People read differently on the web than they do for pleasure. In fact, on the web, most people only scan written content. They look for specific information or skim to determine if an entire article is worth reading. This behavior presents a special challenge for content creators. The good news is that there are some tried-and-true methods you can use to engage readers. Here are some tips:
Think of your web content as a conversation between you and a visitor. Leave behind formal language, be friendly.
Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you just told them. When you lead with your conclusion, your user can quickly determine whether or not she is interested in an article. Even if a user not interested in reading your post, you will have shown her that you respect her time.
Use an active voice. Writing with an active voice is more direct, conversational, and engaging. If you have trouble with writing passively, you are not alone. Running your text through a grammar editor, like www.grammarly.com, can help.
Get rid of the words – Be concise. Many UX (user experience) designers recommend that the final draft of your copy should be 50% shorter than your first draft. Because people tend to skim, they rarely read entire long articles. All the more reason to be concise.
Use headings and subheadings as signposts. Headings help your user find specific information. Headings also divide content into sections that make written content appear shorter and more approachable.
Use images that pertain to your topic. Needless to say, images create visual appeal. Like headings, they can break up text, making articles appear shorter and more approachable. Photos and illustrations that reinforce the topic are particularly engaging.
Use bulleted lists. User studies have shown that people read bulleted lists, so use them wherever you can.
Avoid Jargon. Avoid using industry or cause specific jargon that most users won’t understand.
Don’t use catchy headings or titles that don’t pertain to your copy. No one likes being misled. Misleading headlines known as “click-bait” lead to angry users. Using them is bad practice. Don’t do it.
Avoid using big words. Using words not commonly used in conversation will slow your users down and frustrate them. Remember their scanning behavior? Uncommon words require a little extra processing time. Interestingly, research has shown that even scientists visiting technical websites prefer easy-to-read content.
In 2006, Daniel Oppenheimer at Princeton University completed a study with curious results. After reading samples of complex, hard-to-read text and easy-to-read text, respondents were asked to rate the intelligence of the authors. More often than not, authors who wrote hard-to-read text were graded as less intelligent than authors who created easy-to-read content. One more reason to avoid big words!
Write short sentences. Let’s face it, short sentences are concise. They are also easier to read.
Don’t use too many concepts in a single paragraph. Some people like to keep to a one concept per paragraph rule-of-thumb, even though super short paragraphs look funny. Even so, in the end, your user will be grateful to you for making your content easy to scan.
Write for a broad audience. The chart below, created from data obtained from a 2003 US government literacy study, highlights the importance of writing for a broad audience. Your website visitors will have varied reading skills because of age, disability, and education. Some of the visitors to your website will be people who speak English as a second language.
Write for an eighth-grade reading level. To ensure that website content is accessible to the most users, UX expert Chris Nodder recommends writing web copy at an eighth-grade reading level. You can calculate the approximate reading level of your copy by using the chart below, following these steps:
Count out and make a pencil mark at the end of the first 100 words of your copy.
Count the number of sentences contained in the 100 words that you just counted out.
Now, count the syllables in the first 100 words of your copy.
Plot the number of sentences and syllables on the chart below to find the approximate reading level.
Engaging readers on the web is tricky business, but not impossible. In some ways, it is like having a conversation with someone that is busy. To create a good user experience we need to meet our user where he is, not where we want him to be. Even if the visit is brief, if your website visitor finds useful, engaging content, he will likely come back in the future. Happy writing!
Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice (Ginny) Redish – This book is a favorite among UX experts. It is the go-to-book for explaining how to develop an overall website content strategy and how to write for the web. Purchase at Amazon.com