Are You Writing Chapters or Episodes?

Harold Getting His Own Candy

This came to me quite suddenly the other day: a lot of how people interact with your stuff online, especially on your blog, has a lot to do with whether you’re writing chapters or whether you’re writing episodes. They’re quite different, obviously. Let’s dig into that.

Chapters vs. Episodes

First off, neither method is wrong. Television shows are based on both models. In the “chapters” model, we get a little precis at the beginning of each episode. It says, “Previously, on ____.” Then, we get to see a few seconds that should remind us of whatever it was we saw last time we tuned in. In the episodes method, often used in sitcoms, everything seems to reset from whatever happens during the show by the time we get to the end. When we start up again next week, there’s usually enough exposition and context to know who’s who and what the relationships are like. If you’ve seen one episode of the Simpsons, you know roughly what’s going to happen, though the actual plot points are dramatically different.

Again, neither method is the right way to do it. However, if you think about it, you’ve really got to decide how you’re going to structure your information. As people come to your site for the first time, will they know enough about the backstory to move forward? We tend to write as if we’re doing chapters, except that we rarely (never?) have a “Previously, on _____” part to help people get context.

How Will You Welcome Your New Readers Without Boring Your Old?

This is at the heart of the matter, I believe. Imagine that for every Daniel Decker that has been reading me for a year or two or more, there’s a ____ _____ who just showed up today and found this blog TODAY. How will I keep Daniel interested while welcoming … YOU? (You’d better leave a comment on this post, new person!)

That’s the challenge.

But in thinking about it, I wanted to know what you were already doing. Are you writing chapters or episodes? Do you think newcomers can gather up enough context to move forward? If we switched metaphors entirely and you were a magazine, do they know enough from skimming a few pages and posts whether or not they’ve picked up the right product?

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  • http://www.stanleyrao.doodlekit.com/ Stanleyrao

    Great Post! Brief note would give them an idea about the last post!

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    Keeping old and new readers interested means putting out really good, new stuff on a consistent basis. A challenge for sure Chris, but if we keep on purpose, and true to our mission it becomes easier to do. Stay On Topic.

    Thanks for sharing!

    RB

  • Anonymous

    There lies thy very fly in thy pudding me lad !….. Tis the fine art of thy poet to fancy thy entire theater, from mash pit and Cretans to thee in the mighty booths above and all in between. Thow shall bare in mind :
    “All the world’s a stage, 
    And all the men and women merely players; 
    They have their exits and their entrances; 
    And one man in his time plays many parts, 
    His acts being seven ages.” 
    ― William Shakespeare

    Be so very humble and savor with great relish all thy creatures of God then speak.

    Mind you, “brevity is the soul of wit” ~ WS

    and there lies the key that opens the doors of our souls.

    Lord Mnememeaphor of the Kingdom of Nod

  • http://raulcolon.net Raul Colon

    I think the challenge is in finding that balance to have an update on what has happened before but keeping it brief enough so people that come in periodically can focus on the new information published.

    I think you do a great job cross referencing from previous posts something I habe to get better at. Maybe I need to write more episodes than chapters!

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Thanks, Raul. Maybe there’s something for us BOTH to learn from this. : ) 

      • http://raulcolon.net Raul Colon

        I have to agree! 

  • http://www.courtneyengle.com Courtney Engle

    Chapters on TV reminds me of Heroes.  I miss that show. 

  • Dennis B Keohane

    A related question would be with motivation?  Are you writing posts to entice and build readership for your eventual giant media empire or are you blogging to create a continual flow of ideas that will eventually become the Great American Novel, a twenty-first century “Clarissa”?
    If the former, writing in serial form would be the way to go, if the latter, chapterization would be ideal. 
    However, there is the case of Dickens.
    He wrote in serial form and then abridged his stories.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      My backstory on this is that I write to be helpful. If it’s not helpful, I don’t share it. But no, I guess I’m not writing the great american novel. It doesn’t read like a continuous narrative here. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/susancritelli Susan Critelli

    I honestly never thought about it, but I guess I would have to say I am writing chapters.  I have written about the same topics over a long period and referenced previous posts,trying to give a little backstory and maybe a link if someone wants to pursue that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susancritelli Susan Critelli

    I honestly never thought about it, but I guess I would have to say I am writing chapters.  I have written about the same topics over a long period and referenced previous posts,trying to give a little backstory and maybe a link if someone wants to pursue that.

