Write for the Skim

Most of what I write these days is marketing via email and the web, so I focus a lot-lot-lot on skimmability. What I try to do is find ways to make words stand out that will get someone who’s skimming to want to re-read the paragraph word by word, or at least ensure skimmers get the overall impression.

The tricks I use are:

  • Free/Sex. Put the catchiest words and phrases at the beginning and end of paragraphs and sentences. This is either trigger stuff like free/sex or statistically improbable/emotional phrases like “giraffes don’t puke” or “stop killing babies.”
  • Use emphasis in the middle of sentences–stuff like putting the most interesting phrases in bold. Highlight whatever could spark interest.
  • Pay attention to the visual look of your paragraphs–for example the effect that spacing, paragraphs and dashes have–because that’s what ultimately drives eyeballs to one part more than the other.

Craft your paragraphs to put the catchy stuff at the beginning if possible.

Use short paragraphs that are easy to skim. That fixes a lot already. Then shift the exciting words to the power places in the paragraphs. Tighten things up by moving the emotional phrases to the most skim-friendly locations to bait the reader.

Finally, make sure you don’t bury the lead. So don’t say:

One of the most interesting things I did in high school was para-sailing, and it’s amazing how much the lessons I learned and friends I made have stayed with me through my business career.

Instead you can try taking the unexpected word para-sailing and putting it in the beginning, since “one of the most interesting things” is actually a really boring phrase:

Para-sailing wasn’t just one of the most interesting things I did in high school. It’s also amazing how much the lessons I learned and friends I made have stayed with me through my business career.

The paragraph could still use work, but in terms of sheer skimmability, most people will find it easier to detect the most interesting part, “para-sailing,” when it’s at the beginning rather than buried in the paragraph. And if you get them reading the first word, they might just keep reading.