All Readers Scan: writers need to accept it

I was editing a printed promotional piece for a friend the other night and found myself applying my Web-writing principles to the document. I asked myself, why? I decided that the Internet has helped writers get over themselves by forcing them to see that people don’t actually read much anymore. They scan. It doesn’t just happen on the Web. So why not apply Web-writing principles to non-narrative print writing as well?

The piece I was editing was to be handed out at a conference in an exhibition-hall-type environment where the audience would undoubtedly be thronged with many such flyers and handouts from various vendors. In such a situation, I cannot imagine many people would actually read every word of a promotional flyer. Imagining this audience, I started to look at the headers carefully–did they convey a clear, meaningful message, without vapid marketese? I looked at the first 3-4 words of every paragraph and noticed that my client had started every first sentence with the name of the company (e.g., “Company X offers a revolutionary product…”). So, someone scanning the document in the F-shape pattern would likely see “Company X, Company X, Company X” and come away thiking this company thinks a lot of itself, but wondering what this company could do for them. I started to craft the sentences so the first 3 words were value-adding words, didn’t repeat one another, and gave the reader clues to the company’s mission. This is a technique I got from writing metadata (<title> tags) for Web pages.

Of course, people do read in some cases. They still read books, and they read articles in magazines (as long as the pictures and the topic are appealing, and the first couple of paragraphs are written compellingly). Indeed, journalists have worked on the scan principle for a long time. But I think Web-writing techniques go further. These are principles that can everyone, from marketers to museum curators writing labels for the gallery. They are still developing, and with the aid of usability studies, are getting more and more refined. Jakob Nielsen is the guru of web-writing usability. Some of the seminal articles from his Useit site are listed below. Happy writing…

Jakob Nielesn, “Writing for the Web”
Jakob Nielsen, “F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content”
Jakob Nielsen, “Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web”

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One response to “All Readers Scan: writers need to accept it

  1. Yes! Pretty insightful. It didn’t occur to me until now that we could make things easier for readers, other than those browsing web pages, by using these often-used techniques. Going to try out right away!

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