Cars, trains, and puzzles: three approaches to topics

Everyone is wild about topics, and rightly so. Topic-based writing offers many benefits for both readers and writers. But not all topics are created equal, and how you serve your readers, and how efficient you make your writers, can depend on which approach to topic-based writing you choose.  We can usefully distinguish three basic approaches, which I will call cars, trains, and puzzles.

Type one: puzzle pieces

Jigsaw pieces.

Topics can be like jigsaw puzzle pieces that must be assembled to create a coherent picture. Image copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Most organizations moving to topics start with the puzzle model. They create topics by splitting up books, and then put the books back together again by assembling the topics. This approach is like creating a jigsaw puzzle. The larger work is broken down into smaller pieces, but the pieces by themselves are not necessarily useful or coherent. Puzzle pieces are not small pictures with their own coherence and meaning. They are merely parts of a larger picture. The only way to see the larger picture is to assemble the pieces, and generally there is only one way that they go back together.

Type two: train set

Toy Trains

Topics can be like a train set: different types of pieces that can be put together in many ways. Image copyright (c) Mark Baker.

Most organization soon realize that the puzzle piece approach to topics does not deliver many benefits. At this point they either decide that this whole topics thing is a bust, or they move to a different model. The usual next step is the train set model.

A train set consists of a set of pieces that each have a well defined function within the set, but which also have well defined boundaries and conform to a distinct type. A train set will include track pieces, including straits, curves, and switches, as well as locomotives and cars of various types such as passenger, boxcar, or tanker. But while each piece has a distinct type, the set still has to be put together into a single whole in order to work as intended.

Some pieces, such as locomotives,  may be fun to play with on their own, but you can’t make much of a game with just a section of straight track. And you have to put the train set together in the right way. There may be multiple possible layouts, but the tracks do need to connect up, the locomotive does have to go at the front of the train, and the caboose at the back. To make the train set work, therefore, you have to do quite a lot of planning and assembly before you actually get to play trains.

One of the good things about the train set model is that with a train set you can create different track layouts by assembling the track pieces in different ways, and you can build different trains by putting locomotives and cars together in different combinations. You can even reuse pieces from other sets to extend your layouts and trains.

However, there is a limit to this reuse. Different train sets come in different shapes and sizes. They may be made of wood, plastic, or metal; their tracks may be narrow or wide, the may run on electricity or be pushed by hand. You can only reuse pieces from compatible train sets. Get too many pieces from too many sets mixed up in the toy box and you can have quite a management headache every time you want to play trains.

One approach to this compatibility problem is to demand that all the train sets in the world must conform to the same specs. For the sake of reuse and interchange, all other types of train sets must be eliminated. Of course, the problem with this is that the train set that works for a 3 year-old may not bring the same delight to the 13-year old or the 70-year old model railroading enthusiast.

Type three: toy cars

Toy cars

Topics can be like toy cars: each one is complete in itself, but they can still be used together.

There is a third approach to topics which removes many of the problems with the train set model. You can approach topics like toy cars. Unlike the pieces of a train set, each toy car is a complete toy in its own right. You can play with a single toy car all by itself. It is needs nothing else to make it work or to make it fun to play with.

However, you can use multiple cars together to play all sorts of different games. There are almost no restrictions on how you can insert one or many cars into whatever game you are playing. Because the don’t have to be connect to each other in particular ways, you can organize them any way you like: by color, by size, by type. Best of all, because each car is an independent toy, you can mix and match cars from different sets (as in the picture) and still have lots of fun with them. There is no need to suggest that all cars be made to the same spec. People can have whatever kinds of cars they like in their collection.

Making topics like toy cars is not difficult. In fact, it is much easier than making train set topics. It is simply a matter of writing each topic as if it were page one.

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2 Responses to Cars, trains, and puzzles: three approaches to topics

  1. pamela clark 2011/12/06 at 16:37 #

    Good article, Mark. I like this analogy a lot – very clear and succinct. I think topic-based writing is still in the minority for most companies here in the Bay Area, sadly. Although, more of the small, start-ups are trying to use it, often in the context of wiki docs. Sadly, not the case at my new employer – still book-oriented here.

    • Mark Baker 2011/12/07 at 19:31 #

      Hi Pamela,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the number of companies doing topic based writing is small everywhere. Even many of the companies that say they are doing it, and think they are doing it, really aren’t. But I do think the idea has traction now, not because writers want to go there, necessarily, but because that’s how readers want to read now. In the long run, the companies who serve their customers with the kind of content they want are going to be more successful than those who don’t.

      The advantage of being at a company that is still in the book world, however, is that you can influence the shift to topics from the beginning, and hopefully avoid the initially appealing, but ultimately pointless, adoption of the jigsaw puzzle model and go straight to the toy car model, or at least the train set model.