Expository vs. Exploratory: Online Content Limitations

Do you write the title of your post, and then its content; or do you compose the title after all the rest has been set down?

Though you may think it is simply a matter of preference, your choice in this matter completely changes the experience. The two modes of writing are starkly different in execution, feeling, and result. The first is concerned with exposition and the second with exploration.

  • If you start with the title as a given, you write in order to fulfill a duty. That duty is defined by the title. The title makes a promise and the content you write must fulfill it.
  • Starting with the title is a relatively easy way to write. That’s why editorial calendars are so helpful. You make an outline of the post titles and the rest is cake.
  • At all times while writing from a given title, you have a home base, a way of knowing when you’re veering off-topic. Your job is clear-cut; it’s easy to see what belongs and what doesn’t.
  • Posts written to fit a given title are easily accessible to readers. In their rhythms and tones, these posts echo the way people are used to learning and receiving new information. Everything is orderly, in line.
  • Our preference for such content is demonstrated in the immense and continuing popularity of list posts.

The other way to do it is to create the title after writing the article or post, after you’ve diced and sliced your subject and arrived at some rational peak or conclusion, after some ethically responsible amount of revelation has been shared. You squint and search the paragraphs until they tell you their theme, and your title finally ripples up to the surface.

Such entries are far less organized and targeted than title-first posts. The articles have somewhat quirky titles and only some of them have lists. They are intimate and unpredictable. They break the rules. Readers must be willing to take a journey with you, on faith. They must trust you as an author, believing you will lead them to epiphanies. Trust like that takes a long time to build.

With the explosive advent of ebook readers, along with the daily insistence that everyone must continuously produce content, marketers are increasingly obsessed with writing. But that doesn’t mean we have become better writers, or that we enjoy reading anymore than we did before.

Because we are more dependent on written words than previously but we are no better skilled in using them, the ways we use writing and the ways we do reading are morphing now to accommodate a much lower common denominator.

Writers who are not writers can work with given titles and essentially fill in the blanks. Readers who dislike reading can obtain the necessary information by skimming, aided by headers and bold text that make it possible to ‘read’ a post at a glance.

Writing for love of words and rhetoric and ideas, for the poetry and enchantment of being absorbed by a book, is another kind of writing altogether.  The ‘big idea’ of such writing is discovered in the process of penning it and in the deep involvement of reading it.

Online, we write and read title-based writing, and it is indeed highly efficient. Sometimes I miss the delicious experience of exploratory writing, though. Maybe we can make a way for it to thrive on the internet. I wonder how.