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Writing for the Screen

Written by Josh Bernoff | on April 19, 2016 at 8:30 AM

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You learned to write the wrong way. And now you’re (probably) doing it wrong at work.

I know. I’ve looked at how they teach writing. In high-school, it’s the “five-paragraph theme.” In college, you padded your papers out with verbiage to look impressive. (In one survey of Stanford undergrads, 86 percent admitted they used complicated language in papers just to sound sophisticated.)

This is exactly the wrong training for the world we live in now. It’s writing for print readers with long attention spans. But as Ben Horowitz of the renowned venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz said, “Babies born today will probably never read anything in print.” We read everything on a screen -- a PC, a tablet, or a phone.

Your prose is at a disadvantage because of that on-screen reading. According to Chartbeat, an analytics company that measures second-by-second attention to media on the Web, the average reader spends no more than 36 seconds on the average news story. And that’s news. Whatever you’re writing will have even more trouble retaining people’s attention.

Writing for a screen demands a different writing strategy: write short, front-load, and make it skimmable. Bloggers know these tricks. But community managers can use them just as effectively.

Write short

Every word you write in a blog post, a community post, or even an email is just another chance for people to quit reading and go look at something else. You should imagine that each word will cost you $10. What isn’t pulling its weight? Cut it. Here’s how.

Edit everything. No one writes tight prose on the first draft. Allow editing time in everything you write.

Aim for a word count at the beginning. Know what 250 words feels like. Or 500 words. Decide on the right length, then aim for it.

Say only what you mean. If it takes you a draft to figure that out, fine. Then go back and cut the stuff that doesn’t support what you really mean.

Reorganize. Put like things together. Then delete what’s redundant. Reorganizing text once or twice makes it tighter.

And read Roy Peter Clark’s book on writing short. It’s a fast read, not surprisingly.

Front-load everything

The Web doesn’t like warm-ups. You need to get to the point really quickly.

That means your title should reveal, not tantalize. Give people what they need to decide if they should read your post. And put the meat of the information in the first 50 words -- where it shows up in the Google search snippet.

Despite this advice, everyone seems to take a few paragraphs to get into what they’re saying. That’s normal writing psychology. But you can fix it.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Try deleting the first paragraph. Does the post still make sense? Then delete the second paragraph. Still make sense? Keep going. When you’ve finally cut something that’s essential to the meaning, put it back. Now you’ve gotten rid of the wasted words at the front and plunged the reader into the thick of your meaning right away.

By the way, these rules apply to emails, too. Put the meat in the subject line. Put the gist of what you’re saying in the first two sentences. You’ll get a reputation for not wasting people’s time, which is a good reputation to have.

Make it skimmable

Avoid paragraphs. On a screen, paragraphs suck -- they’re too hard to scan, and too easy to skip.

Instead, use all the tricks available on a screen to make your post easy to skim and scan. Use these elements:

  • Headings. SEO loves headings, and so do readers. Only one level of heads, please.
  • Lists. Lists are easy to comprehend. Use bullets or, if the list has an order, numbers. Bold the first word or phrase to make items easy to pick out.
  • Graphics. This includes conceptual graphics -- you can build them with a tool as simple as PowerPoint. They’ll stand out, especially in Facebook posts that link to what you just wrote.
  • Tables. Even simple text tables are easy to create and dense with information.
  • Quotes. Short quotes stand out and add credibility.
  • Links. You can include more information without padding your posts -- just link to reference material.

Use these same tricks to make your emails scannable, too. Because paragraphs suck.

Start thinking like a screen-writer -- not the Hollywood kind, but the kind of writer who reads for screen-readers. They’re impatient. So give them what they need as quickly as possible, and your posts will get the attention they deserve.

Josh Bernoff is the author of the upcoming book Writing Without Bullshit.

Topics: Communications, Marketing

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