If you're following my progress through the seven qualities of good Web writing, I'm now on numbers 3 (brevity) and 4 (scannability and readability).
Years ago, when I taught writing at a university, I often used the following sentence from the first paragraph of "Moby Dick" as a splendid example of a periodic sentence:
"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."
For you non-English majors, periodic sentences are long, complex sentences, often with several introductory clauses, in which the main point is delayed until the end for dramatic effect. They're like gourmet meals that build to a flaming dessert: extravagant, delicious, climactic.
But they don't belong on Web sites, because they can't be scanned -- and 79 percent of readers on the Web scan.
So, with apologies to Melville, I've rewritten his sentence for the Web:
I must go to sea when:
It's a quick read -- easily scanned, easily grasped. To make it even easier to scan, I bolded important words (I have mixed feelings about bolding words to make online text easier to scan -- more on this next time).
Just for fun, here's the sentence rewritten for a Web-enabled phone (four lines per screen, each with a maximum of 12 characters):
Of course the sentence has lost its grandeur in both translations. But the Web isn't about communicating with grandeur. It's about communicating with speed.
Perhaps the 21 percent of readers who don't scan online would be willing to read a periodic sentence on a computer screen. But would anyone click through 14 screens to read it on a phone?
Ten Tips for Writing Tight, Scannable Copy
Write for scanners. That way, 79 percent of your readers will be more likely to get your message. And the rest will appreciate the time you save them.
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