8 Tips For Making Your Content Readable And Engaging
by Matt, on 23 Nov 2021
Congratulations, you’ve captured someone’s attention and they’ve clicked on a link to your content! Whether it’s an article, post, web page, or white paper, the very next step is critical.
Within 10-20 seconds, your visitor will decide whether to continue reading or click away.
Since most people read at an average rate of 250 words per minute, that gives you 40-80 words to keep their attention.
That’s about here in this blog post. (If you’re leaving now, thanks for visiting!)
And the battle isn’t won just because you hold their interest beyond the first hundred words.
Most people will skim the rest of your article, pick up a couple of ideas, then leave. Their average time on page will usually be less than a minute.
The good news? That’s an average. There are things you can do to tip the statistics in your favor, encouraging people to spend more time on your content and less on others.
Here are eight tips for making your content readable and engaging, giving your visitor an enjoyable experience that encourages them to stick around and heed your call to action.
1 / PLAN AHEAD
Before you write, plan.
Think about what you want to convey, why it’s valuable and relevant to your audience, and how the information should flow.
Include the punchline in those first, precious sentences. There’s no point saving it for a big ‘reveal’ if most of your readers will have long since clicked away.
Then, tell a coherent story.
Rambling, disorganized content that is hard to follow drives fingers to click close buttons.
For longer pieces, once you’ve organized your outline, write a few bullet points under each heading. This will help you arrange key points throughout the document and spot imbalanced content (e.g. one section much longer than others).
2 / PARAGRAPHS
As you write the content, pay attention to the length of your paragraphs. None of them should be too long – preferably 5-6 lines or less – and their length should vary.
To aid skim reading – most visitors' preferred approach, especially on mobile – start a new paragraph for each new idea.
A client who spends most of his time writing academic papers recently grumbled that I was asking him to write in “breathless blog style”. It’s a very different approach, for sure, because it’s written for a very different audience and probably read in a very different context.
Always keep your target readers in mind when structuring and writing your content.
3 / SENTENCES
Extended sentences are another readability killer.
The easiest to fix are compound sentences, which consist of two or more independent clauses joined with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
Remember the handy acronym FANBOYS to help spot the conjunctions, then break some of those compound ideas into separate sentences.
Like most of the concepts in this post, you don’t need to apply this tip on every occasion. Vary sentence length to make your writing more interesting and to help modulate the pace of your story.
4 / GRAMMAR
This can be a controversial topic!
We are grammar fanatics and frequently debate its proper use. But we realize that not everyone is as familiar with grammar conventions or as sensitive to them.
There are several writing style guides that explain grammar and punctuation rules, as well as specifics on formatting and citations. Which one you choose depends on the type of content you’re producing and your brand's voice.
Popular examples include:
- Associated Press (AP) – the go-to for journalists and news writing, which is useful for online content.
- Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) – the standard for book publishing, which is a humungous guide, suitable for longer-form content.
- Modern Language Association (MLA) – mostly used for academic papers and commonly taught to college students.
Beyond the default algorithms built into Word and other creative platforms, there are some helpful (often free) apps for reviewing your writing for readability, including grammar.
5 / WORD CHOICES (& SPELLING)
Let’s deal with the bracketed nemesis first – spelling.
Always run a spellchecker on your text and carefully check each word that it flags. If you’re writing in a platform that doesn’t include a spellchecker, copy the text into an editor that does, fix the spelling, and then copy it back.
Beyond getting the letters in the correct order, it’s important to choose good words in the first place.
Are you writing for a specialist audience? If so, you’ll want to use the lingua franca of their community. This means learning and writing the jargon that’s commonly understood by practitioners. If not, avoid jargon and sector-specific terminology wherever possible.
Acronyms are another bugbear. Either define them in your piece (like we did for the style guides, above) or avoid them entirely.
Also watch out for repeated words. If a distinctive word (or phrase) pops up more than once in quick succession, it can distract your reader. Use a thesaurus to find alternative words with a similar meaning.
6 / EDITING
Hard-to-follow content is often the result of it having been written in a hurry. Banging out a blog post thirty minutes before the publication deadline doesn’t leave any time for proper review and improvement.
Editing is a crucial step where you can reorganize the content (since your ideas will usually evolve during writing and no longer conform to the original plan) and spot and fix mistakes.
You should also try to remove as many words as possible.
While it sounds counterintuitive to delete what you’ve created, simplifying your work is critical to readability.
The quote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead” has been variously attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and Blaise Pascal. Whoever said it first, the sentiment is spot on.
No one writes tight prose on the first draft.
Some sentences require multiple rewrites to get the concept across in the most succinct, elegant manner. Others turn out to be unnecessary and should be deleted altogether.
As Hemingway put it, “eliminate every superfluous word.” Keep pruning until what’s left is a clear, concise, yet complete account of the ideas you want to convey.
Footnote: for more significant pieces of work, we strongly recommend engaging a professional editor. Their ability to objectively review and improve your writing can transform it from good to great.
7 / FORMATTING
Make judicious use of headings and subheadings. They are the signposts that help your reader navigate the document, especially if it’s longer than a few paragraphs and if they are skim-reading.
If the content will be published on the web, you must also pay attention to heading levels. Reserve the H1 HTML tag for your title (note - each webpage should have one and only one H1 tag) and use H2 tags for subheadings. If you require more levels, use H3 and H4 tags in the proper order. Don't skip a level. This helps search engines comprehend your content and makes it more likely to appear higher on search engine result pages.
Perhaps the most important aspect of layout is the space you don’t fill with words.
White space helps lead your reader progress from one element to another and creates a balanced layout that’s pleasing to the eye.
Your goal is to make the content look simple and uncluttered, whether it is being consumed on a large monitor, mobile device screen, or printed copy.
8 / PROOFREADING
One last tip before you hit the publish button: please have at least one more pair of eyes read everything you write.
Do we really mean everything? Well, perhaps not every IM, DM, or Slack message, but definitely every significant email, social media post, blog post, article, white paper, and e-book.
It’s amazing how many errors still end up in print despite having gone through multiple rounds of editing and proofreading.
The more familiar you are with a piece of work, the less able you become to spot typos, repeated words, and other errors. It takes an outside eye to notice them.
So, make this part of your standard publication process.
Nothing should leave the company before it has been checked – thoroughly – by someone competent to spot the things we’ve been discussing in this post.
A technical piece might require two rounds of review – once by someone able to check the terminology and factual accuracy, and once by someone focused on writing errors and stylistic improvements.
Are You Still Here?
If we’ve done a decent job at following our own tips, you’ve accompanied us on an almost 1,500-word, 6-minute journey.
Hopefully the tips we’ve shared will help you produce content that engages readers in a similar way.
Make it relevant, valuable, readable, and enjoyable.
Your audience will appreciate you for it, and you’ll be top of mind the next time they search for similar content or are in market for your kind of product or service.
- Plan before you write – create an outline with bullet point ideas.
- Pay attention to the length of your paragraphs – none too long, vary the length.
- Break compound sentences and vary sentence length to increase interest.
- Use grammar-checking apps and writing style guides.
- Avoid jargon unless writing for an expert audience, and always check spelling.
- Edit rigorously, removing superfluous words and reorganizing content.
- Format carefully, paying attention to headings and white space.
- Have a qualified person proofread everything before you send it out.