Write visually.

Jul 12, 2021

Before you read, you scan – and knowing that can revolutionize the way you create any kind of content.

 

Article at a glance.

  • Audiences don’t read, they scan
  • Build a UI for your content
  • Use visual writing tools like gist summaries and white space

 

This isn’t the first thing you looked at when you started reading this blog. It probably wasn’t the second either…or the third.

That’s by design.

In our increasingly fragmented viewership universe, audiences absorb and understand information in a bajillion ways. There are blogs, infographics, long-form articles, Podcasts, Tik Tok tutorials, YouTube leaks, Netflix binges, highlights emails, news aggregators and so (so, so, so) much more.

Today’s audiences aren’t looking for the word-stacked media of yore. Instead, they want to understand and get active faster. That’s why “writing visually” is so important. It helps your audience get to the good stuff faster.


“Writing visually isn’t about the images you use, it’s about thinking less like a writer and more like an information architect when it comes to structuring and presenting content in any form.”


Writing visually isn’t about the images you use, it’s about thinking less like a writer and more like an information architect when it comes to structuring and presenting content in any form – whether that’s an email you’re sending to your team or a presentation you’re giving at a big time conference.  

Here's how.

Build UI for your content.
You need an information hierarchy that your audience understands instantly. Look at magazines and online publications that put summaries at the top of the page, use headlines effectively and deliver listicles. There’s an easy-to-follow structure that grabs, then guides your eye through the content.

I actually did that to write this post. Before I started writing the beginning, I sketched out the headline, bolded subheads and pull quote, knowing you’d look there first.

Generate Gist Summaries and navigational cues.
Lead your audience through your content. Create “Gist Summaries” at the beginning of communications to present highlights. Use listicles or countdowns to show what’s important. Repeat your agenda slide throughout a pitch or presentation to reinforce where you are in the journey.

Work with context-laden headlines and subheads.
Think of your headlines and subheads as the instantly-scannable highlights of your content. That means you don’t want to simply say “what” in your headline, but “why” and/or “how.” Because they stand out in larger type or boldface, audience go there first. Rich content helps them understand the value of the words that follow.

Cheat with short paragraphs, white space and punctuation.
Writing visually extends to the way you sculpt sentences. Put active verbs up front to empower a reader. Keep paragraphs short to trick your brain into not getting tired. Use single phrase paragraphs with surrounding white space to command attention. Think about your punctuation too – ellipses (…) and longer dashes (–) work like billboards for the eye. Sorry purists, I’ve replaced the colon with these highly visual elements in my writing.

(Irony – that was the longest paragraph of the blog post.)

Embed interesting and colourful language.
“Bajillion,” “Yore,” ”Gist Summaries.” I call these tripwire words and they’re laced (there’s another one) in the paragraphs above. A “tripwire word” is an atypical noun, verb, adjective, adverb or phrase that I tuck into a longer paragraph to wake up your brain. If you’re scanning, the originality of the word catches you like a tripwire.

Want more attention? Don’t think of your article as a block of text. Instead, break it down in the same way an interface designer thinks about an app. Using elements like those above mean more readers, more engagement and more action.