TODAY, I WRITE FOR SCANNERS

Many things have changed in the three decades since I started putting words to paper to earn a living. For one thing, I rarely put words to paper anymore. Sadly, nobody has created an equivalent saying that involves phosphors or pixels. But that’s not the point …

What is the point is that many of those changes have affected the way I write. One of the biggest changes is the result of two factors: an oversupply of information and a paucity of time. Thanks largely to the internet, we face an overwhelming amount of information, and our busier lives mean we have less time to sift through all of it.

Thirty years ago, a full-length trade magazine article could easily run 2500-3000 words. Today, 800-1200 words is the norm. That means writers are challenged to say more in fewer words, making language itself more economical. Gone are the days of complex, multi-layered sentences. Carefully constructed paragraphs disappear in favor of a few declarative sentences.

The biggest change, though, involves the way people read. Few have the time to proceed slowly through the copy, savoring every sentence along the way. Today, they race through it to gather the key messages. Instead of actually reading, they scan and skim.

So when I write, I do so with those scanners in mind. I make greater use of subheadings and lead-ins to summarize the messages within paragraphs. I structure those paragraphs with opening sentences that offer insight into what will follow. As the reader’s eyes race along the page, he or she instantly determines whether the rest of the paragraph is worth a few seconds or moves down to the next. He or she may read less of the overall copy, but will zero in on the points that are most important.

Are those changes frustrating? Perhaps, but it’s the writer’s responsibility to write for the audience. So as readers change, I’ll adapt my writing accordingly.

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