How to Write for an Online Audience That Hates to Read

Paul Boag

Users rarely read an entire webpage. That means you need to adopt a different style when writing for the web. A style that accommodates this lack of attention.

The chances are you will not read much of this post. In fact on average somebody will read about 28% of a webpage. That is not a lot, and it doesn’t leave a lot of room to make your case in a compelling way that people remember.

This lack of attention can make writing for the web hard. As I say in crafting compelling web copy, even the best writer can struggle to communicate online.

The UK Government Digital Service recently released this excellent video on making content more accessible.

Why People Pay Little Attention Online

There are lots of reasons why people pay so little attention online. Reasons such as eye strain or the enormous quantity of material available.

But as I explain in my masterclass on encouraging action, one of the biggest reasons is cognitive load. People face so many distractions. They often have lots of applications running on their computer. They are also surrounded by distractions such as children, pets, traffic or a noisy office.

The higher our cognitive load, the less we read of a page. But more than that, we also remember less about what we have read. In other words, if we want people to remember what we have to say, we need to reduce their cognitive load.

How to Reduce Cognitive Load in Copy

In my post on cognitive load, I outline lots of ways we can reduce cognitive load in design, but what about copy?

The best way to write online copy is to approach it as if our readers have a cognitive disability. That is because when reading online they behave as if they have.

Mencap is a charity dedicated to giving a voice to those with a learning disability. They provide some valuable advice on writing for those with cognitive disabilities. Advice that applies to online writing, whoever your audience. That is because the clearer your writing, the more people will read it and the more they will remember.

Here are the critical pieces of advice they share, and I recommend we all adopt them when writing.

Watch the Words You Use

  • Use plain language. The kinds of words we use in everyday conversation.
  • Use numbers like 1 and 2 instead of writing the numbers out – like one or two.
  • Write in short sentences. Include only one idea in every sentence.
  • Use active language. For example write, “John loves Mary” not “Mary is loved by John”.
  • Other than full stops use the smallest amount of punctuation possible.
  • Use bullet points to break up difficult information. But keep your bullet points simple.
  • Do not use jargon.
  • Do not use abbreviations like “don’t”. Instead, write “do not”.
  • Do not write too much. Think about what your reader must know.

Think About the Placement of Words

Content should be organised in a hierarchy from the most important information to the least.
  • As the Nielsen Norman Group suggests, get to the point. Start pages and sections with what people need to know. Only then move on to supporting information.
  • Try not to use columns. It is easier to read straight across a page.
  • Keep everything about a subject on a single web page.

Use Imagery

  • Putting pictures next to words will help your reader understand what the words mean.
  • Use the same image to say the same thing in everything you write.
  • When pictures and text appear together, pictures should go on the left. Words should go on the right.
  • Do not break up paragraphs with pictures.
  • Do not print text on top of or across a picture.
  • Keep imagery simple.
  • Charts are challenging to understand. Try not to use them.
  • Only use images that support the content and helps describe it. Imagery that exists to look pretty increases cognitive load.

Consider Readability

  • Use a sans-serif typeface like Helvetica as they are easier to read than a serif font.
  • Text should be as large as possible. Try to make it over 14 points.
  • Make sure headings are clear and make sense out of context.
  • Make sure writing stands out against the background colour.
  • Words in white on a coloured background can be harder to read.
  • Having an off-white background colour makes copy easier to read.

Balance Readability With Other Considerations

You should see this advice from Mencap as guidelines for reducing cognitive load. Only if you are writing for those with real cognitive disabilities should you see them as rules.

Even Mencap do not follow all of their own guidelines. But used wisely their advice will reduce cognitive load for everybody and increase the readers retention of information.

For example, this post does not use every guideline. I use a serif font for branding reasons. But I do ensure high contrast and keep sentences short.

But the point still stands. By writing as if people have a cognitive disability, we ensure everybody takes in more of our content. We also ensure they remember what we have written. That is good for conversion and good for business.

Thanks to mycteria from Shutterstock for allowing me to use this image.

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