Reading Online: 140 Characters Isn’t a Tome

By: Marilyn L. Davis

“Browsing the Web is more like snacking – but I live on snacks. Sam Trammell


Write Like They Are Reading and They Are Reading Differently

We quickly look for something that’s educational, entertaining, or enchanting when we read. And sometimes, the writer decides that a quirky saying or quote will satisfy at least one of those objectives. In this case, you might be wondering who is Sam Trammell and what does he know about writing.  He’s an actor on the TV series, True Blood, who also happened to be a proofreader at Merrill Lynch.

Perhaps reading legal jargon does qualify him to distinguish a meal from a snack.

We all know that snacking takes less time than the seven-course meal. We also know that time is a precious commodity, and most people do not waste their time reading what is unappealing any more than they eat what is unappetizing. Unfortunately, that often translates to readers scanning and not reading an entire post.  Knowing this, many writers struggle with how to write a satisfying article with one that respects readers and their time.

So, how can you write that compelling article?  You write as they read, and that includes peppering your article with obscure but interesting facts to begin with, which just might get your readers to the next paragraph.

“My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” ~Nicholas Carr, author of Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Although Carr’s comment can seem disheartening, it helps to understand the facts. From: Nielsen Norman Group Evidence-Based User Experience Research, Training, and Consulting

  • In 1997, the world’s first study of how users read web content summarized the findings in two words: they don’t.  Instead of carefully reading information, users typically scan it.
  • In 2006, the eye-tracking research found that users frequently scan website prose in an F-pattern, focusing on words at the top or left side of the page, while barely glancing at words that appeared elsewhere.

The recent research quantified this finding: given the duration of an average page view, users have time to read at most 20% of the words on the page.

Twitter Didn’t Help the Situation

In the early days of Twitter, most of their posts were sent via SMS, or text messages on the phone, which had a standard length of 160-characters, thus the restriction.attention-span-remaining

Writers need to reduce information to a few well-chosen words. It’s part of the culture of condensing, consolidating, and communicating, and should be part of your article writing philosophy as well. 

My title is directive, telling you the reality of life on the web.  In spite of this, I can and do tend to augment a serious, pedantic writing style of mine with humor – i.e. the reference to meal or snack.

Woody Allen captured the essence of skim reading with this quote, “I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”  Taking a cue from this, pick the most reasonable topic – Russia, and then consider your tone.

Just as a speaking voice can adopt a tone – conciliatory, condescending, put out, or joyful, your written voice has tone as well.  Is this a serious matter?  Then humor might not be the appropriate voice.  Is this article educational?  Then slang, lingo, and buzzwords might diminish its value to your readers. Make sure that vocabulary, syntax and phrasing reflect your tone appropriately. There is more leeway in our tones today, and our vocabulary reflects this casual, almost conversational tone.

Formal, Casual, or Slang: Choosing Your Words

If you have been writing for a while, and gotten comments from your readers, you have an understanding of what they like, which helps you determine tone. If you are writing from a place of authority on a subject, use language that is particular to that subject. For instance, I write about addiction and recovery.  As such, I use phrases and vocabulary familiar to those in recovery.  However, I will often link, as I did with the word ‘syntax’.  I do this for recovery or writing words that might interest a reader and allows them to learn more about a particular word. Are you writing to a younger audience?  Then you might include slang, lingo and buzzwords for them.

Tones for Your Next Article

What are some tones you can adopt to convey your emotions in your post?

tones 2I live in the south and I might include a particular phrase used colloquially here. For instance, if someone says something snarky about living in a rural area and being a dumb redneck, I might use, “You know, I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday” as a comeback; telling them that I’m not dumb.

However, someone from another country or even parts of America might have trouble comprehending that reference, so make sure that your references either have universal understanding or give your readers a link so they can gain more understanding of the meaning.

Write For Humans, Not Search Engines

We search through Google and get sites promising content only to find pages that merely give us keywords, not content.

If a reader takes the time to read your article, write the piece to them, after all they already know what the keywords are, that is how they found you.

Content and Body: Meat and Potatoes First

Give a potential reader the substance of your article in an excellent summary and let them find it quickly. Now they know what you are serving them, the main course – the body and content of your article. Learn to respect your reader’s time.  Give them breaks from wording and let them decide where to focus. You can do this with:

  • Graphics or images next to the relevant information
  • Important information in bold
  • Italics for emphasis
  • Videos to reinforce your information, or set an overall mood or theme

Adding to the Buffet of Wordsmeat-and-potatoes

Metaphors, like meat and potatoes or buffet of words, work to convey a complex idea that has universal appeal. If I continue it, people may be curious about the other offerings. Therefore, I will continue with words that reinforce the concept.

Some people do want more than meat and potatoes. How much more is the issue. Don’t overwhelm them with useless words to impress, nor dumb down an article.

Use appropriate vocabulary, but offer the least complicated or simplest word possible.  It makes reading a delight instead of a chore. Impress them with the simplicity of your article discussing a complex issue or subject.

Respect your reader’s time. If they have to ask what is on the buffet line because it does not look familiar, or your words are too academic, archaic, or seemingly sophisticated, your reader is gone.

Conclusion: Desserts

Make your conclusions appealing, also. You may think you are sweet, delightful, lovable, and engaging and want to add your personal experience to your article.

That is like dessert; some readers will pass on the bloat and extra calories.

Only add your personal experience about your article’s subject if it will help your reader, inspire them, motivate them, or encourage them. However, if you know that your knowledge, skill or life event will summarize and conclude your article with more information for your reader, present it. Making your article unique and interesting because you have a shared, or different perspective on the subject is what can set you apart from other writers.

desserts plate

We can all serve fruit, but your addition of a mint leaf, or the extra chocolate sauce will set it apart. Just make sure that your conclusion is as tasty, delicious and satisfying as the body, not some store-bought confection you threw on the table as an afterthought or added words to meet a word count minimum.


Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing



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