How to write for skimmers and visualize the text

For much of reading’s history in the Western world, our eyes read from left to right. Books, magazines, newspapers, etc. Left-to-right reading no longer applies to the internet’s multimedia landscape, which changes the direction our eyes are attracted to.

New theories were developed to explain how we read but have recently been dismantled. The most popular and widely embraced was the Google Golden Triangle. Used with Google’s search engine, the Golden Triangle theory showed that collectively, eyes scanned for information. The sum of those forms a triangle for useful results.

The Golden Triangle theory is very flawed. Collectively, all of our eyes form a golden triangle. Individually, our eye scanning trajectory is affected when there are images. The “F-shaped” pattern—which describes how the eye scans information in the shape of an “F”—was also widely accepted before being discredited for the same reasons. Namely, that once multimedia is introduced, eye scanning changes for individuals.

Why does this matter? To compete, you need to write for skimmers

How long do people spend on a website before abandoning ship? At most, 15 seconds. And in that short amount of time, they might not even scroll down unless, something catches their eye. That’s why publishers like The Daily Mail, Bloomberg, and BuzzFeed often place summarizing bullet points at the top of the article. They are writing for skimmers. You need to, too.

The number one rule to writing for skimmers is to visualize the text. The more you can break up content visually, the better according to this New Yorker article. That’s why sometimes you’ll see randomly bolded keyword phrases. Here’s how you can do that.

Subheadings are your new best friends

Subheadings are instrumental in organizing content for skimmers. It’s easier to find relevant information that is categorized. Always state the main point of every subheading in the first paragraph and then elaborate. Think of it as writing the old-fashioned, inverted pyramid method.

Bonus points if you can inform the gist of your content through bolded headlines alone.

Remember to lay out content carefully

For your content to be seen, it must be placed strategically above the fold. That might be in the form of a slideshow, a string of bullet points, or a data chart—whatever you choose to be above the fold, it must be your most valuable content.

But what about everything else? Think of your content with layout design in mind. Where will images, charts, interactive media, etc. go so they will be noticed? How does this work with your bullet points, bolded phrases, and subheadings? Is your web design accommodating to these skimmer techniques? If not, it may be time for an update or overhaul.

Write for skimmers and continue publishing best practices

Write concise, short paragraphs or chunks of text. We recommend using the Hemingway App editor, which evaluates how clear your writing is, in order to edit effectively.

  • Employ bullet points in the article.
  • Use bold text for key points. It breaks up the text.
  • Stick to three or four bullet points.
  • Use link text to describe where the link will take readers.

Of course, you need to write for skimmers, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use other best publishing practices. A common and successful trend is to promote evergreen content at the bottom of the page to encourage readers—and skimmers—to stay on the site.

The writer and publisher are responsible for making their content easy to read. If you are a writer or publisher, you’ll want people to read and stay on the site as long as possible.

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Image credit: Jeshu John via Designer Pics

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