How to write for the small screen

How to write for the small screen

People don’t read text on a screen the same way they read a book or magazine. Instead of starting at the top and working their way down, according to eye-tracking data, their eyes skip about like a child on hot sand. At most, they read about a quarter of the words on the page.

Worse, they spend most of their daily lives reading things written by other people, not you. They are one click away from leaving your website and going elsewhere.

Some people (especially marketing folk) think that wrapping up words in PDF documents will solve these problems. Wrong. Other people (especially designers and, for some reason, restaurant owners) think that Adobe Flash is the answer. Wrong again.

It’s a brutal environment for writers and only the fittest survive. The only reliable way to make people read what you have to say online is to write it better. I have dedicated the last decade to writing things better and here are a few tips based on my own experience:

  • Write less. Put your copy on a diet. Aim for a 50 percent cut and make the text bigger and easier to read.
  • Use shorter words. Big words don’t make you sound big and clever at all. Actually, the opposite is true, according to Stanford research. Short words are best.
  • Scannable text. Make it easier for readers to find what they want by making your text scannable. Use links, headings, subheads, pull quotes, bold or italic text to highlight key points and provide signposts for readers.
  • Avoid hype. People are bombarded with advertising and spin. They have pretty good BS detectors. So, if you want to be trusted, don’t sound like an advert. Be specific. Don’t use big-up adjectives. Avoid hype. Don’t state the obvious.
  • Kill ‘lorem ipsum’. When you’re designing a website start with what you want to say and design around that. If designers don’t know what to say they use Latin filler text (‘lorem ipsum’). If you see that, it means someone will end up writing copy to fill the space.
  • Use images. The brain is capable of limited parallel processing. This means that it can look at a picture and think about some text at the same time. You can use this to add colour, flavour and emotion to your text. Stock libraries and public domain images can leaven copy on any web page.
  • Use mockup tools. Good mockup tools can help you design web pages, newsletters or whatever quickly so you can focus on copy and structure before you get expensive designers involved.
  • Good headlines. Think of a headline as the invitation to a party. You want to explain why people should come and who’s going to be there. The fashion today is to be descriptive rather than poetic so ‘How to…’ and ‘10 tips for…’ work well.
  • Be conversational. Don’t be afraid of being yourself. Let your hair down. Have a sense of humour. Talk directly to the reader. Go on! I give you my permission.
  • Be easy to read. Use readability tools and common sense to make your text as readable as you can. Even if you want professors to read your site, write for schoolchildren. It’ll be easier on all of them.

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2 Responses to How to write for the small screen

  1. Carol martin January 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    Great tips, refresher course much needed!

  2. John February 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    I’d suggest two books worth reading (sort of) on this subject.

    The Big Red Fez by Seth Godin – Godin uses the metaphor of a monkey looking for a banana on your webpage – if your page reader can’t see what they’re supposed to do, or get the message you’re trying to deliver quickly, they’ll leave. Godin is an excellent writer; he’s a marketer, but one who is trying to deliver marketing on the internet intelligently and (dare I say it) ethically.

    Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. Like Godin, Krug’s book (which is one of the seminal texts on web design) emphasises keeping your pages clear, focussed and with as few choices for your reader as possible. While both Godin and Krug are talking about web design at its broadest, the lessons they impart have strong implications for how we write.

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