There’s more to creating a professional, high quality article than perfect spelling, grammar, and sentence structure.
The best copywriting is for nothing if people don’t read your article.
What puts readers off instantly?
- Ugly appearance
- Walls of text
- Dense, complex sentences
- Sloppy work
When you write an article that looks complicated, messy or confusing, the reader will suffer. If you write an article that is dense, overly complicated or obtuse, the reader will suffer. When the reader is faced with huge walls of text … the reader will suffer.
What attracts readers immediately?
- Good layout and structure
- Scannable content
- Consistent formatting
When you produce work that is a pleasure to read, it’s usually scannable with excellent, consistent layout. Just by glancing, you can tell that the writer takes pride in their work.
Which Type of Writer Do You Want to Be?
Let’s imagine that you work as a writer in a busy content agency.
You have a choice.
You can either take pride in the appearance of your work, or not.
Which type of writer is easier for the rest of the team, including quality checkers, editors and publishers? Which writing is a joy to read? A joy to check? A joy to edit?
Writers who take pride in the appearance of their work are loved by everyone.
Which type of writer is painful and avoided by the rest of the team? Which writer produces work that’s difficult to read, riddled with errors, filled with weird spacing and punctuation?
When you don’t take pride in the appearance of your articles there is a knock-on effect on the rest of the team. Poorly presented work is a burden on others, not just the reader.
You can decide right now whether you’re going to be the type of writer who creates scannable work with good layout principles. You can decide today if you’re going to not only take pride in your work, but show evidence of this in every article you write.
What 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.
What is Good Layout?
Essentially, good layout is a matter of creating a hierarchical, logical structure in your entire article, and also within each of the sections within the article.
This is an important point. It’s macro and micro! The whole and the parts.
Rules to Write By
Following are a set of rules you ought to follow if you are choosing to be the type of writer who creates scannable content with good layout principles, and being a well-regarded teammate.
Watch this overview:
Rule #1 – One Paragraph. One Idea.
The rules are:
- A paragraph should contain one idea only.
- Each paragraph should be very short. Shorter than you think! Then, shorter again.
There is one simple rule that you can follow to use paragraphs correctly, and drastically improve your writing.
Think of paragraphs as ideas. Each paragraph contains a single idea.
I love cats.
In order for the next sentence to fit in this paragraph, it needs to further describe or support this single idea.
I love cats. When they sit on my lap and purr, it makes my heart melt.
Rinse and repeat.
I love cats. When they sit on my lap and purr, it makes my heart melt. Just seeing one excites me
If the sentence does not further describe or support this simple idea identified in the first (and only the first) sentence, it starts a new paragraph.
I love cats. When they sit on my lap and purr, it makes my heart melt. Just seeing one excites me. When I see a pizza, I ‘m excited about dinner.
Even though I talked about being excited, the idea is related to loving cats. It is not about being generally excited.
And even though I was talking about seeing exciting things, I shouldn’t jump to the idea of pizza and dinner, even though they’re also exciting.
Each paragraph must only contain one single idea.
Let’s use a real-world example from a client’s article about Tunisian sweets:
We pack our treats with healthy vitamins and proteins. With Mediterranean influences and Tunisian recipes, you can choose from various delectable bites that your mom will enjoy.
The first sentence is on the subject of nutrients. The second sentence is on the subject of Mediterranean food. The two ideas are not related.
Yes, perhaps they have a tenuous relationship both being somewhat on the subject of food. But … it’s not enough.
It’s too disruptive for the reader.
One minute you’re talking about nutrients and the next you jump to something about the Mediterranean and my mom!?
Break the two sentences apart and decide whether they are able to stand on their own.
Rule #2 – Keep Paragraphs to 3 Lines or Less
This is a really important rule that’s often overlooked. It goes hand-in-hand with Rule #1 (one paragraph, one idea).
Paragraphs should be no longer than 3 lines on the screen.
It’s a fundamental building block in good design and layout. Big chunks of text aren’t easy on the eye. They’re intimidating and often they will put the reader off reading the article.
Yet, by keeping your paragraph less than 3 lines you guarantee:
- Good legibility
- An easy to scan-read article
- A well-balanced article (all your paragraphs will be similar-sized)
Rule #3 – Bold, Italic, Underline, CAPS. Which One Should I Use?
Bold, Italic, Underline. Oh, and CAPS. When should you – and when shouldn’t you – use them?
The rules are:
- Use bold, italic and CAPS sparingly.
- Use bold to highlight text and capture the reader’s attention.
- Use italic for quotes, names, dialogue and a weaker emphasis than bold.
- Never use underline – it makes it look like a link. This is bad for accessibility and usability.
- Only use CAPS for expressing very strong emotion or acronyms.
- Bold, Italics and Underlines: How to Use Them Effectively in Your Blog
- Learn the Correct Way to Use Bold Type Fonts Effectively in Design
Rule #4 – Use Bold to Capture Reader’s Attention, and Google
Use bold to highlight important text in order to capture the readers’ attention on that particular point. Google also notices bold text and uses it as an indicator for importance.
However, overusing bold causes eye fatigue and therefore reduces readers’ comprehension levels.
The rules are:
- Only highlight between 1 and 5 words within a phrase.
- Never bold an entire sentence.
- Every 1,400-word article should include at least 10 bold highlights.
- Use bold to highlight something that is important to the reader, not you, not the client.
- Don’t bold a keyword (e.g. SEO keywords) unless it’s highly relevant and benefit-driven for the reader.
- Use bold on phrases or words that would be of great interest to the reader. Or perhaps it’s a point that you REALLY want to make sure the reader notices.
- Never use bold for headings.
- Do not bold a list of items. You can bold the first word in each point of a list, if it helps with readability, and sequencing of ideas.
