From brevity to skimmability

Brevity paradigmThe prevailing paradigm for writing online content is to be brief and concise.

There are multiple interpretations as to what this means, and some of them lead to undesirable results.

Furthermore, it is not even obvious whether this paradigm is useful in many of the cases.

The trend is that our culture comes in shorter and shorter bits. For examples, see Nicholas Carr’s blog post that provides sources and discussion. This is the fact, but I’m more interested in why brevity is seen as a best practice, and when this view is correct.

The brevity paradigm consists of multiple tenets that support each other. Note that all proponents of brevity do not subscribe to all of these tenets, but their combined effect is the cause of the prevalence of the brevity paradigm.

Tenet 1: Brevity is usability

According to this tenet, short texts are more likely to be read by the audience than long texts. This has been a central tenet of online writing for a long time: I have seen it in print at least since Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, which was first published in 2000.

This tenet is often supported by arguments based on short attention spans and reading habit studies that suggest that skimming and browsing are now commonplace and reading every word of a text is rare.

In assessing this tenet, I find the following observations to be valuable:

These observations do not support the superiority of brevity. In fact, they seem to indicate neutrality towards length, and instead demand for high-quality content regardless of length.

Tenet 2: Brevity is necessary for SEO

This tenet claims that blog posts of certain length, usually between 300 and 1000 words, with the absolute best length at around 500 words, rank better in search engines than posts that are either shorter or longer.

While I was able to find this tenet repeated time and again all over the Internet, I was not able to find the hard data on which it is based.

Ironically, this tenet is disputed also from the point of view that it requires too long posts. At the very least, there are obviously cases where really short posts have not prevented success. Jim Connolly discusses both very short and longer posts in his post on ideal post length.

I am unconvinced by this tenet, although I do not have material to prove it wrong either, except for anecdotal evidence of successful bloggers who utilize shorter or longer posts.

Tenet 3: Brevity is more appealing as marketing copy

According to this tenet, short copy is more powerful and results in more sales.

Daniel Burstein wrote about this in MarketingExperiments blog, where he concluded that, well, it depends. In general, short copy seems to perform better in more casual, emotional, and impulsive contexts, whereas long copy is better for selling complex products.

This tenet therefore provides us with a case where short is better: when you want to appeal to emotions and impulses.

Tenet 4: Brevity is educationally superior

Copyblogger’s Brian Clark interviewed Seth Godin in a podcast, in which he gives the example that he could have written a few more paragraphs to his recent blog post to explain it, but chose not to in order to make the reader work out the complete idea himself.

I don’t think this is a useful stance on online writing in general.

First, you may not get your message through. In an online environment with no further references, it is unlikely that your audience understands your implicit goal. Even Seth Godin has had to add explanatory comments to his blog posts on multiple occasions, because they were so grossly misunderstood.

Second, implied content does not sit well with skimming, which is the prevalent reading method. Furthermore, as Jakob Nielsen found out, even short posts are not read in full, which makes implicit content less useful even for short posts.

If you have readers who are ready to search for hidden meanings in your every sentence, this type of brevity might be a useful tool. For the rest of us, saying what we think is better.

Avoid the undesirable types of brevity

While the four tenets of the brevity paradigm are paved with good intentions, the actual results are not always desirable.

For example, these types of brevity are not useful:

  • Shallow content, where the quest for brevity, or quick bucks, results in omitting important material or simply repeating what has been said elsewhere.
  • Unintelligible content, where the quest for brevity results in short but ambiguous phrases, losing the intended meaning.
  • Split content, where the quest for brevity results in splitting an idea into multiple posts unnecessarily.

Beyond brevity: the skimmability paradigm

In order to avoid the pitfalls of the brevity paradigm and write content that is a better fit to the ways people actually read, we need a paradigm shift.

Brevity has its uses, for example, when you want to appeal to emotions, but brevity as a general rule does not seem too useful.

The main idea to take home is this: Write text that is easy to skim and that comprehensively covers the subject you are writing about.

For example, the following are essential tools for your writing toolbox, whether you choose to use them all or just some of them (some of these are presented rather well in this MarketingSherpa blog post as well):

  • Use bulleted (and numbered) lists.
  • Bold key points.
  • Use sub-headings.
  • Write short paragraphs.

Do not be afraid to repeat your arguments in slightly different flavors, because the first way you spell them out may not catch the eye of the skimming reader. This also allows you to explore the subject more thoroughly and provide slightly different views on it.

You can explore related subjects in different posts, but do not split a post on a single idea into parts. You should not split a post into parts just to stay within a set word count limit. Splitting a post prevents the skimming reader from forming a complete idea of the subject, and thus essentially from evaluating your post. Comprehensive content is good content.

Picture: Neal Jennings (cc)