One of the most important rules about web writing is: Do the work for the reader. The less the reader has to do on their own, the less likely they are to stop to think or leave.
Engaging means the readers don’t pull themselves away, right? You don’t want them to stop reading. To many writers undermine their writing by:
- reference something outside your writing
- reference something you wrote about earlier
- use a word the reader does not know or is not comfortable with
- don’t lead a reader through the thinking
These habits require the reader may have to stop, look something up or at least think about it if you:
Then again, sins can be strategic. Maybe you want your reader to stop. I’ve broken rules simply because I wanted to use the reader’s reaction for me, like using a giant’s weight or momentum against him.
This isn’t an issue of grammar or general writing rules. These practices may be perfectly acceptable in many types of writing. But when your goal is engagement and getting the reader to do something besides simply read (buy, share, believe, feel), you need to be aware of how words cause interruptions.
I can’t get to all of them, but here’s a variety to help you start thinking about your writing from this perspective.
Would you give latitude and longitude coordinates to someone who needs directions? Maybe if they are a sailor or geek about coordinates. Otherwise they will have no idea where you are pointing to. Even less technical directions like “drive 2.5 miles and turn north” can be ineffective communication.
Giving directions to most people requires landmarks. “When you get to the combine, turn right.” (Literal directions from getting from one small town in the Texas panhandle to another in the Oklahoma panhandle.)
Likewise, readers need landmarks, not coordinates.
Take, for example, referencing a specific verse in the Bible. Your audience may likely know the Bible well enough to understand the reference if just given the coordinates:
We should take heed of the encouragement of I Peter 3:15 and study the Bible.
Even if the reader knows that location, you run the risk of the reader stopping to recall the verse. On the other hand, familiar verbiage from that quote streamlines the speedbump:
We should “always be prepared to give an answer” for our hope (I Peter 3:15).
We certainly want to reference the verse, but not so the reader can stumble upon it.
An outside reference can derail the reader altogether. For instance, I can talk about ROUSs, but unless the reader grew up watching The Princess Bride they likely will not know what I am talking about. So the reader opens another tab, web searches ROUSs, and gets distracted by Andre the Giant trivia. (True story.)
If you want the reader continuously engaged, you have to take out all instances that give pause. Even references to your own writing as recent as a paragraph before can cause issues. Take the earlier scripture reference. You have to look it up if I once again refer to it by its coordinates.
When I read I Peter 3:15, I understand it to mean studying the Bible.
The reader who has been engaged since the last time you talked about the verse will now stop, look back at the verse, and then (maybe) find their place to continue reading. However, if I once again reference the verse as a landmark, the reader has that work done for them:
Being prepared to “give every man an answer” requires studying the Bible.
They will continue to read on.
Don’t get me wrong, links are great for web writing. But when you introduce them as “find more information here” or “see [link],” you disrupt the flow. What’s more, these phrases deempahasize the link in the reader’s brain so that they think, “this isn’t important to me.” If it is important, give it more credit. If it isn’t important, get rid of it.
To give it more weight, your website reference should be incorporated into your writing naturally with standard blue font and underline. Avoid hyperlinking a whole sentence or too few words. The reader should be able to look at the text of the link and know what they will find on the other side.
And oh so important, create your link so that it opens in another tab behind the tab currently opened to your site. If the reader leaves your page, you may never see them again.
As a general rule, if you feel you need to clarify what you’ve written through a parenthetical statement, you haven’t written clearly enough. (Though sometimes, as I mentioned before, you want your reader to stop.)
The previous paragraph is, technically, one sentence. Parenthesis are like a silent “e” and don’t count as content in the brain. Yet the paragraph is visually a large block. So if nothing else, the parenthesis have caused a psycho-physical imbalance: little content, large space.
The parenthetical clarification is unnecessary, because I have already mentioned it on the exact same level. I have not introduced new information. I haven’t provided more detail. It’s redundant.
And really it applies to all the other sections, too. I wouldn’t want to repeat the idea in every section, so I probably shouldn’t favor this one.
Alternatives would be to provide a concrete example as part of the meat of this section or give it its own section altogether. Undoubtedly I should reinforce the idea in my conclusion.
When to Stop Your Reader
Most of the time you want to guide the reader’s thinking through continuous rhetoric, but sometimes you want your reader to stop and think. Maybe you’re challenging their preconceptions. Maybe you want something to strike their interests or stick in their brain. Maybe you want them to go to another site or page.
Coordinates, references, and parenthetical statements can aid this process, but you must be certain you are using them effectively.
- “Check out our new products here!” could compel the reader to impulsively click to another page, a page where they can be excited and actually buy stuff.
- Parenthetical statements can add humor (read: rhetorical slapstick techniques).
- If you want exact verbiage to stick, if you want the reader to look up at what you already said, give a vague reference like the one I mentioned earlier.
But beware. Just as a borderline racist joke is probably racist, a strategic rhetoric sin is probably just a rhetoric sin.
These are a few, very different ways your writing can interrupt the reader. There are so many more, so think about what your reader thinks about as they are thinking about the words you want them to think about.