Your Own Words: Content Planning: Two Simple Document Design Strategies that Work

In my last column, “Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation: How to Improve Your Content before Publication”, I proposed a four-stage process for growing your web site’s content from scratch. I cautioned you to continually develop your language skills; to draft with reckless abandon using a real word processor; to systematically review your work’s focus, accuracy, and economy; and to put it away for a while then review it again before sharing it with the world. With this column, I thought I’d direct my comments on a facet of web development often overlooked by producers of all stripes: Content Planning. To many, the idea of Content Planning is inserting an ‘Under Construction’ message on that page between splash and shopping cart. Others believe it to be the hour before bed set aside to update the links page and scribble a few lines in that online diary. After reading this column you’ll know what Content Planning really is, why it’s important, and how some simple planning strategies can elevate your content, free it from the confines of mediocrity, vanquish all evil from the planet, and—best of all—turn your visitors into your biggest fans.

What is Content Planning?

When I said in my last column to make your keyboard sing, I meant it. The act of furious hammering at the keyboard is a very powerful one. The mind is sent to that place where the real gems live. Whether you write fiction or marketing copy or obituaries, nothing keeps the ideas flowing like busy fingers. At the same time, however, there are two specific steps you can take before and after this fit of typing that will help focus your writing and assist your readers in making sense of it all. Let’s call these two steps Pre- and Post-Draft Planning.

Pre-draft Planning

When faced with the blank page (and you are using a full-featured word processor, right?), you may already have entire paragraphs your anxious to get out. Go ahead and get those down if you’re afraid you might lose them forever. More often than not though, you’ll have an idea of where you want to go, but no idea where to begin. Start by asking yourself some open-ended questions (those that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no).

  • Who are my ideal readers?
  • How did they find me?
  • What do I want them to do or feel or know?
  • What must they already know to prepare them for what I have to say?
  • Where else could this audience find this information?
  • How will my content be different and better than those others?
  • What format, style, tone, or method of organization will best achieve my goals for this particular content?

By answering these questions (and any others that come to you), you will have analysed your purpose, your audience, and your organizational strategy. A mental picture of what’s needed should already be forming in your head. Now grab a tall cold drink and just the right piece of music and start typing. Refer back to your notes if you need to, but don’t stop until your draft is complete. I’ll wait right here. Go! All done? Time to mark it up with code and upload it right? Wrong!

Post-draft Planning

Reread your document. Do you notice any organizational patterns (parts/whole, chronology, cause/effect) in your writing that is holding it all together? If not, what other tricks can you use to put your paragraphs in order? Next, try employing some classic hallmarks of information design. Try “chunking” your content into short paragraphs (3 or 4 sentences) with no more than one thought in each. Remember, reading on the Internet is not like reading on paper. Short paragraphs are easier to digest. If you can remember effective use of white space, headings, type size, typeface (font), bulleted and numbered lists, text boxes, and bold, italic, or colored lettering, you will be doing your readers a great favor by making your words more appealing to the eye. The last step before you even dream of posting that content to the web is to proofread it. Run your spellchecker, but don’t forget to read it again yourself to catch what slipped through. No piece of proofreading software is a match for the human eye. Okay, NOW you may create your HTML page and prepare it for the web. But Content Planning is not finished yet! Have you considered incorporating a visual element into your content? Would an optimised jpeg help to drive your point home? Go for it. But keep in mind just how your content will be experienced for the first time. Should you present your visual first, or wait until you’ve had the chance to explain yourself. Perhaps you should give those visitors with slow modems something to read while the picture loads. Always keep your reader in mind. Imagine a first-time encounter with your words. Lastly, don’t neglect your navigation. A crucial component of Content Planning is integrating it into your site and the web at large. Include those links to other pages on your site and don’t forget your mailto link. You want your visitors to be able to reach you and compliment you on your wonderful pages, now don’t you?

Conclusion

Because reading on the web is so different from print reading, your approach to writing on the web must adapt accordingly to be effective. Hopefully with this column I’ve been able to show you some strategies for planning your content to maximize its impact and get your message across. It’s never easy to find the additional time to plan your documents. But if you’ll give it a try, you’ll be planning for success!

For more on this topic, please visit the following: How Users Read on the Web (by Jakob Nielsen),  Eyetracking Study of Web Readers (another by Jakob Nielsen),  Your Online Audience: Who Do They Think They Are? (from Contentious), Planning and Analysis Links (from About.com)

This article is a re-post of a column I wrote for the Netmaking newsletter in 2004. While the technology and uses of the web have changed significantly since then, much in the way of content development–the actual processes by which writers create for the web–has not. This column is being re-posted here for archival purposes, and in the hopes that it may be of some use to fellow writers out there. My Norwegian friends at Netmaking [English] are still going strong and doing great work with the eZ publish platform. I encourage you to check them out.

Series Navigation<< Your Own Words: Coding Your Content: The Web Reader as Browser, Part 2Your Own Words: Education, Composition, Alteration, Hibernation: How to Improve Your Content before Publication >>

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