The Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Scannable Content

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Rarely do people read content from beginning to end.

Maybe it’s because of our “microwave,” instant gratification culture. Maybe it’s because millions of other articles are vying for people’s attention.

Or maybe it’s because reading from screens takes about 25% longer than reading from paper. Research has even indicated that readers experience an unpleasant feeling when reading online text.

Whatever the case may be, it’s crucial to take the right approach when writing for online readers—a new approach.

There’s a certain art to digital writing that differs significantly from writing traditional paper text.

If you expect to convert more of your audience into actual customers, you need to crack the code.

You need to switch up your game plan.

In my early days of writing, I didn’t realize this. I had an eye for visual appeal, but I was unsure of how this applied to blogging. There I was, blogging away every day without realizing how people were viewing my articles.

Now, I have a better idea of how people interact with written content online.

What you’re viewing right now is a result of my research and testing.

It’s about scannable content.

What you’re up against

First, let me set the stage for the idea of scannable content.

Did you know that 55% of people spend fewer than 15 seconds actively on a page?

That’s not ideal when your goal is to keep visitors exploring and to get them interested in your product/service/brand.

You’ve got only a small window to grab their attention and motivate them to read your content. And it’s not realistic to expect visitors to read it in its entirety. Hardly anyone does that anymore.

In fact, research on the way people read websites found that only 16% of their subjects read a webpage word by word. Most participants—79% of the test subjectsscanned new pages they came across.

The takeaway is that less than two out of 10 people will actually read an entire blog post. The vast majority will be highly selective about what they read and will merely scan through it.

Another interesting thing is that just because content gets shared doesn’t mean reading engagement increases.

Chartbeat analyzed 10,000 articles shared on social media and found “that there was no relationship whatsoever between the amount a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention an average reader will give that content.”

This graph illustrates this phenomenon:

image01

What’s the solution?

It’s simple. You need to become adept at writing scannable content. This is what the modern digital reader is looking for (whether they consciously know it or not).

What exactly is scannable content?

According to Forbes,

“scannable content is short, sweet and to the point. Sentences and paragraphs are brief. Bold text and bullet points highlight key points. Links to other content are used to provide your readers with supplemental information.”

This writing format is geared toward 21st century readers, who primarily read content on a screen as opposed to a book or any other print publication.

It’s specifically tailored to streamline the way readers absorb information to keep them interested.

And it works.

Dr. Jakob Nielsen even found that scannable online content boosted readability by 57%. If you’re used to conventional writing (e.g., large blocks of text), you need to throw that approach out the window.

You need to embrace scannability. Fortunately, there’s a step-by-step process you can follow.

Follow these 8 action steps to create a scannable content.

1. Write short paragraphs

You might have noticed that I prefer to use short paragraphs in my content.

Really short. In fact, a lot of my paragraphs are only a single sentence in length.

That’s not by accident.

I would say that this technique is perhaps the most important when it comes to creating scannable content.

Allow me to provide you with an example. Here’s a large, ugly block of text:

image04

You probably find yourself straining your eyes to read through it.

And here’s some text broken down into much smaller, more digestible chunks:

image05

Which do you find more aesthetically pleasing and easier to read?

I would bet you’d say the second one.

It’s broken up in a way that allows you to move seamlessly from one point to the next without it taxing your brain in the process.

The key is to include only one idea per paragraph and make it a maximum of four sentences. However, I try to stick with just one to three.

Remember that white space is your friend, so use plenty of it to break up text into smaller chunks.

2. Keep your sentences short

There’s no reason to drag your content out by writing long-winded sentences and using PhD-level vocabulary words that only the academic elite will understand.

You need to remember that your audience will consist of a lot of different readers with varying levels of education (and vocabulary).

If readers have to continually check the dictionary just to understand what you’re trying to say, it defeats the whole purpose.

That’s why you’re better off keeping your sentences fairly brief and not getting overly wordy just for the sake of sounding smart.

As a rule of thumb, any more than 16 words per sentence is too long.

Be practical, and try to simplify complex information as much as possible so that everyone can understand it. “Dumb it down” if you have to, but keep the value high.

3. Follow the four-syllable rule

A simple strategy to ensure your writing isn’t wordy is to avoid using any words with more than four syllables.

For instance, you would want to stay away from:

  • Unintelligibly
  • Appropriation
  • Lackadaisical

You get the idea.

Your readers should be able to maneuver their way through your content without becoming exhausted during the process.

4. Use subheaders

Most readers won’t be interested in every single point of your article.

Instead, most readers would prefer to bounce around to seek out the few pieces of key information that interest them the most.

You can accommodate this desire by including several subheaders throughout the body of your content.

This breaks it down in a logical way that makes your content “flow.”

If you read posts from any of my blogs including Quick Sprout, Crazy Egg, and Neil Patel, you’ll notice that I take full advantage of subheaders.