  • Dane Morgan

    I think that about the best response to this is in Sneeze Pages. Presenting a couple of sneeze pages (and a corresponding sneeze section on the home page) can help new people find basic, get acquainted material, help seasoned folks new to your blog find the juicy bits and help long time readers find their old favorites, or those checklist style items quickly and easily.

    Also (this being a WordPress centric world) now that WordPress offers custom taxonomies, one great use of them would be to assign, sort and style posts based on their “difficulty level”.

  • http://twitter.com/tishpiper Pat Zalewski

    You are absolutely right! When I recall tv shows that I stopped watching because I couldn’t pick up the thread due to inconsistent viewing, it makes total sense from a business perspective. Does my message make sense for both old/new readers? I think I need to return to lab.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Or at least throw together some kind of map. : ) 

  • http://www.angelashelton.com Angela Shelton

    Great question. I hadn’t thought about it either.  Guess I’m doing both with a few recaps here and there.  Hmm… things to ponder via Chris Brogan.  Thanks! 

  • Anonymous

    On my blog The Invisible Mentor I do both chapters and episodes. When I do chapters I call them Part Two, Three and so on and include a link to the previous post. Having said that, after reading your blog post, even though many of the interviews that I have done are episodes and can stand by themselves, I see themes emerging and perhaps should include at the end of the interview, if you loved this interview I recommend, A, B and C. And the same would apply for the profiles in wisdom that I do for the blog.

    Thank you for that Chris!

    Avil Beckford

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Very clever. So keeping chapters grouped into parts must help. : ) 

  • Anonymous

    Whether you write chapters or episodes a good about page can help bring new readers up to speed. 
    Cross referencing previous post is also another good idea. Unless you have a very loyal following you should alway strive to have each post stand on its own due to the nature of search and the way people absorb internet content in general.

    Kelly Tirman
    http://www.kellytirman.com

  • http://twitter.com/JudyHelfand JudyHelfand

    Chris,
    I think if the blogger provides an archives feature, then all the information is there for the new reader. Albeit it is incumbent upon the reader to be curious or your writing has to be provocative to the point of encouraging the new reader to want to search your archives. Also, appropriate internal links to previous posts (chapters) within a new post will assist a new reader in getting “caught up.”

    I wrote a post about the importance of archives…it was titled “Blog Archives Are Your Hope Chest”…I published it on August 24, 2010. ( I wouldn’t dare include a link for fear of ending up in the spam bucket.) 

    You know what I learned today?  I went back to re-read my “Hope Chest” post and I found two broken external links.  They were kind of important to the flow of my “episode”.  From there I learned that one of the external links was to another’s blog post. Guess what? That blogger had removed the referenced post.  So now we have uncovered another issue with managing a blog: How often should you search for broken links?  Because “chapter or episode” will be kind of strange if a link or “previously on ….” flips to an empty 404 page.

    It is much too early for me to be thinking about these things.  Anyway, you are probably getting ready to fly to Los Angeles for #BWELA.  Have a safe flight, see you Friday . 

    Judy

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      VERY interesting! Can’t wait to hug you in person today. : ) 

  • http://mattreport.com Matt Medeiros

    Lately, I’ve been writing a lot more in chapters. 

    But let me tell you, I’ve had some “episodes” on my blog if you catch my drift!

  • http://milasblog.typepad.com Mila Araujo

    This was interesting. I think it really depends on the subject matter of your blog. The whole idea of starting with a “previous on..” is such a cool idea. I have two blogs, one for my profession and one for the 140confMTL. In the one for my work, I write in episodes because it is meant to respond to peoples specific concerns or questions about the subject matter. Just because you care about one issue, doesn’t necessarily mean you care about another. So each installment is a stand alone. However on the 140confMTL blog, its somewhat of a story as I build up to the conference, and perhaps there would be some real value in a “Previously on” so that when people jump in, they know what has happened so far. Naturally I write in a context that wouldn’t completely alienate a first time visitor, but love the idea you are getting at. Thanks Chris for some food for thought.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Interesting. So you use different forms for different projects. That stands to reason. Thanks for your thoughts, Mila. 

