How to write for skimmers (i.e. how to get more people to actually read your content)
by Cheryl Binnie

It may not be nice to think about…

…but no matter how captivating our articles are…

…your readers WON’T read every single word.

And you can’t blame them.

How often do YOU read an entire webpage or article, word for word, without skipping anything? (I’m betting not very often.)

When people are browsing the internet, they’re in a totally different mode than when they’re reading a newspaper or a novel.

Readers tend to give printed material a bit more time and focus than they do words on a computer (or phone) screen.

Internet readers are going way-crazy-super fast.

They want to find what they need (even if they don’t know what that something is), and keep on moving.

So they skim.

Which means, if you don’t write with that in mind — the skimmers and scanners are going to miss your best points.

Well, SURPRISE!

That’s exactly what we’re talking about in this article!

(“Not a surprise,” you say? “It was in the title of the article,” you say? … Well — if you’d been skimming up until that point, I bet the word “surprise” in all caps got your attention, didn’t it? 😉 )

How DO you write for skimmers?

First, you have to understand “skimming patterns.”

There are countless studies that track where people’s eyes go when they read a webpage or article online, and they mostly show the same things…

Skimming Pattern #1: People skim over long paragraphs.

If your paragraphs are longer than 3-4 lines, they’re too long for the web.

It’s hard for readers to keep their place while reading on a computer screen, so they get lost in long paragraphs.

Which means they start skimming.

Which means, if your most important point is buried in that long paragraph, or comes at the very end, your reader will totally miss it.

Solution: Keep your paragraphs short.

In fact, throw in single-sentence paragraphs.

Now, you may be thinking, “But, Cheryl, won’t that make my page really long?

Yes, it will make your page longer.

But, as much as we like think people don’t read long pages — that’s simply not true.

Scrolling is like 2nd nature to us now. It takes zero effort.

Compare that to making me go all squinty, trying to keep my place in your massive paragraph. (Which, to be honest, I’m not gonna put much effort into before I start skimming.)

I’d much rather have someone read more of copy and do some extra scrolling than have them read only the first sentence in each paragraph.

Plus, when you break up your paragraphs, it makes it easier to re-catch a skimmer’s attention. (More on this in a sec.)

Action Step: If your existing copy is riddled with big chunks of text, go through it and see where you can break it up.

Skimming Pattern #2: People decide how much effort to invest based on your opening lines.

Okay… what does that mean?

It means, when someone starts reading a piece of web copy (a webpage, an email, whatever), she’s trying to decide whether or not it’s worth investing time and energy into it. (Not necessarily consciously, mind you.)

She’s going SUPER fast at the beginning.

Which means she’s even MORE likely to skim any long-ish paragraphs at the beginning.

(Paragraphs look like “work.” And to be fair, they ARE more work when you’re reading online.)

Solution: Match her “momentum” by using super-short lines at the beginning.

For example — take a look at my first few lines of this article:

It may not be nice to think about…

…but no matter how captivating our articles are…

…your readers WON’T read every single word.

And you can’t blame them.

That’s 4 single lines in a row! I didn’t just break up a paragraph — I broke up sentences.

No matter how fast you’re going, you can read those puppies.

Action Step: Look at your openings on your pages, articles and emails. Break them up into itty-bitty, bite-sized lines.

Skimming Pattern #3: People pay attention to the first few words.

If those first few words are good, they MAY read the rest of the sentence (or, if you’re really lucky, they may even read the entire paragraph).

But, as they move down the page, they start to give less and less attention to anything beyond the first few words of any line of text.

So what’s a writer to do?

Solution: Cut the fluff – get to the point faster.

Most writers pad each section and paragraph with fluff, or phrases that “lead into” the point they’re actually trying to say. (Journalists call that “burying the lead.”)

Instead, you want to start with your lead.

This isn’t High School English, where every paragraph in your 3-point essay has to prove a point, then end on a conclusive sentence.

Give us that conclusive sentence up front.

Even better, give us that main point in a subhead, with bigger, bold text, so it really stands out.

(Notice how I’ve done that for each section? I start with a big subhead for the “Skimming Pattern,” and then I make sure the “Solution” is bold.)

Action Step: Look at your website or an article you’ve written recently. See if you can spot places where you bury your lead.

Rewrite that paragraph (or entire section) so your most important point comes first, THEN you support it.

These are just 3 quick ways to make your copy more readable (and skimmable), but there are a ton of tricks out there.

BONUS: here are 3 more tricks for formatting your copy…

  • use bullet lists (like this one!)
  • use subheads, bolding, and bigger font sizes to make your really important bits stand out
  • avoid centering everything. (I know — it looks pretty, but it’s hard to read.)

Just remember – good copy takes care of your readers… and your skimmers.

[One Caveat: If you’re submitting guest articles to an online magazine or journal, look at their popular articles. A lot of these places still try to achieve the “print magazine” look.

Meaning — they use long paragraph and avoid things like bullet lists.

(Which is silly, in my opinion. Those Old School methods are meant for print readers — and for print pieces that had limited space. On the web, space really isn’t a problem.)

But — if they ARE publishing articles with mega paragraphs, you may need to submit something similar.]

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