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Best Practices for Formatting Articles

Lesson You Already Knew #1: Most People Just Scan Articles

This might seem demoralizing, but it’s true: most people don’t read everything you write - they just scan it for important information. This is not news. Most of you probably are scanning this email, and that’s just something that we need to work with in digital publishing.

When readers are bombarded with so many articles and web pages every day, they just sort of scroll down looking for the good stuff - they look to save themselves time and effort so they can jump to the next thing.

Lesson You Already Knew #2: We Read Left to Right, Top to Bottom

In a post, while you write, make sure things on the left are what you know your reader will see (words, the meat of a post) and things on the right are secondary but visually interesting (pull quotes, images). If you keep this pattern up, you will pull your readers’ eyes from left to right and thus keep those eyes moving down the page. It’s not trickery, it’s just a subtle way to capitalize on visual perception.

Ask yourself: Why does nearly every website you go to have the logo in the top left portion of the page? That’s what the site wants you to see first and foremost, the logo, because they know that’s where our eyes go first. Don’t worry, you’ll start noticing this everywhere!

Formatting with Visual Landmarks

A visual landmark in a post is exactly what it sounds like: something that is visually interesting that marks a change, resting point, a scannable piece of information, or checkpoint within your article. Here's the deal, no matter how interesting your writing is: if you just write a brick of text, no one will read it - especially not online. In order to maintain attention, online publishing must adhere to certain conventions because this medium is saturated with visual engagement. Visual landmarks introduce organization and should give your reader near-Pavlovian encouragement to keep on reading.

If this sounds a little abstract, here are some concrete examples of visual landmarks:

  • Headings

  • Subheadings

  • Images (screenshots, icons, box art, gifs, etc)

  • Pull quotes

  • Block quotes

  • Embedded media (polls, tweets, widgets, videos, etc)

  • Bullet/numbered lists

  • Bold phrases

The 1 Screen-Length Rule: If a reader is looking at your article (NOTE: not in edit mode, in live/preview mode!), there should be a visual landmark also within eye-sight on the screen. If you have 3-4 paragraphs without some sort of landmark, you might need one.

Now, this rule is more of a guideline (especially since people have different sized screens), but it generally holds. Your reader should always have something within view that is not basic text, but don't over do it! Too much visual stimulation will overload your reader, and they'll click away. Too little will bore your reader and we can expect the same result. Obviously, this is a blanket rule, but don't discount its merit! As with everything else, find the happy medium.

According to research, the average person reads approximately 28% of words on a site page and most just skim, so make sure you draw them in with these sorts of landmarks and use landmarks to make sure they absorb the key information. Don't pander to short attention spans, but also don't ignore the fact that we all scan.

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