  • http://twitter.com/danyork Dan York

    Chris,

    Linguist/writer that I am, I got a bit hung up on your use of the word “episode” because, to me, I consider an “episode” part of a larger narrative or body of work.  Particularly in the podcasting world, we talk in terms of episodes that are part of a much larger whole.

    In fact, I was just recently having a discussion with someone helping them strategize about the content they were planning to put online and my specific question to them was: do you envision these pieces as standalone articles or as episodes in a larger story?  Are they discrete pieces of information or are they episodic in nature?

    So naturally I thought my usage was right and yours was wrong… but in a quick 5-minute exploration of the word “episode”, it turns out we’re both right!  ;-)     The word “episode” can refer to either an integral part of a serialized story (your “chapter”, my “episode”)… or a loosely coupled piece within the same framework (your “episode”, my “article”). 

    Regardless of all the fun nuances of language, you make a great point here and one that we all who are writing online should be thinking about.

    Thanks for writing the post – and for the fun brief diversion of my brain into the world of words,
    Dan

    • http://www.BriefEpisode.com/ Gib Wallis

      Also as a word wanderer, when Chris mentions sitcoms, things changed from the earliest days of sitcoms. Even sitcoms will have ‘memory’ now so that something that happens in one episode affects what goes after. Remember the throughlines with Friends?

      • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

        You’re right. There’s some bleedthrough in *some* shows, but not too often. It’s because of syndication, from what I’ve read. 

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      We *are* both right, which is why we like each other, Dan. : ) No, seriously. Thank you. I do use words wrong, by the way. Quite often. In High School, senior year, that was a running joke with my friends, because I misused “haberdashery.” Don’t ask. : ) 

  • http://www.facebook.com/amymiyamoto Amy Neal Miyamoto

    Chris,
    Although I am not a new reader I appreciated this exploration of chapters vs. episodes.  I believe my writing is mostly episodic yet I hadn’t been approaching each piece with this particular clarifying frame.  One element I have noticed on my favorite blogs lately that I feel really helps orient a new reader fast (even if they do not read a single post ) is the top horizontal navigation bar at the top that lists the blogs primary 5-6 content categories (like you have).  This for me is one of the quickest ways for me (as a new reader) to get oriented and make a quickly determine if the site is in alignment to what I am seeking.
    ;)
    Amy
    P.S.  Love the picture of Harry getting his own candy – this was the first year my girls wanted mom and dad to hang back on the sidewalk as well.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Very interesting. I’ll have to talk more about navigation as a storytelling aid. 

      And yes. Harold was very happy about it, too. Two years ago, he’d knock on the door and then walk right into the person’s house. That was awkward. : ) 

  • http://www.kaneworks.com Marvin Kane

    Great question Chris. I agree with a previous commenter that a good About page can go a long way toward giving your readers a sense of who you are which then helps to establish context. Like many, my posts have been both episodes and chapters. I’ll often say something like “in a previous post I ……” when a new post references something I’ve said before. As always, a thought provoking post. Thanks.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Good to know. I’ll have to think through it. : ) 

  • Jay

    I’m a new reader! And I already like this blog. I like the way this was written and the discussions going on here. It did give me an idea of what you write about. The topics seem to vary and I think that’s one way to keep regulars coming back. Always looking forward for a fresh piece!

    Also, I will now stalk you! (well, the blog)

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Hi Jay! Glad you’re here. : )  We have some great discussions, especially when YOU add to them. : ) 

  • http://www.clickandinc.com/blog Sarah

    I run a blog on intellectual property and small business, and using your analogy I’d have to say I take the sitcom approach — each post is easily its own standalone post other than the occasional series post, in which each section is easily accessible from each other section.

    Thanks for constructing such a valuable venue for discussion about this! The comments are extraordinarily helpful.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      I think that’s a neat way to go, for what you’re doing. And thanks for YOUR perspective, too. : ) 

  • Jack Lynady

    Episode approach with a baseline theme. I’ve sometimes done a series. I do think it’s a challenge to introduce yourself to newbies and also keep regulars interested. One way is to tell a short personal story at the beginning of a post. Come to think of it Chris. I have been reading your post for a year now. The two I remember the most are the “warm bread is not toast” and a video one where u pronounced the word “syrup” in a way I found funny.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Jack – see that? We’ve got something to remember. : ) So, I think you’re right. Telling a short personal story at the beginning might be the glue of it. 

