Skim reading is the new normal. What does that mean for your professional writing?


Posted Feb. 27, 2020

Researcher Jakob Nielsen from the Nielsen Norman Group has found that only 16% of people read content online word-by-word. Instead, most people skim as they try to get the “gist” of the content.
Does this tendency to skim have implications for how people process information? Maybe! Is the prevalence of smart devices like tablets and iPhones making people more likely to skim? Also maybe! But those are not the questions we’re going to address today.
Remember, written communication is all about ensuring that your readers understand the points you want to make. Thus, if you write in a way that requires in-depth reading to understand, you’ll lose comprehension in many readers. So, how can writers craft their prose to meet the needs of audiences who aren’t going to read every single word?

Master the basics of good writing.

Good writing always helps. Conciseness and clarity are the hallmarks of excellent writing. An ability to get to the point quickly, and clearly express that point, will undoubtedly help. If your or your team’s writing skills could use some fine-tuning, consider some professional skills development.

Know how skimmers read.

According to researcher Ziming Liu from San Jose State University, skimmers typically use either an “F” or “Z” pattern when reading content. That means they read the first line (the topmost horizontal line in the “F” and “Z”) and then skim down (in a straight like as with the letter “F” or at a diagonal as with “Z”), before ending on the bottom of the screen or the last line of the page.

Get to the point.

The topmost content is almost always picked up by skimmers, so writers should state the main point(s) immediately to ensure skimmers catch it. Yes, sometimes it’s necessary to provide context or explanation, but they don’t have to come first. Don’t lead with unimportant details.

Know what skimmers read.

As skimmer’s eyes drift down the content, they’re looking for specific, eye-catching visual cues. The Learning Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill describes some of these cues:
  • Introductory and concluding sections
  • Section summaries
  • First and last sentences
  • Titles, subtitles, and headings
  • Bold words
  • Charts, graphs, or pictures
  • We’d add hyperlinked text, too, if applicable.

Make sure your team uses these elements strategically throughout the documents produced to communicate key points. It’s also a good idea to use executive summaries, intros and conclusions to present a brief summation or distillation of the document’s main points (sometimes called a tl;dr or “too long; didn’t read” summary). With an understanding of what skimmers need when reading, you can ensure your writing still has the impact you intend – even if your audience doesn’t read every word.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.  Links: Internal, Nielsen Norman Group, The Guardian, Scientific American, UNC-Chapel Hill
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