Last week, a doctoral student came to me for some blogging advice.

“So you want me to be more concise?" she said. "In academia, I just write until I die."

“Remember,” I said, “your professors are getting paid to read your writing. Everyone else is reading it because they want to."

That's why people who publish content on the Internet -- from established bloggers and journalists to ordinary Twitter and Facebook users -- need to: 

1) quickly relay the value of their content, and

2) reduce the reader's cognitive load as much as possible

Because, at the end of the day...

Most people don't actually read. They scan.

According to research conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group in 1998, 79% of readers scan new web pages that they come across.

Ten years later, in 2008, the same researchers conducted another online attention test and concluded that, on average, page visitors have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% being more likely. In any case, ten years later, readers are still scanning.

Then, in 2013, Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece for Slate called You Won’t Finish This Article. According to Manjoo, nearly 40% of the people who land on a page won’t make it past the first paragraph. And if they do, they’re likely going to scan the page for captivating sub-headlines, bullet points, and bolding.

In sum:

Scanning is the new reading.

That's why web copywriters shouldn't be offended by people merely perusing their work. It's nothing personal. It just is.

The solution: adjust to the reader scanner. Make it easy for her to fall down the page. Let your carefully constructed sentences captivate her. Let your well-formatted paragraphs put her attention in a guillotine hold. It's the only way.

Here's how you do that:

1. Be concise.

Concise writing is fast- and easy-to-read, yet still contains all the useful information a reader needs. If you want to write more concisely, channel your inner Hemingway: avoid adverbs, adjectives, jargon, and the passive voice.

2. Make your layout scannable.

Use the following on-page elements:

  • Bullets
  • Numbered lists
  • Bold, italicized, and colored text
  • Sub-headlines
  • Short paragraphs

See, wasn't that easy to get through?

3. Use objective language.

To be completely objective would be to write without adjectives and buzzwords. Objective writing is also supported by hard evidence (e.g., research and direct quotes).

Don’t be completely objective. That would leave your copy void of charm, which is necessary if you want to sell your readers (that is what you're trying to do, right?). 

With that said, reasonably objective writing does have its benefits: it’s easy-to-read and easy-to-understand. It's up to you to make your writing objectively balanced

Not buying it?

If you’re feeling skeptical that concise, scannable, objective writing really performs better online, below is a link to yet another Nielsen Norman Group study that will make you a believer.

The study illustrates how online users engaged with content that was rewritten using conciseness, scannability, and objectivity as individual control factors. Then it tested how readers responded to content that was rewritten to include all three elements.

The results speak for themselves: click here to see them. 


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