Rule #5 – Hyperlinks and Underlines
The rules are:
- Don’t use underline, ever. The reader will think that it is a link.
- Make sure that your hyperlink is only attached to the anchor text, not spacebars and not full stops.
Correct: You can click here to read more.
Wrong: You can click here to read more.
Rule #6 – Use Heading Styles in Order – H1, H2, H3
H1 (Heading 1) is the top of the hierarchy. It is the largest font size, and will sometimes be bold, depending on the style sheet.
- H1 should always be the title of the article.
- H1 should only appear once in your article.
H2 (Heading 2) is the second heading in the hierarchy. It is the first sub-heading.
- H2 can appear multiple times in the article, usually around 4 to 6 times in a 1,400-word blog.
- H2 should never reiterate any of the ideas or phrasing found in the H1.
H3 (Heading 3) is the third heading in the hierarchy.
- Sometimes people mistakenly use bold instead of H3. Don’t be that writer.
- H3 would usually appear 2+ times in each H2 section.
H4 (Heading 4) is the fourth heading in the hierarchy. It’s rarely needed or used.
When your headings flow in hierarchy, search engines can easily tell what your article is about. And your reader receives a visual queue that a block of text is sub-ordinate to the one above.
Rule #7 – Use Consistent Spacing Between, Before and After Lines, Paragraphs and Words
A lot of white space can kill the flow of your article and make it look horrible.
Consistent, even spacing makes your work look neat and tidy.
The rules are:
- Remove inconsistent or extra spacing from between paragraphs and words.
- Remove additional spacebars between words as these can inadvertently end up in the final published article. It looks bad.
Rule #8 – Left Align Text
The rules are:
- Only use left aligned text in paragraphs. It is easier to read.
- Do not full justify your text. Do not right align any text.
- Sometimes it makes sense, and looks better, to centre align text such as testimonials, quotations and social proof.
- Don’t centre align headings unless the client’s blog uses that style.
Rule #9 – Be Consistent with Font Types and Sizes
The rules are:
- Use the same font type for all paragraphs.
- Use the same font size for all paragraphs.
- Use the same font type for all headings, but it can be different to the paragraphs.
- Use the default styles in Google Docs/MS Word
When you copy/paste from another software programme such as Microsoft Word, it can pull inconsistent formatting across. Remove it.
Rule #10 – Place Images Between Paragraphs
It may be okay to place images inside a paragraph and allow the surrounding text to flow around it, and if your client prefers it that way, then go ahead and do that.
But generally speaking, it can damage readability, especially in blog articles.
The safest option, especially for graphs and charts and tables, is to put images/photos in-between paragraphs and keep them centre aligned.
That way your images are never vying for attention with the surrounding text.
It also helps image captions to stand out and it makes it easier for us to publish.
The rules are:
- Do not wrap text around images.
- Avoid long vertical images. Use horizontal images.
- Add ALT text to every image.
Rule #11 – Lists: Ordered vs Unordered
Lists are good for breaking up slabs of text and drawing the reader to important points. People read bullet points because they are easily to scan-read.
Use numbered lists when counting a set of items (e.g. “the five attributes of a successful entrepreneur”) or when providing step-by-step instructions.
How to Wash A Dog
- Fill the tub with water
- Wet the dog
- Pour shampoo on the dog
- Rinse with fresh water
- Dry with a towel
If you moved the last point (dry with a towel) to the first position it wouldn’t make sense to the reader. You can’t dry a dog with a towel before you’ve washed it!
That’s when you know it’s correct to use a numbered list.
Use bulleted lists when you have a set of ideas or points that you want to make, but it doesn’t matter to the reader what order they appear.
Reasons to Wash A Dog
- Dirty paws are leaving marks on the floor
- Smells bad after rolling in something dead
- Skin is itching from allergens in the grass
If you moved the last point (skin is itching) to the first position it wouldn’t confuse the reader. That’s when you know you should use a bullet list instead of a numbered list.
The rules are:
- Use numbered lists for things that need to be in a specific sequence.
- Use bulleted/unordered lists for things that don’t need to be in a sequence.
- A list always contains more than 1 thing, otherwise it’s not a list!
- Avoid having more than 5 items in a list as it’s too hard to read.
- Use full stops at the end of each list item, or not. Be consistent.
- 7 Tips for Presenting Bulleted Lists in Digital Content
- Little Known Ways to Write Fascinating Bullet Points
- 8 Quick Tips for Writing Bullet Points People Actually Want to Read
- How to Write Powerful Bullet Points
- Best Practices for Bullet Points
Rule #12 – Don’t Overuse Exclamation Marks!
We get it! You’re excited! But, there’s no need to overuse exclamation marks, particularly when you are extolling the virtues of the client’s product. Or exhorting someone to buy! Buy today!!!
Correct: Wow! What a blast!
Wrong: Buy now and save!
Wrong: He rode to town and saw a cow!
Got more than 3 exclamation marks in your entire article? It’s likely that you’re overusing it.
Never end an article with an exclamation mark.
Your Quick Checklist for Scannable Articles
- One paragraph, one idea.
- Keep your paragraphs shorter than 3 lines.
- Use headings in sequential order.
- Don’t combine headings and lists.
- Use consistent spacing between paragraphs, lines and words.
- Left align text.
- Use the same font size and type in your paragraph text.
- Don’t wrap text around images.
- Learn the difference between ordered and unordered lists.
- Learn when to use bold, and when to avoid it.
- Don’t use underlines.
- Learn how to apply a link to only the anchor text.
- Don’t overuse exclamation marks.
- Don’t end an article with an exclamation mark.
- Don’t add an exclamation mark to the client’s product or call-to-action.