How do you write scannable content?
And why do that anyway? Does everything you write need to be scannable?
We talked about the ongoing debate concerning long versus short content in a previous article. The ideal length is determined by the topic, the reader and the intent of the article.
Short copy rarely needs scan-ability.
A short post is easy to read. Reading it doesn't take much time. What you do need for short content is an effective headline and clear, concise copy.
And of course, the information must be useful.
Long copy – either the industry standard length of 650 words or longer – should be written for people who scan and skim content.
In this essay you'll learn:
- The reason your readers need scannable content.
- The techniques used for writing it.
- A quick check to ensure your content is indeed scannable.
So, why should you write content and copy that can be scanned?
Your readers don't have short attention spans . . . they're just busy
One of the prevailing thoughts behind scannable content is that Internet readers have short attention spans.
I don't buy it.
Readers aren't short on focus; they're short on time. People are busy. They check online for quick info on products, services and practices. It's faster than spending time going through piles of print publications. But even reading online consumes time.
Time they can't afford to waste.
When your content and copy is scannable, you increase the odds that your information gets noticed and read. When readers can get the gist of the article by skimming it, they'll know whether to invest their valuable and limited time reading it completely.
Make sure your content can be skimmed; they'll appreciate you.
So, how do you write scannable content?
Write clear headlines and subheads
The first step is to create headlines and subheads that give your readers a roadmap.
By scanning the headline and subheads, they should get a good idea of what the article is about and how the information is going to be presented. They get a bird's-eye view of the topic.
I recommend you write a headline and basic subheads first. They're not set in stone and can be changed after the first draft. Doing this, however, gives your article flow and continuity.
It's exactly how this article was written.
How to use numbered lists and bullets effectively
Numbered lists rock in online articles. They provide clarity. They work well as mini tables of content. Numbered lists denote a hierarchy or sequence of events.
Here's an example:
How to change a broken light bulb in a ceiling fixture
- Clean up all broken glass.
- Gather the necessary equipment: ladder, leather gloves, and safety glasses.
- Turn off the electricity to the fixture.
- Position the ladder for the safest reach.
- Wearing the leather gloves and safety glasses, climb the ladder and unscrew the broken bulb.
- Discard the broken bulb in the appropriate waste container; install the new bulb.
The example may seem quaint; but with over 25 years of electrical experience, I know the danger of working out of sequence. You'd be surprised how many people forget to turn off the switch. Zap!
Bullets, on the other hand, don't always specify order. For example:
- Items in bulleted lists might not need to be sequential.
- Some or all of the items in bulleted lists could be optional.
- Bulleted lists are the shorthand of online writing.
Both numbered and bulleted lists allow the reader to scan the document and discover important information.
Text formatting gives clues to your reader
Formatting text with bolding, italicizing and underlining contributes to clarity by providing emphasis. But be forewarned; over-formatting hurts more than it helps.
Emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing.
You should almost never use bold formatting on an entire sentence!
Like that one.
There may be a few exceptions; but using bold text for every word is like shouting. Use the bold format judiciously. Bold text draws attention and is a very effective tool when writing scannable copy. It emphasizes key words and ideas.
Just be careful not to overdo it.
Italicizing is my favorite formatting tool. I use italics to:
- Emphasize an entire sentence without being obnoxious.
- Make questions or rhetorical questions stand out.
- Highlight single words or phrases to suggest tone or emotion.
Underlining text is a throwback from the old typewriter days. It was the only means of emphasis at the time. Use it sparingly because in the online world it usually denotes a hyperlink. If it confuses, don't use underlining.
So, how do you know your text is skimmable?
The eye-chart test for scannable content
Have you taken an eye exam that included the Snellen chart or the Tumbling E chart?
In the Snellen test for visual acuity, you'll stand at a preset distance and read down a series of letter of diminishing height. Based on "normal" human visual acuity, you get an idea of how good (or bad) your eyesight is.
You can use a similar test to check your content as well. And it fairly accurately simulates the way your audience looks at your article.
Print out your article, one page per sheet. Tape the pages together vertically and tack them to the wall.
Step back away from the article until you can't read it. Now, slowly move forward until the headline and subheads come into focus. Read down through them.
- Can you deduce the main idea of the article?
- Can you see a flow in the copy?
- Does it have a natural progression?
If so, you've completed the first step in creating scannable content.
Now move forward until the body text is readable. Focus on the bullet points and numbered lists, if included.
- Do they complement the headline and subheads?
- Do they further explain the article's intent?
- Will they make sense to the reader?
If so, you've written an article that can be scanned. And if it's a useful article, it just might get read completely.