Have you ever struggled to read the text on a web page? You’re keen to read the material, but not sure why you’re struggling. And it’s not because the language is difficult. And it’s not because the topic is unknown. Yet there’s something that’s driving you batty.
It’s something on the page itself, but you can’t put your finger on it. And it’s causing a bit of a Reader Fatigue.
So what is Reader Fatigue?
Reader Fatigue is a scenario where something on the page is causing a bit of grief to the reader. They desperately want to read what you’re saying but a bit of tiredness creeps in and then they give up. And off they bouncity-bounce to the next web page—the web page that isn’t so tiring.
And what’s interesting is that you can quickly remove this factor of Reader Fatigue by considering three core issues.
But before we get started on removing Reader Fatigue…
Let’s get one thing straight. What I’m about to tell you may sound like a grammar lesson. Well, it is a grammar lesson in a way, but not quite. It’s more of a conversion lesson.
If your customer gets tired reading your articles, or your sales page, they just leave. And if they leave—heck I don’t have to tell you what happens—you’ve lost a customer. And you’ve lost a customer over a simple matter. A matter that can easily be fixed.
So let's examine three issues that you can fix right away:
Issue 1: Constraining the thought to one idea.
Issue 2: Width of the line.
Issue 3: Avoiding chunky paragraphs.
Issue 1: Constraining the thought to one idea.
The rule is simple. Keep your sentences down to 15-25 words at best. This is because a sentence with fewer than 25 words usually contains one thought. And when there’s just one thought in the sentence, the reader can quickly grasp the thought and move on to the next sentence. And the next. And the next.
Long sentences tend to be long because the writer is unable to restrain their thoughts, and they just plough on relentlessly, not knowing where to stop, till finally they stagger to a halt, and you get a sentence like this one: where the reader has forgotten what you were saying in the first place.
Now of course you don’t write sentences that are sixty words long, but it’s easy to slip into sentences that are 35-40 words. After all 35-40 words are just two lines on your word processing program.
So the easy way to restrain your thoughts is to focus on your word processing program when typing. If your sentence is streaming across the width of the page, then you’ve probably written about 15 words. If your sentence is going to 25 words, that’s about a line and a half on the word processor. It’s now time to put a full stop. And start a new sentence.
By putting full stops in your sentence it’s easy to take a lonnnnnnnnnng sentence and restrain the thought.
Long sentences tend to be long because the writer is unable to restrain their thoughts. They just plough on relentlessly. And never seem to know when to stop. Then finally they stagger to a halt. And you get a sentence like this one: where the reader has forgotten what you were saying in the first place.
So yeah. Keep sentences short.
This takes us to the second factor of Reader Fatigue: The width of the line.
If you look at your newspaper, you’ll notice something quickly. The newspaper is divided into columns. And the width of the line doesn’t go past eight or nine words across. This width restraint is put in for a reason. It allows your eye to read, get some breathing space and then go to the next line.
The width of your web page text needn’t be as constrained, but not much wider than 15 words wide. An average web page can easily accommodate about 30 words of text on one line. And putting 30 words of text in one line is a big mistake. And it’s a mistake because the text becomes tiring. It’s hard to read.
The way around this problem is to make sure you split your web page into two or three columns (Ask your web designer if you don’t know how to do this ‘split’). The column you most want to focus on is the text column. How many words do you have in your main text column? If it’s 15 words or thereabouts, then you’re ok. If not, you need to fix it right away.
And once you’re done fixing those two issues, let’s examine the third issue: chunky paragraphs.
Magazines and newspapers work with restricted space, so they often have chunky paragraphs. But web pages don’t have restriction issue. And it’s in your best interest to take advantage of this unrestricted space by breaking up your paragraphs.
And here’s the reason
When the reader looks at your page, all they see is a waterfall of text. If you have long, dense paragraphs, the material on the page looks intimidating. An intimidating page is more likely to drive a customer away. What’s sad is that this problem can easily be fixed by making your paragraphs less dense.
And the way to make it less dense is to restrict your paragraphs to about 4-6 sentences in all. Once you’ve put in about six sentences, just put in a break and create a new paragraph. This break gives the reader some breathing space and visually it’s far less intimidating.
Ok, time for a summary:
1) Constrain the thought to one idea: keep sentences down to 25 words at best.
2) Check the width of the line on the web page. About 15 words. That’s it.
3) 4-6 lines in a paragraph is enough. Move to the next paragraph and create breathing space.
Some of these changes are easy to make going forward, and some of them may need some going back to edit your existing web content. It’s well worth the trouble to make the time to implement these changes.
Because as I said: This ain’t about grammar. It’s about conversion. If you drive a customer batty with your web pages, you only have yourself to blame.
Next Step: Want to learn more about website marketing? Find the entire website marketing series in text, audio with cartoons!
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richard michie says
All good points. I used to be a print designer and the column width rule was the first thing we learnt. One of the reasons this mistake is made so often on the web is down to the wild west thought of anyone can design a website unfortunatley.
If you#re about to design a site take a look around you first not just on the web but at advertising and the printed press. Then take the best ideas from there.
Justified type is also a no no. Justified left, or ragged right, means that your eye knows where the line has ended so it can look for the next one.
Interestingly enough, width of line is the reason I find it nearly impossible to read your site out of my feed reader, (it always looks like a double spaced essay) but easy to absorb on your site. I don’t suppose you know of someway to customize how you send your RSS so that it shows up in my reader like it is on your site?