Anatomy of a Post: How to Get Blog Readers to Pay Attention

attention
Photo courtesy of Hamed Saber

By Leo Babauta

Almost none of you reading this post will read every single word of the post (unless you do it just to spite me).

That’s a fact of online reading that has proven true again and again: people rarely take the time to read an entire post or article. They skim to find the essential information, and then move on.

If you’re a blogger, you should account for that reality, or you are failing to communicate effectively with your audience. And isn’t that what we’re trying to do? Communicate some kind of message to readers, whether that’s useful information, an opinion, news, truth, or beauty?

If you don’t figure out how your readers are reading your blog, you will fail as a blogger.

How Blog Readers Read

Studies of the way people read online show that people read all the way across near the top of an article, only partly across near the middle of an article, and almost vertically by the time they get to the bottom.

That means they’re skipping most of the end of your blog posts, just skimming really.

For many of us who read lots of blog posts a day, that’s not really a surprise. We scan most posts for the highlights and move on, and only rarely read some posts with any depth. We just don’t have the time to read every word.

Now, you can argue that’s wrong, or that it’s sad. But it’s reality, and we have to face it.

Headlines First

So the first thing any reader will read is the headline, or “title” of a post. In fact, often the headline is the reason they’ll read a post in the first place. Think about how you find blog posts. Usually it’s in one of several ways:

  1. Through an RSS reader or through email subsriptions. In this case, often the only thing they’ll see before making the decision to read or move on is the headline.
  2. Through a link from another blog. Often the link is the headline of the post itself, and so once again, they make a decision on whether to click through to the post based on the headline.
  3. On social media such as Digg or Delicious. Again, on these social media sites, the headline is the only prominent text that will convince them to click through to the post.

This means the words in the headline are the most important words you’ll write in your post, because if the headline isn’t good, they won’t read the post at all.

Some thoughts on making the headline worthy of a reader’s interest:

  • It has to grab attention. That doesn’t mean it has to be sensationalist, but it can’t be boring. Many, many blog posts have headlines that are boring.
  • It has to make you curious. Why should I click through to read a post? Because the headline captured my curiosity. A question headline or some other kind of teaser headline can accomplish this.
  • It has to be backed up in the post. You can’t oversell a post with a sensationalist headline and then have the readers actually read a post and be disappointed. Follow through with the promise you make in a headline, or don’t make the promise in the first place. Don’t oversell a post in a headline — it’ll leave a reader angry or frustrated and ruin his trust in you.

The Lead, or Opening Paragraph(s)

The first paragraph or three in a newspaper article is called the “lead” (also written “lede”) in journalism language. It’s often considered the most important part of a news article, for the same reasons a headline is so important: if the lead isn’t good, the reader will skip the rest of the article.

It’s also important because of how people read online: while you can write a bunch of tripe later in the article (I don’t recommend it), at the beginning of an article people are still paying attention. So make these the best paragraphs you write.

What makes a good lead? The same things that make a good headline, basically: it has to get attention and make the reader want to read more without overselling the article or being too sensationalist. It could summarize the post succinctly, and tell you why you should continue reading.

The Body Text: How to Make Your Post Scannable

The rest of the post — after the headline and lead paragraphs — is doomed if you don’t find a way to communicate the essential points of your post in some easy way. I like to think of this as “making your post scannable” — you want the reader to be able to quickly scan your post for the essential information, just in case they don’t read the whole thing.

Sure, you could write a long, rambling essay about a deeply philosophical topic, but if no one is reading it, what’s the point? Blogging is about communicating, not pontificating.

So here are some of the best ways to make the body of a post scannable:

  • Lists. You’re reading a list right now. I write a lot of lists (infamously) because I think in lists, and work in lists, and just enjoy writing lists. But lists are great because they’re scannable — you can scan the main points of a list easily, and read more if you want to know more. They’re imminently efficient. Not all posts should be list posts, but it’s a good technique to have in your arsenal.
  • Sub-headlines. If the reader will read the main headline, he’ll probably read sub-headlines. Notice that there are several subheadlines in this post — they are in bold and start each section of this post. That helps the reader know what you’re about to talk about, and allows him to skip that section if he’s not interested in the sub-headline.
  • Bold your main points. I did that a couple times in the text above, aside from the bold-faced sub-headlines and the bold main points on this list, mainly to prove a point. If you want to emphasize a point in the middle of a longer paragraph, you can make it bold. Don’t do this too often or readers will tire of it.
  • Photos or graphics. A photograph at the top of a post can help catch the reader’s attention, of course, but photos within a post to illustrate your points are good ways to draw the reader’s eye to the essential information you’re trying to convey.
  • Block quotes or breakout boxes. Pulling out essential information and highlighting them as a block quote or putting them in a separate box with a border helps to show readers that the information is important, and allows them to find it easily.

