Wednesday, August 17, 2005

How to Write a Great Website: Part II Inverting Your Pyramids

Last week, we talked about how to come up with concepts to write about when making a commercial website. We talked about features, and playing “So What?” to discover the benefits derived out of those features.

Sometimes, though, it can be tough to organize your thoughts. You’ve got all these concepts and ideas to write about, and maybe you’ve even written a first draft. But it doesn’t seem to flow. It doesn’t grab you right away.

Let’s take a lesson from journalists.

Try an experiment: Get a newspaper, and read it from first page to the last, but only read the first two or three paragraphs of each article. When you’re all done, you might be surprised to realize that you still have a really good idea of what’s going on in your world. Why is that? You didn’t read very much of the paper… Why would you know what’s happening?

It’s all because of how newspapers are written. See, editors know two things: One: They know how most of us read papers. We skim them, then when an article grabs us, we read more. Two: They know that when the articles are getting compiled, they don’t always know how much space they’ll have. They might have to trim an article. But to do that, they want to shorten it, but not rewrite it.

Both of those issues are solved by having their reporters use what’s called “The Inverted Pyramid Format”. This is something they teach in journalism school from the first day.

Imagine that you could whoosh over to Egypt, lift up one of the great pyramids and flip it over on its point. THAT’d be something to write about, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, if you could, you would notice that suddenly the really heavy stuff is now on top, and the pointy little details are at the bottom.

That’s how journalists structure their articles. All of the important information is at the top of the article. The things that you need to know, like who, what, when, where, how. Gradually, the information becomes less and less critical, until all that’s left at the tag end of the article is the points.

This makes it very easy for an editor. First of all, that’s how people read newspapers, right? Important stuff first! Also, if the article needs to be trimmed, the editor can just cut off the last couple of paragraphs of the text. No need to spend time rewriting and restructuring.

So, why should we care about this? Well, web readers are very similar to newsreaders. We tend to skim, and look for things that grab our attention right at the top. We want to know right away at the main page what the site is all about. No mysteries, here, bub, or I’m off to someone else’s site!

How do you do it? Once you’ve brainstormed your ideas using “So What” or whatever method you want to use, ask yourself which ideas and concepts are the most critical for your audience to know? Those go to the top. And fill them with powerful search terms, too, so the search engines grab a hold of them and pull you to the top when someone searches for your topic.

With good ideas, and good organization and flow, your main page will pull them in and draw them deeper, into the catalog pages or the content pages. That’s what we’ll tackle next time.

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