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Home > Archive > Recipes & articles > A Writer’s Reflections

by Sally Smith

5 February 2009

Sally Smith is a writer, editor, and the Communications Director for IDEA.

Nodemap Authoring:

A Writer’s Reflections

SpicyNodes can be used for many different purposes – from sitemaps and concept maps to highly technical visualizations and creative poetry. I’ve had the privilege of working on what might be called, for lack of a better term, content portals. It’s an exciting, exacting, and sometimes exasperating process of adapting existing narrative web content into nodemap form. (You can check out the four nodemaps I’ve adapted by visiting Daylight Saving Time, Poetry through the Ages, and Calendars through the Ages.)

Writing has always been a touchstone in my life – both personally and professionally. I find enormous satisfaction in creating nodemaps. As a writer, nodemaps are challenging in the very best sense of the word – they’re like word games and puzzles all rolled up into one. Plus, it feels good knowing that the end product will help readers embark on an interactive journey that brings your words to life. If you’re on a quest to write a comprehensive portal implementation using SpicyNodes, I hope you find my experiences helpful.

Whether writing for print or for the Web, my natural inclination is to write long – a predilection that I need to park at the curb during the nodemap creation process. Nodes are all about nuggets of information, so it’s critical to use an economy of words to convey the essence of an idea.

When adapting existing web content, the challenge is in breaking down a flowing narrative into chunks that make sense. It comes down to organizing nodes in a way that enables the reader to explore any of a number of different paths and still retain the context of the information. This is where the fun comes in.

Have you ever seen a photo collage, where thousands of tiny photos are placed together in such a way as to create a larger image of something else entirely? Adapting material into a content portal nodemap is a lot like designing one of those photo collages, where each small section is a stand-alone piece that fits with the other sections to create a larger picture.

So the trick is to review all of the content on the site, and to come up with a skeleton of the different sections of the nodemap. The major nodes in a nodemap won’t necessarily correspond to the sections of the existing site. It’s important to divide the information into categories that will make intuitive sense to the reader. Sometimes, the reader wants every little detail, and sometimes he or she wants information at-a-glance.

There will always be the single, home node, but finding the right topics for the nodes that split off the home node can involve a bit of trial and error. I usually play around with categories – sometimes well into the nodemap writing process. With existing site content, knowing which pages are most frequently visited helps me formulate those secondary nodes.

When I’ve developed nodemaps, I’ve done it using the :: and ++ syntax in a Word document (as opposed to the drag-and-drop authoring tool). The advantages of this method are that it’s easy to cut and paste text, as well as to develop “mirror” nodemaps. (For an example of a mirror nodemap, visit Poetry through the Ages, where one major node is “By Era” and another is “By Region.” Identical information is contained in each section – it’s just organized differently.)

Just as the major nodes in a nodemap don’t necessarily correspond to the sections of the existing site, adapting existing material is a non-linear process. Information contained in the first paragraph may go in one section of the nodemap, while information in the second paragraph may go in a completely different section. I’ve created syntax nodemaps that are more than 100 pages long, making it cumbersome to scroll up and down looking for the right placement. Fitting all of the puzzles pieces together is a fun exercise in mental organization, but practically speaking, I’ve found that it helps to give each secondary node its own document, and then to copy and paste them all together once I’m done.

The disadvantages of the syntax method come into play when I’m working with a large volume of information. It can be difficult to keep track of the number of “+” signs I’m working with, particularly when it’s a deeply nested level. In other words, it can be challenging to make sure that my syntax is accurate. I address this in two ways. First, it helps to divide the major sections of my nodemap into different documents, and to leave a blank line between node groups within a section. Second, when I complete a section, I import it into SpicyNodes. Having the ability to access a visualization of my nodemap enables me to quickly see if I’ve made a syntax error. More than once I’ve discovered that I accidentally nested a node or that I’ve created too many children nodes and have to rethink the nodemap’s organization.

My other major discovery was that adapting a large quantity of source text also requires uninterrupted concentration. It’s all too easy to lose my place, or to go back to a nodemap a few days later and start questioning whether or not I nested the information correctly. I quickly realized that I have to complete an entire section of a nodemap in one sitting – and then trust my previous work when I return to the nodemap for another session.

Adapting content portal nodemaps from a large amount of web copy takes a considerable amount of time – even when I’m familiar with the content. With Poetry through the Ages, for example, another author did a brilliant job writing the preliminary nodemap, which included the most obscure forms of poetry imaginable but intentionally excluded the detailed content on the 18 forms of poetry and ancillary information on the web site. When we decided to expand the nodemap to reflect all of the site’s content, the nodemap went from about 10,000 words to over 47,000 words (over 1,000 nodes). Even though I had edited the site content (so was familiar with it), and even though one side of the nodemap mirrored the other, it took about two full days to do the expansion.

Creating a content portal nodemap is definitely more time-consuming than the New York Times’ Sunday Crossword, but it’s not nearly as difficult. As with most things in life, the process gets more familiar with practice. Writing a nodemap feels like creating an intriguing puzzle, made all the more magical once you see the graphic depiction of your words.

If you are ready to write, you might find it helpful to read my Author’s guide and specific tips for making content portals.

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