It’s a fact: readers’ attention spans are narrowing, simply because they have increasingly more to focus on but less time to do so, according to a recent Danish research study published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.
This means whether you’re writing a blog, website content, a media release or a book, you need to capture your audience’s interest straight away – and keep it. Here’s a handy checklist to help you do so.
1. Consider the brief
What is your main objective with the piece you’re writing, and who are you writing it for? How old or educated are your readers, where do they come from and what are their interests?
Are you writing for a government agency or a tourist attraction? Adapt your tone accordingly. Do you have to keep it formal, are you writing a light blog in conversational style, or do you have to stick to straightforward reporting?
Bearing in mind your key message and reader, plan your content around five basic questions: what, why, when, where and how?
2. Hook your reader
Engage your audience with an intriguing, interesting or funny headline and introduction – start with a short, interesting anecdote, a shocking or surprising fact or statistic, or perhaps by dropping the name of a famous person.
Then, make sure they keep reading. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short – nobody likes to wade through big blocks of dense copy.
Use catchy subheadings, images and links to break up your content, provide interest and make your piece easy to read.
Try not to “think out of the box”, “take the bull by the horns”, “let sleeping dogs lie” or “cry over spilt milk”. Keep your language straightforward and free of clichés and jargon.
3. Check your facts and spelling
Most writing requires background research. The internet has an answer for everything, but always go to the highest authority you can find: an organisation’s own website, a university-affiliated institution, or experts known in their fields.
Can you trust your sources? Are there references and research to prove your point? Check all numbers and statistics. You may need to go to more than one source to get it right.
A quick way to lose credibility is to misspell names or get details wrong. Double-check the spelling of all names of people, companies and places – even when it seems obvious to you.
Use the full proper name of an organisation in your writing, particularly on first mention. For example, write Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, rather than just Kirstenbosch.
Never assume! You may know what SASA stands for – but does your reader know it’s the South African Society of Anaesthesiologists?
You may think you remember a detail correctly, but you could easily be wrong. Always double-check.
3. Use the active voice
Writing in the active voice helps to keep your sentences clear, uncomplicated and punchy, so try to avoid the passive voice whenever you can. (There will always be exceptions.)
When you use the active voice, the person who is “doing” or “acting” is the subject of your sentence. This structure helps to keep your sentences short and, in most cases, makes your message more powerful and direct.
Have a look at these examples:
- “Flowstars love quizzes” (active voice), compared with “Quizzes are loved by Flowstars” (passive voice)
- “We always attend staff meetings” (active voice), compared with “Staff meetings are always attended by us” (passive voice)
4. Mind your style
A style guide is a set of standards for writing copy to improve communication and ensure consistency and best practice.
Having rules helps you to write, so you don’t have to guess about things like abbreviations and acronyms, apostrophes and capitalisation, how to write captions, whether to use full stops in bulleted lists, and how to write numbers, dates and decimals.
Wondering when to use italics, how to write the names of different currencies, or how to style quotations or scientific names? Simply consult the style guide. (If you need the link to Flow’s comprehensive guide, ask a sub to share it with you!)
5. Check your copy
Before sending your copy for subediting, read through it carefully to make sure there are no missing or extra spaces, that your paragraphs are not too long, that there’s no repetition, that your links all work and your quotes or statistics are attributed, and that everything makes sense.
Finally, do a spellcheck before you share your masterpiece with the subs.