Have you ever been sorting old household ‘stuff’ and come across ancient books? You might be used to the writing style of novelists from yesteryear, but the non-fiction can be a bit of an eye-opener. Especially if you have the typical attention span of most modern readers…

Delve with me into my grandmother’s copy of Modern Typewriting and Manual of Office Procedure (eleventh edition, 1919).  What’s immediately striking is the dense coverage of words on the page. The print is small. The sentences are wordy. You scan desperately for a distant paragraph break like a marathon runner gasping for the next watering station.

It’s hard going, even for those actually interested in early 20th century office protocol. (Really, you neither?)

That style of prose just wouldn’t work nowadays. Here is not the place to debate why today’s readers have a shorter attention span than the average mayfly. We just have to accept the fact, and deal with it.

I wrote in an earlier post about the trouble with typos. Typos are the little internal distractions in writing and, of course, that’s what you’d expect a proofreader to sort out. But the bigger picture – the text as a whole – also needs to keep readers focussed.

That’s where editing comes in.

Watch this space

I’m going to assume that you have a great deal of knowledge about your subject – your business, profession or hobby. You’re passionate about that knowledge. You’re rightly proud of your achievements. You are the expert.

So you have a lot you want to say.

It’s tempting to write everything you know, in great detail, to prove your credentials. So – given that nanosecond attention span – how can you keep your readers interested in what’s important without them becoming daunted or, worse, just bored?

Well, it’s the places where the writing isn’t that help to highlight your main message.

The spaces.

The pauses.

The bits that effectively say, “It’s OK – you can take a mini break now.” Or “Ooh… Something new coming up!”

Spaces draw attention to the writing in the same way that a frame draws attention to a picture.

To create interesting space on the page, editors ask questions such as:

  • Is there variety in paragraph and sentence length?
  • Are the longer sentences easy to understand or do they need re-wording?
  • Does breaking up that sentence or paragraph feel disjointed, or does it make the reader want to move on and find out what’s next? (I tried both ways with my second paragraph, above, and opted in the end to keep it all together.)
  • Would lists look better with bullet points or are some of them fine as part of a sentence?
  • Shall I show off with a semi-colon or would a dash be easier to see and understand?
  • Is all of this information actually needed?

This list is by no means exhaustive, and sometimes the answers won’t be obvious. (Sorry about that. But if editing was quick and easy, everyone could manage it.)

You can be your own editor, and make those decisions yourself. Or you can ask a professional. But somebody needs to give serious thought to making your message easy to read, whether that message is trying to sell skyhooks, or training a workforce in Skyhook Health and Safety Procedures.

Of course, much will depend on your target audience – more on that in a later post. (Or Engaging Your Readers: The Sequel, if you prefer.)

I was going to add something really important here but a new video of kittens has popped up on Facebook and it’s completely gone out of my head.

Catherine Legg

Catherine Legg is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing more than sorting the good from the bad and the ugly. She takes the description 'pernickety' as a compliment. Visit Catherine's website

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