Writers are friends, not tools

There are just under 2 billion websites online as I write. By the time I publish this, about 7 million other blogs will have been posted today. What are the odds that any of the 4.7 billion internet users in the world will ever stumble upon my website? Unfavorable. And what are the odds that anyone who stumbles upon this article will read it from beginning to end? Again, unfavorable.

What can be done to improve my odds? How can I keep my readers from abandoning me for one of the billion other websites that are literally always right at their fingertips?

Maybe I should back up a bit and ask myself why I want readers in the first place. Is it for my sake? Or for theirs?

In Jonathan Zittrain’s talk on whether the internet is taking us where we want to go, he poses the question of whether today’s internet moguls are tools or friends. That is, are websites acting as neutral devices to be used without moderation or as software inclined to benefit end user (or society at large)?

If the posts on my website are intended to be a friend rather than a tool, then it’s not as important for me to make sure every reader finds me and never leave me. What is most important is that when a reader who needs me does find me, they will get what they need in the way that they need it.

If my intended audience is made up of communicators looking for insight into improving their craft, then I must make those insights stand out and easy to understand.

Two ways to be a friend, not a tool:

Use clear and descriptive headers

Headers are important for three reasons:

First, skimming readers brake for headers. Take a look at Nielson Norman’s article about the F-Shaped Pattern. It’s already ingrained in our nature to expect to get the best cues in the header and lead sentences. Pack them with information-carrying words.

Second, they help the reader prioritize your content. If your reader is busy, easily distracted, or simply impatient, then a good header will help them determine quickly if that section is worth reading. Yes, you might love that clever bit of alliteration in that one paragraph, but you need to remember that you’re being a friend to your reader and it’s not nice to make them spend extra time reading through things they weren’t looking for.

Third, they will improve your SEO. Google pays close attention to H2 and H3 tags, so if you have something important to talk about, put it in your header and make sure it clearly describes the content that follows.

Put your information in list form

Have you ever started reading a short article that turned out to be a very, very long one? Probably not very often because one of the first things many readers do is check to see how long an article is before they even begin.

If your information is presented as a list, and if you tell your audience beforehand how many list items there are, then you have made your content more consumable. At any given moment, the reader can know how far they’ve read and how much is left.

These organizational cues also give the impression of value through quantification. How many helpful pieces of information were in this post? Well, that is highly subjective. But how many things did my audience read about headers today? Three. It’s much easier to market an objective three than a subjective dozen.

An audience is more likely to read what they perceive as consumable and remember what they perceive as valuable.

Posted on October 18, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Aaron
    I appreciate that you took the perspective of helping others understand how to both leverage and approach our digital spaces. I was struck by how important it is for people (me?) to learn how the algorithms work in order to know how to engage effectively online; I was also struck by the danger in trusting that corporations (and people) will “do the right thing” in this “friendship” we have. A doctor’s oath to do no harm seems suddenly far more straightforward than Facebook’s (maybe) commitment to the same principle.

  2. Your statement, “If the posts on my website are intended to be a friend rather than a tool, then it’s not as important for me to make sure every reader finds me and never leave me. What is most important is that when a reader who needs me does find me, they will get what they need in the way that they need it” is interesting to me because it shows how far “web 2.0” has come, specifically blogs.

    Early blog scholarship by Jill Walker Rettberg describes the “friend” who wants to stay because “There’s a very different sense of rhythm and continuity when you follow a blog, or a group of blogs, over time, compared to simply reading a single post that you’ve found through a search engine or by following a link from another website.” I’d argue “influencers” on Instagram and content creators on YouTube may want to reach and keep subscribers returning and “liking” as friends. So is the “tool” type of content you describe more what the everyday Googler looks for, e.g. “how to” videos or even think pieces that cover an issue fully enough that the reader doesn’t need to keep looking?

  3. Aaron,
    When I write something online, I also think what the odds of any member of the internet kingdom reading my writing would be. Then I get a pretty hazy number for the answer. It’s not that I am not confident in my writing but that there’s no way I can calculate the odds. In that sense, I totally agree with you that “using clear and descriptive headers” is a very efficient way to catch readers’ eyes. From the headers, readers can tell if the writing is what they need or not. They can also decide whether to start reading the writing or not. While there’s a great deal of information online, people now need to spend time discerning if the information they see is useful l for them. Well-picked headers can definitely help readers to make a choice for their reading as well as to bookmark your writing.
    Thank you, Aaron.

  4. I think you nailed it: clarity and organization are non-negotiable no matter who your audience is.

    It is interesting that most people do scan to the bottom before beginning to read. I remember feeling so relieved when some sites/platforms (such as Medium) included an estimated time the article would take to read. If it was greater than 10 minutes, I would decide to get comfortable and even take out some paper because there might be too much to take in at once. The headings are also critical for navigation. Furthermore, if there are 7 sections to the article, our memory would be able to hold all 7 headings in mind as we read. Thanks for another great insight into the “Reader Experience” -Liz

  5. The “F-Shaped Pattern” article was so interesting! I am going to keep that information in mind when I design my presentations for my high school students. Thank you, Aaron!

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