Obstacles, design choices, even that groovy music you adore can all send potential readers elsewhere.
By Jane Friedman
EDITORS AND AGENTS OFTEN TALK ABOUT "WHAT MAKES ME STOP READING.”
What's probably not discussed enough is what makes us stop reading online—especially websites and blogs by writers.
I've been compiling best tweets for writers for half a year now and have scanned tens of thousands of blog postings and homepages, all by following a tweeted link. Just as I have a sense about whether a manuscript will be any good in the first few minutes, now I have the same gut feel about blog posts. Only, it takes seconds.
Keep in mind: I have different standards for online reading than offline reading. People leave your site in a split-second if they can't find what they're looking for. We all have the online attention span of an ADHD gnat.
Here's what makes me stop reading online:
1. Sites with black backgrounds. I don't care if it saves the world's energy to have a black background, or if there's a special function to reverse it. No one's going to figure that out. If your site's primary goal is to have people read it, then make it easy to read.
There are some sites that are fine with black backgrounds—sites meant to showcase photography, portfolios, products, etc—but most writers do not fall into this category.
2. Sites that play music upon entering; sites that take forever to load because of multimedia or Flash; links that automatically take me to a download with no explanation. Any site that delays me from reading your content for more than a few seconds is risking abandonment. If I have to turn the volume off on my computer, if I have to download a plug-in or "click through to enter,” or if I follow a link that pops up a download window, then I'm outta there.
(Note to anyone sharing download links on Twitter: Please direct people to a landing page where they can read more about the download—more than 140 characters. Don't make us depend on the tweet alone.)
3. Links that go to a general homepage rather than specific site content. Sometimes people will share a link about a specific piece of content that goes to a homepage rather than to that specific
content.Maybe people think their link will be followed right away, and the homepage (at that moment) offers the target content, so why worry? But links might be followed long after they are originally sent, and I hate to follow a link only to find a general site, and not the specific content that was mentioned. I usually abandon the effort.
4. Content without subheads, paragraph breaks, or breathing room. Often I come across blog posts that look like they could have excellent content, but I'm not wading through two 500-word block paragraphs to find out.
Anyone who blogs and wants to build a readership should consider:
- Short, easy-to-read paragraphs.
- Lots of subheads, breaking the content down.
- Bulleted lists and numbered lists for easy scanning.
- Bold or colored text to bring out important points.
You want multiple entry points into your content. Readers may scan all the way to the bottom of your content, just looking for a way in, and if they find it, may start again from the beginning. It's never too late to catch someone—give them a chance to see what your point is.
5. Poorly designed sites. Unfortunately, there are so many ways a site can be off-putting or hard to read—but here are three key factors.
- Poor leading (too little space between lines). Here's an example
- Difficult-to-read fonts and/or colors. Creative Penn used to be guilty of this, and you can see a design critique here that helped her improve the site. And here's a site that I know has great content, but it doesn't look good at all in my browser.
- Too busy. You simply have too much crap on your homepage. (Yes, I know WritersDigest.com is guilty of this, too.) Paradoxically, I find the ProBlogger site now unreadable because of too many columns, too many ads, too many everythings. It's exhausting. What am I supposed to focus on or look at? Here is an example of a site with top-notch readability and design, but that still has advertising and promotions: Copyblogger.
Jane Friedman is the publisher and editorial director of Writer's Digest.