I hope you skim this post. Anything worth reading is worth skimming first.
We all skim things. It’s not a limitation of the writer or their work; it’s a limitation of communication itself.
And if you write something that’s difficult to skim, your communication is worse for it.
The Problems of the Un-Skimmable
We’ve been here before: I find I’m starting to zone out during a lecture.
The talk isn’t 100% terrible. In fact, there are moments or even long stretches of brilliance throughout.
But I’ve run into one of these problems:
- Irrelevance: A section doesn’t apply to you (because you’ve read the book, heard it before, or it’s directed at the newbies)
- Redundancy: You get a point before everyone else does (but the speaker needs to elaborate to keep everyone on board)
- Pacing: You’re still trying trying to digest an important point when the speaker moves on to another important point.
In a conversation, I have the blessing of being able to interrupt, confirm understanding, or give feedback with my body language.
But because lectures to groups of people are more democratic, the speaker has to reach out and broaden your message to keep everyone on board.
Thankfully, writing isn’t bound by the same laws as a lecture. And if the true goal is to communicate your idea, you’ll make your writing easy to skim.
Inside Every Overweight Book There’s a Skinny One Trying to Get Out
Most nonfiction books could be 25 pages.
The other 275 pages are there for a few reasons:
- They change the way we feel about an idea: Holding 300 pages of an idea changes the way we feel about the amount of work and authority that went into producing it.
- They answer potential objections: Not everyone has these objections (or wants to grapple with them), but the 275 pages work to address those who do.
- They help the newbies, who might need a more thorough belaboring of points.
- They help the veterans, who want the true grit and details that the layman doesn’t need or can’t appreciate.
For a book’s greater audience, many of the 275 pages could be considered footnotes.
What This Means for Readers
I’m not saying we shouldn’t read things all the way through.
I’m simply saying we shouldn’t read everything all the way through.
And more importantly, should or shouldn’t be damned, we don’t read everything all the way through.
What This Means for Writers
First, If I’m writing a book, I probably still need to write the 275 pages, the clarifications and anecdotes. People come to books for more reasons than having an idea defined: books are an experience that helps them learn an idea.
Second, it helps to pick a format where I can answer the specific questions of the niche readers (the confused, the angered, the haters). Know you’ll always be misunderstood (sometimes willfully).
If you can’t skim this post to figure out whether it’s worth extracting more value from your time than not reading it, I’ve failed you as an author.
Finally, consider that your objections to these ideas might be more about your writerly ego than about your desire to communicate your ideas effectively and truly change others.
How to Make it Skimmable
We have a few options:
- Choose Your Format: Youtube lectures can be hopped around. You can skim a table of contents. You can skim blog sections headings. You can use Ctrl+F on a webpage.
- Write for Readers: Use bullet points, bold/ital formatting, white space, images and short paragraphs. These don’t hurt you: they make your points stronger.
- Add a Feedback Loop: A blog post doesn’t end when you finish typing it. The discussion continues in the comments. You’re able to continue the critique, answer the objections, learn from one another. Often, the Q&A after the lecture is a better learning experience for speaker and audience both.
- Make it Short: When you know you can write another post, send another email, or have another conversation with a friend, you don’t feel like you have to answer every objection at once. You don’t have to flesh your idea out completely. You can post it, knowing it’s a pause, not a full stop.