Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

How to Write Scannable Content for Your Blog

You’ve done it. You’ve optimized your website for search engines and are now getting people to share your content on social media. People are subscribing to your blog in droves, but how do you get them to actually read what you’ve written?

Ah. There lies the rub.

How to Write Scannable Content
Just because people are coming to your blog doesn’t mean they’re actually reading your content. Let’s change that, shall we?

The emergence of scanning

With blogs and Twitter and Facebook, everyone has a voice. Each person has a story to tell and a platform to tell it. This is truly a monumental time. But there’s just one problem with this age of abundant information:

Everybody scans.

Due to the incessant interruptions we encounter every day, we are all trained to ignore, gloss over, and constantly search for what matters to me.

For a communicator, this raises the bar. You really have to have something remarkable to say in order to catch a scanner’s eye. Otherwise, you’re already forgotten.

So what will it take? You’ve got to understand your reader.

The new age of aliteracy

No one reads any more. Not really. Not on the web, not with this Internet. Not when everyone feels the need to blog every day just to keep up with the Joneses. Not when a million pixels of data and news are demanding your attention every single second.

If you are a content creator, you have already begun with a trust deficit.

Nowadays, people float through the web with little investment in the content they’re encountering. Sure, people can read. They just choose not to.

You need to learn how to communicate to people who are functionally illiterate. Or perhaps, more appropriately, aliterate – that is, they’re able to read but just choose not to do so.

Here’s the solution…

With thousands of marketing messages inundating people everyday, who can blame someone for missing a few words here and there? There’s simply not enough time to read it all. Scanning is a necessity.

When you’re writing copy for for a website or blog, you need to remember that in this age of perpetual distraction, people don’t absorb content like they used to. Not today.

So, what do you do to stand out?

Write content crafted for the scanners and skimmers, of course. Here are a few ideas for writing scannable content:

  • Keep the length of your posts short. 400-600 words is ideal.
  • Use subheads. This breaks up your content into scannable chunks.
  • Use numbered lists. These are fun to write and read.
  • Use bullet points. Bullets can actually make you a better blogger.
  • Have fun with formatting. Make good use of the bold and italic formatting options.
  • Keep your paragraphs short. Two to three lines, at most. Absolutely no more than four.
  • Write like you talk. Blogging is different from your doctoral thesis or newspaper article. Blogging is about community. There needs to be a conversational flow to your content.
  • Give people an opportunity to participate. Allow people to join the conversation through commenting or via social media.
  • Link to quality content. People love clicking anchor text. Give them something worth clicking. Try linking to some of your best content. This catches scanners in the act and holds their attention.

And one alternative option (just to shake it up):

  • Go against the grain. One way to beat ‘em is by not joining them. There’s still a place on the web for long-form. Try writing longer posts, not shorter ones.

For a contrarian view, read: Stop Perpetuating the Myth — People Do Read Online

Do you scan when you read? What grabs your attention?

About Jeff Goins

I help people tell better stories and make a difference in the world. My family and I live outside of Nashville, TN. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. To get updates and free stuff, join my newsletter.

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  • http://www.messiahmom.wordpress.com Kristinherdy

    I’ve read many who are going to really short, scannable posts, and it’s just too much for my brain to take. It’s not a paragraph if it’s only one sentence.

    I like and use many of your rules, but I really love it when I find a blog that has something to say and doesn’t dilute it into pinprick paragraphs. Some of my favorites to read are longer and more involved pieces of writing.

    That’s probably a holdover from English lit and rhet/comp days, and I’m definitely in the minority; perhaps I’m just stuck in my ways.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      i agree, kristin. there’s part of me that loves long-form.

  • http://twitter.com/PeterPaluska Peter Paluska

    I agree with much of what you have to say here, Jeff. How do bullets make us better bloggers though?

    Thanks for the ideas, Peter

  • http://manofdepravity.com Tyler Braun

    In terms of getting more readers you are absolutely right. Part of me, having been blogging for a number of years now, wonders if this style of writing isn’t just catering to a lifestyle and a reading style that isn’t helpful for depth, conversation, or meaningful thought processes. I don’t have answers as to how to blog in a way that promotes those things and still helps people read the entire post, but I don’t think the answer is to use a bunch of bold words and bullet points.

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Hmm… so you don’t like the answers, but don’t have any?

      • http://manofdepravity.com Tyler Braun

        Sorry Jeff, didn’t mean for it to come across that way but clearly it did. I feel bad about that. The truth is you are right, your tips here are essential tips for any person who wants to blog or is blogging and finds it hard to gain traction.

        As far as answers, I think a person should first and foremost always write or blog in a way that they feel led to do so. As with any trade I would say it is vital to see what others have done in that field that resonates with you and has worked well.

        One of the things I value most about blogging is the ability for in depth and meaningful conversation and thought-making. My worry is that as our culture becomes more and more ADD too many will cater to it by choosing to lose some of that depth. I’d hate to see that happen. But, this isn’t trying to diminish your points because they are spot on. More as a side point on some of the side effects I’ve seen take place.

        • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

          Thanks, Tyler. I appreciate that. I agree with you that there is a potentially slippery slope, which was why I included the counterpoint at the end. There’s still a place for long-form. The upside is that limited attention spans may force us to say more with less. I think Twitter does that.

          • http://twitter.com/BradBlackman Brad Blackman

            I guess I prefer long-form text in a (visually) well-composed magazine, like The Believer or The New Yorker. I’ve read that Robert Bringhurst (author of The Elements of Typographic Style, which is pretty much THE Bible on typography) has said that we read the screen the way we read the sky: furtively and glancing all over the place. I think it literally has to do with the lighted nature of it. Perhaps if I had an iPad or a even moreso a Kindle, I might enjoy reading on-screen more. I’ve considered downloading a bunch of my Instapaper items, pulling them together into a book or magazine format in InDesign, and printing at Lulu or something for easier reading.

            • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

              Interesting idea Brad. I think you’re right about the backlit format. I’ve read that reading onscreen is more exhausting for your eye muscles.

  • http://twitter.com/BradBlackman Brad Blackman

    The funny thing is that this is the way designers have read for years. Designers are so visual they have a reputation for not being readers (I’m clearly bucking the trend). Catch this little movie made by Coudal Partners a few years back, about a copywriter who discovers his new coworkers can’t read: http://www.coudal.com/cghfilm.php

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Fascinating. Will check it out.

  • http://www.dberruti.blogspot.com Deborah Berruti

    My blog is mainly stories, so ‘scannable’ doesn’t really fit. But your ‘Write like you talk’ rule is what keeps my readers coming back and is bringing in new ones. I’ve also been trying to develop the ‘Give people an opportunity to participate’ . . . but I’m really not a fan of all the social networking logos. Any tips to get me over my fear or suggestions for bypassing the button overload?

    • http://goinswriter.com Jeff Goins

      Hey Deborah, first of all, I’m a storyteller, too, so I can relate. I think that some of this is still relevant for you – especially breaking up your content into smaller chunks. The fact of the matter is whether you write stories or tutorials, people are going to scan. You want to engage them and not have them simply ignore. Regarding the social media icons, I recommend using an all-in-one tool like AddThis or ShareThis. If you’re on WordPress, you can use the Jetpack plugin, which allows you to have one simply sharing button with a plus sign on it. Or you could find where people are engaging most with your content (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, etc.) and then just share that one tool.

  • http://www.tonyjalicea.com Tony Alicea

    I love this. I’ve been tempted to write a post like this simply because I see so many people get it wrong. I’d actually read a lot more blogs if people understood this concept.

    I struggled with the short posts at first. I used to crank out 1300-1500 posts. Sometimes I just need more room to express my thoughts. But then I found how much more effective I can be if I use less words and make them more meaningful. I’m still managing the tension of the two.

    Another point is that some people go way overboard with the content formatting. That is a major reason why I’ll skip a post. If you’re using different fonts, colors and sizes all over the place, I’m bailing. It’s definitely one of those effective writing methods that need to be honed and perfected.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Agreed. I only use one font. I like subheads and bolded font, though.

      For longer posts, I am cruel slicer and dicer and, when necessary, I’ll break the post into two parts (although, I rarely do this nowadays).

      The truth is, more often than not, what you want to say in 1000 words can be said in 500. And when you MUST say it in 1000 words, if you’ve stewarded your audience’s time well, they’ll read it.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisDonato Chris Donato

    Wouldn’t it be “The New Age of Alliteracy”? Since, as you say, people can read but they choose not to?

    Also, precisely because there are a “million pixels of data and news…demanding [our] attention every single second,” and while I appreciate your “going against the grain,” I think you may understate the place for longer pieces that take a little extra time to explore the themes introduced—unless of course the concern to gain readers wags the dog on every occasion.

    Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed is one of the best examples of the longer form that gets lots of action (relative to its content)—probably because it employs most of the points you’ve mentioned above.

    Thanks for this great list of bullets and heavy bold.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Good call. To be honest, I had never heard of aliteracy. But you’re absolutely right. Thanks, Chris.

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  • http://www.warriorshepherd.com/blog Dave Hearn

    Just for fun, I only scanned this post.  I didn’t read every word, but I agree completely.  ;^)

    It would have been fun to stick in a nonsense word or two into the body copy and see if anyone noticed…

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Thanks, man. I had to follow my own advice when I wrote it! (How’d I do?)

  • http://twitter.com/ivoryjohn John Wylie

    Not gonna lie – I scanned this post…Now I am gonna go back and READ it.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      It was written so that you COULD, John! (I had to practice what I was preaching.)

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  • Ivan Škorić

    I think that both short and long posts have their pros and cons.. More people will read short posts.. sometimes even if they’re not interested in the certain topic.. On the other hand, longer posts are much more commented and bookmarked.. Great article by the way although I just scanned it :) .. I’m a lazy reader I don’t know why..

