Published November 2012
2 minute read

Mirrors

Online blogs and magazines often use various tactics to make their content more appealing to the attention deficient reader who skims articles rather than actually reads them. Big pictures, often completely unrelated to the article, are used to push text aside and draw the reader in, to give their eyes something to focus on and initiate an experience of the content without having to engage their higher faculties. Since a wall of text is the most terrifying thing imaginable to a potential reader, it must be broken up into small sections by means of a generous injection of headings and sub-headings, and then further chopped up into minute paragraphs, oftentimes only a sentence long. And since the “reader” isn’t actually going to read all this text, several phrases and sentences are strategically highlighted to allow them to skim the article in one broad swoop. The reader glides over the body of the text and uses these markers to pick up their little snippets of text, which, having reached the end of the article, they proceed to assemble into one whole with that strong glue of preconception and assumption. Yet as soon as they have assembled this little ball of scraps, they throw it aside and fly away in search of the next thing, fueled by their perpetual hunger for diversion.

Writers want to be read, but in attempting to get the visitor to read their writing through these cheap tricks they are doing exactly the opposite. They say that “people don’t read”, yet their actions do nothing to encourage them to do so. They say that people skim on the Web, and they proceed to do everything in their power to keep people skimming. By catering to the attention deficient masses the modern blogger is only making those masses even more attention deficient. Nobody is going to read if you don’t give them a reason to do so and nobody is going to dive into long form content when there is no long form content to dive into. The pragmatic blogger thinks he’s being smart by catering to the deficiencies of the market, yet he remains ignorant to the fact that his very own tactics only make those deficiencies worse. The less physical exercise you do, the weaker and lazier you get, but the solution to the weakness is not to migrate to the couch because you’re tired, it’s to exercise more to build up your strength. The same applies to all mental activities. By catering to the skimming behavior of the modern reader you make them ever more likely to skim.

My advice: ignore such tactics and format your writing in the way that you consider best1. It’s certain that you won’t get as many pageviews but the number of true readers will stay the same. If that puts you off, consider this: if you’re writing to be read, why would you ever help the reader skip over what you’ve written? Write what you deem worth reading, not what the fool can swallow. Don’t turn yourself into a mirror whose only function is to reflect the audience back at themselves, with all their failings and shortcomings, for in choosing to be the mirror you also become that which you reflect.


  1. Here a distinction needs to be made between marketing/informational content and the rest, i.e. journalistic, educational, entertaining, and so on. Marketing and informational content can be consumed at various levels depending on what you want to get out of it, from casual skimming to involved reading, and it makes sense to help people do so. However, applying the same techniques to other forms of content is counterproductive because in those cases the goal should be to avoid the reader skimming, not to help them do so. If content can be skimmed without loss of value, then that content should have been cut.
Share

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Every month I send out recommendations for exceptional books that will challenge your thinking and give you more eyes on a range of topics that include design, technology, history, media and philosophy. Sign up below: