When I used to coach authors on how to be more effective bloggers and social media creators, I often emphasized the importance of using good images/graphics, crafting clicky post titles, and making their online content as readable as possible. I would often say, “You can write the most profound 700 words anyone’s ever read, but if you don’t present those words effectively, few people will actually read them.” I still believe this is true, and as I work more in print publishing, the more I think it applies to books as much as it does blog posts or social media content of some kind.
The more I read books with a strategic publishing mind and the more I watch the evolution of long-form online content, the more convinced I become that the structure of a long-form piece of written content matters more than just about anything else when it comes to getting readers to actually engage with the material.
One could argue that in view of attracting attention and eyeballs, the structure of the content matters more than the meaning of the content. Well-laid-out gibberish would probably get more attention than Martin Luther King Jr.’s powerful “I Have a Dream” speech simply presented as a block of text. Let me see if I can demonstrate:
3 Reasons Powerpoint Is Better for This Demonstration
I really wish I had a way to demonstrate this more clearly than in a single-column blog post format. This is when I wish I was a YouTuber.
A Powerpoint or other kind of visual presentation would be better for this demonstration for these three reasons:
1) Effective Visual Aids Keep Attention
A bad Powerpoint can be super distracting and unhelpful, but used effectively it can enhance teaching.
2) Side-by-side Comparison
If I had a Powerpoint slide deck, I could show you the two examples side-by-side.
3) Some Random Third Point
I don’t even have a third point here, but you still scanned the bulleted list, didn’t you?
A Powerful Message Poorly Structured
Compare that to this message, which is a portion of one of the most powerful speeches in American history:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self‐evident, that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" ‐‐ one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."
Did you see what I did there?
I wrote a pointless 100-word message about how I wish I could present this content in a Powerpoint format rather than in a linear blog post format and then I gave you the heart of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in a big block of text.
The complaint about doing this in Powerpoint had a nice, bold header and a bulleted/listed structure that makes it easily readable in a hurry, but not necessarily without depth. The speech excerpt followed a header that was capitalized, but not bolded, and was a giant wall of plain text without any line breaks or anything to help the reader.
I would bet you read the effectively-structured nonsense more thoroughly and easily than an excerpt of one of the most powerful speeches known to man.
Why? Because I structured one to be more easily read than the other.
Before we get into what makes “good structure,” let’s talk about why content structure matters so much.
Why Does Structure Matter So Much?
To put it plainly, structure matters so much because people have a limited amount of free time and a seemingly unlimited number of ways to spend it. This reality makes it a tall task for any writer to keep the attention of his or her readers.
If you’re writing a book or a blog post or some other form of written content, you need to think about the competition for time you’re in when it comes to your audience and their needs. Your blog post is competing for your reader’s free time. Your book needs to be able to justify the hours it takes to complete. Whether you like it or not, your book is competing with Netflix. Your blog post is competing with video games. Obviously these media are all different, but they are all enjoyed within the same finite amount of free time someone has in a given day or week.
It’s hard to think about it that way, but it’s true: your little blog is competing with Netflix for the free time of your readers. Because this is true, you and I and anyone else who writes to be read needs to do what we can to structure our content in such a way that we serve our reader and their time. When we steward our words well, our readers pay us with their attention.
What Does “Good Structure” Look Like?
Before we explore this, two brief caveats: 1) I am often not good at this, so I speak as a reader more than a writer here, and 2) This principle applies to nonfiction prose more other writing like poetry or fiction or other kinds of “creative” writing.
If your blog post or book hopes to stand a chance among a readership that is increasingly allured by all sorts of entertainment that are indisputably of a flashier nature than the written word, you need to do all you can to be sure the reading experience is efficient, which is different from “fast.”
To write an efficient piece of writing isn’t to write something that is short in length, formatted in bullet points, or at a third-grade reading level…but it is a combination of factors similar to these.
In short, to write a book or blog post or other kind of piece that is efficient is to serve your reader by making the content no longer or difficult to read than it needs to be. When we make our writing more efficient, we make it more easily read, we honor our readers’ time, and we are more likely to have our content fully read.