There are other techniques for making a post scannable, but you get the idea. Experiment to find what works best for you and your readers.

You can ignore this advice and consciously not make a post scannable, but at least do so with the knowledge that much of the post will probably be skipped by your readers, even if it contains the most compelling content in history.

Enjoy this article? Please subscribe to get more great articles in the future!

Improve Your Writing Overnight!

Do you want to become a better writer? This FREE ebook will show you how.
  • Discover the secret of finding inspiration everywhere you look.
  • Learn 10 simple ways to double your writing speed.
  • Master three skills that will make you a better writer overnight.
  • Get FREE WritetoDone updates.



Powered by WPSubscribers

Read below or Add a comment...

44 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Post: How to Get Blog Readers to Pay Attention”

  • I think I remember that you’re top 50 posts (all, if not most) are list posts. So I think that says a lot for the scanability (I think that’s a word) of a post.

    Headlines are easy to make boring. I think we often times get too caught up in making it descriptive and end up making it bland.

    Great job in laying out these important points!

  • Andrew says:

    Heh, read the whole thing – good points though. I tend to write in a long-winded style and I forget that most people won’t read that much online (or anywhere really unless it’s a book). I’ll definitely be using these tips to trim my writing. Thanks!

  • writer dad says:

    I have a lot of white space in my posts, and try to keep them at or around five hundred words. A lot of readers say they read and look forward to every word. Perhaps it’s just the nature of having a blog where the words are the highlight, but I endeavor to keep them reading. I know that when the text is dense, I too find myself scanning.

  • meghna says:

    I couldn’t just scan it, though I had thought so initially. The post forced me co read it word by word :) And you’ve pointed out the importance of title and lead very clearly. Awesome post and I’ll make it a point to follow these. Thanks for sharing.

  • “Now, you can argue that’s wrong, or that it’s sad. But it’s reality, and we have to face it.”

    Agreed! Like it or not, we have to face that reality.

    Steve Pavlina comes to mind as someone who writes posts that are not easily scannable. While very readable, they’re very long and they’re really meant to be read word for word. Steve knows that most people won’t read all the way through, but he accepts that because he knows that the few who do will get a lot out of it.

    If it’s a conscious choice, fine. But bloggers get in trouble when they expect people to read every word, and are surprised to find that they don’t. We can complain that scanning isn’t the way to read a blog post (I think that if you’re going to scan, you might as well save some time and not read blogs at all). But complaining won’t change it, so we have to change the way we write, not try to change the way people read.

  • I just love that picture!

    Congrats on the Top 10 Blogs for Writers award!

  • Avani-Mehta says:

    I usually skip the intro unless it’s interesting. Usually the headline is enough to introduce the topic.

    One benefit I derive while making my post scan-able is that it forces me to organize and simplify my ideas. Usually, my posts turn out better after the entire process (some do remain unscannable in the end)

  • I’m one of those who would read everything if the lead had got my attention. :)

  • It varies for me. Should I know the author, I tend to read all the way through. Blogs that are new to me I tend to do the skimming thing.

    When I write my posts, I try to complete the story to match the headline I’ve chosen. It’s a challenge and response, where the headline (hopefully) challenges the reader or grabs their attention and the post is the follow up. My posts don’t tend to be that long as sometimes the thought is best expressed simply and succinctly.

  • “Almost none of you reading this post will read every single word of the post (unless you do it just to spite me).”

    That’s the best blog opener ever! People will be forced to read the whole entry, just to spite you! I think I’ll start all my posts like that!

  • Jim Bessey says:

    You hooked me! Got my attention and I did end up reading every word, not to spite you but just to be sure I didn’t miss anything critical.

    Great post, Leo. I took notes!

  • Patricia says:

    I am still reading every word of every post I go to – I feel truly blessed by the idea that people took the time to write something, usually edit it with great care, find a title and then share their gift.

    I do break up the paragraphs much more now and hopefully I will figure out pictures sooner rather than later. Other than my series my editing keeps it under 500 words.

    A doubt about whether or not any one cares to read what I write has been creeping around me all day today – I am trying to ignore it and fix up my laptop for a road show…

    I am slowly but surely getting more subscribers but still maybe only one comment per week.

  • Amanda says:

    I’m the type of person who HAS to read every single word of articles and blog posts I read just to be sure that I don’t miss out anything important. Unless the article really bores me. I guess it comes with my obsessive compulsive nature. LOL.
    Anyway, love this post!

  • I never read word for word online myself, and it’s just the way information is consumed online for the most part.

    But, if I could ask readers one thing: if you’re going to leave a comment, read the whole post first! I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a comment that made it so obvious the post hadn’t been read.

  • J.D. Meier says:

    Well structured and great insights and distictions.

    I try to optimize for flavors of readers …

    For readers that won’t finish their meal, I try to give the dessert up front.

    For readers that like to skim, I use careful headlines and key takea ways.

    For readers that want the breadth and depth of the issue, I include enough coverage and pointers to more information that you walk away with at least a few new distinctions you can add to your toolbelt.

  • Leo: Thanks for writing this. I blog regularly for the Real Estate and Home Staging industry, and am always looking for ways to make my posts more compelling reading. You touched on some points that I think will be very useful in that regard. Thanks again.

  • Beth says:

    I am torn when it comes to my title: optimized with keywords for the SEO or something catchier for my readers? I think after reading this post I’ll title more for my readers.

  • Corey says:

    Interesting read. What do you think about breaking the whole article up in sections? To make this post smaller and easier and quicker to read? that way the reader stays focused for the duration?

  • Al at 7P says:

    Yeah, those of us who regularly read blogs are scanners – it’s simply out of necessity. Scannable posts make it more likely for us to come back to a blog in the future to read more posts.

    Also, if a post is particularly long and content-rich, it’s a good idea to have a bulleted summary of the important points at the end of the article. It helps both the scanners as well as the “word-by-word” readers know what the main points the author wanted the readers to get.

  • Tumblemoose says:

    It was interesting to read this and see that I was reading it in the very way it was described.

    How did you folks get into my head? ;-)

    The points about the headline are well taken. Life is about balance and often times folks just write the headline with a SEO focus. Big mistake.

    Thanks again.

    George

  • Liora Hess says:

    Good post that I wish all bloggers would read. Paragraphing would seem pretty basic, but I’m sure we’ve all run across blogs that have inches of unbroken text. I usually give up as soon as I see it.

    I also like narrow columns (like in this blog). Columns that are very wide are slower to read. I’ve noticed that in Google Reader, I can make the screen size smaller, and the text will wrap–a nice remedy to the problem of blogs that have wide columns of text!

  • FrugalNYC says:

    This is actually my first time on this blog. Been reading your ZenHabits blog for a while and never got to visit here till I found this blog via another newsletter I receive.

    Great article as always Leo. Hope I can make use of the information found here on my own blog.

  • Graphoniac says:

    On my two blogs, the posts with highlighters (bold, italics, underlining, headlines, etc) get the most response.

    One other thing I’ve found helpful is using smaller paragraphs. Online, it seems absolutely acceptable to have 1 or 2-sentence paragraphs for emphasis. I know that personally, I’ll read a 1 or 2-sentence paragraph before I’ll read a huge block of copy.

  • Jim Bessey says:

    To Graphoniac ~

    Had a fresh look at your two blogs. Well done! You’re a fine editor and layout designer. And congrats, by the way! (for those who want to know, have a look…)

    ~Jim

  • Simon Jones says:

    Some great tips there. Subheadlines actually work really well, I’ve learned that one myself. Breaking long texting bits up with pictures is also another good idea.

  • Chris says:

    A better title for this photo might be:
    Does blogging cause cavities?

  • Obama Shirts says:

    I’m a big fan of lists in my blog posts. My most successful ones are definitely in the “list” style, and they’re the most commented and passed along. It’s just easier to read and scan, and people link to them more. Great tips.

  • Soi Disant says:

    Reading through your blog–all the way, through, I might add–I just discovered that all along I’ve been reading blog postings the wrong way!

    As a reader of ink and paper books and articles offline, as well as online, I have tended to begin at the beginning, go onto the end, and then stop.

    In fact, I tend to find “busy” blogs and web sites annoying, not engaging. Now I see why so many blogs and sites are “busy”–its to attract the average reader.

    In my own beginning effort toward blogging–distantly inspired, by the way, in the purposeful simplicity sought in its layout, given the constraints of the “out of the box” options presented to new users of Blogger, by the old Suck.com–I now have to process the information you provide in a way that will help me to decide what to do.

    See, I’m fond of reading good essays. So, thinking that there might be others who are of similar mind, I’ve tried to write engaging essays of my own…but by what you say, may have only offered the world ‘pontification’. Oh, my!

    I do not know what I am going to decide to do.

    Thank you for the posted advice, though.

    http://stayinginalaska.blogspot.com/

  • Iván Pérez says:

    Hi everyone! I read this article some time ago and now I’m rereading it because I think it’s very important. Recently I’ve been experimenting with the inverted pyramid model of writing (http://su.pr/2VlB5V) I think it’s original and is more valuable to my readers. Starting with the conclusion the save a lot of time.

    Cheers.

  • Mable says:

    Is a good article for blog beginner.

    Thanks for sharing.

Comments are closed.