Monday, March 30, 2009

Do NOT Scroll to Read This

I’ve begun to hate some of the commonly-held “wisdom” that is held in proposing what makes for good web writing. These tips, I believe, play too much to the bias that web reading ought to pander to the hyperkinetic, distracted, and lazy reader, rather than the reader who wants good information and is willing to slow down (even by a matter of minutes) to discover whether the information they regard as “good” is indeed good after all.

A discussion last week, for example, in my publications management class focused on whether it’s a good idea to “make” or “force” readers to scroll as they read. The common web wisdom is that short, concise writing with a minimum of scrolling is best, and that if a piece is longer than the confines of a standard monitor, then it ought to be cut, shortened or daisychained in a series of hyperlinks so the reader doesn’t have to do anything but stare at the screen and click a button to absorb the text.

We mostly agree this advice is hogwash.

It harks back to old media, or at least media as old as USA Today. When that paper was started in 1980, writers were urged to write short peppy stories that did not have to jump. Jumping, of course, is when readers had to go to a different page of the newspaper to continue reading the story as it “jumped” from one page to another.

Problem is the advice is only half right. I’ve written plenty of boring stories on municipal government that jumped, but should not have. Inverted pyramid style tells us that the most important stuff comes first, with the rest to follow in descending order of importance. If, at the jump, the information was already putting me to sleep, I never read the jump. Even if it was an article I wrote.

On the other hand, there are articles that jump once, jump again, and occasionally, jumped thrice, and they kept readers reading to the last paragraph. The difference? The genre, or the writing style. These longer stories that keep readers’ interest tend to be narrative. They tell a story or introduce a character, rather than provide a list of facts and quotes in decreasing levels of importance.

Same with the web. If a piece is well-written, captivating and telling a compelling story, readers will scroll. And scroll. And scroll. And scroll some more. Deciding whether or not to enforce the no-scroll rule ought to be applied on a case-by-case basis, not as a blanket policy. Readers will even scroll through page after page of comments on a story they only had to scroll through two or three pages to read, just because the comments, in the telling, tell a story, amuse, enrage or in other sundry ways engage the reader.

So why, on most writing for the web websites, do we see the old “Scroll and Die” rule bandied about like the embarrassing relative it is? And why do they embarrassingly resemble this website, which confused the hell out of me as it applied the no-scroll rule and, instead, offered hyperlinks in order to continue, as if I were reading a prepubescent Choose Your Own Adventure novel, not something actually engaging and worthwhile? (I admit, it’s more than a decade old. But check into more modern web writing forums like Kairos and you’ll find things that are eerily similar to this, but only moderately less clunky.) No one has been able to explain to me why a click on a hyperlink is more desirable than a scroll.

Good writing will carry the reader whether the reader has to click on hyperlinks or scroll to continue.I suppose we can argue the pros and cons of one method versus the other, but I, for one, would like to see the Scroll and Die rule put to death.

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