Conventional Formats Work

Posted on August 22, 2000

by Bob McElwain

Books have a lot in common, regardless of the writer, content, or publisher. The covers are of sturdier weight than the inner pages. There's a title page. Some credits on the reverse side, or on the next page. Maybe a dedication by the author. If appropriate, there's a table of contents next. If there's an introduction, it follows. And if there's an index, it's at the back of the book.


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So why not be creative? Put the index up front and the table of contents at the end? Why not?

Habits Are Helpful

We are all creatures of habit. In fact we benefit from them. What a chore it would be to get out of bed in the morning and get to work if we had to think our way through each step, and be sure we did not overlook one. We need our habits. And we don't want to change them. A book with a title page at the end of it would be unsettling.

Conformity Is The Rule

The form and format of most magazines is even more consistent, and rigid. Would a magazine be successful with classified ads up front and letters to the editor at the end of it?

Newspapers are even more similar, one to another. The emphasis is on the first fold that shows on the newsstand. Headline creation is a major task. The way stories are written is the same, with the key points up front in case the reader does not continue.

Take a look at your bookcase. Hardbound books are pretty much the same in height. Paperbacks are even more likely to be nearly identical in this regard. You can generally mingle pages from different newspapers and find the edges are pretty well aligned.

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And what about the type font? In 9 of 10 cases, it will be Times Roman, or a close cousin. And the printed text is bound to be black on white.

Rigid Uniformity

Publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers follow conventions relentlessly. Why?

They want their readers to focus on the content, not the logistics of getting around in the publication. And content is the only significant difference between competing books, magazines, or newspapers.

Since competition is really a contest between contents, publishers do not want deviation elsewhere that might interfere with the impact of that content.

Web Publishers Must Follow Suit

The conventions for a website are also clearly defined. Fast loading pages that are easy to read. A navigation scheme that is crystal clear in a glance. The same format on every page. The same format? Hey, that's boring!

Maybe. But it is conventional. As with printed publications, let nothing on your site detract from content. It works for the "Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic Monthly," and Random House. And it works for other successful newspaper, magazine, and book publishers. It also works on a website. Let nothing in your pages detract from content. Then beat the competition with that content, It's the only way to go.

Bob McElwain
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