They serve as a quick and easy way to locate main points and accelerate the scanning process. Just make sure that each subheader encapsulates what the following paragraphs cover.

Also, try not to get too clever or cute about it. Instead, keep your subheadings simple and practical.

5. Use bullet points

Who doesn’t love bullet points? I know I do.

They seamlessly break down information so readers can extract key data without having to think too much about it.

Here’s a good example of bullet points used to perfection:

image02

Rather than writing out your list in a sentence, separating your points by commas, create a bullet list, and your readers will love you for it.

6. Sprinkle in images

Images serve two distinct purposes.

First, they serve as an eye candy and fulfill your reader’s subconscious desire for visual stimuli.

image00

Second, they provide periodic breaks between blocks of text.

Both help keep readers on your site for longer and encourage them to engage with your content.

I try to throw in an image at least every few paragraphs or so because I know the images I use enrich my content with information and add validity to my points.

I recommend using data-driven pictures (like graphs) or images to serve as examples, rather than merely using “placeholders,” because these will really add to the overall depth of your content.

7. Add links to external sources

To add authority and credibility to your writing, it’s a good idea to include quotes, data points, graphs, etc. from reliable sources.

I do this with pretty much every piece of content I write. It backs up my argument and proves that I’m not just pulling statistics out of thin air.

But since it’s not practical to include every gory detail, you’ll want to simply include a key sentence or two and insert a link to the original source.

If your readers wish to learn more about a certain topic you cover, they can simply visit the link. As a result, this won’t bog down your content with extraneous information.

8. Create lists

I love lists.

There’s something about breaking down content in a logical, sequential order I find satisfying. It keeps things neat and tidy.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

A study performed by Buzzsumo and Okdork analyzed over 100 million articles to determine which received the most shares. According to their findings, lists were the second most shareable format (only infographics were shared more).

image03

If you really want to maximize the scannability of your content, use plenty of lists.

I’m not saying do this for every single piece of content you create because it will become redundant, but 50% or so should be a good number to shoot for.

Lists are a great weapon to have in your arsenal because they lend themselves to being scanned naturally.

Conclusion

Creating scannable content has arguably never been more important than it is today.

By accommodating the modern online reader and presenting information in a streamlined, visually appealing way, you can improve the reader’s experience.

This technique is also effective for preventing “cognitive overload,” which can drain a reader’s mental energy.

The end result is happier readers who spend more time on your site and who are more likely to convert.

Can you think of any additional techniques for making content more scannable?

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Comments

  1. Pretty sure I didn’t ready half of this 🙂

    • Well read the rest! 🙂

      • Most people who read online don’t read word to word. They simply scan.

        This is where people who usually write long content should be creative while formatting their posts. Make it easy to scan.

        Use sub headings, images, bullet points. All these little things make it easy for your audience to quickly go through your stuff.

        It also helps people to spend more time reading your stuff without scanning.

        Great tips Neil!

  2. Road To Gaming :

    Thanks Neil, again you published a guide that is awesome, the game you play with search engines to create this type of content is awesome, bookmarked your post, thanks for sharing such secrets, these are the secrets that nobody teaches.

  3. Writing to the point stuff is becoming more and more important in Google’s eyes. Readers also have apparently become short of time.

  4. Hendrik-Jan Francke :

    You make a wonderful point about why to use subheadings, so that people can identify the content they are looking for.

    Another great reason, is that if someone reads all the subheadings of the article, they should still grasp the overall point you are trying to make. They can follow the arguement.

    We have named the process of creating scannable content ‘Chunkify’. We created a fun web page years ago to demonstrate.
    https://www.brightorangethread.com/chunkify/

    It never went as viral as I had hoped, but at least 2x per year someone writes to say they love it!

  5. Hephzy Asaolu :

    Thanks for this awesome post, Neil. As a Freelance Writer, I discovered that using the bold, italic, underlining and highlighting formatting options helps to draw attention to key point or phrases in the content. It makes it easy for your readers to notice important points. I notice you also use it a lot in your post, especially Italics and bold formatting.

  6. I think the Author’s personal brand also matters a lot. For example, if an article is from Neil, we are sure there must be lots of valuable information. Of course, you have built your brand by providing valuable information to readers.

  7. That’s not because we’re lazy. We don’t have time to read as much as we want.
    I bookmark a lot of articles and I never arrive to read anyone of them.

    I love to read scannable content. At the beginning, I felt guilty, but now I’m a fan.

    I like to get through the whole story reading the subheadings. I stop wherever I found something of interest.

    The old techniques of copywriting are more and more useful today:

    – the heading’s goal is to entice the reader to read the first sentence
    – the first sentence’s goal is to make the reader go on to the second
    – the second sentence’s goal is to make her continue reading the third and so on

    Tell a story and add images and we’re hooked.

