An Organic Approach to Organizing Your Content

by Diana Ecker on May 8, 2013

Lentil Soup by Whitney Schmidt 500pxWhen you’re creating something new, like a website, it’s easy to divide your content into familiar categories. And sometimes that makes a lot of sense. Familiarity can be very powerful.

But what I want to suggest is this: Maybe you’ve got a rare and wonderful opportunity to create something better.

To use this approach, you have to be willing to be uncertain, to look for clues and patterns with an open mind. As much as you can — and this is not a perfect process — you hold your assumptions at bay and wade through all of your notes, ideas, and audience research with an open mind.

It’s like a treasure hunt where you don’t know quite what you’re searching for. As qualitative researchers say, “Themes emerge.” If you’ve ever looked at one of those 3-D pictures until you saw the image rise out of it, you know what this feels like.

And one of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of this process had to do with soup.

Specifically, it was in an interview of a cookbook author named Patricia Solley, on a podcast called Eat Feed, hosted by Anne Bramley. The title of the episode, from February of 2005, is “Soup.”

For ten years, Patricia Solley explained to Anne Bramley, she had read about soups, collecting information and recipes voraciously. She pored over cookbooks from cultures around the world:

What I find is that with soups, inevitably — it won’t be for all of them, but inevitably — there will be one, or two, or three soups where there will be a little commentary saying, “This is traditional for Christmas,” “This soup is customarily used when people are sick,” “This one is used for when you have a hangover.” And they all began to fall into patterns….

It was as if the table of contents to my book had materialized, ’cause it fell into such distinct patterns. So I think it just developed — it just emerged out of my research, really clear as can be, and made it very easy, actually, to organize and write the book.

Patricia Solley isn’t giving herself enough credit.

Patterns don’t just present themselves, “clear as can be,” when you’re not open to recognizing them. It would have been a lot faster and easier to divide soups by category (say, broth-based vs. cream-based), main ingredient, region of the world, or season.

Instead, here are some of the chapters of Patricia’s book, An Exaltation of Soups: The Soul-Satisfying Story of Soups, As Told in More Than 100 Recipes:
•  “To Celebrate and Recover from Giving Birth”
•  “To Celebrate Marriage…and Recover from the Rigors of the Honeymoon”
•  “To Stimulate an Appetite”
•  “To Chase a Hangover”

These aren’t just clever headings, either. That’s the best part.

The way Patricia Solley chose to categorize these recipes reveals a great deal about how she thinks about soup — and about the people who prepare it, enjoy it, and preserve its recipes. The chapter titles demonstrate how she sees soup’s universality and the bonds that people share across cultures and time. That really, we’re connected through the same challenges and milestones (and, yes, sometimes hangovers).

The categories are not just containers for her message. They are her message.

If you think carefully and creatively about how you want to divide up, structure, and label the information you’d like to share on your site, you may find that it’s well worth it. Consider giving yourself the time and space to see what emerges.

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Photo by Whitney Schmidt, used with permission. You can get the recipe for that delicious-looking soup at her blog, Whitney in Chicago.

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