Does this sound familiar? You settle in to read something online. You first scan the screen, and then begin reading a long paragraph of text. Soon you realize you’re no longer reading; instead you’re thinking about dinner or your draft picks. Click, close tab.

We all do this. Reading on the web is informal, interactive and interruptive.

  • Informal – our family and friends are here, anything goes.
  • Interactive – we are used to ‘talking’ back via comments or feedback buttons.
  • Interruptive – we are easily distracted by email alerts, links, instant messaging, social networks and open tabs.

If we write our online content the same way we write for the printed page, we’ll lose our readers, except for our mothers and a few diehard fans.

Write for scanners, not readers.

We read differently online. I think we all know this intuitively, but it’s also been proven in studies. We scan. In eye-tracking tests 79 percent of users scan any new page they come across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.

We scan in an F-shape: first, horizontally across the top, then horizontally a little lower, and finally vertically down the left side. The photo below shows results of web usability eye-tracking tests. The redder portions are the ‘hot spots’ where most eyeballs land.

Why is this important? If you want to hold your reader’s attention, format your text and write in a way that will do that.

writing for the web online reading freelance raleigh

F-shape online reading pattern

Hook them with headlines.

Headline writing is a skill coveted by print and online writers. Do a Google search on “writing headlines” and you’ll see how much advice is out there on writing headlines for blog posts, articles and marketing copy.

Amidst all the online noise and distractions, we want our headline to hook the reader and draw them into our content. A good headline needs to give a sense of what the reader will get for their time. It provides an ‘information scent.’ It also helps if it’s clever, controversial or promising. If you want to improve your headlines, Copyblogger has oodles of posts on the subject.

Break up your text.

Readers like lists and bullets. They break up the visual monotony of one paragraph after another and make the content more alluring to read.

Lists posts are by far the most popular posts on many blogs. Check out the titles of the most popular articles on Copyblogger’s home page:

  • 8 Bad Habits that Crush Your Creativity
  • Do You Make These 7 Mistakes When You Write?
  • 10 Effective Ways to Get More Blog Subscribers.

List posts like these promise takeaways in an easy to read package. An uncommitted visitor can scan and digest before deciding to settle in and read.

Readers also like bold subheadings. Subheadings tell the reader what to expect within the text and visually break up the page.

Use short paragraphs and sentences.

Aim for paragraphs that are five lines maximum. It might not always happen, but it’s an ideal to keep in mind.

Keep your sentences short. Use limited punctuation. Parentheses, especially, can cause a break in reader attention.

And my favorite: sentence fragments are okay.

Does it sound like we’re dumbing down writing? Possibly, but what we’re trying to do is appeal to the distracted web reader by making the text visually appealing and conversational – an enjoyable online reading experience.

A few more formatting tips

Left justify your text. Don’t use indented paragraphs.

All of you who grew up with typewriters, stop using two spaces after a period. A period is followed by only one space. Using two spaces is a dead give-away that you’re older and perhaps haven’t kept up with the times. And before you accuse me of ageism, just know that I too had a college prep typing class in my senior year of high school. I adjusted, you can too.

If you have a few lines of quoted text, set them off from the rest of text in block quotes. If you want to add more visual relief, italicize the block quote.

Break up your text with photos or graphics but only where it won’t interrupt the reading flow. Graphics sometimes take longer to load so don’t overdo it or your reader will leave before they even arrive.

Next time, I’ll share guidance on voice, links, trolls, copyright and more.

Do you have any other tips to add?

Writing for the Web series