Writers have only two motives—we write to say something, or we write to be heard. One is all about us. The other is all about the reader. In a perfect world, good writers combine both the desire to convey information and the desire to serve the reader by “speaking the readers’ language,” giving the readers what they seek, and making the material easy for them to absorb.
In this mission, we must remember that even before our words, the reader sees the page. If the page is not inviting and suited to the information being conveyed, the reader will go no further. We will have satisfied our own desire to speak, but we will not have satisfied our readers’ desire to hear. This is especially true in expository writing.
I can hear you now . . . Wait! Expository writing? But I’m a fiction writer. What does that mean to me?
Notice who writes these non-fiction posts? We fiction writers inevitably write some form of non-fiction, whether it is our own biographies, blog posts, or freelance articles for popular web sites. Some few, like my writing partner and I, write both fiction and non-fiction books. The fact is that almost every fiction writer will write a non-fiction post for the internet at some point in their career.
What the Reader Sees
The first thing a reader sees of any non-fiction post is the overall page. It’s important to design a page that invites readers to linger long enough to glean the information that is on it. Several factors play into this design.
- Content Density
- Paragraph length
- Article length
Readers may or may not have short attention spans, but they definitely are busy people. If information isn’t easy to look at and sort through, they simply won’t bother. Add to that the fact that many people read internet posts on their mobile devices, which have their own restrictions on page presentation. That means now more than ever before in history, we writers must construct our visual delivery of information mindfully in order to serve our readers.
The internet gives us unlimited design capacity, and with that comes colors...Woot! Woot! Right?...Not necessarily.
Bright colors are like sex and violence. If they are essential to the "story," that's one thing. However, if the colors are only the product of our daydreams or an attempt to mask a lack of substance, they are gratuitous.
Nothing gratuitous serves our readers. Let me show you why.
That being said, dark colors on a white background make nice accents for titles, lists, links, or sentences that we want to emphasize, such as this one.
The reader is busy; the page shouldn't be. If a page is too busy, it will visually overwhelm readers. Readers will not sort through a barrage of visuals to find the information they want. They will click out and move on. That means simple text arrangements are more efficient than complicated ones, and accent pictures are better than collages for everyone except professional photographers.
Use basic, visually friendly fonts such as Helvetica, Times New Roman, or other standard fonts. SIMPLE variations, such as Comic Sans MS or an unadorned script, are also easy on the eyes. However, stay away from more elaborate variations.
Pitch is the size of the print. Vary it with titles to make them stand out. This will break up the page and help the reader hone in on what matters to them. However, keep in mind that pitch variations can also be like sex and violence, as in they do not serve the reader if they are gratuitous.
Titles help our readers quickly locate what is most important to them. They also serve to break up large blocks of information into smaller focuses that are both easily digested and visually friendly.
We've all been there...English 101. Five sentence topic paragraph with an opening, three supporting points, and a thesis statement. Then on to three paragraphs, each with a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and a conclusion, followed by a conclusion paragraph with a topic sentence, three supporting sentences, and the grand finale that is usually a simple restatement of the original thesis statement. This structure is one of the most difficult things for non-fiction writers to take to the next level. Do we need a theme or thesis for every non-fiction piece we write? Absolutely. We should retain the English 101 element of focus that is the basis of all good non-fiction writing. However, what we must abandon is the five-sentence/five-paragraph structure if we are to convey information to the modern internet reader. For the modern digital reader, we need to condense our points. We live in a sound bite world where even our president converses in 140 characters or less. While five sentences or more are necessary to make a point at times, if we are able to make that same point in two or three sentences, that's okay. No one will be looking for the rest of the paragraph.
Which brings me to another reason why it's okay to take liberties with the English 101 Bible...
Long paragraphs cause readers to throw mobile devices against the wall. Example A above. Wasn't that annoying? Did anyone really read every word before skipping to this part? If you did, was it a chore? I'll consider my point made.
Article length should be adjusted for the audience. If the audience is medical students, we can count on readers with longer attention spans. However, if the audience is the average Facebook or Twitter surfer, they are more likely to read and pass on articles of 500 words or less.
The topic will also help determine the appropriate article length. If the topic is a recipe for lemonade, the article should be short and sweet...so to speak. If the topic is an aspect of national security, like the posts my writing partner and I publish, 500 words would leave more questions with the reader than answers. As a loose rule, 1000 words is about all most readers can tolerate from one internet article, and then only if the article is full of substance.
Keep in mind the audience and the topic and give the reader every opportunity to glean the information as efficiently as possible. By doing that, we can not only say our piece, but we can be heard, as well.
What keeps your attention on a page? What are your pet peeves? What ways do you make reading easier for your audience?
All the best to all of you, and may your muses be generous.
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Piper Bayard is an author, a recovering attorney, and the managing editor of the Social In Worldwide network. Her writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE. You can find Piper at BayardandHolmes.com.