Saturday, May 24, 2014

Writing fiction for online readers

There are a lot of articles and researchers out there crying out against the shift in our reading comprehension. They decry the evils of online reading. We are becoming "skimmers" and apparently that is a bad thing.

Or is it?

What if the the reason people comprehend less when reading online than in print because we are still writing for print?

Different font types facilitate different types of reading (serif fonts are easier to read in print and sans serif are easier on a screen), so it would make sense that different writing styles facilitate online reading than print reading. Right?

Bloggers have already figured this out. The recommend all kinds of practices for snaring the "skimmers" and capturing their attention. Bolds, bullet lists, headings and sub headings. Short sentences, short paragraphs. There is a well established style for bloggers now.

So what about fiction? Writing two versions of your book, one for print and one for online reading, might be a little daunting. But I think it is important to keep in mind the changing reader brain and consider where we can adapt our writing to accommodate both kinds of reader as much as possible.

Online readers are a bit ADD. If something doesn't grab them right away they start to get distracted. When creating a sentence with this in mind, choose strong verbs, active voice, and lead with the most interesting part of your sentence. When you are providing two or more pieces of information in one sentence, don't save the best for last. They may not be paying attention anymore by the time they get to the end of a sentence that leads with the less important and exciting stuff.

Here is a list of a few things for you to consider about online readers, as you write.

  • Get to the point quickly, strive for clarity, simple sentences rule. 
  • When using complex sentences, lead with the good stuff. Use long complex, multiple stop sentences sparingly.
  • Always be moving forward. Advance the plot as with each sentence. 
  • Focus on action.
  • Hook, hook, hook. Give the reader a reason to keep reading forward. Give them a mystery they need to solve. If they are looking for the answer to a question already, they won't miss it when they get to it.
  • Play with formatting. What would happen if you started each chapter, or even each scene, with a bolded phrase? Particularly a phrase that predicts or implies what will happen in this section of the story? "I should have known I would never get away with it, after she told me about the ice cream truck." BOOM. Grab their attention and tell them something is coming. 
  • It's all about white space. Long dense paragraphs just don't turn an online readers crank. Break it up with shorter paragraphs. Dialogue is superb for this. Nothing will move a reader down your page faster than dialogue.
Those are just a few thoughts. I am sure there are other ways we can adapt our writing to the online reading brain. And many of the suggestions above already apply to print books. Active voice, hooks, action...these are all catchwords that are bandied about when talking about good writing.

More and more readers are taking the bad habits they learn online into their print reading. Two versions of your book aren't necessary. One version adapted to the new way people read is all that you need. It is pointless to resist the changes in the way people read. It's here to stay as long as we keep walking around the world looking at our phones. It's time for writers to consider changing to keep up with the evolving reader.


©2014 Amanda June Hagarty

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