  • http://spirocks.com Spiro Pappadopoulos

    I write episodes, but never thought of them that way until you mentioned it. I slipped into chapters with the release of Google+ and then back to episodes. hhhmmm I like the way you frame this. Thanks. 

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Happy to give you a new view. : ) 

  • http://twitter.com/robert_madison Robert Madison

    Personally, as a “new” reader (“first time caller!” ;) I don’t think you should overthink it.  Just write what you want to write, how you want to write it.  I have your RSS feed plugged into Google Reader and regularly check it out.  If the title looks interesting, I skim the article.  If the skimmed content looks good, I read it.  If not (or if I don’t have time), I don’t.

    I view pretty much all online content as discrete chunks of information (i.e., “chapters”). If there’s a backstory I need to know, I’ll figure it out.  If you throw in a link or two to make that process easier, so much for the better.  If not, I’ll figure it out.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Hi Robert! 

      Thanks for decloaking and for the perspective. I think you’re more unique of a reader than you’d think. Most folks don’t search out the backstory. I feel they tend to want it handed to them. 

  • Bonnie

    Keeping the related posts at the bottom of your daily blog helps keep the context.

  • Anonymous

    There is also a factor of chapters that is cultivating and drawing. It is more about a continuation of learning based upon a previously mentioned subject that allows you to take a concept and put it to action. I think that Christopher Penn also does this very well. 

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Agreed. Great perspective. Adding more to it. : ) 

  • Anonymous

    Chris, this is a great analogy for an issue many bloggers don’t realize they need to evaluate.  We (Compendium) did a study last year that looked at the sources of traffic to blogs.  For most blogs traffic from first time visitors ranged from 65% for bloggers like yourself to above 80% for the average blog.  I would encourage anyone blogging to look at the monthly trend for first time visitors to their blog.  The odds are good that most of your traffic is from first time visitors, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Well thought out category selection, RSS options, related post widgets, and email subscription options are all easy ways to convert first time visitors to repeat visitors.  Make sure that subscription options are easy to find at the top (as Chris does) and bottom of posts.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Pretty neat story, Frank. Thanks for sharing your perspective on it. Adds a lot. 

  • http://www.sugarpinerealty.blogspot.com mikec (@blogboy2)

    I never quite thought about it this way, Chris. My posts tend to be more stand alone. I deal with a topic (some examples: stress, attitude, personal well-being, etc) and then try to offer application. (I am a preacher in another life.) Thanks for all you offer :)

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Happy to give you a thought that might raise your eyebrows. 

  • Abundancebeyours

    Okay, I guess you can say I’m guilty…I am new to your post. I found this as a homework project for a creative writing class. I have to say this is true, I never thought about putting it into those terms before! Kool concept! I will be coping and sharing with the class tonight! Thanks!!!

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Hooray! You’re new! Great to see you. : ) 

  • http://www.ryanhanley.com/about Ryan Hanley

    Chris,

    Though I didn’t refer to them in this manner I have tried both methods.  I think it comes down to the type of story you are telling and how you want to tell it and maybe even how you are going to market it.

    But I think the episode v chapter conceptualization is a good way to think about it.

    Thanks!

    Ryan H.

  • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

    I’ve been more episodic as I’ve been writing only when inspired versus having a larger plan. But I’ve had some ideas for some eBooks that will lean more on the chapters route so I can simply combine them at the end and viola!

    I think chapter-based writing requires a lot more forethought. I’d like to move more into that direction…

    Side note: how does one mix and match? If your blog is chapter based, how do you insert a commercial without everyone running to the fridge?  :)

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      I probably write chapters a bit more than I should. I’m not especially sure how one mixes and matches, except that sometimes long-run narrative shows have standalone episodes. I’d look for ways to do that. Gaps in the storyline kind of moments. 

      • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

        The thing about the web is those amorphous edges. A book has a start and an end. But a blog? Not so much. Even comments can take it into new directions. 

        So yeah… I think a mix and match is inevitable unless the structure of the blog itself was created for a chapter like form. I guess it’s more appropriate to write a ‘mini series’ :)

  • http://www.thejackb.com/ The JackB

    This is why In install spyware so that my readers can’t ever get away. I used to tell them that I was a Nigerian prince who wanted to share my fortune with them.