    On one condition: Provide useful content!

  8. Hello Neil,

    Having just re read you post after digesting its content the scannable aspect really made an impression on me and I am now thinking I need to adopt this style, not just because you have proved it works but because it does look so much better when reading a blog.

    Thank you.

    Regards

    Steve

  9. So what happened to the use more content and longer blogs you were talking about a few months back? Are they now gone or do you still use them but use the scanning format?

  10. Great post. Have you found that typeface, size, and color factor significantly into scannable content?

  11. Great info on scannable content. It becomes more and more important in Google’s eyes to write better content. You say right lists and info graphics are better ones

  12. Hi Neil, have you ever tested the impact of fontsize in correllation to time spend on page?

    What was the outcome if you tested it?

  13. This is one of the best quality post that I have ever seen. Keep up the good work neil.

  14. Great post!
    Amazing idea. Thanks for sharing such a great tip, man!

  15. Thanks Niel, point number 3 stood out for me, good tip!

  16. KsMatins Bodunrin :

    Thanks Neil, I really found this very helpful.

  17. People has become scanners of content with so much out there … this sort of knowledge is vital to those looking to make a dent in the online world these days!

    • Visitors can be scanners but that doesn’t mean they won’t read a long article. It’s about working down the layers to what the reader needs.

  18. Hi Neil

    There is one (or two) things that you always have in all your articles and that is images which are always relevant. Sometimes the images are of people,animals,objects in all kinds of situations but they still refer to the text. And lots of these help the flow of your articles and many times they stop people in their tracks and place emphasis on the subject matter.

    The images you use ar obviously not the ones you can get for free and which often look dated and very familiar as everyone uses them.

    Could you possibly let us have some links where we can get the types of images that you use.

    Please?

  19. Sorry for the typo. The name is Joe and not Jore

  20. Hey Neil,

    That’s really the need of the hour for content marketers. It is very important to break the long content in small chunks and keep it easily readable. Thanks for hitting in the perfect moment as, I was just about to write a long post today. This guide will help me keep my article scannable. Great read as usual. Thanks Again!

  21. Hi Neil,

    I always reading your post and this is really helpful….thanks

  22. Awesome article. Thanks Neil .. Thank u very much …

  23. Awesome article. Thanks Neil for sharing…………ur the real king of blogging

  24. Steve Johnson :

    Nice post Neil. And timely, as I’m finding myself writing thousands and thousands of words a day again.

    I like the 4 syllable rule and it’s one that I’m going to implement (immediately).

    I’m surprised you didn’t include video anywhere in this post. Where do you think it ranks in comparison to images for ‘stopping scanners.’? Higher % stopped? Lower % stopped? Perhaps it’s something you’ve tested with with Crazy Egg…

    • Videos can be a useful way to increase engagement. But with everything, you need to understand what your audience needs to guide them forward.

      That would mean each site will give you different results.

  25. Menaka Bharathi :

    Small sentences seem to be the “right thing to do” these days Niel. It is very important for our content to be read… The point is you are given are easy to follow.
    It is so natural to scan content off late than read them. Very useful information

  26. Menaka Bharathi :

    Small sentences seem to be the “right thing to do” these days Niel. It is very important for our content to be read… The point is you are given are easy to follow.
    It is so natural to scan content off late than read them. Very useful information

  27. This is awesome post shows your knowledge. I like your dedication and the way you express things with a touch of simplification. I am really impressed. I am going to bookmark your url for next time.. Thanks.

  28. Your best post ever!! You rock dude!!!

  29. Awesome post.
    Never knew breaking down huge paragraph into smaller ones will increase readability. Will try these on my blogs.

  30. uthman Saheed :

    That’s why I like most of your posts, no matter how long, they are always in list posts with short paragraphs and sentences. Its real that, online readers are not ready to read those long block paragraphs anymore. Even me.

    Thanks.

  31. Thank you for bringing more information to this topic for me.

  32. Great write-up Neil, Scannable content always gives you a better conversion.

    Thanks for sharing that.

  33. Neil learned so much from you !! Thanks 🙂

  34. Great piece! I work for a marketing company and just shared your piece with a bunch of my colleagues. And, I’ve been sharing your work around the office for a while now.

    • Thank you kindly for sharing the piece around your office Pulsa. It’s a true compliment in what I want to achieve to help others.

  35. Dhaval Parmar :

    Graphics presentation is also effective for convince your readers.

  36. very nice post.the way of explaining post is very interesting

  37. 2 BHK Flats in VIP Road :

    Thanks for sharing this great article.

  38. Thanks for sharing this awesome piece of content. Loved reading it

  39. Content is always king for Digital Marketing field.

    Here some tips to get, this is very helpful to writing valubale and interesting content.

    Great and really helpful article! Adding to the conversation, providing more information, or expressing a new point of view.

