This post is the third in my series on the characteristics of Every Page is Page One topics, which I introduced in Every Page is Page One Topics are Everywhere, and continued in topics on the properties standalone and specific limited purpose.
This series is not a attempt at designing something new; it is an investigation into the properties of the millions of page-one topics that already exist, and that are being created everyday. At this point a reader might fairly ask why such a study is necessary, and the simple answer is that while technical writers in large numbers have come to embrace topic-based writing in principle, many still struggle to create topics that really work, and in many cases they quickly retreat to some form of book-like heirarchy of information.
One of the surest sign of the difficulties that many writers are having in moving to topics is that many of the topics being produced today lack the necessary property of establishing their context. If you have ever landed in the middle of a help system from a search and found that you has no idea where your search had landed you, you have experienced this lack of context that so many topics exhibit.
That a topic must establish its context is a necessary consequence of it being standalone. If a topic is to standalone, the reader must be able to come to it from anywhere and be able to tell where it is they have arrived at. If the topic does not provide that context, then the reader must seek elsewhere to orient themselves and the topic, ipso facto, is not standalone.
A topic must therefore begin by placing itself in context. This may sound dangerously like the sort of front matter that minimalism has been encouraging us to leave out. It isn’t. Indeed, providing context is necessary to minimalism’s goal of getting to action. You can’t act effectively is you don’t know where you are.
Most of the page-one topics that you read will orient themselves pretty quickly. A lead paragraph of a sentence or two will suffice to set the scene for what is to come. Here is the first example I put my hand on, which happens to be from an opinion article by Christopher Kaczor in the August/September 2011 issue of First Things:
In most states, young people can drive a car at sixteen. At eighteen, they can vote and serve in the military. At twenty-one, they can drink alcohol. At twenty-five, they can serve in the House of Representatives; at thirty, in the senate; and, at thirty five, as president of the United States. We gain rights as we age.
This is actually a rather fine specimen of the species, but that is serendipity. It really was the first article I turned to in the first magazine I pulled from my pile. And it does an admirable job of placing the article in context. To be sure, it gives you little idea of what the argument of the article is going to be, but you know exactly what subject it will be about, not to mention which country’s system of right it will examine. At the end of this paragraph, the reader is fully contextualized.
It perhaps needs to be pointed out that putting a topic in context does not mean locating it in the table of contents, or locating it in the information set in any way. It means locating the subject of the topic in the real world. Placing an “Up to TOC” link on a topic is not placing it in context.
Now perhaps I may come in for a little ribbing here. I am, after all, writing a series of posts on how topics should stand alone. The opening paragraph of this topic describes the place of this topic in the series. Is this a contradiction?
I hope not. I think the opening sentence does contextualize the post in its subject, as well as its role in the series. And I think one of the important functions of the introduction of a page-one topic is to point the reader outward to ancillary material that they may need to fulfill the reader dependencies they bring to the topic. (I describe reader dependencies here. If you don’t know what they are, that’s a reader dependency, because reader dependencies are not the subject of this topic.)
And I think that point serves to highlight the difference between a topic establishing its context and the kind of verbose front matter that minimalism urges us to dispose of. A contextualizing paragraph simply says: Here is where you are. If you are not ready to be here, here are the things you should go read up on (ideally with links). The verbose, though kindly, front matter that minimalism discourages, tends to say: Just in case you are new here, let me go back to the very beginning… (Fans of the the Big Bang Theory may recall Sheldon attempting to teach physics to Penny. “It’s a warm summer evening circa 600BC …”)
What a good Every Page is Page one Topic does is orient the reader quickly and then get on with the job at hand.