How can a content management system support a writer’s creativity, instead of getting in the way of it? Modular content gives writers flexibility to develop creative messages and narratives.
Michael AndrewsPublished on Jun 27, 2022
Some writers say they worry that modular content will impose a rigid structure on how they can create content. They imagine that modular content places boundaries on writers. But if approached correctly, modular content can break through the boundaries imposed by traditional online writing tools and conventions.
Modular content offers an alternative to what’s known as the “tyranny of the blank page”—being stuck and not knowing how to start. Writers experience this when they stare at the screen with a big empty text box that offers no clues as to what belongs in it.
It’s not a template. First, let’s clear up a common misconception about how modular content works. Modular content isn’t a pre-defined template you have to fill in a certain way. Many CMSs use templates that decide how content is created and used. Those CMSs don’t support modular content. Templates are rigid: they freeze how the content is presented on a web page, and force every reader to have the same experience. Templates aren’t much fun to work with. They quash creativity.
Modular content is flexible, not rigid. It can change and adapt. What you write is up to you. You can even help define the modular structure that your team will be using. Modular content allows various content pieces contributed by different writers to be woven together into an experience. It can be a team sport, where you can play off pieces of content written by your colleagues—a bit like improvisation theater.
Modules let you combine ideas
Our messages express our ideas. Each idea we express needs to be interesting—and be able to connect to the ideas before or after. Our ideas need both autonomy and relatability.
Numerous experts have argued that creativity is based on the ability to combine ideas in multiple ways and find combinations that resonate.
“Creativity, after all, is a lot like LEGO,” notes Maria Popova, a writer and editor of the popular website The Marginalian (formerly called Brain Pickings). Writing in Smithsonian magazine, she talks about “the combinatorial nature of creativity.” She argues many well-known creators see creativity as the act of combination, such as Steve Jobs, who said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Modular content makes connecting ideas easier.
The messages and narratives that writers create are composed of distinct ideas. How these ideas are arranged comprises the structure that binds together the content. This structure is often invisible to the reader. But good writers know how to use structure to craft content that has an impact.
Your content’s structure builds a scaffolding that allows you and your colleagues to juxtapose many creative ideas.
Modular content encourages versatile thinking. When content is planned around a framework, it becomes more flexible. Writers can be more creative with how they arrange and play around with ideas. You can even experiment with different versions to see what audiences like most.
Each idea to communicate becomes an independent content module.
By breaking ideas into distinct units, the structure can let writers explore several variations on a theme.
For example, you might start with a curtain-raiser: a challenge that customers need to overcome. But instead of supplying just one story about how the challenge can be met, your team could provide several examples of how customers overcame the challenge using your product or service. A flexible content structure can prompt ideas about how else customers might approach the problem, and which customers would most likely find that approach helpful.
This flexibility also works in reverse. You might have many kinds of people who face different situations, but they all benefit from a common approach you can offer them. Why people find themselves in a situation can vary, but how they get themselves out of it may have a common resolution.
Modularity frees up the content creation process
Modular content lets writers change their writing process to spark fresh insights.
Modular content lets writers create discrete parts of a larger message or narrative and link them together. It’s like laying out ideas on index cards or sticky notes, but it’s more powerful.
The writing process no longer needs to be linear. And that change also allows readers to consume the content in a non-linear way.
Authors can write different sections of a larger narrative or message in different orders or even at different times. They can build larger pieces incrementally. You can:
- Start in the middle, which is a common recommendation to authors who need to jumpstart their thinking
- Start with the ending and work backward
- Build out ideas laterally, asking what else might be relevant to say
By breaking larger content into modules, writers can focus on a viewpoint each module expresses. Modules allow writers to experiment with the viewpoint in the content.
A module can act as a writing prompt, perhaps exploring possibilities:
- If you could…
- How might….
You can develop alternatives and decide to publish more than one.
Modularity opens new possibilities for how your writing is experienced. Customers can experience narratives unfold in alternative ways. When the content is modularized, customers can encounter different parts of the larger narrative at different times—even in different channels. They don’t need to experience the content all at once. Your organization can hit pause and delay showing each module, controlling the pace and timing. Or it can provide alternative pathways through them.
Use modular content to ladder ideas. Ideas can form a chain or build a ladder. Each idea offers an observation about something that leads to another observation—revealing the consequences. Each observation also involves a mystery as to why it happened—demanding an explanation.
You can play with premises and conclusions. Or move things around like a flashback in a movie script. You can introduce a surprise that gets someone’s attention or lets them view things in a new light.
Let’s illustrate some options that modular content offers. To keep the examples simple, we’ll assume our larger content item can be broken into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each part represents a distinct idea to convey.
Modular content can expand the vista of your content. Explore different pathways through your ideas.
- Convergence of ideas: How can different situations turn out to be similar?
- Substitution of ideas: What different ways can an idea be explained (for example, analogies)?
- Divergence of ideas: What choices might different people make in the same situation? Is there more than one answer?
- Reordering of ideas: What details are people first drawn to? How does the sequencing of ideas influence the understanding of them?
Modular content can shape narratives. A popular meme on Twitter shows two events side-by-side. The first panel shows “How it began” while the second shows “How it's going.” The meme illustrates how even simple messages can be structured into pieces.
You can use modular content to explore story sequences:
- Before, after, and the event that changed everything
- The missed connection, and what could have been
- The déjà vu experience, and why is it happening?
- The chain of events, the outcome, and the other side of the story
Writers can play with each segment to determine what works and when.
Experiment using modular content
Make it personal. Personalization is often about being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. What can you say so that a reader thinks “that’s me”?
Modular content supports personalization by allowing authors to customize what they say to different audiences. This capability provides more opportunities for creativity. Think about each audience segment like a character in writing: imagine who they are and try to walk in their shoes. Customize what you say based on their traits:
- Their authority and expertise: what special knowledge do they have you can appeal to?
- Their views: what will they be especially opinionated about that you can engage with?
Use content modules to break out “the why.” People are attracted for different reasons, that’s what makes us individuals.
Have a bigger impact with your content. The biggest frustration for talented writers can be showing the impact of their work. No matter how great the words they craft, their impact is normally limited to a specific web page. Even creating one of the most viewed pages may generate little acknowledgment when the organization publishes thousands of web pages. What difference can a single page make in a sea of thousands of pages?
Modular content allows writers to scale their talent: to use what they’ve created in many ways. They are no longer restricted to creating individual pages. Their words—when placed within content modules—can be used on many pages at once. They can produce different versions of content and test which ones yield the most interest.
Don’t let your CMS put limits on your imagination. Use a CMS that supports modular content.
If you are new to modular content and would like an introductory tutorial, you can view my video Modular Content for Content Creators.