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Writing for the web: why you should encourage skimming and scanning


  • content
  • writing + editing

Published | Blog post

People don’t read online so much as they skim and scan, and unless your content is crafted with that in mind, your readers are going to jump ship.

There’s nothing new in this observation. Jakob Nielsen’s research demonstrated it back in 1997, and his findings hold up nearly 20 years later. Readers scan webpages, looking for keywords and main points. If you think about how you read on the web (and are honest with yourself), you’ll probably find the same is true for you. So while you may wish your content was being read word by word, it’s time to accept that it isn’t.

Even if you hate the skim, you should love the skimmer.

How to write for scanning

Long paragraphs of unchanging text are difficult to scan and will turn many potential readers away. Here are a few editorial ways (not much different from Nielsen’s 1997 advice) to make your content more scannable:

  • get to the point immediately with a journalistic style of writing
  • use short paragraphs, with one idea each
  • use subheadings
  • use bulleted lists (but not too much)
  • highlight words with bold type or links (but not too much)

Remember: if everything is highlighted (or bulleted), nothing is. A brief that simply outlines an entire report, for instance, is neither easy to read nor easy to skim. Don’t overdo it.

Why write for scanning?

You may be thinking that your target audience are the people who will take the time to read your content carefully. Why should you care about the others? First, if your writing easy to scan, more of your audience will get something out of it. Even the fastest scanner might recommend your page to a friend or colleague, or tweet, sign a petition, or take another action.

Second, scanning is a how we decide whether we want to read. This is one of the main differences between reading online and reading in print. With print, we decide we want to read when we pick up a book or magazine. Online, we begin looking at a page before we’ve decided whether to read it, and we have to be convinced in that moment to read instead of navigating somewhere else on the web. The more scannable a page is, the easier that decision is to make, and the easier it is to read.

If you love your skimmers, your readers will love you back.