We all like to picture our readers completely absorbed in our articles, reading every word we wrote. But the reality is quite different.
The cold, hard facts are that average visitors only read about 20% to 28% of the content of a web page.
This is because your content is in fact competing for attention with lots of other pages your reader is looking at (multi-tab browsing is very popular, especially in power users and millennials), so your article has only a few split seconds to convince your reader that it has the information they’re looking for and is worth the time to read it.
How people read online
The key online reading behavior is scanning.
The main question that we answer before deciding to read something online is: Is this worth my time? By scanning up and down a page, looking for relevant keywords, we try to quickly assess the usefulness of the content we’re looking at.
In fact, one usability study found that 79% of users always scan a new page and only around 16% read text word for word.
If your text is poorly formatted and looks like a wall of text, the odds that your readers will actually go through more than a couple of sentences are very low. And if they do make it all the way to the end, they’re very likely to quickly forget or completely miss your key points because of the high cognitive load needed to process a poorly formatted text.
Making your content easy to scan by using formatting techniques has important benefits:
- Visitors can quickly get an overview of the content and decide if it’s interesting to them. This means there’s a higher chance of them reading the rest of the content if it clicks with them.
- Readers can more easily recall key points of your article due to the reduced cognitive load required to process the well-formatted text.
- By making the page easier to scan, your readers can process more information so your article seems more complete, even if you have the same content as before styling it and formatting it properly.
So how do you make a page easier to scan?
Luckily, making a wall of text more easy to scan (and read) is a straightforward process. Here are the steps:
- Split text into paragraphs, with one idea per paragraph
- Add subheadings to important sections
- Use bullet lists, bold text, italic text, quotes, meaningful link text
- Use relevant images and graphics
- Write an intro and conclusion
- Make your text easy to understand
STEP 1. Split text into paragraphs
One of the most effective things you can do to tear down that wall of text is also one of the easiest – split your content into paragraphs.
Focus on one idea per paragraph, with maximum 3-5 sentences per paragraph. Why one idea per paragraph? When reading, a visitor will start with the very first words of a paragraph. If they find the paragraph has no interesting ideas for them, they’ll move on – if you use more than one idea, they’ll completely miss the other ones. Also, this is a good reason to carefully choose your starting words in each paragraph to make clear what the idea is.
Single sentence paragraphs really stand out, so use them once in a while to highlight your most important ideas.
STEP 2. Add meaningful headings and subheadings
Group related ideas together under a section header.
Headings should function like signposts thought your text. Visitors might only be interested in only a part of your post to fill a particular gap in their knowledge, so it’s important they can easily navigate your text. It’s common reading behavior for users to focus on only one section that they read intently, while barely looking and reading the rest.
When writing content, is often a good idea to start with the headings first. This way the finished article will have a solid, logical structure.
Although you (should) have access to different heading sizes ranging from Heading 1 (which is usually the page title) to Heading 6 when writing your text, you should generally stick to just Heading 2 and Heading 3. Using more heading sizes can become difficult to keep track of, plus, the styling of lower level headings usually doesn’t differentiate from body text to stand out enough. If you need to add more structure layers, simply make the text you want to highlight bold or italic.
STEP 3. Highlight important words or phrases
Use bold and italic text to make important words and phrases stand out from the rest of the text.
Bullet points and numbered lists are also very effective in condensing information and highlighting important points.
Use meaningful text inside links, avoid generic words like “click here” or worse, just “here”. Links have a different styling that makes them stand out from the rest of the text so they naturally draw the eye to them.
STEP 4. Use relevant images and graphics
Using images is a great way to break up text and add visual interest to your post.
But images can do much more than that. Images are also an important memory helper. Studies show that matching text with relevant images can make it up to 6 times more likely to remember information.
Diagrams, flowcharts, screenshots and even carefully chosen stock photos help you get your point across faster than just text would.
STEP 5. Add an intro and a conclusion to your post
The first paragraph in your article is usually the first one your readers will process.
Because it’s so prominent and gets so much attention, it’s important that you use it to encourage readers to read further into your article. Provide an interesting overview of your article’s main point – your readers will relate better to the rest of the content if they already know the basic premise.
The way you end an article is also important. Readers will often scroll straight to the bottom of an article expecting to see a summary of the points you’ve made above. The conclusion should highlight the key takeaways and, depending on the content of your article can include:
- next steps a reader can follow
- links to related resources
- a question addressed to readers, to encourage conversation.
It’s good practice to label the conclusion section with a meaningful headline like “Conclusion”, “Key takeaways”, “What now?”.
STEP 6. Make your text easy to understand
Readers prefer text that is concise, easy to scan and fact-based (objective). No one has yet complained that something was too easy to read, so even when addressing highly educated audiences use simple, easy to understand words.
Short sentences are easier to remember and read. Keep your sentences short and avoid overly long and complex sentences as they put a strain on a reader’s short-term memory and are harder to scan.
Use an active voice instead of passive voice to help speed up comprehension. Positive actions versus negative actions are also easier to process.
For example, consider which one of the following is easier and quicker to understand: “Milk left outside the fridge should be avoided” vs. “Avoid leaving the milk outside the fridge” vs. “Put the milk in the fridge”.
Simply writing a good, well-researched and informative article is not enough. If faced with a wall of text that’s tedious to read, most readers will run for the hills. Fortunately, making your text more readable is an easy task – break it into manageable, readable chunks, use meaningful headlines and images, provide a summary and a conclusion. This way you’ll make sure that all the hard work you put in writing the article was not wasted.
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