Writing for Online Reading: How Long Is Too Long?

by Linda Jenkinson |

measuring length

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with reading on the web that narrow text column widths are preferable to wide ones. Because web designers pay attention to resolutions and screen sizes, most templates are designed so that the active window is the appropriate column width. The length (inch-wise) of an article is more important to the webmaster.

The frequent question is, "How long is too long?" Is it better to expect your reader to scroll down or to expect them to click to another page in a longer article? Or would it be better, to keep articles to a length that allows the reader to complete reading without needing to either click or scroll?

The definitive answer is that there is no definitive answer. Just as writers develop their own individual writing styles, readers develop their own styles of reading. Some readers prefer long articles that are more detailed and others like their information in a nutshell. Some favor clicking from page to page and others find the need to click annoying no matter how long the article is.

You've probably read or been told to "write for your readers". If you write for your readers, you'll develop a following of those who enjoy your writing style. Of course, the first step in developing a following is to know not only what information your readers are seeking, but also how your readers read.

Make Reading Easy

The experts tell us that before you begin reading a web page, your eye canvases the screen for something of interest. Now, this canvas is 'above the fold', so if you must scroll to access the meat of an article, your attention may wane before you find the point that piques your interest in the topic.

Although the more white space you use, the less area you have for 'above the fold' content, being generous with white space makes finding that 'something' easier for your reader. That's also why headings are important to good content. They make eye-catchers out of the main points of your content.

As you read down this page, notice what your hand is doing. It's probably on your mouse, scrolling the page as you read. Reading on the web differs from reading the print word where you eye travel downs the page.

What happens is that when reading on the screen, your eye finds its point of interest and fixes on that point of interest, reading while you use your mouse or keyboard to scroll the page, helping you maintain your focus on the page even as you search for the next major point of interest. That's what the experts mean when they tell you that Internet readers scan a web page. There's more to it than that, but reading while scrolling is a big part of scanning.

Bulleted and numbered lists are also great attention grabbers that allow your reader to scroll and scan while quickly accessing the most interesting and/or most important parts of your message.

Some self-proclaimed gurus will tell you that the tendency to scroll is indicative of the short attention span of those who read on the web. The truth is, that readers, whether reading print media or reading on the screen, are just regular people that bring their normal attention spans to your web content. Your topic draws their attention. How you format your content, holds it.

Give Your Reader a Chance to Click.

They already have the itch. Notice your own urge to click while reading long content. How many times have you right-clicked unintentionally or clicked on a link that you really didn't mean to click?

Turn your reader's urge to click to your advantage. Give your readers the opportunity to click to other areas of your site and eventually through your sales process to conversion, using text links within content and breaking longer articles into shorter sections.

Aside from making important areas of your content stand out, contextual links scratch the itch to click and allow your readers to move on to another area of interest or a more specific definition of their present one.

If your topic is broad, divide specific points into separate pages. Keeping web pages relevant to a particular aspect of your message not only gives your readers a chance to click, it also helps you create optimized pages that hold single-topic information that search engine spiders love to eat.

Breadcrumb navigation helps readers advance through a site while providing them with the ability to go back if they choose to do so. It also allows readers to bookmark a page of specific information, something that they can't do on a one page article.

Whether your goal is to entice your reader to click on an affiliate link or your contact page, sooner or later you want your reader to click. Give him/her plenty of chances to satisfy the urge.


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