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Rhetoric, Content Types and the CMS

Content strategy is stuck with the equivalent of tables and spacer gifs for building content models.

In some industries, there is a one-to-one relationship between a CMS entity and a rhetorical function. (There’s a reason every single introduction to structured content starts by analyzing a recipe.)

Think tank content isn’t like a recipe. It's full of editorial content, of narrative text whose internal structure can vary from one item to the next. It is content whose rhetorical functions can vary.

More confusingly, items with different rhetorical functions can have identical sets of attributes. This is most evident for legacy content that is posted as PDF files. A brief and a working paper have very different rhetorical functions. But the rhetoric is entirely contained in the PDF. The structural bits stored in the CMS are usually identical.

And, as I discussed elsewhere, items with different sets of attributes can have identical rhetorical functions.

A Missing Distinction

The underlying problem is that there’s a distinction that content management systems fail to capture. The CMS is famous for enabling designers and authors to separate content from presentation. (Well, every CMS other than the one that rhymes with Bird Dress.)

Separating collections of attributes from rhetorical function is every bit as important. But it’s poorly supported in major open source CMSs.

Content strategy is stuck with the equivalent of tables and spacer gifs for building content models.

Failure to separate out these concepts is at the heart of our labeling issues: Does content type refer to a rhetorical function or to a logically distinct collection of attributes?

It’s also at the heart of a bunch of technical challenges—for example, should a CMS build workflow and permission systems around collections of attributes or around rhetorical function? The fact that most CMSs privilege the former creates a host of implementation challenges.

But there are workarounds.

Our team at Soapbox very recently helped the Ada Lovelace Institute launch a new website that uses what we call our Flexible Publishing Model. It addresses some of these problems by allowing authors to first choose the rhetorical function and then choose the structure. We’ve an ongoing R&D project to streamline the authoring experience.

For more context

Your readers don't care about your content types. They care about your rhetoric.

What to read next

A better CMS starts with better language for content.

Other items of interest

The words—and the metaphors—we choose shape how we think.

Failure to distinguish between content types and rhetorical function isn't the only place our CMSs have failed us.

Think tank content isn't like a recipe. It's like a song.