The Simple Technique That Will Make Everything You Write Online More Popular

  • November 4, 2010 by Corbett Barr
  • 57 Comments

scannable textHere’s a simple thing you can do to make everything you write online more popular. Whether you’re writing blog posts or marketing copy or email, this technique will make sure your writing gets read and shared by more people.

This is something beginners ignore and pay the price for every day.

You pour your heart into a piece of writing, make sure it has great benefits for your readers and yet hardly anyone pays attention.

What’s the solution?

Make your text scan-able.

Here’s the thing. When you write in long monotonous paragraphs with no specific emphasis, you make your readers fall asleep.

They take one look at your 10-line-long paragraphs and head for the back button.

The problem is that those long paragraphs make your readers work too hard, so most of them don’t end up reading your text at all.

Readers on the web don’t read word-for-word, starting at the top, like you would a novel or news article. Readers on the web start by scanning new pages, looking for key points and headings.

By making your text scannable, you make it more likely someone who visits your page or receives your email will digest what you’ve written.

This Isn’t New, but Everyone Has to Learn It

I work with lots of online entrepreneurs who are relatively new to writing for the web. The majority don’t know that making text scannable is so important, and they end up writing long blocks of text and wondering why they’re having a hard time attracting an audience.

Look around at some of the most popular blogs and websites online. Observe the layout and formatting the writers use. Do you notice a pattern of breaking up and emphasizing text to make it easier to digest?

Like I said, this isn’t a new concept. Jakob Nielsen studied and wrote extensively about the benefits of scannable and concise text in the late 1990s.

Jakob’s research found that 79% of readers on the web always start by scanning a page before they read it. He also found that using concise text, scannable layout and objective language (the opposite of hyped-up marketing speak) combined accounted for a 124% increase in usability.

How to Make Your Text More Scannable

Making your text more scannable (and therefore more likely to be read) takes a little work, but with practice can become second nature. Here are several techniques you can use to make sure more people read what you write online:

  • Use lists — either bulleted or numbered
  • Use formattingbold, italics, color and underline in reasonable quantities are all effective (don’t go overboard)
  • Use fewer words — say what you need to say with less
  • Break up your paragraphs — vary the number of sentences you use in each paragraph. Don’t be afraid of one-sentence paragraphs for important points.
  • Use headings and subheadings — guide your reader with mileposts
  • Use images and graphics
  • Use more hyperlinks — links break up your text and give you more credibility at the same time

Try it in your next several posts and see if more people read and share what you write. It should only take you 5 minutes more per 1,000 words to make your text scannable.

A Clinic on Scannable Text

Adam Baker from Man Vs. Debt regularly cranks out shining examples of effective highly-scannable text. He’s a master of creating multi-thousand word posts that attract hundreds of comments, links and social shares.

Check out his epic post How NOT To Suck at Blogging for a virtual clinic on how to make your text scannable. You’ll also learn about how to pour your soul into a blog post and how to write things people care about all from this fantastic read.

What about you? Have you given thought to making your text more scannable? What results did you see? Please share in the comments.

Photo by C.P.Storm

Written by . Corbett is cofounder of Fizzle, a place for creative entrepreneurs, writers, makers, coders and artists, all working to support themselves doing what they love independently on the Internet. Follow Corbett on on Twitter.


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Ivan Walsh November 4, 2010 at 1:34 am

Hi Corbett,

I’ve learnt a lot from reading Brian Clark and one of the suggestions he made was to think like a publisher.

What he meant re web writing was to consider that most people don’t read newspapers, they scan the page and dip in here and there… and then move on.

One way I do this on my site is to bold key phrases on the page and then (a little further down) insert a link to another page that follows up on this point.

This teasing strategy works as you draw the reader in, encourage them to read more, and then take a call to action.

One final tip is to read your material aloud.

Your ear will pick up where it sounds off and then you can make the changes.

PS – credit to Pat Flynn for letting me know about your site. Great articles you’ve got there.

Ivan

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 10:51 am

Thanks for bringing up Brian Clark. He’s an expert at writing for the web and making text more digestible.

Thanh Ngoc November 4, 2010 at 2:34 am

Sometimes, I feel like I have so much to say and that shortening sentences doesn’t push my point across.

I do like the way you have used the bold text in this post to try to move the eye to the most important points.

