Clueing readers in

By Grant Jacobs 04/03/2011

WRITING/BLOGGING: What’s the best way to clue a reader into the content of an article if your blog covers a wide range of topics?

Regular readers will know I write on a fairly wide range of topics. In fact, I’d write on a much wider range of topics if I didn’t feel obliged to stick to something more-or-less related to science or writing.

People say not to include pictures not relevant to the article, but I can’t help myself here. I like sci-fi and this is hilarious. (Source:

It isn’t an inability to hold a topic–something I’ve seen offered as a bad thing to do blogging–but a conscious decision on my part.

One reason is to give me the excuse to write lighter pieces when the mood strikes me. There’s that my background straddles both biology and computer science. Another is that writing science blog articles can take a lot of time. There’s more, but you get the drift.

Let’s imagine I decide to expand to a wider range of topics and there is no means of using the post categories systems most blogging platforms offer. (In our case they’re already taken up by the sciblogs categories; even when they’re available they’re not always practical.)

What bothers me is that looking at the article itself at a glance, it’s hard for readers to know what they’re in for.

You could argue that’s just the nature of blogging: just read on and you’ll find out.

There’d be some truth to that, except that conflicts with a view of how people seek out on-line material that I’ve read about.

Two options might be to cue readers as to the nature of the article with a tag phrase leading off the subtitle or an icon near the top of the article.

For example we could use subtitles like these (some of these are lurking in my drafts, which is full of posts I’ve left stillborn or have yet to write…):

POPULAR SCIENCE: The sequences of a thousand human genomes show our variety, reminding us that we are all mutants.

NEWS: On September 4th an earthquake of magnitude 7.1 centred near the city of Christchurch struck in the South Island of New Zealand.

OPINION: I’d like to present one model for how science communication might work within universities, including some issues specific to the New Zealand setting.

BIOINFORMATICS: Use of suffix trees in bioinformatics have been an interest of mine for many years now. Here I look at they ways they have been applied to genomics data.

GENOMICS: The future of genomics lies with biophysics – the three-dimensional structure of genomes, how they are organised, how they are altered, how other factors interact with genomes. It is time that genomes are treated as molecular complexes, rather than a sequence.

LOCAL STUFF: Genetics Otago Annual Symposium, Nov. 29-30.

RANT!: A local anti-vaccine advocate now complains ’… pasteurization and homogenization denature foods. They alter the chemical structure of food …’ I suppose he’s never heard of cooking? *head-desk*

(I’m kidding about that last one. Then again, maybe I’m not – a local anti-vaccine advocate did endorse an article making that claim…)

I’ve two minds about this (more on this below).

An alternative is to use an icon to similar effect, something I’d consider doing on a syndicated blog. First let me give you a light take on the thinking that’s behind it.

Many people don’t read web pages, they scan them, using content cues.

This is used by web designers: good design provides a hierarchical levels of cues that draw visitors attentiveness across the page from the key elements to lesser ones. Font size is the cue you will most readily recognise. (There are research studies investigating this.)

Good titles are ‘attention getters’: they cause the reader to briefly pause their scanning. Psychologists may see this as related to attentiveness to a subject – ?

You might view the opening portion of an article as the opening bids of a contract of sorts. The writer offers something that the reader might invest their time in.

No-one likes investing in something that doesn’t live up to the initial promise. Their investment didn’t get the return they sought for their  time invested.

Because I present a range of different things, I try to let the reader know what they’re in for early on, so that they might decide if it’s something they want to devote time to.

If you look at a magazine, you can generally tell what kind of content the page features without reading even the opening paragraph. The cues lie in column or section titles, describing the content:

‘Aunty May’s advice’ (advice column)

‘What, you asked me?’ (a more flippant take on advice)

‘Toys for the boys’ (cars)

‘Motoring matters’ (a more serious take on motoring topics) and so on.

An approach that might work for blogs would be to create a series of icons, with one icon for each type of article and place it in the top-left corner, something regular readers might soon learn to identify with each type of article.

Leading off a subtitle, like the examples above, means the first words a reader encounter after the title clue them into the (intended!) nature of the article, but one thing I dislike about subtitles is that they get in between the title and the body content and so can be off-putting. In that sense I prefer a series of icons as they’d stand independent of the text. Readers can take them or ignore them.

For now subtitles will do, but perhaps in time subject icons can take their place too.

Other articles on Code for life:

Writing tip – avoid promoting particular booksellers…

For those interested in science writing or journalism

How long does it take you to write a science blog post?

What aspects of biology need to be explained better?

Quick e-journalism tip: to copy the text not the spam link…