Writing For Distracted Readers

Distracted Readers

Writing For Distracted Readers

Journalists write under what most of us would like to see as a mercifully unique set of conditions.

They end up writing for people with wandering attention, who are giving cursory once-overs to news stories while also paying attention to a host of other things, including traffic and maybe the location of the commuter bus they’re riding on, not to mention droning colleagues, the blast of music from someone’s ringtone, Facebook updates, and Twitter feeds bristling with hashtags.

While your readers may grapple with the same distractions, when you sit down to write a proposal or a legal memo, you probably still naively picture your intended audience studying your writing attentively like a student memorizing material for a test.

Fat chance. Instead, try picturing your audience sitting elbow-deep in a stack of papers – or, worse, a queue of virtual papers that could fill a modest-sized library – in an office where the phone rings incessantly, reading snippets of your magnum opus while fielding requests for signatures on incomprehensible documents and emails from a department head enquiring into their last six expense reports.

Unlike a swotting student, your typical readers are unlikely to hang on your every turn of phrase as though they’re reading Ulysses for their doctoral oral exams.

Journalists compete with all this noise from the outside world by breaking paragraphs frequently to hold readers’ attention – an approach that similarly can help most of us hold our audience’s attention.

But these relatively brief paragraphs also ensure that readers can easily keep track of ideas and relationships between ideas, events, and characters. These relationships are easiest to track when paragraphs each contain only a single focus, topic, or angle on a topic.

Conversely, when you pack lots of content into a lengthy paragraph that runs on for several pages, you’re practically guaranteeing that your readers will emerge from that paragraph with only the vaguest notion of what you’ve been writing about. And your readers will probably feel close to punch-drunk, to boot.

CREDITS: The Readers Brian by Yellowlees Douglas

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