Have you noticed that the way you read websites, emails, text messages — even magazine and news articles — has changed over time?
A growing body of research suggests the internet is changing how people pay attention to writing. The most anxious accounts describe a burning platform: The internet is degrading our ability to pay attention for long periods and so also process extended chains of causal reasoning.
I prefer more pragmatic accounts: People just are reading differently, and the challenge for writers is how to adapt to these new conditions.
Clearly, the pragmatic approach is important for lawyers hoping to be understood by clients.
People Don’t Read, People Skim
How you’re reading this article is a good example of how most people read most of the time. You first noticed the title, right? Then read a little bit of the beginning, possibly skimming over the content until a word or phrase caught your attention, reading a few sentences, then skipping to the next bold heading, and starting to skim again.
My favorite book about pragmatic writing is technically a book about web design. Steve Krug, the author of “Don’t Make Me Think,” describes the No. 1 fact of life on the web as, “We don’t read pages. We scan them.”
Scanning happens for three reasons:
People on the web are on a mission. Goal-oriented behavior (where to eat tonight, how to file a form online) keeps people moving constantly toward their objective.
People know they don’t need to read everything. Goal-oriented web use means that most of the information on any page is unrelated to our interest or task. (Ironically, this is the first thing people forget when they stop surfing the web and start writing content.)
People are good at skimming. Humans are born environment-scanners. We do it all the time, everywhere, on and off the web, and way more often than we read.
Rarely do people read from start to finish, line by line. Your website shouldn’t be written this way, and by extension, neither should anything you write that gets read online (emails, newsletter, blog posts, etc.).
Make It Easy for People to Skim
While some legal writing is tightly prescribed (such as submissions to courts or tribunals), there are lots of opportunities for communication to reflect the way people actually read your writing.
Here are three tools of good web design that I learned from Krug and deploy when writing just about everything.
Use headings to organize information for the reader as well as to summarize the contents of the entire article or email. A reader should have some idea what you’re saying just by reading the headings. (Put another way, headings should help readers decide whether they need to read the rest of your piece.)
Use short paragraphs. Long paragraphs are intimidating, even if the content is accessible. Instead, break up your writing into short paragraphs — even one-sentence paragraphs are OK — leaving lots of white space. The less-intimidating your writing looks, the more of it people will read.
Highlight key terms and phrases. Boldface type is like a signpost for people skimming through your text. It’s a good way to help people focus on what you think is important. This is something that I’ve started doing in emails, and not just for key dates and times. (Also, if you must write in long paragraphs, including boldface terms makes the paragraph appear more accessible.)