Sherryl Perry November 4, 2010 at 9:16 am

Thanh, I write informative posts too and it can be challenging to keep our reader’s attention. I think for bloggers like you and I, Corbett’s suggestion to use headings and subheadings is a great way to break up our content. Make them “keyword-rich” and you’re doing yourself a favor with the search engines too!

Tim @ Faith and Finance November 4, 2010 at 3:16 am

Breaking the habit of writing long, drawn out paragraphs is challenging for some people, but critical if they want to be read.

Thanks for making these points. I know I’ll be more conscious about my blog format from now on.

I think the same advice can apply for comments too…I find it a chore to read through long and wordy comments.

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 10:55 am

Yes, it definitely applies to comments. It also works really well for email. If you want someone to read and act upon your email, make it short, to the point, and highlight the important stuff. Don’t make your reader work more than they have to in any case (unless you’re David Foster Wallace or some other brilliant novelist).

Melissa Rahko November 4, 2010 at 3:50 am

Very good points to consider… Scannable text makes reading easy and inviting. I will need to keep that in mind as I plan and develop my blog.

TrafficColeman November 4, 2010 at 4:12 am

I use techniques like this all the time, I even wrote about a t time ago..readers attention span is short..so just make it easy on the eyes..

“TrafficColeman “Signing Off”

Onibalusi Bamidele November 4, 2010 at 4:40 am

Awesome post Corbett,

I was also one of those who used to skim blog posts but after reading an article on the Philadephia Trumpet (Magazine) I have made it a duty never to skim an article, it is either I read completely or not. One thing I noticed is that I skip articles that are not scannable and the more scannable an article is the easier it is for me to read and digest.

Thanks so much for the awesome post,
-Onibalusi

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 10:56 am

I try to read more and scan less myself as well, but as you point out, digestible text still helps me decide which articles to read.

Greg November 4, 2010 at 5:02 am

Thanks for this tip. I’m going to put it into effect on all my past posts along with all future posts.

Jouko Karvonen November 4, 2010 at 5:26 am

Lately this came to me when trying to be selective about my RSS subscriptions. I noticed that 90% blogs I continued subscribing had this one thing in common. Unless the content is something really, really extraordinary written in an extremely captivating way, those one page paragraphs will just make the reader puke (or head the back button, as you put it).

Another important point to get the people actually take a look at your post is choosing the headline.

Vernon November 4, 2010 at 5:33 am

Corbett,

I’ve read a lot of the stuff Jacob Nielsen and it has made a difference to how I write. It’s great to have a good reminder of it.

I’m one of those people who tends to love jabbering away, and I’ve got to constantly reminding myself to keep it short, scannable and most importantly, to keep my sentences short.

The one that I’ve found sometimes gets irritating is using blog too often. I do it myself, but it can be irritating to read a post where there seems to be random bolded bits everywhere.

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 10:58 am

Yeah Vernon, you can definitely overdo things. I bordered on overdoing it in this article for effect.

Cara Stein November 4, 2010 at 6:29 am

Good point–thanks for the reminder! I’ve heard this advice before and tried to follow it, but you’re right–my paragraphs are still too long. I’ve started observing my own reading behavior, and I definitely go “ugh!” and click away if it just looks like a big gray page of text. Why do I expect my readers to do otherwise?

Thanks for sharing the good stuff!

Ryan Biddulph November 4, 2010 at 6:39 am

Hi Corbett,

My traffic rose the moment I made my posts more scannable.

Fast paced societies demand information in bit-sized chunks. The first thing I check out after the title is the length of the post and how it’s broken down. If it’s too long or I can’t get a feel for the topic I don’t read it.

Thanks for sharing!

Ryan

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 10:59 am

Hey Ryan, good to hear from someone who noticed such a dramatic change by using this tip. Thanks for sharing.

Jason November 4, 2010 at 7:31 am

This is something
I think I do too much of.
Sometimes I finish a post and I can’t find
a single proper paragraph…
I guess everything needs moderation.

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 11:00 am

Although I think you’ll do better with text that’s too short and emphasized than too long and dense.

Niall Doherty November 4, 2010 at 8:43 am

This is great advice and something I’m working on myself. I’ve also noticed that traditional magazines have taken a cue from the online world and are making their articles more scannable, too.

There are some exceptions to the scan rule though, most notably Steve Pavlina. He writes long articles with huge paragraphs and just a few sub-headings, yet he’s one of the most successful bloggers online.

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 11:01 am

There are lots of examples on the contrary, Niall, but many of them were started long ago when readers might have expected different things online. It’s much harder to get noticed and gain momentum today if you expect your readers to do all the work.

