How to Write for Increasingly Distracted Readers
January 17, 2019
It’s been a long time since people sat down and read blog articles word for word. In fact, it’s possible people never did this, but, as marketers, we convinced ourselves they did.
Content best practices have run the gamut since the advent of the blog—from writing short, keyword-packed 300-word blog articles full of sales and self-promotion to writing long-form, 1,500-word blog articles that avoid keyword stuffing, focus on education, and only sell at the end of the post.
Either way, the reality is that people don’t read online content—they scan it. In fact, only 16 percent of people actually report reading every last word of every piece of online content they consume. People read more slowly online, with less accuracy and less understanding, than they do when reading something they’re physically holding in their hands. They also miss secondary ideas entirely.
Kids and fur babies are distracting enough, but when you’re on your phone or computer running a variety of apps and getting pinged with distractions every few seconds, it’s hard to focus. If you’ve made it this far into this article without a child demanding more Veggie Straws or a WhatsApp or Facebook notification popping up and sending you down a rabbit hole, congratulations!
Let’s dig in to how to write for an increasingly distracted audience. For starters, when you write, keep three core principles in mind:
- Novelty: Does the content offer new and interesting ideas? How likely is the reader to share the article based on its novelty?
- Identity: Can the reader relate to the issue, problem, or topic being discussed?
- Fluency: Can the reader understand the content quickly and easily?
Chances are you’ve done your keyword research, looked at trends, and are delivering blog topics that are both novel and focused on your buyer personas, but principle No. 3 tends to stump many writers. With the four tips below, you’ll be able to deliver content that satisfies all three of these core principles and have fun doing it, too—I promise.
Write with an eighth-grader in mind.
If you’ve ever heard the line about writing at an eighth-grade level, there’s a science behind it. Roughly 17 percent of adults actually read at a 12th-grade level—and the majority of adults read at a third-grade level.
For perspective, Shane Snow ran tons of books and content through the Flesch-Kincaid index to see how some of the greatest writers throughout history measured up. If you love Ernest Hemingway, his writing clocks in at a fourth-grade level for reading comprehension, whereas Danielle Steel’s work measures at an eighth-grade level. Jane Austen, Hunter S. Thompson, and J.K. Rowling all clocked in at pre-teen reading levels.
You see, people actually prefer to read two grade levels lower than their general understanding, and this goes for people with PhDs, too. Why? We’re distracted! We want to read content that is easy to understand and get through.
Choose simple words.
Writing at a seventh or eighth grade level isn’t about dumbing down concepts—it’s about writing for an increasingly distracted audience. And it’s as simple as making some word swaps. Here are a few examples:
- Instead of utilize, say use.
- Instead of purchase, say buy.
- Instead of additional, say extra.
- Instead of procure, say get.
- Instead of initial, say first.
Also, avoid speech phrases that are super wordy and more easily said in one or two words. You know these ones well:
- Instead of "for all intents and purposes,” say “virtually” or “in effect.”
- Instead of "due to the fact that,” say “because of.”
- Instead of “in the event of,” say “if.”
Some others, such as “at the end of the day” or “in fact” can be completely thrown out the window. If it’s not adding to the text, lose it.
Lastly, avoid redundant phrases. Although they’re common speech and everyone uses them, you can cut down on your wordiness by tossing out some of these classics:
- Added bonus = bonus
- Difficult dilemma = dilemma
- Plan ahead = plan
- Personal opinion = opinion
- Unintentional mistake = mistake
Kill the adverbs.
Two great writers said it best (and Hemingway agrees):
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King
“Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer.” — Mark Twain
Adverbs typically modify adjectives or verbs, and when you modify the latter, it’s often unnecessary. You can usually remove the adverb and write a more precise sentence. For example, instead of saying “he spoke quietly,” you can say “he whispered” or “he mumbled.” Quiet means different things to different people (just ask my husband), so if you can write with more precision and choose a stronger verb, do it.
When modifying an adjective, you can also often lose the adverb. For example, in the sentence “the very green getaway car was quite old,” the adverbs are “very” and “quite.” If you’re describing a getaway car, you should use stronger adjectives, not adverbs. This sentence says so much more: “The pine-colored getaway car was rust-covered.”
The moment you start throwing out adverbs and writing with a stronger and more precise pen, your writing will transform into storytelling—and storytelling is the exact type of content people prefer to read.
Think of your writing as a barrier.
When you sit down and start writing, think of every word you pen as a barrier to the action you want a reader to take. Keeping your sentences short and to the point will prevent your readers from having to bust out their content machete to get through your jungle of words and ideas.
Whether you opt to edit your work after it’s written or catch your wordiness as you go, the more you can write concisely, the more your readers will absorb and enjoy your content. You have 15 seconds to grab a reader’s attention once they land on your site or blog—and that doesn’t account for the distracting app notifications that will be popping up while they’re trying to get into the article. Don’t bog those 15 seconds down with adverbs and complicated terms that cloud your message. Get to the point!
Cutting down on complexity doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing credibility—it just means you’re creating a better user experience for a world of increasingly distracted readers. And that, as a writer, should always be your goal.
(And if you’re curious, this post has a Flesch-Kincaid grading of 8 … score!)
About the author
Chaviva Gordon-Bennett was formerly a Senior Copywriter for SmartBug Media. She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a bachelor's degree in journalism. As a Senior Copywriter, Chaviva writes inbound marketing content for SmartBug's clients. Read more articles by Chaviva Gordon-Bennett.
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