Writing for Readers Who Scan

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:

  • I’m depressed or melancholy
  • I stop in front of coffin warehouses
  • I follow funerals
  • I have a powerful urge to knock people’s hats off

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):

    I must go to
    sea when sad
    or angry or

    [Next screen]

    with death.
    “Moby Dick”

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

  1. Delete every unnecessary word. As author Crawford Kilian says in a recent article about Web writing, “Every word and phrase should have to fight for its life.”
  2. Keep sentences short and simple. As a rule, semicolons don’t belong on Web sites.
  3. Include only one idea per paragraph. Keep paragraphs to three sentences.
  4. Use subheads, and make sure they’re clear and relevant. Subheads give readers a quick overview of what’s on the page. And something else, writes my Australian reader (scanner?) Rob Young: “Subheads allow scanners to skip over chunks of copy that don’t appear to have a direct relationship to their needs.”
  5. Bullet-point parallel words, phrases, or clauses — especially information that’s important. Bullet points not only cut down on words and organize content but also stand out from surrounding text and get read.
  6. Put important information at the beginnings of sentences and important sentences at the beginnings of paragraphs.
  7. Use transition words whenever possible, such as “but,” “so,” “and,” “also,” and “because.”

    Note: If you use “however,” ignore the following advice from Strunk and White in their otherwise invaluable little book, “The Elements of Style”: “Avoid starting a sentence with ‘however’ when the meaning is ‘nevertheless’… When ‘however’ comes first, it means ‘in whatever way’ or ‘to whatever extent.'”

    Here’s why I say ignore it:

    • If you place “however” later in the sentence, you bury the transition and make the sentence less scannable.
    • Despite what Strunk and White say, “however” at the beginning of a sentence, when followed by a comma, means “nevertheless.”
  8. Choose shorter words whenever possible, for example, “lie” for “prevaricate” or “recline.”
  9. Avoid circumlocutions (e.g., “at a later time” for “later”).

    As Thomas Jefferson said, “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”

  10. Whenever possible, use the active voice (e.g., “John threw the ball.” instead of “The ball was thrown by John.”).

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.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.