Writing for skimming and writing for reading

22.10.2016 - 21:30 · 6 min read

Use short paragraphs. Add lists and subtitles. Bold your important points. Make your blog posts skimmable. You've heard all these tips on how to improve your blog posts. Now you may be wondering if your blog posts are really improved, or if people are just jumping in and out without really reading them. To really improve your blogging, I have a question for you.

Writing for skimming and writing for reading -- Mervi Emilia

I'm not saying those tips are wrong. There's something to it. Lots of people love to skim blog posts, rather than really read them. Even more never read past the title. I keep seeing people pin stuff on Pinterest, without checking if the link behind the pretty photo with a nice title even works. It's infuriating to follow through and find that the page doesn't exist anymore, or the link points to something completely else. On Twitter there are still those who share stuff from Triberr. A constant stream of articles they never read themselves. So, no wonder the advice on creating awesome, shareable titles and pinnable pictures, and text which is easy to skim appears alluring.

I have to make a quick note before I go on. What you like is not what everyone else likes. Nor is what I like any sort of a rule, or even a best practice. Liking short and skimmable blog posts, that could be your thing. There are people who don't like that too. Then again, a person who doesn't like skimming isn't everyone else either. Plus the preference may depend on your content, on the length of it, the style, the subjects, and so forth. The same person, who likes to skim an article about creating better Instagram photos may love to read, with thought and interest, an article about why you don't need to always set goals in life and work. As a matter of fact, there's no right or wrong way to do it. Skimming is as okay as reading. Making the content easy to skim or making it easy to read, they are both okay. The choice is yours.

Writing your blog posts for skimming has its perks. The people online tend to have a short attention span. The story is, human attention span averages these days in 8 seconds. Shorter than the attention span of a gold fish. Apparently it used to be 12 seconds, our attention in decline. Reading long blog posts with longer-than-one-sentence paragraphs is kind of a drag. You lost your attention before the point was really made. But when a blog post is more like a list of quick, skimmable bullet points with bolding and fun titles and lots of colourful images to keep you concentrated, even a gold fish could read that. If gold fish could read.

Besides, you don't have time for reading all the articles online. Especially all you share, considering that your Twitter and Facebook feeds are streams of links. Nobody clicked them, but some did share them along. For they did have snappy titles. Right, I'm getting quite snarky now.

That sort of bullet point type writing has a big problem. It's not very fast to read. Or rather to take in. This is a personal thing I've noticed. I'm a quite fast reader. I haven't taken any timings, but I can devour written words and sentences in moments. However, that personal thing I've noticed is when the text is full of one sentence paragraphs and other ways to "make it easier to read", my reading and understanding becomes slower. Every paragraph break, every new list, and tons of strong text, it cuts the flow of reading. As noted there before, what I like isn't what everyone else likes. There are even very official guides which point out that short paragraphs are easier to read.

Though I don't think it guides to write your whole text or most of it in one sentence paragraphs.

Or to bold or emphasise every other word or point you make.

I mean, it does get a bit old after a while.

Kind of annoying too, feeling like you are being belittled.

Do I think you aren't smart enough to be able to read whole paragraphs?

As a matter of fact it makes writing appear choppy.

Choppy is not great.

I'm guessing you are getting my point. I hope. Writing like that is also slow, and I'd like to get back to my preferred style. It may not be as easy to skim as the stuff above is, but it's my choice. It's usually also the choice of professional writers. Articles in journalistic publications, even online, don't indulge in using very short paragraphs and lots of lists and bolding. At least to me, it doesn't appear very professional.

I have a bias for writing for reading, rather than skimming. I know it's not always the best way to go. Especially considering the short attention span of the people reading blog posts, and considering how people don't want to spend too much time in reading stuff online. Sometimes I get wordy, which isn't thought to be a great thing in online writing. I'm a poet, I can't help going deep in the world of words to express my thoughts, knowledge and feelings.

As I write for reading, I think about the rhythm and flow of the text. I don't say my rhythm and flow is perfect. My sentences and paragraphs can be broken. The way I convey my thoughts can be abrupt or ambiguous. My grammar is what it is, and this is a second language for me. I'm not a perfect example. I try to keep the sentences and paragraphs in flowing. I read the breaks between paragraphs as pauses. I don't think most sentences need to be followed by pauses. The bolding and emphasis, they are similar to the changes in the sound of speaking. It's like raising your voice or making it lower to make your point. Too much of it, and you are overacting. Like adults do when telling a fairytale for children. Most word and sentence don't need that sort of emphasis. Bullet points are special cases, only required to really really beat in the point. As when you would strive to make someone understand your point. Explaining in words of one syllable. In Finnish we would call that vääntää rautalangasta. It translates as something like twisting it from a wire, and it's said to mean that you are making a simple figure of the subject in hand from a piece of wire. That's how bullet points are. They are simple figures to pound the meaning in.

Then there are all the subtitles. Sometimes it seems to me bloggers are using subtitles just because the think they have to. Their text wouldn't seem interesting enough without them. Or maybe their text is lacking structure, and adding some subtitles appears to make it more composed and thought through. The subtitles appear forced. They do have their place in structuring texts. That is, mainly long texts with distinct, separable points. When I'm writing a continuous thought, such as this one, there's no room for subtitling. Subtitling would make the text disjointed, feel like I shoved them in to create structure where there's no structure to create.

Again, that's just me. That's my feeling about writing (and reading).

Skimming text that is written to be skimmed, is like ingesting "trash" food or candies. Perhaps you didn't even sit down to do it, or maybe you skimmed the text while watching Netflix at the same time. I'm not above that. Reading text that's meant to be read, is then like sitting down in front of a meticulously prepared meal and eating it with thought and concentration. That's one way to go. (Nobody is going to stop you from skimming text that was meant to be read, nor to slurp in that meticulously prepared meal without giving it another thought.)

This takes me back to that question I mentioned somewhere up there, before all these words I spent to make my point. It's a question about whether you want to prepare word "trash" food or a whole meal of thoughts and ideas. It's a question you have to answer for yourself, when you next time embark in writing a new post to your blog or that other blog for which you contribute. It's the question of which kind of reading you expect for that article. When you sit down to write that next piece of yours, choose how you want your audience to take your writing in. I cannot answer it for you, nobody else can. It depends on what you want and wish for your article.

Are you writing for skimming or for reading?


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Mervi's picture

I'm Mervi Emilia Eskelinen, an artist and business consultant and coach from Finland. I help indie businesses, freelancers and bloggers to find focus with their branding, marketing and web. I have almost 20 years of experience and a bachelor's degree in everything about digital media and marketing.