D7 Inverse-Pyramid Writing Style

D7 Inverse-Pyramid Writing Style

graphics/common.jpg Background

Whether you write text based on MULTIPLE WAYS TO NAVIGATE (B1), by HIERARCHICAL ORGANIZATION (B3), as BROWSABLE CONTENT (B2), or for better SITE ACCESSIBILITY (B9), there is no escaping the written word on the Web. This pattern forms the core for all site writing.

graphics/common.jpg Problem

People move about quickly on the Web, skimming for information or key words. If a site's writing is not quick and easy to grasp, it is usually not read.

Your customers want Web pages to be fast to download, easy to use, and quick to skim. They do not want to wade through self-promoting propaganda or scroll through pages of text to get to the point. Although customers will be more tolerant if they know of no alternative site, you cannot count on their good nature. If a page does not deliver, your visitors will be gone in a single click.

Often customers find a lot to read on sites, but all this text can be tedious for people who are skimming or looking for specific pieces of information. To help them you can employ a common journalistic style called inverse-pyramid writing. Newspapers and magazines excel at this style because they know readers tend to scan and skim until they reach a particular item of interest, and even then they may not read past the headline or first paragraph. This pattern provides the solution for writing in this style.

Create a Concise but Descriptive Headline

A descriptive headline tells readers what to expect in the following text. People can read a concise title quickly. As we said in HEADLINES AND BLURBS (D3), you must articulate in the headline why the content is important and unique. Implicit in the headline is a promise about what the content offers.

The headline is typically a sentence fragment, roughly ten words or less so that it can appear in large type in a small space.

What makes a good headline? A good headline does all of the following:

  • It contains keywords, most importantly subject and verb. The best headlines indicate action, such as Buy or Sell Anything Here.

  • It confirms the information that follows in the blurb.

  • It does not reveal the whole story, so the reader is compelled to continue.

  • If it is news based, it states the most important aspect of the relevant news.

  • It is clean, simple, and specific. The headline "Inside Instant Messaging" on Figure D7.1 is a good example.

    Figure D7.1. A concise yet descriptive headline, an engaging blurb, and simple, clear writing make the first paragraphs on the Yahoo! Internet Life site a prime example of the inverse-pyramid writing style. (Reproduced with permission of Yahoo! © 2000 by Yahoo! Inc. Yahoo! and the YAHOO! logo are trademarks of Yahoo! Inc.)

    (www.yil.com, November 6, 2001)


  • It is not a boring label, such as "Blue Slacks."

  • It is humorous without injuring or perplexing its readers.

A powerful headline is important for many reasons. When implementing a page, take care to put the title in two places: in the HTML TITLE tag, as described in DISTINCTIVE HTML TITLES (D9); and in the body of the text itself. HTML titles are used by search engines (see WRITING FOR SEARCH ENGINES (D6)), and in favorites, bookmarks, and desktop shortcuts. Also a descriptive title makes it easy to create a DESCRIPTIVE, LONGER LINK NAME (K9).

Continue with the Most Important Points in the Blurb or Lead

If you're writing a short list of blurbs, focus on the point you want to make. Keep your target customer in mind at all times.

It is difficult to write short, succinct blurbs, so write something longer first and edit it down to its essence. If you want your page to show a list of blurbs, place the most important ones ABOVE THE FOLD (I2) so that readers can quickly determine whether they are on the right page. The blurb in Figure D7.1 begins with the words "Faster than a speeding e-mail."

The term lead refers to the first few paragraphs of a story or longer text. It reinforces the headline and entices the visitor to read more (see Figure D7.2). Following the inverse-pyramid style, state the most important idea first and continue to the least important.

Figure D7.2. The most important paragraph in this news article is at the top and in boldface. The following paragraphs continue the story and draw readers in.

(cnn.com, February 15, 2002)


Use Less Text

Text on computer monitors is harder to read than on paper, so people read less online than they do on paper. This means that online articles must be shorter than those in print (see Figure D7.3). Instructions for using a Web application must be kept especially short to keep reader attention on the navigation items and the other application objects.

Figure D7.3. This Web page uses an inverse-pyramid style. It has a concise title, a short summary paragraph, and supporting paragraphs. However, it's not necessary to read the supporting paragraphs in order to understand what the page is about.

(www.builder.com/Graphics/Conceptualize/ss01.html, November 2001)


Write Short Sentences and Check Your Work

Write in a straightforward manner, avoiding complex sentences. Use simpler words and FAMILIAR LANGUAGE (K11) to ensure that readers can understand what you're communicating.

Just like short sentences, short blocks of text are easier to read than long blocks. If you break up long paragraphs into shorter ones, readers can skim more quickly. Finally, to avoid confusion and mistakes, run the text through a spell checker and a grammar checker, and then completely proofread it before publishing. These kinds of errors are the easiest to correct, but they are embarrassing if they make it to the site.

Avoid Hype

Do not underestimate your customers. They can become frustrated and annoyed easily when presented with self-promoting hype and blatant advertising. By avoiding hype, you raise your site's credibility. Present facts clearly and concisely, without sounding self-promoting. Hype can backfire if you say that your product is the best. Visitors might have found your site in a search engine list, so they can research your competitors' sites as easily as they found yours, just by clicking the Back button.

Use Bullets and Numbered Lists

Readers appreciate bulleted lists for the following reasons:

  • They draw people's attention.

  • They are conducive to rapid skimming.

  • They highlight information quickly.

  • They identify the most important information.

However, follow these guidelines when you use bulleted lists:

  • Use them when the order of the items is not important. Use numbered lists if the ordering matters.

  • Use HTML bullets, instead of fancy images, to improve download time.

  • Apply bullets sparingly, or they will lose their effectiveness.

  • Avoid having too many bullets in the list. Seven is usually the most you should have.

Use Embedded Links

EMBEDDED LINKS (K7) help visitors find more information about a topic that is mentioned in an article. Embedded links are contained in the body of a text (as opposed to being listed at the end of an article; see Figure D7.4 for an example). Embedded links make text easier to skim because people can scan for them. However, EMBEDDED LINKS (K7) may also distract readers.

Figure D7.4. This article from CBS MarketWatch uses an embedded link ("Read the statement") to give readers immediate access to another article mentioned in the text of this article. (Copyright © 1998–2001 MarketWatch.com Inc.)

(cbs.marketwatch.com, November 2001)


Experiment with Different Writing Styles for Entertainment Purposes

If your Web site centers on fun over usability, figure out how to use humor, but carefully. Stories and humor do not need to be written in the inverse-pyramid style. Tailor your presentation to your specific audience.

graphics/common.jpg Solution

Start with a concise but descriptive headline, and continue with the most important points. Use less text than you would for print, in a simple writing style that uses bullets and numbered lists to call out information. Place embedded links in your text to help visitors find more information about a related topic. Experiment with different writing styles for entertainment purposes.

Figure D7.5. For inverse pyramids, start with a good title, continue with a few blurbs, and follow up with supporting information.


graphics/common.jpg Consider These Other Patterns

Articulate in HEADLINES AND BLURBS (D3) why each page is important, unique, and valuable to visitors. Write DISTINCTIVE HTML TITLES (D9) and integrate them with WRITING FOR SEARCH ENGINES (D6) to improve search engine results. Use FAMILIAR LANGUAGE (K11) that your target visitors will understand. Provide DESCRIPTIVE, LONGER LINK NAMES (K9) for other articles to reference. Place the most important information ABOVE THE FOLD (I2) so that readers can quickly determine whether or not this is a page they want. EMBEDDED LINKS (K7) make text easier to skim because people can easily spot them as they scan text.

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