People Don’t Read, They Scan – How to Write for Them

People don't read your text. They scan. Here's how to write for them.
How the average person reads the written, digital word.

Turns out, 79% of people don’t read text. They scan. Only 16% of users read text in full. 

Disappointing if you’re an SEO writer and blogger like me, or if you just want human eyeballs to consume your content. 

Let’s talk about why People of the Internet don’t want to read, and what you can do about it to make sure they can still take in your text content. 

Human intent 

People want information. Writers like me want people to read everything in full. But when it comes to text, people have short attention spans. There’s just too much competing noise. 

The solution? I aim for skim writing. Skim the fat, and structure everything into lean, scannable subpoints and bullets. Even if you’re not a designer – like me – there are still ways to add visual appeal to the text itself and draw in readers. 

  • Vary the length of sentences. 
  • Keep paragraphs lean or bare-bones. Ideally, 1-4 lines in length. 
  • Use headers and subheaders.
  • Use bullet points. 
  • Use structured data (i.e., review scores, recipes).
  • Add explainer images (even stock photos). This adds to a text’s scannability. 
  • Add succinct, helpful captions. (“Attractive young woman pointing excitedly at the phone” is not helpful for scannability or for SEO.)
  • Pull out pertinent quotes as a large block of text on conspicuous display.  

Modern readers are scanners  

21st-century readers don’t read; they scan. This has been proven by eyetracking studies done by user experience (UX) researchers at the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). They’ve conducted in-depth exploration into how people read, or rather digest, content online.  

This article will discuss the 6 different scan patterns readers use to not-read your text:

  1. F-pattern 
  2. Layer cake
  3. Spotted
  4. Selective commitment  
  5. Exhaustive
  6. Zigzag pattern 

What do we mean by scanning? 

By scanning, we mean people who quickly glance through text to look for specific words or phrases. They may pause at prominent headings or bolded text, or just skim for a particular keyword or answer to their question.  

Most of us will scan any given page of text that we come across, and fewer than 1 in 5 people will actually read every word on the page from start to finish. (Fingers crossed at least 2 in 5 will read this article in full.) 

Why do we scan? 

It’s tempting to say readers these days are lazy, but maybe it’s a human evolution in efficiency. With the internet, we are drowning in information. If we took the time to read every word of every text we came across online, most of us would be stuck on the first page of MySpace’s Terms and Conditions.

Or, in plain-speak, our brains would just fry out. 

Scanning enables us to skillfully search for information and filter out the remaining noise. It’s our brain’s own usefulness algorithm.  

Our eyeballs and our brain are processing the written words, but not in chronological, linear order. Our eyes are pulled to certain words – usually the ones relevant to why we landed on that webpage in the first place. 

Reading from screens is exhausting

Our poor eyeballs get tuckered out reading on computer screens. Word for word, we read text 25% slower on computer and tablet screens than we do reading the exact same text on paper.

Print reading is less taxing on our brains. It doesn’t have the screen glare, and provides spatial and tactile cues that help us process the content.

Additionally, we may be primed to be lazier at digital reading. We associate our screen time with casually surfing the web. We may be processing more data, but we’re absorbing most of it at a very shallow level.

Google likes scannable content 

As it turns out, Google Search algorithms reward content that is written for scannability. So this is how smart marketer and content creators structure their content.

Bear with me. This is my argument, not Gospel of Google Truth that I am about to prove with studies and stats, and screengrabs. (Although you can find them if you dig.) 

Google rewards content that people find helpful, valuable, and engaging. Helpful content – that solves users’ problems – is scannable so that people can quickly find the solution.

For any given reader, your article probably has 50 to 100 useful words. Max. The other 2,000 or so words are total window dressing. Help them quickly find the 50 to 100 words they need by using search engine optimization (SEO) content best practices.

This includes: 

  • Use of headers to provide hierarchical structure (H1s, H2s, H3s, etc.) 
  • Use of Schema markup or structured data
  • Use of bullets, sub-bullets, tables, and graphs
  • Well-organized overall layout – with intro, body, and close 

In a well-structured SEO article, a reader should be able to read the title, opening, every subsection title (H2), and the conclusion – the cliff notes – and be able to accurately summarize the article in full.

6 Different scanning patterns 

According to Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) researchers, there are four different scanning patterns that humans primarily use when looking at text. To uncover these different patterns, researchers used cameras to closely monitor how people’s eyes looked at text and images across different online pages.

It’s a bit like what product managers call heatmapping when looking at where users interact with a webpage and identify the areas – heat clusters — with the highest volumes of clicks like call-to-action buttons (hopefully) or scroll bars.  

