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The Write Question is a weekly video podcast all about writing. Today’s question focuses on how to write for skimmers. If you have a question you’d like me to answer you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet me @pubcoach, or leave a message for me at the Skype account, The Write Question.
Do you know how to write for skimmers? That’s the topic I’m addressing today in The Write Question. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant, the Publication Coach.
I have a question from Jennifer Olson, a writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here’s what she’s asked via email: “I’ve recently started having to write for the Internet and my boss keeps telling me I need to pay more attention to addressing the needs of ‘skimmers.’ How do I do that? Do you have any tips for me?”
Thanks for the question, Jennifer. Most writers should be very concerned about reaching skimmers because that’s how many people read these days.
Our current distracted reading style appears to be the result of years of TV viewing and, more recently, the advent of the smartphone and social media outlets such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
But we’re all even more distracted when we read on the internet. Do you know how much time people will spend on a website before leaving? The answer may shock you. It’s just 15 seconds for the majority of readers. Yikes! 15 seconds! (See link below.)
If you want to capture readers who have short attention spans, here are some strategies you should employ:
- Use bullets, as I have done in the transcript of this text. Bullets get attention. They make the text look non-intimidating and easy to read.
- Use boldface for emphasis. Just don’t use too much of it. Boldface is slightly harder to read than regular type so use it selectively.
- Write concisely. Get rid of extra words and unnecessary sentences.
- Use plenty of short paragraphs. I can’t give you a precise word count because your paragraphs can be longer if your column width is really wide. Just be sure you have lots of white space between paragraphs that look to be relatively short.
- Use subheads: These mini headlines help orient your readers and let them get the gist of your message, even if they’re not willing to read the whole paragraph.
- Last, always put your most important material in the first screen readers will see, without having to scroll. And before you decide that’s an easy goal, remember that many of readers are looking at your site from a small mobile screen. You won’t have much space!
Writing for skimmers is indeed a bit of an art. But like everything related to writing, it gets easier with practice. I suggest you identify some websites that you — or your boss — find especially skimmable. Then, spend five minutes a day copying those websites word for word as a form or practise. See below for my link on the value of becoming a copycat.
Finally, let me wrap up with a quote from technology writer Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, link below. “On the web, there is no such thing as leisurely browsing. We want to gather as much information as quickly as our eyes and fingers can move.
Jennifer, many people are no longer readers — they’re skimmers. But you’re being paid by a boss who wants to reach them. And guess what? It’s not hard. Practise the tips I’ve given you. And please remain a committed reader yourself.
An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Nov. 2/19.