Eric November 4, 2010 at 8:48 am

Great advice Corbett!

Something this blog noob will have to keep in mind for future posts!

Eric

Chris Edwards November 4, 2010 at 9:15 am

As many have said, this is one of my weaknesses. I like to write and I like to bunch it together.

Keeping smaller paragraphs has been hard to do for me.

The biggest suggestion you made, that really worked in your article, is the bolding of text. I will be honest, I did not read EVERY word you wrote on this page, however the bold text helped me jump around and really read things.

I am going to try this on a few of my upcoming articles and see if my bounce rate and time on page stats get better.

Parker Lee November 4, 2010 at 10:10 am

Hey Corbett,

very great topic choice.. now that you mention it, I always say how much I hate clutter when I write and read.. but have never really thought of it as a way to “make it easy to scan”…

I’ll definitely keep all the info you’ve just said in mind from now on.

Cheers!

Melyssa November 4, 2010 at 10:26 am

Great stuff. I do try and vary my font and create short lists and paragraphs. I just hope I don’t over-do it, as you mention in this post.

Trever Clark (Axis of Awesome Blog) November 4, 2010 at 10:52 am

I wish I had had this post to reference 18 months ago. ;-) My first experience in writing for the web was for a product that I created. I threw up a website with a sales page full of huge unformatted paragraphs, and then couldn’t figure out why my bounce rate was like 90%. I wish I still had it up so that I could show people how awesomely terrible it was. LOL

Obviously, I’ve gotten a crash course in web writing since then. But this advice is spot on for those who are new to the game. And unless you’re Brian or Sonia from CopyBlogger, you’ve always got room for improvement!

I particularly like Ivan’s advice:

“One way I do this on my site is to bold key phrases on the page and then (a little further down) insert a link to another page that follows up on this point. ” Great idea…

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 11:04 am

Hey Trever, I think we all have those old cringe-worth examples sitting around somewhere. I know I do too. Congrats on sticking with things long enough to learn your mistakes and make progress.

Angela Artemis November 4, 2010 at 11:24 am

Corbett,
Great post and great advice. I freelance and the one thing I’ve learned from writing magazine articles is the value of shorter paragraphs, headings and subheadings, and keeping to a tight word count. People don’t have the time to read like they used to. Gone are the days when people subscribed to their favorite magazine and read it cover to cover – there’s just too much information we’re all trying to absorb now from too many sources.

Matthew Needham November 4, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Corbett, I think that this is a great peice of advice. I know from my own experience that when I land on a page if I can’t read it quickly, ie there is just a big blob of text, then I probably won’t read it or comment on it.

Will make sure I’m following this from now on.

Matthew

Mel November 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Personally I am a big fan of the scan! I’m so used to scan reading info online that when I pick up a book I have to remind myself that I’m reading for pleasure and it’s OK to read every word rather than scanning through as fast as possible.

Mel

Benny the Irish polyglot November 4, 2010 at 4:46 pm

This is very true.

With no background or understanding in writing I initially wrote dense paragraphs on my blog. Luckily Scott Young advised me to seriously reconsider it and spread things out. After that I noticed a big improvement in time spent on site, comments, shares and all that other good stuff! :)

The scan is where it’s at. I scan a lot myself, so it was silly of me to treat my readers the opposite of how I like to see content!

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 11:06 am

It’s obviously working for you now Benny. It’s great when someone with experience gives you a tip like that early on, isn’t it?

Mark | Wealthy Affiliate Revolution November 4, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Corbett,

Great suggestion. I kind of do that already, though I will concentrate on it more using your tips as a guide.

I have a tendency to write long posts so paying extra attention to this for me is a must.

Thanks,

Mark

Brian November 4, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Great post, and confirms what I’ve instinctively been doing all of my adult life when I write to others.

I’ve had this “argument” with a coworker of mine (we are school counselors – I’ve come of age in the “internet” era – she didn’t) – when she sends out emails she sends long multi-sentence, multi-paragraph letters with too much info…I’ve tried telling her, smaller paragraphs and bullets – people don’t pay attention when it goes on and on…she told me I was ADD that’s why I like to write that way

Needless to say, I’ve had people tell me my messages are more effective – thanks for posting this!

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 11:07 am

I’ve had those exact same arguments with coworkers in the past too, Brian. Tell your colleague that I said you’re right ;)

Robby November 4, 2010 at 11:05 pm

Hi Corbett,

I’ve noticed that if you take the most boring article and emphasize at least a few main points in bold, it steps up the readability by 200%! It instantly draws the reader attention to those bold bits and breaks up the article in easy-to-manage information chunks.

