The composition of the expert text should facilitate understanding and remembering knowledge. Start with what is the hardest or easiest? In what order should the information be provided so as not to overwhelm the reader? Maybe it’s better to mix everything up?
In what order should the information be arranged? – is one of the most common questions about writing expert articles. There are many answers. Unfortunately, none of them will ever be the only right one. Because what we want to say affects how we arrange the content.
For example, the rule of the inverted pyramid (consisting of the fact that we start with the most important information and end with irrelevant details) will work in the news, but it is unlikely to be useful in the scientific text in which the most important conclusions are drawn at the end.
In the “Writing about knowledge” series I stick to the assumption that an expert article resembles a lesson. Therefore, knowledge should not only be clearly laid out, but also easier to remember. If so, it is good to know a rule governing memory that can affect both the structure of a good lesson and a successful expert article.
What effect on remembering takes place in a row
Almost 150 years ago, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus began researching memory. He created over 2,000 meaningless syllables (such as RUL or HAL) and created lists of them, consisting of 7-36 elements. Then he memorized each list by heart and wrote down how many times he had to repeat the syllables to flawlessly recreate the whole.
He came to the conclusion that it is easier to remember the items beginning and ending the list than those inside.
For example, if the list contains 9 words, a person will remember on average 70% of the first three words, 40% of the three middle and 60% of the last three words.
But the order of reminding will be the reverse. Now, if someone would give you a list of vocabulary to teach, and then ask you to say or write down the words you recall, you would probably be the first to think of the words at the end of the list. It’s an effect of freshness. Then you recall the words that appeared at the beginning. This is a priority effect.
Why does the place in the row affect the ability to remember? There are many explanations.
We devote more attention to what is at the beginning, and therefore there is a greater chance that we will repeat this information and transfer it to long-term memory. However, the last words for a moment after reading the content remain in short-term memory and can be quickly extracted from there.
Please note that what is at the beginning and at the end is not remembered the same. The difference is in how you remember. The priority effect benefits from the benefits of long-term memory, while the effect of freshness – short-term.
Conclusions for writers?
What will appear at the beginning of the text has a chance to be saved permanently in the memory of the reader, while what at the end may briefly, but strongly, influence him. The effect of freshness appears just after reading the content and does not last long.
It’s good to start the expert text with the most difficult issues and end with an effective punch line or emotional appeal.
How to start with what is most important
Suppose you are writing a text about motivation. To emphasize the main thought, you can start e.g.
Motivation consists of two feelings. First of all: the belief that what you are going to do is useful. Second: faith that you can do the job.
Specialists from the Nielsen Norman Group, an organization that has been dealing with user experience for over 20 years, advise you to start the online text with a summary of the most important information.
Articles on nngroup.com are preceded by a short paragraph, announced by the word highlighted in red. An example summary reads, e.g .:
Users expect the “About Us” page to be transparent, authentic and understandable. They compare its content with the opinions of clients to create a full opinion about the company before proposing business cooperation or applying for a job.
Even if you fail to formulate the lid in this way, you still have the chance to take advantage of the priority effect. Why? Because the most important beginning for the reader is not the beginning.
The authors of one study divided the articles into 5 parts and checked in which of them the focus is on the most. In the case of articles considered later useful, the participants devoted the most attention not to the exact beginning of the text (0-20% of the content), but to the next part (20-40%).
Readers expect to find the most useful content here. To convince the reader to read, it is necessary to get to the point as soon as possible (but not immediately), and not just to tempt and encourage.
The beginning influences which pattern is arranged in the mind of the recipient, and therefore what he will expect. So, if the beginning of the article is not very substantial, the reader will be afraid that the rest will also not meet his expectations.
In the article you are reading now, I devoted the beginning of the text to research because, in my opinion, they are the most difficult part of it, and they are also supposed to convince the reader that the text is reliable.
The priority effect applies not only to the beginning of the entire text, but also to specific paragraphs or sentences.
In one study, each of the two groups received one sentence about Steve’s traits. The features were the same in both cases, but in a different order. How would you rate Steve if you found out he was “smart, urgent, critical, impulsive and jealous,” and how would you know that he was “jealous, impulsive, critical, urgent and smart”?
Does he seem more sympathetic after reading the first sentence, and more antipathetic after reading the second? Although the results of this study are more complex, one of the experiments proves the existence of a priority effect, resulting from the place of the word in the sentence.
How to manage the rest of the text
We’ve established that we start with what is most important and the most difficult. And what about the part that most often escapes memory, i.e. the middle of the text?
After what is important and difficult, go to what is simple and less new (in this article this is the part you are reading now). Then a cutscene may appear, e.g. a movie, an image.
Remember to always place captions under the pictures in the expert text. Many studies confirm that we read them several times more often than the main text. In addition, which is unique in online reading, we read them carefully, and some even start reading from the signatures.
As you approach the end of the article, you can take advantage of the freshness effect and move on to more difficult information (in this article it is a part about interlacing). It is best to close the expert text with a summary. I ended the article with bullets, but if you want to suggest something more original to the reader, you can, for example, draw a mind map.
