Thursday, January 22, 2009

Plain language, the F-pattern, and inverted pyramids

Did you know people reading web pages follow an F pattern? Readers scan the lede, do a quick pass over the nut graf, drop down to the next subhead, and then move down the page. If a web developer is lucky, the eyeballs track all the way down to the bottom of the content on that page. More likely, after a few seconds the reader has clicked on out of your site and is heading for something more interesting.

I've heard this before, but heard it reiterated at a lunch-hour plain language seminar yesterday. The F-pattern is a variation on the classic newspaper inverted pyramid: put the most important stuff in the first couple of lines because odds are that's all most readers are ever going to look at. It's also the exact opposite of the way the scientists, the subject matter experts (the SMEs), here at Large Nameless Agency are trained to write. Scientists are big believers in burying readers alive in paragraph after paragraph of details that build to a (sort of) conclusion, the academic/scholarly writing pattern that dictates you state a thesis, pile on facts, and then eventually, many, many pages later, tell people additional research is needed.

Example: want to warn people that electricity can kill you? Typical scientist's approach would be to give it a complex title ("The potentially fatal consequences of accidental exposure to electrical current"), explain the entire history of electricity, starting maybe with galvanic reactions in frogs being studied in the 18th century, a reference or two to Franklin flying kites and Edison electrocuting elephants to prove that alternating current could kill you, and then, after many, many dense pages, ending with a "and in conclusion it's probably a bad idea to drop a blow dryer into a bathtub." Left to their own devices the SMEs would produce fact "sheets" running 10 or 20 pages long. Which is why LNA employs writer-editors.

We take the 20 page fact sheet and turn it into a one pager with a title that screams "Electricity can kill you" followed by bullet points, e.g., "Don't touch downed power lines." And then we get to listen to the SMEs scream that we've dumbed it down and eliminated the science. Then the science officer takes our carefully crafted inverted pyramid and flips it upside down, insists on shoving in 200 or 300 words-worth of extraneous polysyllables, and wonders why the web site isn't getting the traffic he or she thinks it should. Maybe one of these days they'll figure out that it doesn't matter how good the science is if the people they're trying to serve (the general public) doesn't understand it.


  1. reminds me of the email that i got that was just parts of words and each word was typed as haz for has...and looked like gibberish..people just dont read any more.

  2. Have you gone back and looked over the APIS natural resource web pages since you left? They have not changed since you were there; they remain bad enough to make one's teeth hurt.

  3. Oh, wow. I listened in on a conference call earlier this week where our Chairman did just that to a one page informational registration flyer. By the time he got done with it, it was a newsletter. Our marketing manager was beside herself and I was trying not to make eye contact with her because I knew we'd both crack up.


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