Make sure your article is scannable

There is a LOT of content on the web. More than most of us can even conceive.

And the vast majority of it is rubbish. Just thin content - full of promise but light on substance. Click bait.

Google's algorithms trawl and catalogue this content all day, every day. But they're essentially machines - they don't get bored and they have all the time in the world. It's their job. They exist purely to do that job and that job alone.

Add Value. And Do It Quickly.

Your readers are NOT like those algorithms.

They're impatient, time-poor and wary of all that thin content. They want content that adds value - a solution to their problem, or an answer to their question.

So they move quickly until they see something that actually seems to offer some genuinely useful information.

They know that all that content - good or bad - useful or useless - is just a click or two away. They're spoilt for choice.

They're not going to studiously read every word on the page. They're going to skim read, looking for words and phrases - or even images - that catch their attention and connect with their user intent.

They scan - quickly running their eyes down and across the page, and maybe back up again - like bees searching for nectar, seduced by the bright floral displays blooming exclusively for them.

Nectar + Pollen = Sweet Success!

Your challenge as a Content Writer is to create those flowers and fill them with lots of tasty nectar.

You can think of the actions these readers take when they land on your copy (your flowers) as the pollen needed for your very survival - the cross-fertilisation that occurs when someone clicks on a link and ends up on a different part of your site - whether it's another blog post, a sales page or any other CTA you're tasked with crafting.

That's your endgame.

So How Do You Create Scannable Content?

It's actually pretty easy. Just make it easier to read.

Make it succinct and immediately relevant. Especially in your intro. You've only got a few seconds to reel them before they bounce onto the next bit of shiny content. They're fickle.

Ever wondered why they call it Bounce Rate?

There are a few Golden Rules for making copy skimmable:

  1. Less is more - Write short paragraphs
  2. Break it up - Use lots of line breaks
  3. Itemise it - Use numbered and bulleted lists where logical
  4. Heads up! - Use H2s, H3s, and even H4s when necessary

In other words, avoid large blocks of text.

Keep paragraphs to no more than four lines of text in a Google Doc.

Break it up with lists and creative formatting. Bit of bold here. Bit of italic there. Highlight the words and phrases you want to emphasise. Just don't overdo it.

And think.


White Space (the Web Designer's Best Friend).

One Paragraph. One Idea.

"Who gives a shiitake?"

Here's a good post about The Art of the Paragraph. It references the above quote by Guy Kawasaki who liked to think of an imaginary critic reading over his shoulder, forcing him to make every paragraph (and word) count.

Read these:

People Like Bullet Points. Use Them.

"Bullet points are so common because readers like them."

People read bullet points. They like them because they are easily scannable. They break up blocks of text and draw the scanning eye.

But you can make lists even more likable.

How? Here's how:

Bold, Italic, Underline. Which One Should I Use?

“Should I use bold or italics for this text? I'm confused!”

Bold, Italic, Underline. Oh, and CAPS.

When should you - and when shouldn't you - use them?

As a rule:

  • Use them sparingly.
  • Use Bold to highlight text and capture the reader's attention.
  • Use Italic for quotes, names, dialogue and a weaker emphasis than Bold.
  • Avoid using Underline - it makes it look like a link.
  • Only use CAPS for expressing very strong emotion or acronyms.

Though bold text is great for adding emphasis to a word or phrase, over time it causes eye fatigue and reduces reader comprehension. The use of white space and headers is a far more effective method of calling out important information.

Read these:

Last But Not Least - Read, Read, Read

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

This metaphor, made famous by Isaac Newton, is about "discovering truth by building on previous discoveries".

Specifically those made by other people. Like Jakob Nielsen.

Nielsen is basically the "guru of Web page usability". He was helping web content creators understand how users interacted with their web pages as far back as 1995.

The web has changed a lot since then, but people haven't. We still behave in startlingly predictable ways.

In 1997, Nielsen said scannable text was about using:

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not "clever" ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing

Seriously, read these:

More expert insights to help you improve scannability: