Changes in technology have led to a major change in the way people approach text and reading. You can see this in several places, from blog posts to today’s bestselling novels. Although there are still plenty of big, thick novels and long blog posts out there, there’s been a fundamental shift in the way those posts and books are written and formatted.
The 21st century reader is one who skims, who wants whatever it is she’s reading to get to the point quickly. Today’s writing has been largely influenced by social media, which, with its character counts and limits, has shortened what people can say. It’s also been influenced by the introduction of screens. Reading on a laptop, mobile device or e-reader is a very different experience from curling up with a book or newspaper.
In today’s marketing world, you not only want to think about the message you’re presenting to customers. You also want to think about how you convey that message and the best ways to do it.
Before people began to read on screens, the experience was linear. To get to the next part of an article or story, they’d have to flip a page. Today’s reader is more likely to experience text vertically, meaning he or she more likely to scroll up or down a screen while reading or skimming.
Designing your writing with the vertical reader in mind helps make the text more attractive to that reader and can make him or her more likely to read to the end. One way to embrace the vertical is to use lists, particularly bulleted lists.
When someone is scrolling down a page, a bulleted list is much easier to absorb and take in than a block of text in traditional paragraph form. Bullet points also give the reader the chance to pick and choose the information that’s relevant to him or her right away, versus having to sift through a dense paragraph to find what’s useful.
Break Things Up
Bullet points are just one way to break up the text and make it easier for the modern reader to digest what’s on the screen. It’s also important to aim for brevity, in terms of the length of sentences and paragraphs.
While in previous centuries, a reader might have been OK mentally digesting a large paragraph, today’s reader finds two to four sentence paragraphs much easier to process. Short paragraphs also help guide a reader through a blog post or article. When text is presented in small blocks, with a lot of white space around it, it’s easier on the eyes. People are more likely to keep reading from one paragraph to the next.
A similar thing occurs in books. Shorter chapters appeal to readers and make them more likely to finish a book. In 2013, the New York Times reported that people are 25 percent more likely to read a book with short chapters until the end.
Don’t just aim for short paragraphs. Go for shorter sentences, too. In an interview with the International Association of Business Communicators, writer, editor and consultant Jeff Herrington lists long sentences as one of the most common mistakes he sees in business writing. Don’t lose a reader in a 60 word, multi-clause sentence. Keep it simple.
Leave Out What People Skip
It might seem facile to say leave out the boring stuff, but in the age of lots of content, it’s crucial. Don’t bore your readers with long descriptions of places or people. Either let them use their imaginations or trust that they can Google something if they aren’t sure what it is. In a blog post, a link can substitute for lots of descriptive text.
There’s also a lesson to be learned from social media here: That’s to only include the most relevant information to get your point across. Give yourself a limit, such as 140 characters, and see if you can convey your message within that limit.
One last piece of advice when you’re looking for writing help or ways to modernize your marketing. Read as much as you can, whether it’s marketing material and articles from those in your industry, or entertainment blogs.
Pay attention not only to what the writers of those materials are saying. Look at their format and style. Something about it appeals to you. Once you figure out what it is, try to copy it in your own writing to make it appeal to the 21st century reader.