So, then, how do we actually do this? What are some practical ways that we can structure our writing to serve readers well?
How Can We Structure Content With the Reader in Mind?
Here’s the goods. Let’s briefly look at three basic ways we can structure our writing to best serve our readers:
1) Be mindful of length.
Do not read this point as “keep it short.”
Sometimes blog posts demand 3000 words.
Sometimes that extra chapter does need to be in the book.
But like a wizard is never early or late but arrives precisely when he means to, our blog posts ought not be to short or long, but precisely the length they need to be. The same goes for books. I read a lot, and I’ve read a lot of 50,000-word books that could have easily been 25,000-word books for the betterment of everyone involved.
There is no “right” length that everyone should be aiming to hit. Different projects and ideas demand different investments of time, and that’s OK. The key is to think about what you’re writing from your reader’s perspective and discern the right amount of words it will require from you and time it should require from your reader.
2) Move from general to specific.
This principle applies to longer form writing like books more than blog posts in my opinion, but it could apply to longer blog posts as well.
I’ll use my book as an example. In February 2022, a year from now, Terms of Service will be out in the world. The main point of my book is that our relationship with the social internet is changing us in ways we don’t realize. But in order to get to that point, I want to start out on the same page (ha) as my reader. I want to be sure we share the same language and the same cultural context. That way, the main idea will have greater effect when they arrive at it later in the book.
So, the first part of my book sets the stage for where the social internet stands today. It explores the shared history we all have of social media, looking at where we’ve come from to where we are today. Instead of diving into the deep end of the pool right away, we start in the shallow end where everyone can swim, remembering experiences that we all share, and then we make our way to the deeper end of the pool that I’ve plumbed but the reader needs some help navigating.
Let’s say you’re writing a book about how to be better at disciplining your children. You would be wise to begin the book on common ground your reader has experienced, perhaps identifying the frustration that comes with parenting a disobedient child, or the tension parents feel between being too tough and too soft on their kids. By starting on shared, common ground before you dive into the content your reader may not yet understand, you build trust and you gain the ability to lead the reader into the deeper, more substantive material.
I hope that makes sense…it makes a lot more sense if I can draw it out on a whiteboard or something. Writing it is hard, ironically.
3) Include frequent breaks in content.
Like the last point applies more to books than blog posts or other online content, this point is the opposite. This idea applies more to blog posts and online content than books, but books could benefit from it too, even if to a more limited extent.
I already gave an example of this principle toward the beginning of this post, but to reiterate: your reader is well-served by paragraph breaks, bold headings, and other kinds of visual effects that break up text.
So many readers of online content are really not reading so much as they are doing some amplified version of scanning. When you break up text and put main ideas in bold heading styles, you serve the scanner by delivering the most important ideas in a way that it can be read quickly and serve its purpose. Then, for the readers that do more than scan the content and want more thoughts, the supporting details and ideas are still available under the main, bolded ideas.
If you don’t believe me for some reason, I could provide you years of blog analytics data that shows listicles or other forms of chopped-up content perform far better than content made up of large blocks of text. You can thank BuzzFeed.
Readers Are Busy
Look, if you want to write your own way and you don’t care how many people read or you don’t care how much they read of what you write, don’t implement anything I’ve told you here. You do you. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But, if you wonder why no one is reading what you write or you complain about a lack of readership and you aren’t willing to implement some of these structural helps for your reader, you’re going to have a hard time getting any sympathy from me or anyone else. I’ve consulted a lot of folks over the years who write 2000-word blog posts broken up into three massive paragraphs and they wonder why no one reads their stuff.
We live in a time when there are more ways for us to spend our free time than ever in history. Like Netflix competes with sleep for viewers’ time, we compete with Netflix for readers’ eyeballs.
If you hope to grow a readership and serve readers by stewarding their time well, you need to understand that you could write the most profound prose anyone has ever seen, but few will actually see it. It isn’t fair, I know, but that’s just how it is.
Let’s try to serve people by writing efficient prose. Structure is so much more important than it feels like it should be.