Web Writing Must be Simple, Short and Scannable

December 27, 2010

Summary:
Web content must be:
1. Simple to grasp. (Or it won’t be read.)
2. Short and to the point. (Users are ruthlessly impatient.)
3. Scannable. (Users skim to find what they want.)


To communicate effectively over the web, you need to format your message to fit the medium.

And since the web is different from mediums such as TV or books, you must write your content in a different way for the web.

This article answers 3 questions:

  1. How is the web different from TV and books?
  2. Why is “simple, short, and scannable” content effective for the web?
  3. How do you make your content simple, short, and scannable?

1. How is the web different from TV and Books?

TV and books are passive mediums. People leisurely absorb their content over long periods of time.

The web is an interactive medium. Web users actively engage web content over short periods of time.

We lean back to watch TV or read a book. We lean forward to search the web.

You can see the difference:

We lean back passively to watch TV like lazy dogs.

We lean back leisurely to absorb a good book.

But we don't lean back like this while foraging through the web.

Instead we lean forward to actively search and scan the web.

People use the web like a phone book or dictionary: They rifle through it, looking for what they need. They don’t want to read. They want to quickly find something so they can return to what they were doing.

2. Why is “Simple, Short, and Scannable” Effective for the Web?

Simple

You should adopt a simple writing style because:

  • The easier your writing is to understand, the more likely readers are to plow through your words.
  • Users don’t like doing hard work. They prefer effortless reading.
  • About¬†40% of web users have low literacy, but even highly-literate readers prefer straightforward information.

Short

You should write content that is short and to the point because:

  • People ruthlessly abandon long-winded sites. They mainly want to skim highlights.
  • Your page is competing with millions of others. On average, users scan a page for only 33 seconds. They quickly move between pages.
  • We assume that most communication is useless and we tune it out. We’ve been burned too many times for enduring mind-numbing wads of verbiage — either corporate jargon or blogger stream-of-consciousness ramblings.

Scannable

You should format your content so that people can easily scan it because:

  • 79% of web users don’t read; they scan.
  • Users are often on a specific mission: They’re hunting for an answer or trying to buy something.
  • People need to know what they’re getting into before they dive in. Scannable content highlights what they’re interested in and lures them in.

3. How do you make your writing Simple, Short and Scannable?

Here’s a 10-point checklist for your web content.

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