Introduction to key concepts

Click on any of the topics above to find out more.

Underlying thesis

When text is organised into complex structures such as non-fiction books, papers or articles, your readers’ understanding of individual sentences and paragraphs doesn’t necessarily transfer into an overall understanding of the whole of your text.

That’s a problem if you have important ideas that you want to communicate to your readers.

This website explores strategies that make text easier for readers to understand and learn from.

The problem

I believe that the challenge of reading longform text is generally underestimated, particularly for readers new to a topic who possess little prior knowledge.

The limitations of working memory means that there are constraints to the amount of complexity readers can deal with at any one time. In addition, the interruptive nature of much reading means readers often return to texts with little memory of what they have already read.

The end result is readers who don’t get to the end of books, who don’t fully engage with the ideas that they are reading about and who get frustrated about how much they remember from the books that they have read.

The solution

Deciding on the right strategies starts with having a clear understanding of what your readers want to learn (or what you want them to learn) — and also what they already know. That means you begin with a clear idea of the task ahead of you.

The strategies I then recommend using include:

  • making the structure of the text explicit
  • providing multi-level content to help readers navigate the different levels of detail and to facilitate easy preview and review
  • capitalising on the computational efficiency of diagrams
  • developing particular content sequences that optimise learning
  • using relevant devices to capture the attention of your readers.

Knowledge structures

The concept of knowledge structures underpins my work. There are a limited number of standard structures that we use to understand the world and to order our knowledge. I call these structures ‘knowledge structures’.

Having an explicit concept of knowledge structures allows us to create an x-ray of underlying order (and sometimes disorder) that we might otherwise miss.

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Knowledge structures – Part 1:  An introduction to the concept

Organising knowledge with multi-level content

Hierarchical structuring of text

One key aspect of my work is a focus on the implicit hierarchical structuring of text and how making that hierarchical structure explicit can help readers.

Macrostructures and microstructures

The concept of macrostructures and microstructures is based on the idea that the complex microstructural detail of a text needs to be organised and condensed to create macrostructures of higher-level wholes that communicate the overall meaning of the text.

A key problem for many readers is working out how to navigate between the microstructure and the macrostructure.

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Using the concept of macrostructures to make non-fiction books easier to understand and remember

Discourse blocs

The concept of discourse blocs was developed by US academic Willis Pitkin in a sadly ignored 1969 paper. However I think it’s a very useful concept. (Prof Linda Lonon Blanton’s concept of notional clusters is similar and also very useful.)

In an attempt to understand how particular examples of text, like books or papers, are structured, he suggests that paragraphs combine to produce larger units of structure (ie. lower-level discourse blocs) which themselves combine into higher-level discourse blocs all the way up to the top-level discourse bloc, which is the book as a whole.

The concept allows authors to analyse the combination of blocs they are using in a very practical way and look at whether they can make useful changes to their structure for the sake of their readers.

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Article coming soon.

Multi-level content

Multi-level content is a concept I’ve developed myself to explain that a book’s content can be understood in terms of multiple levels of detail. Providing summaries at each level allows readers to navigate easily between the big picture and the detail.

This concept fits in well with the macrostructures/microstructures and discourse blocs concepts.

Read more

Organising content with multi-level knowledge

In defence of summaries: A response to Iain McGilchrist’s critique

Multi-level summaries: A new approach to non-fiction books

Examples 1: Christopher Alexander’s use of multi-level content

Examples 2: Andrew Abela’s Advanced Presentations by Design

Examples 3: Simon Singh’s Big Bang

Organising content with multi-level knowledge

Knowledge organisation hierarchy

The knowledge organisation hierarchy model can be used to prioritise decisions about the primary knowledge structures (ie. the organising knowledge structures) before deciding about the less important supporting knowledge structures.

The organising knowledge structures: These define the main aspects of the content and organise all the detail that is to be included. There are four categories of organising knowledge structure: core knowledge structures; theme/framework; content structure; and content sequences.

