How to Capture Your Readers’ Attention with Concise Writing
I leave out the parts that people skip.
—Award-winning writer Elmore Leonard, on why his books are popular
Eight seconds. That’s the average human attention span today.
Gaining attention fast is crucial for all communication, but in writing, it’s a requirement. When we’re not face-to-face with our audience, they’re extra quick to tune out and turn away. Writing is one of the primary ways we communicate, yet more than 80% of business people say that poor writing wastes a lot of their time. The average office worker gets over 100 emails every day, with dozens of other priorities competing for their attention.
How can your writing rise higher on that list of priorities? In those first eight seconds, how can you show the reader that your message is worth it?
To get their notice and honor their time, you’ll need to be concise.
Consider these tips to make your writing stronger and more succinct:
1. Get to the point.
The heart of your message should appear when attention is freshest: at the beginning. If you want your readers’ answers to a question, ask it right away. If you want them to do something, learn something, go somewhere, make that clear in your first line or two. For emails, you can even put your main point in your subject line.
2. Remove unnecessary details.
Think carefully about what your readers need to know, and cut anything that doesn’t serve a purpose. Sometimes you’ll have to explain exactly how you solved a problem—but often, all you need to share is that the issue’s fixed. If you have a lot of background on your topic, say “If you need more details, please let me know,” instead of typing up paragraphs.
If a word or phrase has a simpler synonym, use it. Write “about” instead of “regarding,” “help” instead of “assist.” Long words and complex phrases once showed off their writers’ education. Generations ago, this might have built credibility. That’s no longer true, and the trade-off in terms of reading speed isn’t worth it.
3. Use active voice.
Sentences in active voice not only require fewer words, but are also direct. They show right away who or what is taking an action, instead of burying or omitting it.
4. Shorten your sentences.
Aim for no more than 20 words per sentence. If a sentence is getting too long, consider how you can separate it into two.
5. Make your writing easier to scan.
Bulleted lists, tables, and headers break up long chunks of text. They make important content stand out visually, directing your readers’ attention to the places that matter most.
Microsoft Word’s “grade level” test is a good litmus test for how readable your writing is. This measures the complexity of your words and sentences. Aim for a 6th-grade writing level. If you are at the high-school level or higher, simplify more—no matter who your audience is. You’ll achieve better results in less time. Even the strongest readers appreciate when writing is easy to understand.
Feeling inspired and ready to learn more? Check out our strategic writing courses.