On the Web, people only read what they need to. They simply don’t have time for more. There are too many alternatives. If your Web page can’t give them the answer quickly, a dozen other answers are just a mouse click away. That’s why it’s important to write to be scanned, not to be read. Make it possible for someone to quickly look over your page, quickly get the main points, and quickly decide whether or not to read the rest. This is not merely a stylistic preference – everybody gets tired and cross-eyed at the prospect of reading two screens of small, gray text. Here are five different, yet effective, ways to write and organize a scannable Web page.
- The inverted pyramid: Even on a high-speed Internet connection, information doesn’t travel instantly or even reliably. So, some things haven’t changed much since the 19th century, when battlefield reporters supposedly had to put the most important information first, in case the telegraph went down and cut off the rest of the message. That style of writing was called the inverted pyramid, and it’s even more relevant today in the days of fiber optics. People expect you to cut to the chase and get to the point quickly.
- Bulleted lists: These can be either ordered or unordered (numbered or unnumbered), and they’re one of the best ways to add eye-resting white space to a Web page. They are eminently scannable, because the eye can easily travel from one bullet point to another. Using numbers allows you to communicate which point is most important or which step should come first. It allows your readers to conveniently refer to points by their numbers.
- Checklists: Especially if you’re giving instructions that need to be followed in order, a checklist can be extremely helpful. Even if the order doesn’t matter, your readers can reassure themselves that they’re not missing any steps.
- Narratives: Some subjects, such as case histories, don’t lend themselves to an inverted pyramid style. Yet even in story-telling, the other principles of Web writing still hold true. Your first sentence still needs to give the reader a compelling reason to go on to the second sentence. Your narrative still needs to make sense when scanned, not read. Your major points still need to be distinct.
- Timelines: This is the best way to cover certain subjects. A chronology gives your readers a different perspective on your topic. They know that your last item represents the way things are now, while previous items may be obsolete.