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When Reading Habits Change, Writing Habits Must Follow

The amount of content generated online every minute of every day is truly staggering. As I see it, this article is a tiny needle in the world’s most ginormous haystack, and the fact that you managed to find it at all is a minor miracle (praise Google!), especially if you didn’t set out to locate it. Now that you’re here, though, I’m willing to bet this article is far from the only thing on your mind–not to mention your screen. Those two links in the first sentence–did you consider clicking them? What about other windows and tabs? I’m guessing a few of them might be open in your browser even now. It’s nothing personal, but to say your attention is compromised would be an understatement. The same goes for all of us humans online.

If you’re at all familiar with Newfangled, you already know we’re pretty sweet on content marketing. But the circumstances I just described are actually a best-case scenario for content marketers. Writing to the distracted reader in a way that still manages to connect–that’s the challenge. Having a solid understanding of what we’re up against and how we got here is the first step in mastering the challenge.


If Reading is an Addiction, the Web is Crack

I’ll start with a personal anecdote, one you may be able to relate to. All my life, I’ve prided myself on being a “book person.” From the time I was a kid, I’ve relished the distinct pleasure of immersing myself deeply in a book, allowing the printed words to fall away as the stories, ideas, and images conjured by an author eclipse the text itself. My love of books and writing has, in fact, steered the course of my adult life, beginning with my first job in book publishing and continuing with the opportunities that followed. (For the record, I fully believe web development is a form of publishing, too.)

But while I continue to hold on to the idea of myself as a “book person,” actual books make up an increasingly small percentage of what I read on a daily basis. The reason, I suspect, is abundantly obvious–it certainly won’t come as a surprise to anyone who was alive (even as a child) before the rise of Web culture. In fact, many of you have probably experienced a similar transformation. It’s not just that I’m choosing to spend more time reading online content, although my favorite blogs, news feeds, and social media streams definitely soak up a hefty chunk of my free time. And it’s also not just that I find myself succumbing all too frequently to an endless pathway of semi-random links, each revealing its own novel landscape of attention-grabbing words, images, and video. No, the real problem lies in what happens when I actually do manage to pick up a book, and that something has to do with my attention span or, more accurately, lack thereof.


This is Your Brain on Crack

Mine isn’t an original observation, but it’s one I fretted about privately before happening upon Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010). Carr’s book has already been much discussed in the years since its publication, so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that he makes a thoughtful and compelling case that the Web is literally changing the structure of our brains, a change that’s made manifest in the ways we process and engage with information both on and offline. I don’t have to tell you that reading–really reading–online is an exercise in distraction avoidance. In-text hyperlinks beg to be clicked, sidebar ads flash ceaselessly at the edges of our vision, and the siren call of an incoming chat message or email notification can instantly derail our attention to a written piece–and that’s assuming we’re interested in reading it in the first place.

Whereas the structure and function of the printed book encourages quiet stretches of deep, uninterrupted reading, the structure and function of the internet promotes thought patterns of a much shiftier, more fragmented variety. As Carr reports, we really aren’t as adept at navigating this sea of distraction as we like to think we are (same goes for multi-tasking), and the result is a truncated attention span wired for novelty and instant gratification.

Evidence of this qualitative shift in attention can be seen in a plethora of measurable online behaviors, including the average time users spend evaluating a new webpage before deciding whether to stay or go (10 seconds) and the F-shaped eye-scanning pattern readers typically follow (unknowingly, of course) to quickly locate relevant bits of information in a chunk of text without actually reading all the words.

Increasingly, it seems, visual rather than textual cues guide the behaviors of online readers. Think about that for a minute. It means that the way you write (in terms of length and structure), as well as the way a page is formatted and designed, matters just as much, if not more, than what you write–at least insofar as you care about having readers at all.


It’s Not that I Don’t Love Crack……

Let me back up a minute and just say that I really do love the “interwebs.” No doubt, it offers an unprecedented wealth of information, convenience, and connectivity that has revolutionized our lives in countless ways. It’s opened incredible new doors for businesses of all stripes. Plus, it’s fun. Show me the person who hasn’t spent hours at a time perusing silly YouTube videos, stalking old flames on Facebook, overloading on adorable cat pictures, or researching some obscure phenomenon, conspiracy theory, or disease, and I’ll show you a liar.


I’m an Online Reader — Get to the Point, Already!

The point! Right! The point is that writers who produce work for the web — and that includes businesses with a blog or newsletter — must accept the fact that their readers will almost certainly NOT be hanging on their every word. Nor will they be reading your finely crafted prose in a quiet, distraction-free vacuum. What that means is you’ve got to make your writing as friendly to online readers as possible–in other words, meet readers where they really are–without dumbing down your message.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to get you started writing smart, effective, web-friendly content. (Note: Chris Butler wrote a great blog piece about how to design webpages in a way that showcases content effectively and encourages closer reading, so I won’t go into design elements here.)

  1. Be Clear. Let’s start by acknowledging that clear writing is always–always–a great idea. But that goes double for writing for the web. Online readers, especially those who stumble on your site via a search engine results page, are typically looking for very specific kinds of information. Assuming Google made a good call in delivering a given reader to your site based on her specific search query, your first job is to reassure her that she’s in the right place. Clear writing–writing that straightforwardly covers the topics it claims to cover–does just that. Remember, people decide within mere seconds whether a webpage appears to meet their current needs. If your writing forces a reader to dig too deeply to figure out what your page is all about, the battle is already lost.
  2. Be Concise. Here’s where those pesky attention span issues really come home to roost. Of course, different audiences have different tolerances when it comes to verbosity, and it behooves you to act in accordance with your own target audience as you understand it. But it’s never a bad idea, given the way we know people read online, to keep things short and sweet. In general, the less time your writing demands of readers, the more likely they are to actually read it.
  3. Break Your Content into Digestible Chunks. If you want or need to write at greater length, break the text into digestible chunks using subheads. Not only will this make the text look less intimidating (nothing freaks out online readers more quickly than a vast chunk of undifferentiated text), but your subheads can also help guide readers who are pressed for time or interest to the information that’s most relevant to them.
  4. Provide Value. As I wrote in a recent blog post, your content strategy isn’t worth a hill of beans if you aren’t using it to regularly share really, truly useful information with readers. For free. No strings attached.
  5. Mind Your H1’s and H2’s. On a related note, don’t forget to make your web content as friendly to search engines as it is to readers. First, mind your metadata (more on that here, from Page). Second, think about keywords. While I certainly don’t suggest stuffing your text to the gills with keywords (that’s so 2005), and while I generally believe good writing does the job for you, I do encourage you to take a minute or two to consider how readers might describe your chosen topic and check that language against your own writing to ensure the two aren’t miles apart. Remember, SEO, done well, is simply a way of guiding the right readers — readers who will be interested in what you have to say — to your content.

What do you think? What are your rules of thumb when it comes to writing for the web?

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