Writing in the Digital Age: When Good is No Longer Good Enough

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Writing in a Digital Age - PMC Training

Good writing is good, and good plain writing is better. But writing that will be presented on digital media — rather than on paper — must clear an even higher bar. This is because people no longer read articles end-to-end, books cover-to-cover.

Digital readers don’t usually read. They skim for the information they need and often stop when they think they’ve found it. Or enough of it. This is more important for articles and web-writing because the simple act of picking up a hardcover or opening an e-book probably indicates a higher level of commitment to the activity.

So how do we engage today’s fickle readers? By writing clearly, simply and well. That was always the formula for engaging prose, but there was never as much competition for the readers’ attention as we face today.

This puts a premium on good document design and good economical story-telling. Effective writing brings the key information to the forefront, which allows the reader to skim. And readers are much less inclined to read every word of your story than they might have been 10 or 20 years ago.

Good, interesting writing is important, but it’s not enough. PMC writing skills instructor Moira W. has developed a method for structuring all writing — even e-mail messages — to engage the reader. She calls it the whats:

What?
Tell your readers what you’re talking about.

So what?
Tell your readers why it matters to you. Even better, explain why it should matter to your readers.

Now what?
Tell your readers what you want them to do. You’ve identified a problem and given your readers information or insight. Now provide a call to action.

Good digital writing — good writing, period — that will engage readers, even at a time when people lose interest quickly, may sound simple. But “good” will not mean the same thing for every reader in your audience.

Attention spans, an e-book from Consumer Insights at Microsoft Canada, identifies three types of attention. Most readers use each of these approaches to varying extents, and the most effective way to engage any reader is with an integrated approach:

Sustained attention       
Tech-savvy, multi-screening (using more than one digital device at a time), social media users may have difficulty paying attention for extended periods of time, but they can do more with less using bursts of attention and efficiently coding to memory.

To reach these people, be clear, personal, relevant, and to the point.

Selective attention
Readers’ ability to filter out distractions isn’t related to technology or social media usage, or to media consumption. But it declines with multi-screening. You need to hold readers’ attention to compete with other stimuli, and also to steal attention from other interests.

To reach these people, do the unexpected, keep things moving, and focus on a clear message.

Alternating attention    
Digital lifestyles improve the ability to switch between tasks, but readers can feel overwhelmed.

To reach these people, embed calls to action, be interactive, continue experiences onto other screens, and use sequential messaging.

Digital media expose Canadians to massive amounts of information. Multi-screening and social media are the new norm for readers of all ages.

Business writers who see the growth of digital media as a threat have already surrendered. To thrive you need to see it as a challenge, see it as a higher bar and see it as an opportunity.

Consumers of digital information are not fickle. They’re just getting better at doing more with less. And less is what they want.

They’ll pay attention to you and your message as long as you give them what they want.

Learn to be a Better Writer with PMC Training
If you’re looking to improve your writing skills, check out over a half dozen business writing courses offered by PMC Training. Our Proofreading and Editing and Business Writing for Impact and Influence courses are quite popular. But if you’re not sure which workshop is right for you, give us a call at 613-234-2020, ext. 18 and we’ll help you choose.

Further Reading:

How Digital Affects Canadian Attention Spans
Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015
Canadians, the study tells us, have fallen behind goldfish in the length of our attention spans. We jump from subject to subject or device to device rather than concentrate on one thing. To hook readers we need clear and concise up-front messaging.

Building Attention Span
New York Times, Opinion Pages, July 10, 2015
People read a printed page more deliberately than they read from a screen. Reading print, we are more linear, more intentional and less likely to multitask. Reading on a digital display, on the other hand, encourages us to skim ahead in a frictionless world that rewards quick perception and performance. Most of us write for both print and electronic media. How seamlessly do you shift between the styles?

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014)
If you’re looking for a how-to reference that will answer all your technical questions, this isn’t it. It won’t tell you whether it’s “wrong” to split an infinitive.  But if you’re interested in a thoughtful discussion (with insights from linguistics and neurology) of the art of good writing, this may be the book for you.

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