymmetry to follow the flow of thought. Symmetry about the axis running down the middle is traditional, formal. It bespeaks dignity. But dignity is not the point. Clarity is. The job at hand is to catapult information off the page into the uncaring viewer's mind. Because words run in lineal series, they should not be forced into artificial and arbitrary shapes. Asymmetric arrangements impose fewer limitations than the rigidly balanced ones. They lend themselves to more expressive figuration. Besides, asymmetric pages look dynamic and active, whereas symmetrical ones appear stodgy and stolid.

Indentions to signify ranking. In all reading, the left-hand edge of the column is the vertical reference line to which the eye returns, line after line. Indention creates a subsidiary reference line, customarily understood as denoting secondary importance. A hierarchy of indented reference lines can be one major clue to understanding ranking, and thus aids effective page scanning. Thus, the geometry of the page can be utilized to elucidate meaning.

The "s'posed to" syndrome (i.e., tradition). It is sensible that poetry be set in traditional form. It was written that way. So must "difficult matter" like mathematical or chemical formulae. So should running narrative, as in novels. So should play scripts (though asides and stage instructions offer opportunity for argument about format). So must legal matter, whose retrieval system is based on specific forms that make traditional sense. The list of specialized formats is long, and common sense accepts the adage that if something ain't broke, it shouldn't be fixed. Users expect to find specialized materials a certain way, and that is the way they should receive them. The "s'posed to" syndrome is perceived as reader-friendliness and comfort. Tamper with it at your peril.

Patterning as a tool to aid recognition. The rhythm built by repetition of a pattern is itself a valuable attribute that aids recognition. Familiarity with its visual shapes becomes a clue to the reader's interpretation. Knowing what to expect also creates a feeling of friendly comfort, especially if past experience has been positive. The greater the consistency the better, because deliberate inconsistency can be such a valuable tool.

More Tips in Part II...

Jan V. White is author of the classic Editing by Design, Third Edition (Allworth Press, available on Amazon). Eight of his other books are now in the public domain and available for free at http://openlibrary.org/books. He may be reached at janvw2@aol.com.

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