I mean – if someone is short on time etc, they don’t necessarily have to apply the whole list of formatting advice (would be better, of course, if they did!); bold alone will accomplish 50% of the job.

It works great with any piece of text – articles submitted to article directories and even e-mails. When I write longer e-mails I always highlight the main bits for better readability!

And I have to admit that I’ve often hit the ‘back’ button when arriving on a page with a monotonous, long text. Had the person bothered to highlight at least 5 main points, I’d stay, sometimes it’s hard to understand how anyone can still not realize that it’s crucial if they want to reduce traffic’s bounce rate and increase the average stay!

Corbett Barr November 5, 2010 at 11:09 am

In the most basic form, chapters and paragraphs were created to make text more scannable. Now that there’s a billion times more information being created in the world every day, breaking things down further is just a logical evolution.

Rick Byrd November 5, 2010 at 7:26 am

Corbett:

Great post! This is something all new bloggers should read before they start posting.

When I come to a blog post and I can not easily scan the post then I will definitely leave.

I try and break-up my blog posts with subtitles and use bullet points but I do need to place more emphasis throughout the post like you have done here in this post. You have definitely practiced what you preached.

Have fun!

- Rick

Spencer Corzine November 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Corbett,

Great stuff…when I write emails and letters I always go throught 2-3 times to try and eliminate as much fluff as possible. Learning a lot from your site and emails. Thank you,

Spencer Corzine

TimB November 6, 2010 at 2:25 am

Corbett,

This is something I’ve been working on whilst I’m preparing some posts for the re-launch of my own blog.

I wasn’t happy with what I cranked out last time around. I tend to begin writing in a “stream of consciousness” fashion, and although I’m still writing long posts and articles I now take a lot longer editing the finished piece to ensure it is formatted better and scans easier.

I think because of that careful editing is as important as the content itself.

One thing though – how do we format text (bold/italics/colour) in this comment box? There are no taskbar or menu options and if I hit Ctrl + i, I get a drop down favourites list! I run on Windows btw…

Corbett Barr November 8, 2010 at 11:29 am

Hey Tim, you need to use basic HTML to format text in comment boxes. Use the <em> for italics and <strong> for bold.

Mike Ziarko November 7, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Fantastic article Corbett as always the fresh and unique material you come up with never ceases to amaze me =)

Paul Serwin November 8, 2010 at 9:11 am

Corbett, I found out about you through your interview on the Smart Passive Income podcast. I must say, I’m very impressed by not only your sites, but also your ambition.

This post has a lot of valuable information for me, as I’m just starting out my own blog and trying to figure out my own style and approach to writing. I look forward to reading more!

Cheers!

Corbett Barr November 8, 2010 at 11:02 am

Hey Paul, glad you found me through Pat. Thanks for taking a look around. Cheers!

Mk Akan November 9, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Corbett,
This is very true.scanable posts is always an easy red and helps encourage readers to read a post.
i try to make my post scanable by using lists and the other features you mentioned.

Azad Shaikh November 12, 2010 at 6:43 am

Awesome post Corbett. This is really a very import skill that every blogger must master. I am not yet able to master it but trying. I took you mention points and used them in my latest post.
Thanks!

Fernando November 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Finally!!! A story that stands out from the same old 4 or 5 tips that are posted everywhere on the internet.
I´m getting tired of reading the same recycled stuff over and over on every blogging site.

Thank you for a great post, Corbett

Graham Phoenix November 14, 2010 at 8:24 am

Corbett, great stuf and so critical. I also found that getting your content readable from a design perspective very important. Thought should be paid to font, size, line-height, spacing between paragraphs, not justifying etc. Yours is great, plenty of white space with a simple sans typeface. Thanks for your commitmemnt to helping us get it right.

iran blog November 27, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Very Thanks Corbett.

Vernon November 5, 2010 at 8:52 pm

‘blog to often’, sorry, ‘bold to often’. I’m obviously writing the word ‘blog’ to much.

I only started reading your blog a few days ago and I’ve been digging into lots of your old posts – and I’m learning a lot. I love your approach – it’s so refreshing form the ‘border on spam’ approach that everyone else seems to be punting.

What I’m getting to is that I could certainly see that you don’t bold everything. Awesome blog, Corbett. I look forward to reading more of it.

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