    It is an interesting idea. I tend to think that I operate in chapters, now if I can figure out a good cliff hanger I might keep those readers from running away.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Wait. You’re not a prince? Then when will I be getting that money? 

      • http://www.thejackb.com/ The JackB

        Well Chris if we run into each other at Blogworld I’ll be happy to let you know all about it. ;)

  • http://thepracticaldilettante.com Seonaid

    Hi! (waves) since you told us to comment if we were a new person, which I sort of am.

    I write chapters. It’s quite intentional. I might go so far as to remind people of how many kids I have, or link back to a previous post. But for the most part, I have that core of readers that have been following along for a year or two, and when they bring somebody new along, it usually comes with an introduction. HOWEVER… I have been writing a personal blog for several years, and I think it’s more like my house than my workplace. There’s a long-term narrative, and a new dinner guest just kind of keeps up, and might occasionally happen along when there is a big pile of toys in the middle of the kitchen floor.

    I’m developing a business website (which will incorporate blogging), and I am trying to develop clear paths through that material for different audiences. Those pieces might want to be more episodic. Thanks for that metaphor. It will be helpful as I think through this navigation component.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com Chris Brogan

      Hooray! Thanks for decloaking. : ) 

      I love that your audience has been with you long enough to become a community. It sounds wonderful, really. And I loved your imagery in this comment. You might have a new blog reader in me. : ) 

      • Seonaid

        That’d be awesome! Just, you know… Don’t trip over anything. :)

  • http://www.i95dev.com Henry Louis

    Nice post. I hope it is more helpful to gain new readers and for our writings.

  • http://afford-anything.com Paula Pant

    I write episodes, because I’m committed to growth. By definition, I want to incorporate new readers to my blog. I don’t want to push people away by making them feel like they’ve stepped into the middle of a series. After all, who wants to start watching Lost or Harry Potter mid-way through the series?

    That said, I’ll occasionally do a 3-part series or a 5-part series. I like these because they use the chapter format, but they’re LIMITED. Each post begins with “This is the second post in my 3-part series about …. XYZ,” so the reader knows where the chapters start and end. Plus they increase my pageviews.

  • Molly Gold

    Hi Chris!  You know how much I enjoy that you make me ask and answer these questions =) I’m episodes ~ webisodes categorized easily to help you find just one piece or the whole ham sandwich.  Once I rebranded and relaunced, it became infinitely more logical for visitors to find their conversation of choice ~ that’s good.  Hope you are well!

  • http://saltandcaramel.com MmeLindor

    As a newcomer to your blog, I am leaving a comment, as requested : ) 

    This was a very interesting post, it really got me thinking. I write a personal blog to share my opinions on Social Media, politics, reviews of brands, products and services I like, and my attempts at writing fiction.

    I would say that I write chapters, as I do a lot of backlinking to older posts. Many of my readers are regulars but I am aware that I get a lot of traffic through twitter RTs and want to keep those newbies reading, and hopefully tempt them to sign up to my RSS feed. 

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  • Andrea Robinson

    This is an excellent analogy. I was just asking Laura Roeder today about this topic.

  • Matt

    Hey Chris,
    Good analogy :) I’d say I’m doing a bit of both: I have series of articles that follow each other – and ideally you need to have read the first one before the second one… and articles on their own with no context needed.

    When they get on my site, they can quickly get the context of what I do.

    Cheers,Matt

  • http://twitter.com/kimpatron Kim Patron

    Hey!  I’m a new person… trying to do both.  Some of posts are stand-alone, & some link back to older posts to get readers caught up.  I think it’s nice when you start an idea to go forward w/a series… it’s hard to get thorough explanations out in 1 blog post!

  • Stephanie Woodward

    I have JUST started my blog…the second post went up today. This article of yours came at a perfect time for me, as I start to plan my future posts. I think all of my posts will be anchored in one common theme: the discipline needed to actually churn out a novel, and as I go I’ll reference struggles and learnings from previous posts as I encounter new challenges.

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  • http://twitter.com/latinomarketing Cristy Clavijo-Kish

    Hi Chris! We met BRIEFLY in the ‘halls’ of the PRSA conf in Orlando this October. I’m a newbie to your site so I’m chiming in on this post-  thank you for making an excellent point. I’m launching my website/blog on diversity and tweens so I’ll keep in mind these potential guidelines to always drive relative context. Look forward to more sharing! 

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