Of course, you will not always be able to arrange the information in this way. Anyway, the division into easy and difficult is a subjective matter. An easy-to-follow passage does not have to be such in the reader’s eyes.
Fortunately, you don’t always have to act in line with the row effect. You can also … work around it. To do this, you need to know its limitations.
When the effect of a place in a row loses meaning
The priority effect is less pronounced when the individual elements are presented to the reader quickly. So it may not occur when you scan quickly. We also feel it less when the text is long.
Limited effect also has a freshness effect. If something distracts the reader’s attention right after reading it, this effect may not appear at all.
Unfortunately, the priority effect also makes it difficult to remember later messages. This is because we reject information that is not consistent with the information presented previously.
In other words, if the recipient accepts the first message, he will reject the next ones that contradict him. He finds it unreliable. So if you want to present different points of view, announce it early enough. So I did in this article:
There are many answers. Unfortunately, none of them will ever be the only right one. Because what we want to say affects how we arrange the content.
Above all, however, the effect of place in a row occurs most often when information is not varied. So, to get around it, you need to take care of diversity.
Why interleaving helps to understand
The creators of one study wanted to find out whether interlacing can affect the ability to better recognize the artist’s style. Study participants viewed the paintings of 12 more and less known artists. Half of the students watched the works gathered in blocks, i.e. for example 6 Braque landscapes, 6 Cross and so on.
The other half watched mixed landscapes, so one image of Braque, then one of Cross and others. Then, the subjects were to see other landscapes of the same artists and subordinate them to their names.
The results of the study were surprising. Well, the group that studied mixed works came out a lot better. How is this possible?
“Interleaving examples, skills or concepts helps us, it seems, not only to see the differences between them, but also to better capture each thing individually.” – Benedict Carey.
According to Carey, interlacing, thanks to the element of surprise, prepares the brain for the unknown. It is an adventure. The moment we see something unrelated to the rest, our brain begins to work harder to answer the question Where did it come from?
There is another reason why those who saw mixed images passed the test with a better result. Well, the test questions are usually mixed up. So if we recognize different types of tasks while learning, it will be easier for us to match the solution to them when they appear during the knowledge test. Interlacing teaches you to choose from various problems.
The meaning of interlacing is easier to refer to, let’s assume mathematics, but can this be the way to learn history? Of course! Instead of an outline of the city’s history, you can offer the reader a collection of secrets associated with it.
Let’s say you run a Facebook page dedicated to the history of French cinema. Your subsequent entries do not have to relate to chronologically arranged events. What’s more, you can mix trivia about actors with fragments of reviews or film riddles. The more content types you mix, the better.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of Facebook pages is precisely that they actually force the author to such interlacing.
How to use interleaving in an article
However, if you want to use the benefits of interlacing in the article, you must first of all provide diversity to the reader. Just like Neil Patel does. His article on how to optimize the link description could consist of text only.
And Patel is different. About once every 400 characters, an image appears in the article. The graphics are varied. These are diagrams, diagrams, charts, screenshots, fragments of infographics. In almost each of these paintings we see a trace of the author’s interference, and thus arrows and explanations.
To make the content even more attractive, you can go a step further and prepare a visual note.
If you place the movie more or less in the middle of the text, it will act as an interlude.
And if you do not plan to include images or movies in the text, because they simply do not match your content? Then you can interweave not so much types of content (e.g. text, image, film) as types of statements (e.g. story, commentary, example).
However, in order for this diversity not to overwhelm the reader, you need to prepare something for him …
Prepare a cream cake
A strange headline, right? But because it stands out, you will probably remember it better than the others. I do not mean dessert, but the most effective way of reading on the internet.
Well, internet readers have long discovered that scanning can be as beneficial as reading, although it costs less time and effort.
And it is not at all cynical, as it may seem. Well, reading on the internet usually serves to perform a task. One reads carefully online, not so much because of laziness but because of the need for efficiency. Recipients want to complete the task quickly and efficiently.
The internet reader is very busy. He wants to get an exhaustive answer and knows that he probably won’t find it in one place, so he opens several pages at once. Yours is one of them. The challenge for you is to facilitate this search.
And what does this have to do with the cream cake?
Well, the most effective way to read from the screen is not at all like the notorious letter F, but a cream cake. The headings are layers of cream, and the text between them – a cake.
The reader’s eye focuses on the title and subheadings. Sometimes the eyes glide over the text below, until you can locate the content you are looking for. From this moment the recipient reads carefully.
Yes, there is also careful reading on the internet. Recipients read carefully when they believe they are in the best place to get information.
To enable the reader to read in the style of cream cakes, you should write concise and encouraging headlines. They cannot announce too much or too little. The headlines should also stand out graphically to increase the functionality of the site.
– What is at the beginning of the text has a chance to be saved permanently in the memory of the reader.
– What is at the end may briefly, but have a stronger impact on it.
– The most important beginning of the text is not the very beginning, but the content within the first 20-40%.
– From the most difficult it is good to go to what is simple and less new, then serve the reader a break, then take up more difficult issues and end with a summary.
– To bypass the effect of space in a row, take care of diversity and use the interlacing principle.
– You will make it easier for the reader to complete the task if you enable him to read the cream-style cake.