Recently I was reading a list of copywriting guidelines on how to make web pages attract and keep a reader’s attention. The list contained familiar items you’ve probably seen before: write a catchy headline, talk benefits vs features, and focus on a single message instead of many.
One recommendation, however, rang false to me: keep your text short. The author recommends this because “People don’t read on the Web”. Instead, the author claimed, they “scan” text instead.
There are several problems with this assumption, however. First, people do actually read on the Web…scanning is simply the first step in the process. Second, short text can be just as poorly written as long text (and often is). Third, people actually seek out and enjoy reading longer texts.
People Scan First, then Read
The fact that people scan when on the Web has little to do with length of text. The act of scanning, or glancing through and quickly examining headlines, subheadlines and other emphasized text, is not a substitute for reading: it’s merely the first step of reading. People scan quickly to find the good stuff…it’s the most efficient way to find it.
Despite feeling overwhelmed, we are incredibly efficient at finding information on the Web. Once the scanning bears fruit and we find a headline delivering the promise we’re looking for, we slow down and begin reading word for word for more detail. We dive in. We might not read long…only long enough to find an answer…but we are “reading” at this point. And if the piece is longer, such as a piece from a newspaper or magazine, we might read all of it.
It’s not so much that people don’t read, it’s that we start by scanning large amounts of information for the good stuff. Then, and only then, do we dive in and read.
Text Length doesn’t Equal Quality
For a bad writer short copy is easier to write than long copy. They simply stop writing sooner. All things being equal short text is preferable to long text, but since when are all things equal?
It is important how short text gets short. If text is kept short merely to stay within the guideline, chances are it doesn’t do all that it needs to do. But if text is short as the result of careful writing and revision, with a strict adherence to saying all that is necessary as briefly as possible, then your text won’t just be short, it will also be good. (and thus read)
Short copy shouldn’t be a goal, it should be an ideal. Like Einstein’s famous quip “make it as simple as possible, but not simpler”, in writing we want to “write as concisely as possible, but don’t leave anything out”.
People Enjoy Longer Texts
Finally, people often enjoy longer texts. Given the choice between a well-written short piece of text and a well-written longer piece of text, many would choose the longer version because it naturally has more of what the reader wants to know. It answers more questions. It goes in depth and provides context and detail. People who are truly interested in a topic will read everything they can about it. How often do you hear people say things like Sunday is my time to sit down with the paper (or an iPad) and read what I didn’t have time to read before?
Additionally, e-readers like the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad are exploding in use, while services like Instapaper also suggest that people desire to read longer texts with less distraction. In this way longer text can become a powerful differentiator…if you are telling an interesting story and your competitor isn’t then you’ve got an upper hand. Take, for example, the power of writing in Groupon.
In conclusion, explaining people’s behavior on the web as simply “scanning” is too simplistic. Short text can be as poorly written as long text, and in some cases short text is less desirable than longer, well-written text.
Writing well often means writing short text. But writing short text doesn’t mean you’re writing well.