  40. Really Nice Post. Content stays the kind. This is the things which has been out out time and time again. it was true many years ago, it is true now, and I think it won’t be changing any time sooner.

  41. Edvin Lofgren :

    You really deliver Neil. Thanks for sharing. I will definitely be using this information.

    I usually read the whole article or blog post if I get great value from it (like this one). But sometimes you are just looking for some quick information or stats. Then you don’t have time to read the whole thing.

    I also tend to bookmark things and never get back to them…

    • You are not alone in bookmarking and never going back. I found adding to trello (to do list) as quick as possible is the key.

  42. Thanks for the Post Neil! Writing a unique yet informative article is not an easy task. While creating a good content for readers, it’s really important to keep in your mind that how this content will going to help the readers. The best part is to provide content with crisp and attractive bullet points. Proofreading and content editing should be a mandatory task before publishing any content.

  43. Nice post…i am sure that it is going to help me a lot. Thank you.

  44. Valuable information! Looking forward to seeing your notes posted.

  45. This post is very interesting and some great points about writing engaging content are made. However, I really question the validity of that stat published by Time Magazine that 55% of viewers spend less than 15 seconds on a page. I feel this is just not true.

    As a person who has lived in Google Analytics for the past four years, that stat seems to highlight more to me that marketers are not properly setting up their engagements in GA correctly, than it does about actually visitor engagement.

    Without the use of Event tracking, or plugins like Riveted, most Time on Site metrics will be low because the Bounce Rate on content landing pages is naturally high.

    But these are poor metrics to measure engagement and most marketers don’t understand that in GA these two factors are intimately linked. You need to customise your timed event settings to get an proper report on the ‘actual’ engagement of content.

    When this is set up correctly, I have nearly always seen the average blog post go from 15 seconds (with a 90%+ bounce rate) to a 6 minutes ToS and 10% Bounce Rate. GA and any analytics tool must be customised to your needs if you are to ascertain proper engagement insight and I feel TIME Magazine’s results come from a study where this has not happened.

    • I guess that is possible the data could be swayed too much one way. I do feel quality content would break that mold, as people do read on sites when they find something of value.

  46. Richard V Landman :

    thanks for sharing such awesome guide, really helpful

  47. I use short paragraph as you said, but does it has any affect on my SEO? Pls clarify? Thanks

  48. Hello Neil my website content is 100% Unique then also my website is not ranking on Google’s first page and sitelinks are not appearing in Google of my website what was the problem to my website any changes that have to do in it?

    • It depends on the age of the site and if google is tracking your site via the search console (webmaster tools). Building links to your site would also help increase the authority against your competition.

  49. It was only recently that I started paying attention to the “readability” score in Yoast’s SEO plugin. It’s pretty helpful and pretty detailed. It analyzes your post and tells you what percentage of the sentences have more than the optimum number of words and more. Pretty cool tool.

  50. Nice blog. These are really helpful tips !!!

  51. Obat Sipilis Dan Obat Kencing Nanah Herbal :

    to attract their attention and motivate them to read our content in my opinion this is very difficult neil.,., needed a good article content and in accordance with what they need maksih mu neil on this article

  52. Highly recommend his Marketing Programs as well

  53. Thanks for the post, Neil. It’s really helpful. Content quality should be that much good that the reader enjoys to read it and can relate to it as well.

  54. Manoj prabhakar :

    Hi Neil,
    Thanks for the great post. It really helped me a lot. I have been following all of your blog posts and loves your way of writing man. Keep up the good work Dude.

  55. hii neil
    i have submitting all pages of my website but one of this google are not accept my sub page please help me of this

  56. I have been following you for quite some time now, over 2 months. Initially i wasn’t so keen in reading your mails or articles as lots of them offering and find out the genuine one is kinda tricky.
    But Neil, I must admit that you have mastered in your field and really helping people like us to grow further in their career or venture. Thanks for all your help.
    All the best buddy!

  57. Hi,
    Neil
    Having just re read you post after digesting its content the scannable aspect really made an impression on me and I am now thinking I need to adopt this style, not just because you have proved it works but because it does look so much better when reading a blog.

    Thank you.
    Regards
    DTI

  58. Let's Fly Travel :

    I use short paragraph as you said, but does it has any affect on my SEO? Pls clarify? Thanks.

  59. Eric Dontigney :

    Hi Neil,

    As a fellow writer and sometimes blogger, I can’t tell you how helpful I found this post.

    I knew to avoid the “wall of text.” Still, it just never would have occurred to me to break paragraphs down to 1-3 sentences as a general rule. Too much training from well-meaning English teachers, I suppose.

    I can see how so many of my own blog posts would have benefitted from writing them this way.

    They say to learn from your betters, so I’ll be adopting this approach moving forward.

    Thanks for offering such useful and actionable advice.

    Best,
    Eric D.

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