Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When information is plenty, text with a low information-to-length ratio isn't worth reading

Sometimes you hear the complaint that the internet-users of today don't have the patience to read things online. It used to be that people read relatively long articles in Newspapers and magazines like Time. But not any more. They don't have the attention span and are perhaps lacking in a certain kind of mental depth.

But some of this situation actually reflects a lacking in older styles of writing. They're not informational enough. You have to read a lot of for only a small amount of useful information. That was fine when information was relatively scarce. But when there is so much information out there -- and in truth, a lot of useful information out there -- it's just too costly to read things that have a low information-to-length ratio.

By the way, when I talk about the inforamtion-to-length ratio, I mean the amount of information that people can easily and comfortably derive from the text. It's no good if the text says a lot, but it's bloody difficult to discipher (note, however, that I tend to think that high informational text is likely to be readable. Clever sounding but hard to read text is often just obfuscation).

I think that people will pay attention if the informational payoff is high enough. When it's not they'll skim, and if it's too low, they'll skim a bit then leave.

That's the simple rule for getting people to read stuff on your web-site: give it a high information-to-length ratio. I'm suspect of how well "gimmicks" like highlighting keywords -- so they'll catch readers eyes when scanning -- really work.

So what's an example of a form of writing that has a high information-to-length ratio? The best examples I can think of are Paul Graham's essays.

(and of course I'm not making any claims here about my ability to write this sort of text. and certainly most of the stuff on this blog is just 'trying to get my thoughts together' stuff that doesn't have a high info-to-length ratio).

No comments:

Post a Comment