s any writer knows, readers are attracted to publications for a variety of reasons. One that we may forget is the manner in which the text is formatted. As writers, we figure that our job is to transmit information, and rarely do we like to think that even the most dedicated readers often become skimmers when they are pressed for time.
While the format of published writing is often left up to editors and designers, there is much that writers can do to assist skimmers, editors, and designers alike. It may take a little extra work to cut out the unnecessary words and strip back to the basics, but the extra editing will be worth it when your readers get what they need without any fuss—and then come back for more.
Skimmers look over a piece of writing and search for only the information they need. They do not read every word on the page, nor do they necessarily appreciate carefully constructed, flowing, engaging text. Instead, skimmers ignore and discard what they don’t need.
Some skimmers want a single piece information such as a name, date, telephone number, website address, or price that will fulfill an immediate need. Others may be interested in specific content to answer a question or provide necessary information they can extract from the text. It is not up to the writer to say what a skimmer will be looking for, but it is up to the writer to make sure that all included information is clear.
Writing for skimmers is all about making information accessible, so that it can stand alone as needed. A few ways writers can do this include using subheadings, bullet points, sidebars, bold text and writing concisely throughout. If writing for the web, there are titles and keywords to consider as well.
Subheadings, like those used in this article, serve to break up the text of a document and direct the reader’s eye to short sections. Due to their directional nature, subheadings do not need to be long headlines, but instead, short phrases or keywords that allow skimmers to home in on the exact information they need. Subheadings can also function as a type of table of contents, allowing skimmers to understand exactly what is covered in an article in just one glance.
Sometimes in educational or business documents, there are sub-subheadings introduced into the text. These sub-subheadings serve to break up detailed or technical text even further in order to ensure clarity and ease of use.
A general rule for sub-subheadings is that they always work in pairs. If you only have one sub-subheading, you should consider dividing the information differently and making what you thought would be a sub-subheading back into a subheading. Confused yet? If you start to feel confused about your organization, then there’s little doubt that your readers will be as well. Revise until your point is clear.
Another great way to present information quickly is to use bullet points. There may be publications that do not like the look of these points, so always check with the editor before you decide to format your text in this way. Usually, bullet points are used to present a related list of items, and they are very often used in technical writing and reference works.
A few tips about bullet points to consider:
- They are usually short.
- Do not need to be full sentences.
- Begin with a capital letter.
- Use verbs that are always in the same tense.
- End in a period if they are complete sentences.
Sidebars are short companions to main articles. These little boxes include information that relate to the article and often include extra facts, ideas, tips, hints, or other short pieces of advice. While it is true that this information could be incorporated into the article, sidebars attract the reader’s attention because they stand out from what a skimmer may see as “background text.” Don’t think of a sidebar as a receptacle for second-rate information, but rather one of the bells and whistles that makes your writing stand out. By all means, include your plans for sidebars in your query letters and factor it into your fees as well.
“Use common vocabulary words to ensure that the widest possible audience can understand your writing.”
Regardless of how you format your writing, bold text will serve to emphasize particular information and make it stand out from the rest. This holds true for any writing, from informal emails (“please let me know ASAP”) to menus “Soup du Jour: Minestrone”) to reviews (“Not worth your hard earned money”) and much more. Usually subheadings and sidebar titles are bolded to help skimmers navigate articles, and bullet points themselves are bold to help offset the text that follows. It’s very easy to overdo bold text, however, so make sure to reserve this technique for truly pertinent information.
Names, contact information, website addresses, statistics and prices are all pieces of information that are commonly sought among text and can be prominently bold.
No matter how you eventually want your writing to look, remember that one of the best ways to assist skimmers is to write concisely throughout. Strunk and White’s classic writing guide, Elements of Style, is not only a masterpiece of concise writing itself but reminds writers to be concise at all times by ruthlessly editing extra words out of sentences and extra sentences out of paragraphs.
After writing a first draft you might also notice that you’ve strayed a bit from your topic and need to ruthlessly edit full paragraphs. So be it. Writers create, but they must also terminate. (Don’t get too upset, you can always save that edited idea for another article.)
Skimmers do not want to wade through excess information to get what they want, so don’t make them! When you are sure that you have included only what you need to get your point across, edit again for vocabulary. Unless you are a technical writer, stay away from jargon and acronyms. Use common vocabulary words to ensure that the widest possible audience can understand your writing.
Strip away redundancies, for example “12 noon” should just be “noon.” As always, having someone else proofread your writing will help ensure that you haven’t accidentally skipped over something obvious.
Five Tips for Writing Sidebars:
- A numbered list in your sidebar makes it easy to read.
- Submit sidebar content on a separate page from your article.
- Include your name, contact information and word count with your sidebar.
- Proofread and edit a sidebar as you would any other writing.
- Creative sidebars like mini quizzes can be unique selling points for your article.
Those who write for the Web have even more work to do. In addition to all of the above, writing for Web skimmers includes a few extra considerations as well. It is important to use a descriptive title for your article and keywords to make the title and text search engine friendly.
For additional information about how to use keywords, check out this SEO Sunday article on The Muffin: How to Write Keywords.
Another technique for web writing it to use short subheadings or bullet points to draw attention to your text. Also consider providing hyperlinks. There is nothing more frustrating for a skimmer than to find the information they want but have no way to click through to the website directly. Make it easy for your readers by giving them access to further information or opportunities to purchase products.
Writing for skimmers is not for the faint-hearted. As writers, we enjoy our craft and can easily get carried away in our own wordplay, but skimmers do not appreciate our talents. To avoid wasting your efforts, keep your audience in mind at all times and try to include all of the information a skimmer would want.
Obviously, you can’t give everything to everyone, but you can focus on your target readers and prove to your editors that you understand their needs. And, if you can do this on time and within the word count guidelines, you’ll likely have a lot more opportunities to prove your skills again in the near future!
Beth Morrissey has written well over 200 articles on various subjects, in publications around the world. She's been a Freelance Writer for three years, with experience in print and electronic publications. Beth is an editor of various educational materials including essays, reports, and brochures, two organizational newsletters and children's books. She's also experienced in American and British English copy-editing, proofreading, as well as, content editing.