Join Chris Nodder for an in-depth discussion in this video People scan; they don't read, part of Writing for the Web.
- Because people tend to be in research mode, rather than entertainment mode, when they're reading online, they normally only read about 20 percent of the content on an average page. That's because they're skimming for information they think is relevant to the problem they're trying to solve. As an example of this skimming behavior, did you catch the problem with the sentence on the screen? Did you see it first time you looked, or only when you'd started paying attention? We really do just skim across most text. As a result, we can miss information if it isn't really apparent.
You need to design your online text with this behavior in mind. Start each paragraph with the key idea, using words that will tell the story for the rest of the paragraph. These words are the ones that people's eyes rest on when they're skimming, so they should really indicate what the rest of that paragraph is about. If your paragraphs run on too long, or contain more than one concept, then readers might completely miss the subsequent ideas that you've buried in the paragraph. The best way to avoid this problem is to use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
This technique forces you to think about the simplest, cleanest and shortest way to get your message across. Your text can start to look a little ragged if you follow this suggestion and you're covering several different ideas in the same article. Sometimes, that's okay. For instance, news websites often use this approach, and their content is still very legible. Often though, you'll find that the best alternative in this situation is to convert part of your content into a list. Lists are easier to scan, are written telegraphically, and break up text.
For that reason, it makes sense to use lists wherever you can in your online text. They help people to quickly find the relevant information, and when they've found it, the way lists are written makes the information easy to digest. Bulleted lists are used when the items have no set order. Use numbered lists when the items have a determined order, like steps in a recipe, or placings in a race. The other thing you can do to make it easier on your readers is to remove text that doesn't add to the story.
Often, we use 10 words where one would do, or use long, complicated words where a short, simple one would be just fine. When I'm editing, I find I can usually reduce the amount of text by at least 50 percent. You may think that's crazy, but if you can remove all that extra text, it makes it much more likely that readers will find the key concepts because they aren't buried anymore. Remember, you're writing to get information across to people as quickly and painlessly as possible by making use of their natural scanning behavior.
Using one concept per paragraph, making sure your key idea is at the beginning of the paragraph, removing redundant words, and converting texts to lists wherever it makes sense are all ways to ensure that your readers find the part of the content that matters most to them.