Chunks: Writing for the Web

By Mindy McAdams
University of Florida

> Online Journalism
> Writing for the Web
> Interactivity

What is a chunk?

We use links to connect things online. One text can be linked to another text. In most cases, those texts are long, and not very different from printed texts.

What if we wrote text with the intention to link it? What if we tried to concentrate each idea into its smallest possible form, in which it would still be complete and understandable? We could use links to offer any background, or elaboration, or further information that might be relevant or necessary.

What is the smallest possible unit? A phrase? A sentence? A paragraph? It will depend on the content, of course.

A chunk can be defined as a text that fully conveys a single idea. It can be a story, or an anecdote. It might be a definition.

How long is a chunk?

The content tells you how long a chunk should be. Anything unnecessary should be cut out. Anything that veers away from the single central idea of the chunk should be moved to a different chunk.

I spent some time analyzing longer newspaper and magazine stories. I wanted to see when the story switched to something new. Sometimes this was a change in time: The story jumped ahead or went to a flashback. Sometimes the switch came because a new character was introduced. This changed the focus of the story. Sometimes the story moved to a new location.

I marked the spots in stories where the major switches took place. Then I counted words.

If a chunk can be considered the text in between two such switchings, then most narrative chunks are between 200 and 350 words long. Some go as long as 500 words, but very few run longer.

One double-spaced typed page typically contains about 250 words.

Sometimes design (print or online) dictates that the chunk must fit into a small space. What will your chunk look like in the final presentation?

Narrative vs. factual data

Not all information is equal. We have many different tools for telling stories. Text and links are only two of our tools in online media.

For more ideas about the media we choose to use in telling a story, see Online Media Types (a chart).

Content such as the CIA World Factbook country entries does not need to be chunked on separate Web pages to be effective. Via design (including headings and white space), the content has been chunked. The unit for each page is the single country. Within the page, data about the country are logically grouped and labeled.

Entries in Wikipedia (entry: hypertext) tend to be quite long -- like most encyclopedia entries -- but many are exceptionally well linked.

Narrative is much harder to chunk. Hyperlinked fiction can often seem overly aimless or circular, and does not appeal to people who insist on a straightforward storyline with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end.