I’ll talk about the four scanning patterns readers primarily use, and discuss two other patterns that are common to some specific scenarios.  

  1. F-pattern 
  2. Layer cake
  3. Spotted
  4. Commitment  
  5. Exhaustive
  6. Zigzag pattern 

1. F-pattern

In this pattern, we skim text from left to right in an F-shape. We read the first couple of lines in full for the first couple of paragraphs. After that, we read fewer and fewer lines the further we move down the page.

It looks something like this: 

Vision tracking software captures how readers scan text in an F-shaped pattern.  Image courtesy of NN Group

2. Layer cake pattern

Commonly, people read the article title, subtitle, and then only the subtopics (headings with H2 schema markup). 

Headings often contain enough information to give you a gist of what the entire section is about. And the headings – with concise copy and enlarged font – visually stand out more than standard body text. Make headings informative, helpful, and relevant to your article title and its main theme or general thrust.  

Example of how participants in an eyetracking study are drawn to a text’s headers and subheaders in a layer cake pattern. Image courtesy of NN Group

3. Spotted pattern

Frequently, readers will skim through the text looking for specific keywords. This makes sense; it’s keywords in a search engine that likely brought the reader to a given article. 

And this also makes sense given that we are biased, human creatures. We are more drawn to certain words – like Karen, Becky, or fake news – and our brains may, subconsciously, dig a little harder for them. 

But beyond that, we are trying to spot out words to help us accomplish a given task. We are looking for numbers to indicate an address, capital letters that could denote a business name, or a short list of text and numbers for days of the week and store hours. 

In addition to keywords or numbers, a reader may scan for italicized or bolded text, quotes, a different font color, underlined words, or centered text when the rest of the content is left-justified.

And our brain may only need to spot out a few words to understand the broader context. As pointed out by Scientific American, the human brain is primed to guess what comes ne- – when viewing text. And often, our brains do a pretty good j- – of – -, right?

What spotted pattern scanning looks like on a webpage.

4. Selective commitment pattern

In this scanning pattern, a reader is interested in only a certain subtopic within the text and will read all of the content within only that section. 

The reader may be scanning the article and stumble upon a headline that interests them. Or, they may be scanning the text looking for particular information. 

Recipe blog post articles are a good example of the commitment scanning pattern in action. (Sorry, but no one cares what your Grandpa Willy used to say. I just want to find the list of ingredients.) 

Example of selective commitment pattern where a user reads every word of text in one select section.

With this commitment pattern, a person reads every word of every line in one particular section. They are thoroughly engaged. Maybe your content has utterly bewitched them (unlikely) or they’ve found the answer to a very important question (eureka!) like, “Is it weird if someone waits over eighteen hours to text you back?” (Spoiler: it’s no weirder than it is to count the number of non-texting hours that have passed.) 

5. Exhaustive review pattern

Typically we write content for readers who use this exhaustive review pattern.

As a content writer, we think this exhaustive review pattern is the dream standard. Someone who reads every single word of the text from left to right, top to bottom. 

College and graduate school students read and write research papers this way. And inexperienced content writers tend to write content this way too. 

With this scanning pattern, no scanning takes place. Every word is consumed, exhaustively, from the title to the final word in the final closing paragraph. In between, are dozens of lengthy paragraphs – each neatly composed of 3-5 sentences. 

In an exhaustive review, every word of text is read.

While of course, we want readers to read our entire text (brilliance) in full, this scan pattern is less than ideal. It takes a lot of concentration and mental energy to consume text that is read this way. 

When readers take the effort to read your text in its exhaustive entirety, usually it’s because:

  • The subject is too difficult to understand with just one pass-through. The complexity demands it be read and re-read.  
  • The text itself is too hard to read. Possibly, it’s not written at the appropriate reading grade level or the wording is confusing.  
  • There’s missing or incomplete information that a reader is trying to find through a close read. The reader “can’t believe it’s not there” and keeps re-reading in vain. 
  • The reader is an editor, teacher, or instructor and they need to scrutinize the text for a graded evaluation. 

Sometimes, readers use an exhaustive review pattern to read the text because the content is so darn enjoyable. (Like this article.) And it comes from an especially trusted source, like an op-ed in your favorite news journal or it’s been penned by your favorite writer. 

For the most part, your 21st-century reader is on information overload. They don’t want to read every word you write exhaustively. They want to scan, hunt, and gather the info they need quickly. Making readers resort to an exhaustive review can be a violation of user experience (UX) trust. 

Eyetracking of readers using the exhaustive scan pattern to read a National Geographic article. Image courtesy of NNGroup

6. Zigzag pattern

The zigzag pattern occurs when the reader scans text on the page in a zigzag fashion, going back and forth from the main body to side excerpts or other distractors. 