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      Funny. Whether they’re short or long, they need to be scannable.

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  • http://ignitechange.net/ Craig Morton

    Hi Jeff.  I think it’s important to separate the idea of watering down content and making it scannable.  There is a lot easy to read stuff out there that is very superficial. BUT there is also a way to make good quality content more accessible and easier to read.  I think that sometimes I’m scared off a post if it is too fragmented (like it seems each paragraph only has one sentence) or the contrary if it is just a wall of text.  There has to be a fine line of high quality, yet easy to read material that looks half intelligible.   
    Thanks for bringing up the topic.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      good call, Craig.

  • http://twitter.com/BulaDad Qarau

    Great tips shared here Jeff. I find myself scanning content a lot lately before deciding to read it but read this all the way through. I think the reason being font usage and spacing. Funnily enough I look to the scroll-bar to decide whether I need to scan content or can I just read it through. I am also trying to write short punchy posts and 500 words is my safe figure.
    Hope you don’t mind me asking but what was your word count for “The Writers Manifesto” eBook? I would like complete my first eBook and would like to keep it short and engaging like yours was.

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  • http://twitter.com/DanRaySucks Dan Ray

    I agree with every rule, and even before reading this, I wanted to structure my blog in the way you describe. Sometimes, though, it’s terribly hard to shorten a story that you really want to tell; it’s especially difficult when you don’t want to cut jokes, because jokes build off of each other. Anyway, great article, but I would also add “pictures” to this list: people love pictures…and puppies. So add puppies, too.

  • Amy – Chic Vintage Brides

    Awesome post, really helpful for a newbie blogger!
    I find images really grab my attention – they make me want to read to understand and find out more about the image (but that may be the subject matter of my blog :))

  • Ellen

    Great tips! Some I have implemented intuitively, some I need to work on!

  • Hope Onwudinjo Nwosu

    Just came across this piece. It’s helpful and on point especially as am looking for the best ways to let my readers read the message in the work rather than just taking a glance in my new blog- http://www.storieswithoutborder.wordpress.com

  • http://myoverflowingcup.com Heather @ My Overflowing Cup

    Very good point! Thank you for the tips!

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      You’re welcome!

  • http://www.Furries-happyclub.com/ Just Smile

    Yes, this is how most people read internet material but there is a big conflict with the fact that Google and other search engines will rank longer pieces higher.

    The SEO bloggers at SERPIQ.com noticed that the top 10 results for most keywords tended to boast at least 2000 words.

    We have also seen these short, list style blog posts in millions of versions by now – maybe the wind will shift again towards high quality articles with a lot of meat on them.

  • Sandi Ackerman

    I started reading this and got discouraged. I thought. WOW no one will ever read my Blog, Thanks allot. Why put my wonderful creativity, myself into this just to find out no one will ever read it. Then, I came across your points and found out my first blog on WordPress actually did some of the things you suggested. :) If an item has a really good title and is not too long, it may carry you through (Once in awhile). Pictures help if that is your thing.

  • http://perfectioncoding.com/ Martyn Chamberlin

    I know you published this a year ago but got here from Twitter and couldn’t resist.

    The contrarian view you mention at the end is important to producing good art. Readers can sense whether the author wants them to skim or not. They slow down when they sense the quality of prose rising. We find out early on in The Pilgrim’s Progress that we’re going to miss the entire book if we scan it. We’re forced to slow down and taste each morsel.

    Content written to be scanned doesn’t deserve to be read slower than a scan, but content needn’t be written this way. You’re not competing with the Joneses. You’re competing with yourself, to produce a better work of art than you did last time.

    I’m a software engineer talking to a published author so I know you’ll take this with a grain of salt.

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      There’s a difference between a blog post and a book. Just like an iPhone app isn’t a computer operating system. Okay maybe not “just like,” but you get the idea. The frame always affects the form. You know that, Martyn. Good art is about respecting the audience while staying true to the craft. Even the Impressionists cares about the people they were affecting. :-)

    • http://goinswriter.com/ Jeff Goins

      There’s a difference between a blog post and a book. Just like an iPhone app isn’t a computer operating system. Okay maybe not “just like,” but you get the idea. The frame always affects the form. You know that, Martyn. Good art is about respecting the audience while staying true to the craft. Even the Impressionists cares about the people they were affecting. :-)

  • http://www.howtostoparguing.com/ Marcos Rocha

    I do scan if I find that the article is just dragging out the introduction. I want to get to the main point ASAP.

  • John Nonemaker

    thanks for the tips Jeff, it’s a big help! for posts where we have more to say than we can cram into 400-600 words, should we break the discussion into a series of posts?

  • Brenda Poulos

    Thank you for the tips. I know I will enjoy READING (not just scanning) your newsletters!

  • http://www.aggietha.com/ Aggie

    Thank you for these tips – really agree on making paragraphs short and readable.

  • ANNIE EVE

    Very Good content : thanks so much. I definitely need to put this in practice. :)