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June 14, 2011

Aiming for the embedded summary

Over the past months I've been asked to produce various pieces of writing for the web: copy for the newsletter, blog entries but mainly copy both for the Italian and the English website (the latter hasn't been published yet).

This has given me the opportunity to practise all the tips discussed during the course. In particular I've focused al lot on building paragraphs with heading and subheadings, training my mind and my eyes to recognise the information structure, i.e. the logic on which a text is build.

Since people reading online are fundamentally in a hurry and just scan the page for information, it is also important to make a strategic use of the bold format as this can clearly attract the reader. The basic rule is that you should put in bold the key concepts of a paragraph so that even if the reader reads just those words, he/she can still get the gist of the text.

However, what I'm really trying to do is not to give the reader just a 'list of key words/verbs written in bold' but to construct a coherent sentence written in bold and still embedded in the 'normal text'. Basically, if you take out the words in bold and put them one after the other you should have a grammatically and logically correct sentence.

I've realised this is more of an ideal goal than something easy to achieve. When I try this exercise I end up thinking that I need to rewrite the main text to fit around the bold text. However, this would mess up the main text, resulting possibly in a less pleasing piece of writing.

Well, I've tried this exercise with this blog entry. If you take out just the bold text, the result is:

To produce various pieces of writing for the web I've focused al lot on building paragraphs with heading and subheadings, to recognise the information structure. People reading online just scan the page for information. Make a strategic use of the bold format: put in bold the key concept of a paragraph. Construct a coherent sentence written in bold and still embedded in the 'normal text'. This is more of an ideal goal than something easy to achieve.

I've been lucky this time. It has worked and the result is a fairly logic paragraph expressing in a very synthetic way my key idea! However, I think this is just casualness. I don't start with a summary to then write the main text around it. I start with an idea, write the main text and then decide which parts should be in bold creating a visual summary. You can't follow the inverse order as nothing can be really conceived in the human mind as a summary. To have a summary there needs to be by definition something else before, an articulated and deep thinking. An idea is always the result of a more articulated thinking: so we can't really start with the summary. It's not possible to have an idea before having reflect on other things. Brilliant and innovative ideas always appear after a brainstorming or a long and stressful 'mental search'.

I think that as far as online writing is concerned summaries/bold text should not be seen as a shortcut for not reading the main text but as a hint on the quality of the whole content. The summary/bold text should help the reader decide whether he/she wants to read further.

The company where I work sells guided tours to Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper. The website has obviously a section on the Last Supper and on Leonardo's life and works among other things. I like to think that even if the online reader reads just the bold text he/she will find the ideas presented interesting and be encouraged to pay more attention to the full text and finally be interested in booking a tour to find out more about Leonardo and his works. Borrowing the retail sector concept that the customer is king, I think we can say that on the web content is king: to grab the reader you need top-quality content!

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