How to avoid writing words that won't be read

How much do you read? I don’t mean look at, flick through or scan – I mean actually read. From start to finish, one word at a time, absorbing every sentence and even pausing once in a while to check your understanding or to ponder what you’ve just read. My guess is: not much. And almost certainly less than you used to.

We don't hear the term 'information overload' as much as we used to, but that's not because the problem has gone away. It's because it is now a way of life. We’ve just become conditioned to it. Between email, blogs, news websites, print media and social media, there is simply not enough time to drink everything that is coming at us from the never-ending all-you-can-eat buffet of today's information sources.

As a result, to avoid indigestion, most of us have become picky. When faced with a new document (either paper or electronic), we make a quick assessment of its worth. Some are tossed without a second glance. Some are scanned … and then tossed. Some are scanned and kept … and then tossed. And a small amount is lucky enough to be read.

Often we make decisions based on the expected investment in time. How many times have you opened a YouTube link then closed it again because the video in question turned out to be more than three minutes long? I mean, who has that sort of time? We make similar assessments by looking at how long it takes to scroll to the end of an article.

All of which has implications, of course, for those of us who want our information to be read, whether blog, book or brochure.

I've written before about the importance of keeping blog posts and web content short, using subheadings to make content scannable and using chunks to break it up into more digestible pieces.

By and large those same lessons can be applied to any form of writing – including long form articles and books. It's all a matter of scale.

There are times when a longer piece of writing is needed – not every argument can be distilled to a three word slogan. But compare a popular non-fiction book of today with one from 20 or 30 years ago and you'll probably find shorter paragraphs, shorter chapters and a shorter book overall. The best ones will also use plain English.

These guidelines might seem obvious and simple, but adhering to them is not always straightforward. While it might be tempting to think that writing less will be easier, the opposite is often true. Someone (it's been attributed to Pascal, Twain, Eliot and Cicero, amongst others) once said: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.

Whoever said this, they were right on. Good, readable writing, no matter how long, requires dedication to the task and clarity of thought. Never has this been more important than it is today.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

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