“There it was, hidden in alphabetical order.”
— Rita Holt

Alphabet soup

Alphabetical structure isn’t as easy as ABC

I find myself once again on Weight Watchers. (Sigh. Why can’t I make that brie-on-brioche diet work for me?) Which means that I often find myself amused by the structure the company uses to organize information.

First, some food for thought

Weight Watchers, for those of you who aren’t members-for-eternity like I am, is essentially a bunch of nutritional research wrapped in a math problem.

ABC's: 'Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die,' says Jakob Nielsen, 'king of usability.' (Photo By Tom Magliary)

It’s like a budget: You get so many points a day (29 for me) and have to decide how to spend them. The two brownies I ate on Sunday, for instance, came in at 51 points, or 175.862 percent of my daily allotment.

All of which means that the Weight Watcher spends a lot of time looking up how many points foods cost — sometimes with a simple “find” function on her iPhone app, other times browsing lists trying to figure out, say, which kind of cracker gives her the biggest bang for the point.

And that brings me to the problem with Weight Watchers’ organizing structure for food lists: It’s alphabetical.

‘Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die’

Sometimes organizing information alphabetically works, says “king of usability” Jakob Nielsen. When it does, the A-to-Z structure delivers two important benefits:

  • If readers know the name of the thing they want — the name of their state, for example — they can usually find it pretty quickly.
  • Communicators don’t have to develop a structure. Because we all know the alphabet, it’s easy to put the information in the right order.

But too often, Nielsen says, alphabetical order doesn’t work. Usually, that’s because of one of two problems:

1. The information already has an inherent structure: smallest to largest, say, or earliest to latest. Alphabetical order obscures that structure, making it harder for readers to find what they’re looking for.

Zappos, for instance, organizes shoe width alphabetically: 3E, 4A, 4E, AA, AAA, B, C, D, E, EE. But narrowest to widest — 4A, AAA and AA to 3E and 4E — actually makes better sense.

2. Users don’t know the name of the thing they want. Or writers don’t know what readers call the thing they want. And that’s a huge issue in alphabetical structure: It only works if you use the words in the reader’s head, not the words in your head.

Where’s the thing I want?

Weight Watchers suffers from both of those problems:

1. Categorical structure probably makes better sense than alphabetical for foods and food groups. Weight Watchers starts out organizing food by category, such as:

  • Beverages
  • Bread and baked goods
  • Dairy and eggs
  • Meat and poultry
  • Vegetables

But another level or two of categories would probably make sense. For instance, under “meat and poultry,” you might have categories like:

  • Meat
    • Beef
    • Bison
    • Buffalo
    • Game
    • Pork
  • Poultry
    • Chicken
    • Cornish game hen
    • Ostrich
    • Turkey

This approach would help people work their way through maybe three levels of categorical lists before they got to a much smaller alphabetical list of individual items. Remember: It’s easier for people to think in decision layers — three lists of three items each, say, instead of one list of nine items.

And note: You can use two types of organizational structure in one list. The broad structure here is categorical, but you can also alphabetize the categories.

2. The words in my head aren’t the words on the list. The second problem with the Weight Watchers food lists is that the name the company uses for the thing I want isn’t the name I use.

For instance: Would you look up Aidells Andouille mini sausage under sausage? Andouille? Aidells? Mini? Weight Watchers votes for Aidells — a problem if you, like me, have never heard of the company.

Instead, I’d start with the main subject and add detail to the right:

Sausage, andouille, Aidells mini.
  • Frankfurter or hot dog? I’d look for it under “H”; Weight Watchers puts it in the F’s. Unless, that is, you think to look for “Hebrew National Beef franks.”
  • Skinless Cornish game hen? It’s right where it belongs: in the S’s.
  • Whole raw turkey with skin and bones? Look in the W’s, for “whole.” There you’ll find it listed at a whopping 13 points. Which is great, because there’s nothing like a whole raw turkey with skin and bones to tide you over that 4 p.m. slump.

Categorical: A good place to start

Organizing by categories is often a good place to begin. But there are other structures, too:

  • Location, or geographic structure
  • Time, or chronological organization
  • Hierarchy, or order of importance
  • Ordinal, or in an ordered sequence, such as smallest to largest or narrowest to widest

Tip: If you can use one of these approaches, don’t use alphabetical structure.

“Alphabetical sorting must (mostly) die,” says Nielsen. “Typically, when you reach for an A-Z structure, you should give yourself a little extra kick and seek out something better.”

Where, oh, where, would they look for this?

All of this reminds me of a story told by Skip Boyer, ABC, the late, great executive producer and senior writer for Best Western International Inc. He wrote:

“My sister, Barb, … bought a new Subaru. After a time, she had reason to change a tire on it. Not having done so before, she got out the owner’s manual and looked in the index under ‘tire.’ After a lengthy and frustrating search, she finally found the information she needed in the index under ‘I,’ for ‘If you have a flat tire …’”

Don’t let this happen to you.
How are you organizing your information?

Build a solid structure

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“‘Conversation’ is just a metaphor.
Then again, no it’s not.”
— Hugh MacLeod, GapingVoid blogger

Blog early and often

Publish your posts in the morning

When’s the best time to post to your blog? Before 10 a.m. Eastern time, says viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.

BRIGHT AND EARLY: People are more likely to look at blogs in the morning, so post early for the best results. (Photo by Matt Blakemore)

Zarrella surveyed more than 1,400 blog readers and studied more than 170,000 blog posts and learned that people are more likely to view, link and comment on posts in the morning. Visiting blogs becomes decreasingly popular during the rest of the day.

Zarrella also looked at the best times to post updates on Facebook and to tweet.

Post often

But publishing several times a day “led to a huge increase in the blog’s success,” Zarrella found in an analysis of the 1,000 most popular blogs on the Web.

