If you count the number of online news sources, blogs, emails, instant messaging conversations and so on that the average person reads every day, it amounts to a massive amount of textual information. So no matter how great the substance of your content, you are going to be subjected to the 10 second rule.
Let me explain. Essentially, by the time you finish this article, you’ll know how to write in a clearer manner so that the average reader can understand the gist of your content in 10 seconds or less.
Ready? Start your stopwatch.
You Are Being Filtered
The total amount of information we can read, absorb, and actually benefit from on a daily basis is limited and therefore we use a number of direct and indirect mechanisms to filter the information that ultimately reaches us. As an indirect measure, we use social media (which integrates the concept of the wisdom of crowds and social proof) to indirectly filter interesting and useful information from the white noise.
Often times, before our content is actually submitted to social media sites for indirect filtering, it has to go through some direct filtering from our own audiences via a diagonal read test. Readers will often read content diagonally to determine its usefulness before giving it a proper read. And in order to pass this direct filter test, you need to write for “diagonal” readers who scan your content from headline to close in a zig zag pattern.
Attack of the Diagonal Readers
Most of these diagonal readers give the content a first pass by reading an article passively—just like one would browse a magazine, look at photographs, or watch television, i.e. they’re not really paying attention to the small details, rather they are waiting for something to really pop out at them. The average reader reads about 240 words per minute, where as a diagonal reader ‘reads’ (actually scans) closer to 15 words per second or about 900 words per minute. So, there are at least three, and up to five important sections of an article that a diagonal reader will see in the approximately 10 seconds they’ll initially allocate to your content.
- The title or headline of your post.
- The subtitles or subheadings within the post.
- Any bold, underlined, quoted, or otherwise highlighted text.
- Pictures, graphs, charts, or images of any nature.
- A summary of the article.
We have previously examined the how to write social media compatible titles, so let’s look at some of the other components you should pay attention to. Here are a few questions to keep in mind and questions that you should try to answer at the end of each article you write.
- Do you make a unique new point or are you just regurgitating information?
- Is it possible to summarize the point of your article in 2-3 sentences?
- Is the point you’re trying to make apparent?
Do you really have something to say?
Asking yourself this question allows you to determine if you are actually creating value for the reader by providing new information or unique insight into a matter or if you’re just regurgitating information that has already been covered elsewhere. If you answer to this question in the negative, you need to toss out the article and start from the beginning because if that’s the case, the diagonal reader is going to skip the article anyway because she probably has already seen it elsewhere.
It’s ok to explore the same information you’ve seen elsewhere, but ask yourself if you are approaching it from a fresh angle. If not, start over.
Is it possible to quickly summarize your point?
Once I finish reading your article, if someone comes along and asks me what I’m reading and what it’s about, will I have to think and decide what your point is or will I say it right away? If you’re making an argument, the point itself should be reducible to 2-3 sentences and the rest of the space should be used to walk the reader through your reasoning and explain to the reader how you get to the conclusion. If you start diverging and arguing several tangential points in the same post, you risk confusing the reader. In most cases each point can have a post of its own and you shouldn’t feel forced to bundle different things together.
Is the point you’re trying to make apparent?
Does your post title reflect what you’re going to write about, or at least give enough of an indication to arouse curiosity? Do the subtitles make it clear that each section within the post will point-by-point defend your main argument? Are you using images to contextualize your argument or facilitate the reader in understanding what you’re saying or are you just using images to fill the space?
As is the case with point number two, it often helps to have a 2-3-line summary of your article at the very top, right underneath the post title. This way, (for example in the case of this post) when a diagonal reader comes this way, this is what he sees:
- Title of this post: The 10 Second Rule: How to Write for Diagonal Readers.
- Visual: The image of the stopwatch reinforces the headline and dramatically intensifies curiosity.
- Summary of this post: “Essentially, by the time you finish this article, you’ll know how to write in a clearer manner so that the average reader can understand the gist of your content in 10 seconds or less.” This is prefaced by the words “Let me explain,” which is a key transitional phrase that catches the attention of a diagonal reader.
- Subtitles: Each subtitle provides support for the main idea and gives clues to what can be learned from reading more closely.
From these quickly-digestible clues, both your regular readers and social media readers can evaluate the merit of your content. After that, people will read more carefully, submit it to Digg, Netscape or other social news site, or maybe simply vote positively for your content and even link to you.
It’s the 10-second rule. Does your content pass the test?