Writing content that’s easy to scan read

Web readers don’t read much

If you’re writing more than 2 or 3 paragraphs, it’s probably more than most of your readers will take in. As a web writer your job is to take what little attention the reader will give you and direct the bulk of it towards whatever goal the reader turned up with. You need to serve scan reading.

Web reading is goal-oriented. Your reader has a problem they want to solve or something they want to learn. They’ve come to your page with a task in mind and it’s your job to let them finish it quickly and easily.

Low word counts help readers

Start by keeping your word count down. Keep the path from “let’s see if this webpage has the information I want” to “great, I found it – thanks, Helpful Webpage!” as short as possible.

Don’t waste scarce reader attention on needless words. See what I just did there? This whole paragraph is repetitive guff. Sorry.

Shorter words and sentences help readers

It’s generally easier to read shorter words and sentences. That’s the theory behind reading grades which turn your count of letters, words, and sentences into an indication of how easy (or difficult) your work is to read.

Much like a low word count shortens your readers’ path, a good level of readability smooths the path out. It makes for a faster trip from A to B.

Let your reader know what’s coming next

A good subheading makes it really obvious what the next few sentences or paragraphs are about. There are different ways to do that.

  • Summarise the section. For example, the subheading above, “Shorter words and sentences help readers”, is a 6-word summary of the 5 sentences that follow.
  • If you can’t summarise it, describe the section. The next section of this page is called “How a good subheading helps”. This isn’t a proper summary, because it doesn’t tell you what helpful things subheadings can do. But it does give a clear idea of what you’d learn if you read that section.

How a good subheading helps

If your work’s word count is the length of your reader’s path and its readability is the smoothness, we can stretch this metaphor one more time. Subheadings are signposts. They let your reader choose whether to go into each section of your work, or skip past and keep looking.

Your readers are only going to take in a quarter or a third of your words, so help them quickly sort out “stuff I do want to read” and “stuff I don’t want to read”. Look back through the subheadings in this post and see how they directed you through it:

Web readers don’t read much
Low word counts help readers
Shorter words and sentences help readers
Let your reader know what’s coming next
How a good subheading helps

If you already knew about word counts, you knew that you could skip the second section. If all you wanted to know was what the benefit of a good subheading is, you could scroll to the last section.

As the writer I’m helping you make those calls. I’ve expected that you won’t read this whole thing, so I’ve helped you decide what to ignore and what to focus on. If I got it right you found what you wanted quickly and easily.

===

This post is 603 words long, with a reading grade of 6.6.