Why Structured Writing Needs Structured Content

Writers are embracing the benefits of structured writing. But are they getting the full benefits of structuring the content they create?

Michael AndrewsPublished on Jan 16, 2020

This post will look at some important questions:

  • Is structuring your writing enough? 
  • How is structured writing related to structured content? 
  • How does structured content make structured writing even more powerful?

Structuring Your Writing is Wise Advice

People read differently online compared with print. They may be in a hurry or distracted by other things around them. They often need to find information quickly.

One of the first guides to online writing, the Yahoo Style Guide, offered advice that still holds, “Shape your text for online reading.”

Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee, in their book on online writing, Nicely Said, give similar advice, “Break up text.”

The goal is to make online text audience-centered. By structuring writing, it is more scannable. 

Some common approaches to making content scannable include:

  • Adding subheadings
  • Front loading the content so that important information appears early
  • Using bullet lists, numbered lists, checklists, and tables
  • Breaking information into discrete parts, such as:
    • Summary and Key Takeaways
    • Examples

Once the writer has developed a structure that works well, they can create a reusable outline or template to guide the creation of new content that is similar in purpose.

Writing templates and outlines can serve as “stubs” or “slots” for planning content.

Erin Kissane, in her influential A List Apart article on content templates, says, “You might think of content templates as a kind of wizard for content development.” She notes the benefits of templates:

  • Collecting information quickly
  • Gaining uniform structure
  • Identifying gaps in information

Structured writing offers benefits for writers and readers. But structuring an article so that it’s easy to read is not the same as structuring content so that it can be used in different ways. Structured content provides additional benefits to both writers and audiences beyond what’s offered by structured writing alone.

Let’s compare structured writing and structured content:

Structured writingStructured content
Focused on structuring a specific article or web pageFocused on structuring the meaning of any kind of content into distinct content elements that can be used in many situations
Identifies what information to cover in an articleIdentifies what information to cover about a topic and where that information can be used

Structured writing breaks up parts of an article. The article is easy to scan and understand, but the content is fixed and doesn’t change, and can’t be reconfigured in other ways.

Structured content goes a step further; it lets parts of an article switch out and different topics connect to each other. With structured content, information can be changed according to the situation.

Online Writing Templates Don’t Structure Content

As structured writing has grown in popularity, standalone tools have entered the market that provide templates for writers to fill in their content. These tools have arisen because most CMSs do a poor job supporting structured writing. 

Some writers use these standalone “content creation” tools to plan their writing. While these tools offer certain conveniences, they also create a range of problems for content operations—an ironic outcome, given that some of these tools claim to facilitate content operations. 

Problems with standalone content creation tools

Content creation tools are designed and supported by a different vendor than the CMS being used, and so the tool has no relationship to the CMS where the content is managed. In addition to that, content creation tools require a separate user subscription license, which sometimes means that only some writers even get to use the tool. 

Standalone writing tools push problems elsewhere. They may speed up the initial drafting of content, but they slow down its delivery and revision after publication. By using two different tools, content teams end up duplicating lots of work and miss the benefits that structured content offers.

Unfortunately, standalone content creation tools that provide writing templates don’t create structured, adaptive content. Such standalone tools prevent content teams from benefiting from the flexibility of using a content model. There is no connection between the structure displayed on the screen within the writing tool, and content model the CMS uses to manage the content. 

When using a standalone content creation tool, the text needs to be migrated to the CMS. It sometimes must be manually copied and pasted to get it into the CMS. Because the content was created outside of the CMS, it isn’t defined by the model that the CMS uses to decide how to deliver content. What looks like well-structured content to the writer is just a big blob of text to the CMS.  

Use a Solution That Supports Structured Content and Structured Writing

Content operations become inefficient when teams use separate tools to draft their content and to manage and deliver it. 

Content teams need an integrated solution that provides a template for writing and is connected to a content model that allows the content to be used flexibly. Unfortunately, most tools do only one or the other. When your content operations use separate tools for writing your content and for managing it, your operations are disconnected. Buying another tool to support content creation won’t make your content operations more efficient. It will create another silo in your operations.

Unify your writing with your content model

When using a Content-as-a-Service approach, you can create the structure for writing while developing the structure for the content type that the CMS uses to manage the content. You create a common structure for both writers and your content management system at the same time. And you can also include guidelines for writers when doing this.

Let’s look at a simple example relating to an event announcement. In, we can create a content type to indicate different kinds of information relating to an event. We can also link the “event announcement” content type to a “location” content type, which will hold information about the venue location. This allows us to keep the information flexible so we can use it in different ways. At the same time, we can add guidelines for writers so they understand what information to include. Content Type for an event announcement

The writers see a content template that is based on the content type. They see different sections that have guidelines about what they need to fill in. Because the location information is already available, they don’t have to fill that in—they just choose which location they want, and all the details are added automatically. But if they need to change the location for the event, they could do that easily as well.

Screenshot of Content Item for an event announcement

Use structure to the fullest benefit 

It’s misguided to separate content creation from content management. Content templates are not a substitute for structuring content with a content model. Enterprises need a robust content model to make content flexible. However, CMSs rarely provide good support for authors who create content. Content teams need both capabilities: good support for structuring writing and good support for structuring content. 

They need an integrated approach, such as offers.

Written by

Michael Andrews

I’m Content Strategy Evangelist at I appreciate the value of great content. My mission is to help others produce the best content they can.

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