7 Ways to Write for Today's Reader
People Don’t Read Like They Used To: Seven Ways to Write for How They Read
It’s not exactly news anymore: people just don’t read like they used to. To be an effective writer-communicator these days, we need to learn how to adapt.
In the olden days, we used to sit and read the same piece of content for extended periods of time (and by “extended,” I mean like more than five minutes). Now, particularly when we’re online, we just don’t sit and consume the same thing for more than a few minutes in a single, non-distracted moment. The irony, of course, is that we are accessing more information than ever (some reports suggest the average American is in front of a screen for over 10 hours per day), yet we can’t stay focused on any one thing.
But while the debate will rage on for at least another generation about whether or not our distracted attention span is making us dumber, it’s clear that humanity isn’t going back any time soon. People, whether we like it or not, are far more inclined to access a breadth of diverse information in pieces and chunks in their day-to-day “readings” than they are to gain depth in any one topic. Shoot, even as I’ve been writing these first three paragraphs, I’ve checked my email twice, glanced at a text message on my phone, and “read” a news alert from CNN. That’s how we function–distracted, diverted, disengaged.
So what can we, as writers, do about it? We need to be aware. And we need to change the way we think about writing. We need to design information, not just write it.
Here’s my quick list of seven things to think about when designing information for the modern reader:
#1: Expect Them to Ignore You
Except when a person actually sits down, by themselves, to read an actual, physical book (yes, some people occasionally still do that, myself included) you’ll need to plan for them to be distracted. As disheartening as it may be, know that people most likely won’t read all of what you wrote. They’ll skim; they’ll scan; they’ll look for 'bolded' and highlighted information. They’ll take a snapshot of what’s most important to them in that moment, then they’ll disregard the rest. Knowing this can help you think about what you make big, bold, and prominent. Help give people the most important piece of information by layering and chunking information.
#2: Give ’em What They Prefer
Recognize what people prefer (start with thinking about what you prefer) when they access information. Most people don’t like to look at daunting, long paragraphs. They don’t like their text to extend horizontally across long lines (we call this “line length” in design), they do like headings and 'bolded' information, and they like pictures. Give people what they prefer and they’re more likely to engage with your content. It’s a lot like making ice cream—give people what makes them happy. Don’t put in weird ingredients that don’t belong in ice cream (ahem…nuts!) and don’t create weird flavors that no one wants to try (like, well, asparagus ice cream). Give them what they’ll actually eat.
#3: Make It Quick ‘n’ Easy
Determine how fast people will want to or need to read what you’re giving them. Some design choices affect how fast the human brain will read information. If you use ALL CAPS, for example, people are more likely to slow down a little bit to read (and they can get annoyed if all caps are used in entire paragraphs). Line length also affects speed, as do some typefaces. If you use a cursive or handwriting typeface, for example, you will slow your readers down. It’s possible that you will occasionally want to slow your reader, but be conscious and strategic about it. In most cases, people don’t want to be slowed down, so find the ways to quicken their reading: simple fonts, larger line spacing, no all caps, shorter line lengths, and effective headings.
#4: Don’t Kill Their Eyes
Realize that screens are harder on the eyes than paper. When people are looking at a computer screens, their reading experience will be greatly improved if we simplify the design. While you may be able to get away with printing black ink on red paper, you can’t put black text on a red background on a screen. You’ll murder your readers’ eyes. The same goes with font size. We can often use as small as 7- or 8-point fonts on paper and people will be able to read without trouble. But don’t you dare use that small of font on a screen. Make your fonts larger, your backgrounds white (yes, pretty much ALL of the time), your headings bigger, and your white space (emptiness) more prevalent.
#5: Wordsmith Like a Boss
Words should be considered as much a part of a design as pictures. When you use words that capture attention, you’re more likely to get people to read what’s below. The heading for this paragraph, for example, could have been “Choose Words Carefully.” But “Wordsmith Like a Boss,” I’m hoping, caught your attention. Take the time to use words that will pull people in. We don’t have the luxury any more of just writing and expecting people to read. We have to make it interesting, all of the time. Even in emails (sigh).
#6: Help Them Bite, Snack, and Meal
Know that people tend to instinctively look for what matters most to them. If they don’t see what they’re looking for, they’ll jump ship. Most people, for example, when Googling information an clicking on unfamiliar websites, don’t stick on most landing pages for more than 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds! This means you really need to create a hierarchy of information. Give them what’s more important by making it big, bold, obvious, and attractive. This is the “bite.” You give them something to taste that they like so that they’ll stick around. Then, give them the next most important thing. Guide them to your hors ‘oeuvres and let them snack a little on the content. If, at this point, they like what they see, they’ll stick around for the full meal. Some in marketing call this A-B-C messaging. You’re layering your information by both attention span and detail. Grab their attention first before you give them the details.
#7: Occasionally, Be Disfluent
OK, now I’m gonna throw everything I just told you to do out the window for sec. Once in a while, you will want your readers to seriously slow down and engage with information. If, for example, you’re a college professor and you need your students to read about German transcendental idealism, it’s not in their best interest to simplify and highlight. In fact, research has shown that if a message is complex and your readers need to spend time with it, it’s best to actually make the reading slightly more difficult, using a less simple font and longer line lengths. This slows people down and they’re more likely to remember what they read. (We call this principle “disfluency”—making things less fluent, but with a strategic purpose).