Specifically, frequent blogging at different times of day:

  • Boosts incoming links
  • Improves your Google ranking
  • Attracts visitors
  • Generates leads
  • Increases customer acquisition

Most business blogs post weekly, according to HubSpot’s “State of Inbound Marketing” report (PDF).

Expand your reach and influence online

Would you like to learn more ways to make your blog postings, tweets and other status updates more effective? If so, please join me at PRSA’s Feb. 22 webinar, “Write for Social Media.” You’ll learn how to:

  • Use the 70-20-10 rule for engaging your followers, plus other tips for making sure your status updates are welcome guests, not intrusive pests.
  • Pass the “who cares?” test and four other techniques for becoming a resource, not a bore, on social media.
  • Get retweeted and liked. Learn a dozen steps for expanding your influence and reach on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Tweet like the FBI. Write dramatic, compelling status updates that draw followers and get clicks.
  • Make your posts personable. There’s a reason they call it “social” media.
  • Tweak your tweets. Get your message across in 140 characters or less. Plus, learn how to make 140 characters go further — and when you must come in under the character limit.

Keep up with all of my webinars.

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“The camera can photograph thought.
It’s better than a paragraph of sweet polemic.”
— Dirk Bogarde, English actor and novelist

Just a bite

Tell your story with a photo and info nibbles

I love Eating Well’s departments “Bites” and “Last Bite” so much that I stole them.

Modeled them, that is, for a recurring feature in Health, one of Wylie Communications’ client magazines.

“Bites” uses this formula:

  • Standing head
  • Headline
  • Strong image
  • 400 words or so of marginalia — facts and stats, mini stories, callouts and other free-standing pieces of copy

That’s a great approach to model for a series of blog postings, an e-zinerecurring back-page department or any piece where the image and info nibbles best tell the story.

Photo stories

JUST A BITE: It's hard to push past the instinct to turn nibbles into paragraphs. In photos pieces like this one, from Eating Well, see the copy as short, discrete, stand-alone nibbles of information.

Open the Creativity Toolbox

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“A mission statement … becomes a bad thing
when [it] devolves into platitudinous pabulum
that employees clearly recognize as hypocrisy.”
— Darrell Rigby, partner at Bain & Company

Mission impossible?

Tighten your mission statement

A friend was tapped to help craft his company’s mission statement. After months at the table — arguing over arcane jargon; taking out commas, then putting them back in; and debating whether “that” or “which” was the right word to use in the sixth sentence — the job was finally done.

RESCUE MISSION: Is your mission statement too long to remember? If it doesn't fit on a sticky note, it may be.

Weeks later, after the credo was printed in six-point type, laminated on a business card and safely stored in wallets and the backs of desk drawers, management held a surprise. Employees in team meetings were “invited” to stand up in front of their colleagues and recite the mission statement from memory.

My friend recited Hamlet’s soliloquy.

He had no idea what the mission statement said — and he’d been on the team that wrote it.

Make it short

As with so much in life, less in a mission statement is actually more. Short credos stick in people’s minds. Long ones just fade away.

“A mission statement should be both brief and global,” says communication consultant David P. Seifert, ABC. “It’s a concise statement about [your] overriding purpose.”

How concise?

  • Make it an elevator pitch. Could you sell your idea, your team or your communication vehicle to your CEO in the time it takes the elevator to get from the first floor to the third?
  • Keep it to eight words or less. Eight words is the length of sentence a reader can understand fully at a glance, according to research by the American Press Institute.
  • Put it on a bumper sticker. If you can’t convey your purpose on a bumper sticker, says Gil Maurer, former president of Hearst Publishing, it’ll never fly.

Make it shorter

But shorter’s better.

Condé Nast Traveler condenses its aim into a three-word mission statement-cum-tagline:

“Truth in Travel”

And the International Association of Business Communicators does Condé Nast Traveler one letter shorter/better. Its credo:

“Be Heard™”

That’s a mission statement I could recite from memory.


Sources: Ann Wylie, Planning Powerful Publications, IABC, 2002

Abe Peck, “The Mission Position,” Folio:, Nov. 1, 2002

Polish your communications

Want to reach more readers by revitalizing your publication, website or blog?

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“Ann Wylie changed how I do my job every day.
I can think of no higher compliment for a writing coach.”
— Ed Dorsch, senior associate director,
Development Communications, University of Oregon

Make Ann your personal trainer

Pump up your writing with one-on-one coaching

Ever wish you had a writing coach — sort of a personal editorial trainer? In customized one-on-one consultations, I’ll help you jump-start your writing skills, recharge your batteries and get your creative juices flowing.

We’ll work on your own copy — not made-up assignments with little relationship to your work. You’ll learn how to:

  • Sell your ideas with reader-centric writing
  • Organize your copy so it’s easier to read — and write
  • Make your information more creative and compelling
  • Measurably improve readability
  • Lift your ideas off the page
  • And more

Communicators at such companies as Fleishman Hillard, H&R Block, John Deere, Nokia and VSP (Vision Service Plan) have already worked with me to polish their writing skills. If you’re ready to take this important step to improving your own work, contact me.

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“I thought our Enrollment Essentials newsletter was great, but I [after Ann’s workshop, I] see lots of room for improvement. I plan to take this information back to my team.”
— Melanie Gill, project manager, Unum

Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations. But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Feb. 16
  • Asheville, N.C.: May 5
  • Chicago: June 7
  • Dallas: Jan. 19
  • Des Moines, Iowa: Jan. 26
  • Houston: Jan. 12
  • Kansas City, Mo.: March 3
  • New Orleans: July 24
  • Portland, Ore.: March 17
  • Rancho Cordova, Calif.: March 23
  • San Francisco: March 25

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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Please share this issue …

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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