This happens when the reader’s eye is taken to other content or images, or when there’s general confusion with the page’s layout. Most often, it’s often a matter of competing noise.

An example of how scanners take in text using the zigzag pattern. Image courtesy of NN Group

What do non-readers mean for you?

This is the scan-reader you’re writing for.

So, we’ve just told you that modern readers are scanners. They want to quickly rummage through an article, fetch the information they need, and quickly be on their way and there are a variety of eye-scanning patterns they use to do so. 

And not only are readers not-reading your text in full, you probably don’t want them to. 

Forcing users to exhaustively review your entire article is narcissistic (guilty!), time-consuming, and mentally cumbersome. 

Even though users are reading every word, it doesn’t mean they’re understanding them. 

Scanning your text, with the F-pattern or layer cake pattern, usually gives the user a much better understanding of your content – if it is visually laid out to allow for this quick visual run-through. 

Because for writing, as with design, there are generally UX practices to follow. 

This means positioning the information in a way that’s easy to find, using clear language, and adding labels, links, tables, headers, and other visual cues.


How can I adapt my text for people to read and understand it?  

1. Employ UX practices for helpfulness

Use tables of contents, headings, subheadings, opening, summary, and conclusion. Lay out information in an easy-to-find manner so users can quickly find the information they need. 

Some scan patterns, like the layer cake pattern, are reliant on <H2> headings. 

2. Don’t violate user trust 

Arrange info in a format that a user expects. For example, the user has been trained that hyperlinks are often in blue font and underlined. Underlining other text can be confusing. 

3. Frontload your content with your article’s main point 

Within the first three lines of your text, you summarize your article. What is the main takeaway a reader will get from reading it? Do not bury the lead

As with news stories, you can use the inverted pyramid method. 

This means leading with the most newsworthy info, then important or supporting details, and finally other optional background color. 

News writing uses this method because many readers don’t read the text (in full) past the first couple of paragraphs, and if a print news story needs to be shortened (cut), the story can stand on its own with just the first few paragraphs. 

4. Use bulleted lists 

Bulleted lists are easy to scan and digest and can break up otherwise large pages of block text. Ideally, use 4-6 bullets or fewer and keep the content short for each bullet. Use short phrases and emphasize the first few words of each bullet. Avoid nested or sub-bullets. 

5. Keep language simple 

Are you aiming to impress your readers with your flowery or fiery rhetoric? (Guilty!) Or do you want the user to complete a specific needed action – like sign up for a newsletter, click a link, or make a purchase? 

Keep it simple. Avoid word creep. 

Word creep is similar to scope creep in product management – trying to add on too many bells and whistles to a project and winding up with a bloated mess. With product management, and with content writing, simplicity wins. 

6. Hop to it, keep the intro short! 

This is a hard one. I try to be cute – clever, witty, engaging – as I draw in the reader. But if you don’t get to the point right away, you’re going to lose the reader. 

7. Scannability over AP style 

AP style assumes an exhaustive read of your article in chronological order from start to finish. But people rarely read this way.  

  • Spell out words for acronyms numerous times throughout the text. You may introduce the reader to “search engine optimization (SEO)” in the first paragraph. But a user may never read it; the search engine can spit out a reader halfway through your article based on their search query.
  • Use digits (i.e., 8) instead of writing out the number (eight) as much as possible. 
  • A little bit of repetition doesn’t hurt. Again, a reader can be brought directly to the middle or bottom portion of your text.  

8. Use good images 

Images can help the scannability and readability of your text – if the images are relevant and high-quality (clear resolution). Don’t worry about finding especially funny, esoteric, or memorable images. It just needs to highlight the section’s main point. 

Content writing platforms and SEO experts will generally recommend 1 image for every 150 to 300 words of content. Semrush recommends at least 3 images per article, but note that articles with 7 or more images get the most backlinks and the most unique pageviews. 

Wrapping it up 

If you take away anything, it’s this: Do not write an article that visually looks like a print news story or college essay. No one reads your content exhaustively from start to finish. (Ok, well 16% of people do, but not really since they won’t understand it that well.)

Even though people prefer to scan, you can still effectively convey your main points, engage the reader, and even get them to complete a desired conversion like signing up for a newsletter, installing an app, or clicking on an affiliate link.  

Make your text accessible.

A good starting point is to structure content using SEO best practices – headers, subheaders, short paragraphs,  bullets, tables – to add visual interest and promote skimmability. And while you’re at it, don’t neglect your existing written content. Go back in and optimize away. 

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