Top 10 ways to write scannable content

Scannable content - John Kramer Marketing

The internet and mobile devices have radically changed how we consume content. Content needs to be fresh, simple and actionable.

Most importantly, content needs to be scannable.

Readers typically won’t read your article from start to finish. They will scan for the answers they are looking for and skip anything that is not relevant to them.

In fact, Nielsen Norman Group conducted research that estimates that internet users only read a mere 20% of the words on a page.

When writing for an internet audience, keep the following points in mind.

1. Write for your audience

Think of your audience as you write. Your buyer persona. Ask yourself these questions before you write:

  • Is it interesting?
  • Is it useful?
  • Am I using the same language my buyer persona would?

If the answer to any of these is “no,” then scrap it.

Your audience won’t read it, so why bother writing it?

2. Keep paragraphs and words short

Most of the time, when someone sees a long paragraph, they either skim it or skip it altogether. Keep your paragraphs as short as possible.

Short paragraphs help with readability. Particularly on mobile devices.

Cut the flowery language, keep your words and sentence structures simple.

Use short words and easy to understand language. Using bigger words and more complicated ones doesn’t make you look intelligent, in fact, it has the opposite effect.

Daniel Oppenheimer showed that using complex, longer words makes you look stupid.

There are several reasons for this. Shorter words are

  • Easier to read – when reading shorter words you don’t have to think. People often have to reread longer words.
  • Easily understood – writing at a level that can be understood by school leavers, means you don’t exclude university graduates, but if you write for graduates you can exclude some school leavers.
  • Saves time – nobody has time, telling your story in a more concise way shows respect for readers.
  • Clearer – shorter words are easier to understand and clearer.
  • Means better copy – it takes more work to write with short words. This extra effort produces better copy.

3. Use a clear font and font size

With hundreds of fonts and font sizes available, it can be hard to know which one to choose. Keep it simple. Some of the best fonts used for reading online are:

  • Serif font
  • Sans-serif font
  • Arial
  • Verdana
  • Roboto

Always test the readability on mobile devices.

One of my favourites for reading on mobile devices is Cooper Light which MailChimp is using.

As far as size goes, 14px should be an absolute minimum. Some content-heavy sites, like Medium, use a 21px font size with effective results.

Some say that the optimal content width is about 50-60 characters of text per line, which is a good starting point.

4. Use lists and break up the text

Digital copy is harder to read than physical copy according to the Scientific American.

We’re continually bombarded with content online. A constant tidal wave of information. We have shrinking attention spans, or perhaps overloaded attention, but as web readers we’re looking for quick answers.

We browse content, skipping blocks of text, scanning for keywords and subheadings. As such, your content layout is vital and you need to cater your content to your audience’s needs.

Use subheadings, images and lists.

Lists are easy to read, and most people will take a minute to read items that are listed.

  1. Ordered lists: These include a number before the item.
  2. Unordered lists: These include a bullet point before the item.

If the order of the items matters, use ordered lists. If the order is not important, then use unordered lists.

5. Keep sentences short and simple

Consider the structure of your sentences. Are your sentences overly complicated ones that spill out line after line?

It’s best to use shorter sentences. Break longer sentences up with commas, semi-colons, and full stops.

If you need to list items in a series, don’t do so in a sentence. Instead, use ordered or unordered lists.

Here’s an example:

Not great: Strong writing online consists of simple sentences, short sentences, short paragraphs, basic vocabulary, clear font, and a friendly, conversational tone.

Much better: Strong writing online consists of the following:

  • simple sentences
  • short sentences
  • short paragraphs
  • basic vocabulary
  • clear font
  • a friendly, conversational tone.

Use transitions to link your sentences together and help with flow. Some examples of transitional words are:

  • However
  • First of all
  • Finally
  • In addition
  • Of course

6. Find your tone of voice

Writing is branding. It defines who you are and who you’re trying to reach. Your writing style is as important as your website design. It defines how people perceive your business.

Ideally, your style of writing should be consistent across all mediums. Establishing a tone of voice guideline is a useful practice for any business.

Do your research, understand your audience and understand their needs. Write accordingly.

Examining competitor’s styles can help, but more importantly, examine the SERPs (search engine results pages).

  • What is ranking in your space?
  • How is it written?
  • How is it formatted?
  • Are they long or short posts?
  • Do the posts contain media – videos, photos, podcasts?

The key to successful writing is meeting your buyer persona’s intentions.

7. Check grammar, punctuation and spelling

Don’t simply write your article and then be done with it. More than likely, you will miss some spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. These errors take away from the credibility of the text.

One great piece of advice is to step away from your writing for a bit. Take a walk, eat a snack, call a friend. Give your mind some space. Then, when you are ready, you can go back to your writing and reread it more objectively.

Use proofreading tools such as Hemingway or Grammarly

8. Emphase sparingly

Sometimes you will need to add emphasis to parts of your text. Examples include bolding, italicizing, underlining, or highlighting.

These can be ways to draw attention to certain words or phrases, but the key is to not overdo it.

Think of some of the advertisements you see on a regular basis. The advertisers go crazy with bolding, italicising, underlining, and highlighting. In fact, sometimes it seems like every other word is emphasised.

Notice how overdoing emphasis takes away from the credibility of the ad, and it even can look like spam.

9. Focus on mobile

Have you ever read something on a smartphone that was not designed for a mobile device? It’s confusing and frustrating.

Reading content on a screen requires a reader to consciously focus on both the text and how they are moving it, draining more mental resources than turning or clicking a page. This is particularly true when reading on mobiles.

Think mobile first. Write for mobile users and always proofread on a mobile device.

10. Use photos

Photos are increasingly important in 2019. Google is now showing more images in web search results. Image optimisation and SEO aside, using photos breaks up content and makes reading easier. When used correctly photos also help personalise your message.

As you can see, it’s time to “throw out” the writing advice you probably learned in school. Longer, more complicated pieces are not “better,” at least not when you are writing for the internet.

Use these top 10 tips to capture your audience and improve your article’s scannability.

And who knows maybe your readers will read more than 20% of your content.

About John Kramer

My name is John Kramer, and I am a Malaga-based SEO fanatic. Marketing is my passion. With over 15 years of experience in digital, I am constantly energised by the ever-changing landscape of search. A seasoned marketer with a passion for helping small and mid-sized businesses succeed in the digital age. Proud father, husband, and outdoor enthusiast.