Writing so people give a darn
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Writing so people give a darn

Woman, confusedThis week, the OPLIN 4Cast took a look at how social media does or does not affect attention.  I thought I’d supplement that with something else that tends to lose people’s attention on the Web.

All too often, when I look at a library’s website, what I see resembles the following:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Praesent nisl odio, suscipit quis imperdiet et, dignissim ut augue. Sed adipiscing rutrum porta. Ut a erat sit amet nisl posuere tincidunt. Nam eu nulla arcu, vitae congue enim. In lacinia mollis hendrerit. Nullam urna turpis, iaculis ut iaculis aliquam, congue in lacus. Etiam varius facilisis erat sit amet euismod. Morbi id gravida ipsum. Integer posuere felis sit amet lorem bibendum nec ornare ipsum tempor. Aliquam lorem augue, ullamcorper sit amet pellentesque et, viverra a sapien. Cras vitae urna nec urna accumsan consequat ut ornare massa. Pellentesque vehicula lacinia massa, sit amet dapibus leo accumsan quis. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. 

Got that?  Me neither.  And, it wasn’t because it was written in fake “Lorem Ipsum” Latin.

If you’re like the typical online visitor, your eyes simply glazed over because you were presented with a huge chunk of text.  Jakob Nielsen, long considered the godfather of web usability, found that people read, at most, 28% of a webpage.  Now, that says “webpage,” not “web item.”  So, if your library’s homepage has other stuff on it besides that hunk of indigestible text, you’re in big, big trouble.  Nobody is reading your verbiage, and now they’re not looking at most of the other content there, either.

Nielsen also found, in that same study, that people only read the entire page if it is 25 words or less.  Knowing that, you might simply throw up your hands and say “We’re screwed.  We can’t possibly narrow our entire front page down to 25 words!”  Well, yes, you’re right.  You probably can’t.

Think about the last time you read an entire webpage, from top to bottom.  What’s that?  You can’t remember?  Chances are, you may never have read an entire page on the Web.  Nielsen found, as far back as 1997, that people scan the Web, they don’t actually read.  What are we scanning for?  That’s easy–we’re looking for things that stand out and/or are relevant to us, individually.  As libraries writing for the public, we can’t always predict what keywords will attract an individual–but we sure can make what we post online easier to digest.  Here’s some help:

  • Think of writing for the Web like serving a pizza.  You probably wouldn’t serve someone an entire pizza, unsliced.  It’s too much to manage at one time.  Nobody (Cookie Monster doesn’t count), generally speaking, shoves an entire, uncut pizza pie into his mouth.  Usually, we slice up a pizza.  Even then, slices are too big for our mouths to handle; we are forced to take small bites before we can chew and swallow.  Your writing needs to be like that:  small, digestible bits.
  • Bullet points and headers are your friends.  Break that text up into just the highlights and assign each highlight  a bullet point or a header.  People are inherently attracted to bullet points–they’re like flashing Christmas lights.  People also are more likely to read a small bit of text that is just a (very) short summary.
  • Live by Krug’s Third Law of Usability.  “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.”  Yes, you read that correctly.  If you are editing properly, you should be left with only 25% of your original content.

What does this mean to me, Laura?

  • Writing well for the Web usually means putting your ego in a drawer.  No matter what you do, people aren’t going to read most of what you write.  Write anyway.
  • Narrow down what you write to the absolute essentials.
  • Bet you read the bullet points, above, and not a whole lot of the text above them. 🙂