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(Not that kind of framing.)

Late night-night thoughts on ensuring that readers come away with the message of the article.*

Jeremy Yoder writing from Denim and Tweed, following Dave Munger’s lead, frets about how

online publishing and dissemination methods can strip the nuance from scientific news

Yoder notes Munger’s point about

careful consideration of both the nut graf sent out via Twitter and RSS and the audience receiving them

He agrees (and I do too), but goes on to argue that some subjects may be less suited to blogging, writing

But the longer a post is, the more possibility there is that some fraction of the readers will quit reading before the end, and maybe even pass on links or comments based on that incomplete understanding.

Munger’s original concern (as I read it) was readers taking away over-simplistic, even mistaken, meanings from a story.

While taking Yoder’s point that short articles fit with blogging, I have to side with Munger on this issue, who points to a well-constructed dek, or sub-head, as a point that makes a difference. In particular, I see this as overcoming some of the limitations of longer articles and I can’t help think that for some (not all) types of articles the absence of a sub-head, or a poorly-written sub-head, is a key issue with longer on-line articles.

From my limited experience in writing using a sub-head as a condensed summary of the article (as opposed to a teaser) it seems to help.

My own move to trialling a sub-head didn’t come from formal training in writing, because I haven’t any (I do self-train, reading what I can when I can find time), but from me thinking through how I might get ’lazy’ readers to not miss the essence of the message.

I started with a notion that many readers skim, rather than read, at least initially. Or entirely for less-motivated readers.

The idea that they skim rather than read I derived from a number of things including web design issues (good web pages are designed to be skimmed, not read, using hierarchical cues) and the notion of a reader skimming key elements of an article to ‘negotiate’ whether to ‘invest’ in reading an article.

From this I had an speculative (!) model of readers skimming the headline, first paragraph or sub-head, as the case may be, then possibly dropping to last paragraph, looking for a conclusion if the story is in narrative form, with many readers leaving it at that. (There I go: a scientist guilty of basing something on speculation and anecdote. The shame, the shame.)

A related issue I picked up from experience is others incorrectly paraphrasing the aim of the post.

A recent example was an article I wrote looking at media issues in writing about on-going science issues, in which I used the XMRV-CFS fuss as an example. A CFS advocacy group incorrectly paraphrased my story as being about a ’perspective on the recent media coverage of evolving XMRV research in CFS’ in directing their readers to my article.

In practice I wrote about general issues of reporting scientific stories that are on-going, addressed to journalists, science writers, etc., not for patients and advocates for those with CFS. Not the media coverage of XMRV-CFS, but the media issues in general.

The article did state this pretty explicitly, but this was buried with the article. The experience it made me think that I should renew my experiment of using a sub-head.

It seems to me that there are advantages and disadvantages to using sub-heads. Unfortunately for me (but perhaps fortunately for my readers) I am now writing into the wee hours so I lack time to explore these fully. I can sense pre-emptive sighs of relief rattling down the wires to me…!

So, uneducated stray thoughts in bullet-point fashion on articles using a sub-head:

  • To say the obvious, using one depends on if you care about the ’sloppy’ readers and if your writing is of the sort really needs them. Who is your audience and are you trying to report an event or research finding, or teasing out a pure narrative story?
  • With a decent sub-head in place the headline can be a teaser. It’s OK by me have ’misleading’ headlines as long as they are immediately ’corrected.’ Think of the National Geographic heading an article ’Was Darwin wrong?’, but with the first sentences of the article – in (very) large type – being ’No. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming.’ The extra-large type effectively made this a sub-head. Good sub-heads lets you be more creative with your headlines or twitter promos without misleading readers. (Others exploit this to excellent effect.)
  • Sub-heads create a disruption between the headline and the article, so you can’t naturally flow the opening text from the headline. (You can see that this article has that problem, which I’ve attempted to address by pushing the sub-head down a line.) Applying styles to distinguish the sub-head clearly from the text can mitigate this a little, not completely. (I still haven’t come up with a way of doing this in WordPress MU that I’m happy with. It’s a long story.)
  • Sub-heads help you cater for both those wanting the sound bite-length take on the issue and those who prefer context and depth. Readers who go no further than the sub-head (hopefully) come away with a sound, if limited, message. More motivated readers can take the full course. (I try take this a little further to cater for both lighter and more motivated readers when I remember to, by having the article at a casual reading level, with footnotes for technical asides that would be disruptive, confusing or a distraction to the less interested reader. (See I hate footnotes and my comments there.)
  • An alternative approach would be to use side-bar science.
  • It’s time for bed. Yes, that’s a bullet-point stray thought too!

Footnote

* I wouldn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea: I’m a neophyte as far as science writing goes. These thoughts are explorations of issues that interest me, not advice!


Other articles on Code for life:

Royal Society publishing free to read, 1665 — today

What is your relationship with your research notebook?

Science communication shorts

In good health or not? — ’natural health’ advertising in newspapers, magazines

To link or not to link: mainstream media and no links at all