Monday, January 30, 2012

5 tips for writing scannable content



The other day I found a piece of paper stuck in my front door. It was a brochure from a local carpet cleaning company. Since our carpets really, really need cleaned, I immediately took a look, scanning to see what type of services the company provided (chemical or natural cleaners? Water extraction or steam cleaning?) and what the rates were.

I should have been able to find this information instantly. But I couldn't, because the inside of the brochure was a solid block of text--a wall of words, words, words. And looking at it made my head hurt.

It's become fairly common knowledge that when writing for the web, it's a good idea to break up text. But did you know that this is a good rule of thumb when writing for print, too?

Most folks reading your brochure, flyer, newsletter, etc. will first scan your text. Some will ONLY scan, picking out the important stuff (to them) and reading nothing else.

So how do you help readers find those gold nuggets of information?

1. Use headings.
Headings and subheads help separate sections of information so readers can find what they're looking for quickly. If they have to look too hard, they may simply quit reading--and or worse, toss your marketing piece in the trash.

2. Include lists.
Separate a group of main points with bullet points or numbers. Readers will be able to glance at your list and take away main ideas, like the services you offer or the areas you serve.

3. Start lists with action words.
Strong verbs attract attention, so it's a good idea to use them at the beginning of each sentence. Look at this article. Use, include, start, break, vary--these are all action verbs that provide a definite direction. You don't even need to read the descriptive text beneath each main point to get the gist of these 5 tips.

4. Break up paragraphs.
Bust up that wall of words with paragraphs. In today's fast-paced world, few folks have time to sift through endless text. Tell who you are (one paragraph), add descriptions accordingly (another paragraph), highlight benefits of using your product/service (a separate paragraph), etc.

5. Vary sentence length.
There are sales and marketing materials that make you want to learn more--i.e., keep reading-- and there are informational pieces that make you wonder why a second grader wrote the product description. Instead of this:

ABC widgets are high-quality widgets. They carry a lifetime guarantee. You'll be happy with this product.

Try varying the length of your sentences to allow for better flow:

ABC widgets are high-quality widgets. All of our products feature a lifetime guarantee, but if you need to replace one, just stop by one of our three locations--we'll take care of the issue. Our customers tell us they're happy with our products. We look forward to adding you to this list!


Now, pick up one of your marketing pieces. Can you find information quickly? Are your eyes drawn to headings and lists? If not, use these tips when revising your content to help make it scannable.

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