Don’t Settle for Scannable: Write Gripping Content

Don’t Settle for Scannable

One of the most common pieces of web writing advice you’ll hear is keep it short. People aren’t interested in reading web writing, the most they’ll do is scan it (or so we’re told). Rarely do you hear the suggestion made that readers could be encouraged to do anything else.

Cue Coding Horror, a blog with upwards of 60,000 RSS subscribers and an average post-length of around 1,500 words. The in-depth discussion occurring in the comments section also suggests readers aren’t scanning at all, but reading every single word.

gripping your readers

In this post, I want to outline a number of ways you can create content of substantial depth while gripping your readers from beginning to end.

I’ll be exploring this idea from a top-down perspective, first looking at content visually and then examining the words themselves. If you don’t already have Coding Horror open in a new tab I suggest you do so. It’s a useful visual reference for the points I’ll be making here.

Little biscuits to fill a jar

We have a comedy here in Australia called Kath & Kim. Kim is a compulsive over-eater and is always embarking on doomed-to-fail diets. In one episode, her latest diet-food is Tiny Teddies (very small biscuits in the shape of teddy bears). Her mother, Kath, points out that Kim has worked her way through most of a huge jar of the biscuits. Kim replies: “Who cares, mum, they’re tiny!”

Sizeable content should be treated like a big dessert. It’s much easier to eat (and more tempting) if it’s separated into small pieces. Coding Horror is a good example of this. Frequent paragraphs, lists, block-quotes, white-space, formatting, links and different colors are all used to break up the content into smaller pieces. The reader doesn’t feel as if they’re tackling a huge wall of text. Rather, they consume one small piece, which leads to the next, then to another, until they find themselves at the end.

Just like you might eat one little biscuit after another until you find the whole jar is empty.

Not just eye-candy

Images are also an effective way to break up in-depth content, though they should bear relevance to what is being discussed around them. Irrelevant images will distract the reader, and a distracted reader is not going to read your content from start to finish.

Cutting the cake

Think of your content like a cake. A big cake cut into four quarters is probably not going to get any takers. Few people want to eat that much. However, a big cake cut into thin pieces is likely to disappear fast because each piece is a manageable size.

The same principle applies to paragraphs. Readers are intimidated by dense, impenetrable blocks of text. Break them up with paragraphs and the elements mentioned in the above section to open up your writing.

Blowing out candles

If a reader decides to scan, sub-headings are what they’re likely to focus on. Before they’ve made the decision to scan, though, sub-headings can be one way to encourage them to read every word. A long piece of content without sub-headings can look like one long, complicated idea. Sub-headings are signposts which serve to show the reader at a glance that this isn’t the case, making your content much more approachable.

Tell them what you’re going to tell them

I’m sure every current or former student in the world has heard the above saying, or a local equivalent. The purpose of an introduction is to tell your readers what you’re going to tell them, and I think every item of in-depth web content needs one. It certainly shouldn’t be as formal or mechanical as an essay introduction, but it should indicate the logical flow of what you’ll be saying and what the reader can hope to gain by sticking with your piece until the end.

Here’s an example from our running example, Coding Horror:

I started out in early 2004 as a blog skeptic. But over the last four years, I’ve become a born-again believer. In that time, I’ve written almost a thousand blog entries, and I’ve read thousands upon thousands of blog entries. As a result, I’ve developed some rather strong opinions about what makes blogs work so well, and what makes blogs sometimes not work so well.

I’d like to share some of the latter with you today, in a piece I call Thirteen Blog Clichés.

An introduction of sorts will help readers see how each part of your content relates to your grand point. It will also encourage them to keep reading because they’re aware of the value contained in the words ahead.

Stick to the plan

Rambling or getting side-tracked is an easy way to lose readers in long articles. The more words you write the more important it becomes to stay focused on what you’re trying to communicate. If you have the urge to include an aside, save it for a future post or article.

Pacing is key

It can be incredibly tempting to make all your good points towards the beginning of your piece. After all, you want to encourage readers to take in more than just the headline.

Many writers go overboard with this, including more interest than is needed in the first few paragraphs of the content and in doing so, ensuring that what follows will never be as good.

A good solution to this problem is to write down the key points of interest you plan to include in your article and make an effort to space them out. Readers exit content when they stop being gripped. Each point you make will grip them temporarily, but spacing out the effect so that it’s cumulative can ensure they’re gripped from start to finish.

Is my content gripping?

It’s difficult to determine whether people are reading each word you write, because you’ll rarely have the opportunity to watch readers interact with what you create. Our best bet is to analyze reader feedback and reactions (given in comments, or e-mail, or what they write of you elsewhere).

Some clues that readers are only scanning:

  • readers misinterpret what your content was about, or miss your point
  • readers offer tips you already discussed in your content
  • readers make vague, general comments about the topic of your content, not the substance

Some clues that your content is gripping:

  • readers make reference to specific points inside your content
  • readers seem to really ‘get’ your overall point, whether they agree or not
  • readers comment on links within your content
  • readers extrapolate your ideas
  • readers share your content with others via linking or social media

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