What not to write

Any time you’re writing for other people–which excludes teenager diaries, personal journals but not much else–you need to make sure your readers will pay attention. This is quite similar to keeping your listener tuned in when you’re talking.

So let’s consider what turns off listeners in a conversation, for clues about how to avoid losing your readers.

In conversation, I am frustrated by people who
o Don’t get to the point
o Use words I don’t understand, especially when simpler ones are available
o Rely on buzz words, clichés and other terms I’m tired of hearing
o Focus on themselves without considering my interests
o Forget that conversation is two-way
o Tell long stories about people I can’t relate to
o Are boring
o Are difficult to follow
o Say things that dramatically hurt my feelings, violate my ethics or otherwise offend me

You too? Then remember that these conversational itches can be even more irritating in the written word.

Turn these around and you have a list of what people enjoy, whether conversing or reading.

For communication to be a true two-way process, we have to think of writing more as a conversation.

Do you have any additional conversational turn-offs and turns ons? Please share.

Blogs, emails etc: write for readers’ eyes

If you write emails, web content or anything else read on a computer screen, you need to make it look like fits into a big F .

Eye-tracking studies confirm that online readers follow an F pattern. They focus the most attention on the top horizontal line of the F, then scan down, eyes left.

The first 25 words
That means you need to summarize your main message and give your readers an important reason to continue reading — all in the first 25 words, across the top of the F.

Then you need to give them flush-left bullets, numbers, subheads, bolded words or other signposts that help them refocus.

At journalism school, they drilled into us the importance of packing who, what, when, where and why into the lead paragraph.

The hook
While the main purpose of the newspaper is to provide news, online writing often has a long or short-term marketing objective. What’s more, if it’s a blog of other social media, you want to invite conversation. So in addition to the who, what, when, where and why of journalism, those critical 25 words need to answer the question: What’s in it for me?

Because readers tear through online content much faster than newspapers, this 25-word hook has to be strong enough to encourage readers to continue and pay attention.

If you’d like to learn more about how to work with online reading patterns in html email newsletters, check out my newsletter, Focus left for online readers.

Recently I’ve been receiving more marketing emails from people who cram long lengths of text into a narrow, flush-left column. Points for sticking to the left. But the trouble is they seem to forget that people just won’t keep scrolling down a long screen.

Again, newspaper publishers had it figured out, with the most important features placed on the top half of the page, above the crease, as they say.

To sum up, here are my three pieces of advice:
1. Pack your main message and benefit into the first 25 words
2. Guide scanners with numbers, subheads and other signposts.
3. Spare me the long text.

Any advice to add?

Online reading is rewiring our brains

It’s no secret that the web has changed the way we read.  Whether it’s a blog, email newsletter, web page or other type of online content, we quickly scan, then link to something else, consuming information at break-neck speed.

This has some people worried. According to an intriguing article I recently read Is Google making us stupid? our new reading behaviour is rewiring our brains, just as hand writing, clocks, assembly lines and other innovations have through history.

The author, Nicholas Carr, laments our declining ability to read long   tracts, grasp ambiguity and think deeply. Lighten up, Nicholas. Before  you rush to judgment, let’s wait for the scientific evidence. In the meantime, let’s consider how this growing reading behaviour may be enriching our minds.

Snack vs feast

Nicholas cites a study of the online reading habits of researchers who snacked on many tidbits of internet information rather than finishing the long feast of research papers. Yes, they were not plumbing the depths of the articles. But, assuming they expended an equivalent amount of energy online snacking and thinking, most were still nourishing their minds, just in a different way.

Of course, it’s up to the individual, perhaps with a prod from a teacher, boss or coach, to decide whether to connect those snacks through critical thinking. It’s also up to us to decide how we slice, splice and spice the snacks with knowledge we consume from books, television, personal conversations and other sources.

Exercise the brain

Like muscles, brains strengthen through exercise. The more the reader thinks about what she is reading, the more her brain will develop. Like exercise, more difficult or faster thinking should produce more growth.  What’s more, cross-training with different kinds of mental activities, from solving Sudoku puzzles to playing the violin, should build a better brain.

So let’s not be too quick to dismiss scanning and linking as part of a healthy brain workout.

Nicholas implies that the quick summaries we find on the Internet lack the depth of longer texts. But good online content succinctly captures the important points and perspectives. That makes it easier to link these golden nuggets to each other, to make sense or even gain insight from the rich range of sources the internet offers.

Well-written content summarized for online reading is not superficial. It spares readers from having to wade through unnecessarily long writing. It’s quite similar to the skill of newspaper writers and editors in summarizing the most important information in the first paragraph. Of the abstracts for academic papers. It’s not new.

Get to the point

The leap to scanning and linking has simply made clear, concise summaries more important than ever. People writing email newsletters, blogs, web sites or anything else that’s read on the screen need to make it easy to grasp the basic essence of their message. In this way, they also make it easier for  readers to mentally link their messages to the main ideas from other sources.

So yes, Nicholas, how we read is changing. But there’s no need to rush to judgment. The couch potatoes passively absorbing laugh-tracked sitcoms or cat photo web sites probably aren’t growing as many brain cells and synapses as the people who are learning Mandarin or analysing DNA sequences.

Get smarter

My answer to the question: Is Google making us stupid? is No.

Maybe Google may help us evolve into smarter beings, providing we don’t abandon other brain-stimulating activities.

In fact, I’ll bet neuroscientists will confirm that people who combine energetic snacking on internet tidbits and focused feasting on long, complex texts will develop bigger, better brains.

What do you think?