The supporting knowledge structures make up the detailed content of a book and are organised around its planned overall structure.

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Using the knowledge organisation hierarchy model

Computational efficiency of diagrams

The concept of the computational efficiency of diagrams was developed by Jill Larkin and Nobel prize winner Herbert Simon in their seminal 1987 paper Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand Words.

Their argument is that there are many circumstances when diagrams require less cognitive effort than text from readers. Of course, it’s not a question of whether to use diagrams or text. Both need to be used. However I believe that most non-fiction texts would benefit from having more diagrams.

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Using the computational efficiency of diagrams to help learners learn more effectively

The power of diagrams

A short introduction to diagrams

Content structure maps

Non-fiction books especially, but also some articles and papers, can have complex structures that readers can have trouble getting to grips with.

I recommend using content structure maps that allow readers to see at a glance the big picture structure of what they are reading. They also stop readers from getting lost in the detail by enabling them to see how individual passages relate to the overall structure.

The article linked below shows some examples of very different types of content structure maps.

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Understanding book structures with content structure maps

Argument structure maps

Arguments can often be quite complex with different elements of the argument dotted all through a book. This can make it difficult for readers to identify and engage with the argument as a whole. 

To solve this problem, I recommend that authors provide a diagram of the argument structure can see the whole of the argument in one place. 

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Article coming soon.

Other models

There are four other models to help authors develop content that readers cam learn more effectively from. 

Content sequences

One of the most important decisions authors have to make is how they are going to sequence their content to keep their readers’ interest and to help them learn most effectively.

This involves deciding:

  • which of the different content attribute pairs should be used (eg. summary/detail, whole/parts, simple/complex, abstract/concrete, core/peripheral, wider context/narrower focus etc) and
  • and whether they should go from one to another or zigzag between them.

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Article coming soon.

Reader attention devices

It’s easy for readers to lose focus, either by being distracted, feeling tired or getting overwhelmed by the complexity of the ideas they are reading about. And that can cause problems if that means that they miss a key passage from the book.

To prevent this from happening, I recommend that authors use attention devices to ensure readers’ attention is drawn to key passages.

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‘This paragraph is very important’: The role of attention devices in non-fiction books

Reading routes

The default assumption is that readers should start at the beginning of a book and then read all the way through to the end. However, this can be unnecessarily restrictive for many readers and not actually meet their needs.

The two articles below gives examples of authors who have developed additional non-linear reading routes which allow readers to navigate their books in alternative ways.

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Helping readers navigate books more effectively with non-linear reading routes

Non-linear reading routes – Part 2

Communication options model

Authors need to consider whether ancillary communication options might help readers to achieve their goals more effectively. These options might include follow-up emails, a companion website, related interviews with experts or retrieval practice content. 

My communication options model helps authors to consider the additional choices open to them

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Article coming soon.

Foundational ideas

There are three key sets of ideas that underpin the thinking on this website:

  • cognitive psychology
  • different models of learning
  • the jobs to be done model. 

Cognitive psychology

Developments in cognitive psychology in recent decades have given us a much better understanding of how learning takes place. Some of the key areas include:

  • the way information enters working memory through the process of attention
  • the limited capacity of working memory to process thoughts and ideas
  • how knowledge and skills get encoded in long-term memory most effectively
  • the importance of being able to recall knowledge back into working memory.

These new understandings have yet to be widely incorporated into the development of content for non-fiction books.

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Article coming soon.

Models of learning

Underlying every non-fiction book is a model, which is frequently not made explicit, about how readers are going to learn from that book.

There are now several models of learning based on the principles of cognitive psychology which can be used to develop and structure the content of non-fiction books.

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Article coming soon.

Jobs to be done

The jobs to be done model is based on the general idea that people hire products and services in order to get particular jobs done – or, to put it another way, to achieve particular objectives.

I believe that many readers aren’t  getting their non-fiction reading jobs done effectively and that getting a better understanding of what these non-fiction reading jobs are allows the development of some interesting new approaches to the non-fiction books market. 

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Article coming soon.