Writers are friends, not tools
Posted by aaronswrite
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.
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