May 6, 2014
Writing is both an art and a science that has changed dramatically over time. But the pace of that change has increased exponentially in the last four or five years. The reason is the arrival of the tablet and its counterparts.
The iPad, its competitive cousins, and their sibling Smartphones are transforming our lives and businesses in many ways, but one that few people have noticed is their impact on written content. You can take content that was written for a book, a magazine, or a Web page and simply display it on a tablet, but you’re probably going to be disappointed with the results.
The reason is that people who use tablets and other touch screen devices come to read that content in a different way. They may still sit down and savor every paragraph of a novel, but when they read something on a tablet, they prefer a quick fix. Studies of tablet users find that they spend far less time with the content than they would with other media.
Professional writers have watched copy evolve as readers have become busier and increased their use of technology. For example, articles and marketing materials have become shorter. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when articles like this one averaged between 1,200 and 1,500 words. Today, anything that approaches 800 words seems unusually lengthy, and most editors are asking their writers to trim their content even shorter. (This article runs just over 700 words.)
Effective writers pay attention to the way people read in the same way that successful restaurateurs stay abreast of what people like to eat. Long before tablets arrived, writers were already using techniques such as summaries, subheadings, lead-ins, and bulleted lists to allow readers to get through material more quickly and efficiently.
Today’s reader is more of a scanner. He or she skims quickly through content, looking for key points or information that’s of interest. An effective writer anticipates that by making navigation easier. For example, a writer may begin each paragraph with a bold subhead or lead-in that delivers a quick summary of what follows. If the reader is interested in that subject, he or she will dive in. If not, it’s on to the summary atop the next paragraph.
That has led to a significant change in writers’ attitudes. In the past, writers crafted sentences and paragraphs with the hope that the reader would hang on every word. Today, we accept the fact that most people will zero in on what matters most. We know they won’t read every word, but we hope they’ll come away with what’s important to them.
When writing for tablets, color offers another opportunity for guiding the reader. Sentences containing the most important thoughts or arguments can be highlighted in different colors. Small graphic elements such as photos and icons can be woven into the copy to spotlight key areas.
Copy length is an important consideration for two reasons. First, people who prefer to scan don’t want to get bogged down with long copy. Brevity is not only the soul of wit; it’s the best way to share your message with someone who’s using a tablet or Smartphone. Second, these devices have small screens. That limits the amount of copy that’s visible at any one time — an important consideration, because scanners generally won’t scroll down unless you give them a very good reason for doing so.
Don’t assume that scanners aren’t paying attention to your messages just because they spend less time with your content. They’ve been raised in an era of media overload and are comfortably soaking up massive amounts of information from multiple directions, often simultaneously. The key difference is not in how much they retain; it’s in how they absorb it.
One last point: currently, the age of the target individual is a factor in whether that person takes the time to read thoroughly or simply skims through the content. The older the person, the more likely he or she will read in greater depth. But as tablets and other devices become more popular, that age-related dividing line is rapidly moving up. The 50-something who doesn’t use a tablet today probably will within the next couple of years, so concentrating your efforts on scanners is the best long-term strategy.