You are the expert overflowing with wisdom to share. You carefully craft phrases, use industry-specific words, and jot down valuable ideas. Then you hit “publish” and...nobody reads your piece, comments on your article, shares your post, or tweets your quotes.
That’s enough to send a talented write into apathy and second guessing. Or into hyperdrive of perfection to create that one viral piece.
But the real solution may be easier than you think. What if it’s less about what you write, and more about how you style your text so that it’s easy to read, quick to scan, and great at holding your reader’s attention?
How people actually read (hint: they scan!)
Curious how people actually read webpages? So was the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). They published a study in 2017 and discovered that the majority of readers scan web pages in an F-shape pattern. This means that they
- Read the first few lines of text on the web page, such as the title and subtitle, or the introductory paragraph.
- Read the first few words (the left side) of each paragraph more than the end of lines (the right side).
These two habits form an F-shaped reading pattern. But readers also tend to scan the page when:
- There are large blocks of unformatted text without bullets, lists, headings, bold font, or links.
- They are trying to read quickly or efficiently.
- The reader isn’t that interested in the subject (which is common).
Websites require readers to lean in and browse the content (which they apparently do in an F-shape). Let’s make it easy for your visitors to easily identify and quickly understand the valuable wisdom that you have to offer.
Don’t forget the basics
Before we tackle specific strategies to help your readers scan your writing, let’s cover the basics:
- Write a catchy headline. If your title is boring, why should someone bother to read it?
- If your topic is lengthy or intense, break it up into a series of multiple posts. This makes it accessible for those who want to learn the concept in digestible portions.
- Remember what a thesis statement is? Write one! That means your intro or abstract presents a snapshot of the most relevant information, and the body of your work unpacks that idea(s).
Now that you’ve gained your reader’s attention through titles, series, and a great introduction, let’s jump into your target skills for scannable content.
1. Embrace space
White space is pleasing to the eye and visually makes it easier to take in your words.
Worried your content is too complex to divide into small paragraphs? Aim to have one idea per paragraph. If your second point has five subpoints, write an intro paragraph to the broader idea, and allow for a small paragraph for each of the five smaller subpoints.
Aim for only three to four sentences per paragraph, but sometimes even one sentence emphasizes a dramatic break in your content.
2. Use subheadings
We already emphasized the value of a strong title, and the same is true for subheadings within your writing. Readers chose to read your article based on your title; keep them captivated with alluring subheadings.
These not only add white space, but also keep your reader in track and pushing from one idea to the next.
A solid subheading is informative and clever. Don’t give all of the details away (otherwise, what’s the point of reading the section?), but leave some space for intrigue.
3. Make it into a numbered list
Readers crave order and organization. A numbered list delivers both.
Have 7 tips to share? You reader knows that they’re almost done while they’re reading (or scanning) number 6. Have a well-rounded argument to support one of your points? Summarize your logic in a numerical list.
If you haven’t written a compelling post with numbered main points, you should give it a try!
4. Add bullet points
- Like numbered lists, readers can’t resist bullet points.
- Bullet points make your content extra friendly to scanners (vs readers).
- Have this sort of organization let’s you share multiple points in one organized location.
- These aren’t providing white space, but bullet points do give a visual break for the reader's eyes.
5. Bold and italic are eye-catching
When you highlight important concepts or main ideas in bold, you will capture your reader’s eyes. This is the best way to convey the most essential information that you don’t want the reader to miss.
Italic font isn’t as extreme as bold font, but your second level main ideas can be italicized to draw attention as well.
6. Links are helpful
Links are helpful for multiple reasons:
- They can send the reader to other related and useful content on the same topic.
- They can transfer the reader to your own content to keep people on your website reading your material.
- They show that you’re thoroughly researched and a trustworthy authority on this topic.
- They also (usually) show up in blue font that is underlined. Like bold or italic font, this is eye-catching.
7. Make your formatting scanner-friendly
Now that your content includes some (or all) of the above strategies, review your article. Your main ideas should be highlighted with subheadings, bold font, or a list. Read through to notice if there are other ideas that you would like to draw attention to.
Would a scanner understand the topic based on subheadings, bold font, and lists?
What words would a scanner need to read to best understand your main idea?
Bonus: Tips to help the F-Shaped Pattern Scanner
Remember how the scanner “reads” in the shape of an F? Here are a few bonus tips to help the scanner take a shortcut and still read what you want them to:
- Put the most important information in your first two paragraphs.
- Better yet, summarize everything in 1-3 sentences, and place this as a deep caption under a relevant image.
- Group a small amount together with a border or different colored background.
- Place links on information-bearing words, rather than generic commands like, “click here” or “find out more.”
- Delete superfluous or unnecessary content. Even the hyper-curious reader doesn’t need to read fluff.
Turning scanners into readers
Take the time to edit your existing content to align with these simple strategies, especially if your website visitors only spend enough time on your page to scan for the highlights.
Although your words are valuable, your readers also find their personal time valuable. If you reveal true value in your basic headings and bold font, the reader will suddenly believe that it’s worth their time to digest all of your words. (Congrats on turning scanners into readers!
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