The 3 science-based rules of writing
Keep your content simple, snappy, and exciting. Research found that people are 25% more likely to read until the end.
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Your content, ad copy, and messaging is only useful if people actually read it.
Scientists from Wharton, University of Maryland, and Emory University analyzed ~650,000 reading sessions of over 35,000 articles to understand what makes people continue reading until the end.
Here’s what they found.
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People are more likely to finish reading exciting, short, and easy-to-understand content
Channels: Copywriting | Content | Messaging | Website | EmailFor: Both B2C and B2BResearch date: January 2023
Use shorter, common, and concrete words to make your writing easier to understand (e.g. ‘similar’, not ‘almost indistinguishable’)
Avoid long or complex sentences or using the passive voice (e.g. ‘Sign up now to access all benefits’, not ‘Creating an account allows users to access a host of unique benefits’)
Keep your readers’ attention through an excited, anxious, or hopeful tone (e.g. use words like ‘thrilled’ or ‘excited’ instead of ‘pleased’)
People will be more likely to finish reading your message or content. Even if your topic isn’t the most engaging.
Pro tip: using generative AI (e.g ChatGPT) to help you write a piece of content? Try copy-pasting this recommendation as part of the instructions you give it.
Text that is easier to read and uses more emotional language excites readers more and captures attention better. That makes people more likely to finish reading, no matter what the content is about.
In an analysis of 600,000+ readings of 35,000+ pieces of content, people were ~25% more likely to finish articles that were easier to read (using simple language and familiar words).
Two additional experiments found that:
Anxious language made people want to continue reading an article 28% more than sad wording did
People were respectively 5% and 15% more interested in reading when they felt excited, compared to hopeful or at ease
🧠 Why it works
Easier sentence structure and simpler, familiar language make an article easier to understand. Because it’s easier to mentally process, we will read it for longer.
Uncertainty builds suspense within us - it makes us more attentive because we want to find out “what happens next”.
Things that arouse our emotions, such as strong language, raise our energy level by making us more anxious and alert, which makes sustaining our attention easier.
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The tone and language that capture attention is not necessarily the same tone and language that encourage customers to buy a product.
These are general trends to increase attentiveness but may not be ideal for all types of brands. For example:
Brands positioning themselves as sophisticated and elegant, such as luxury brands, may find simple words and short sentences don’t fit with their brand persona
Uncertainty generates suspense and keeps readers hooked, but may not work for brands hoping to promote their reliability, strength, or timelessness
While negative emotions such as anxiety and anger may keep readers hooked on an article, they may create negative mental associations with your company.
🏢 Companies using this
Most of these recommendations were already proposed in 1946 in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, in his six rules of writing. Now we have scientific confirmation that they work.
Clear, simple, and short content typically requires more time to produce (e.g. many rounds of editing) or more experience (e.g. more expensive writers). Still, most marketers favor this type of content because the benefits usually outweigh the higher costs of production.
Much of the media industry has been adapting to shorter, snappier content, with the AP and Reuters both changing their guidelines on length for articles from 800 words to under 500 words.
⚡ Steps to implement
Break up your content into easy-to-read, short, simple sentences. Three 10-word sentences keep attention more effectively than one 30-word sentence.
Keep your content short - news organizations say full-length articles shouldn’t exceed 300-500 words.
Use excitement and suspense to hold attention:
Start your piece with an emotional hook to grab readers’ attention
Put less exciting content immediately after more exciting content to try and capture the spillover of energy from the first piece
For example, to promote a productivity playbook, say “Time is running out! Grab your copy now to learn how to work more efficiently”, not “Only limited copies remain - Explore how our resources enhance productivity for companies of all sizes.”
Monitor your content’s performance by looking at metrics such as time spent on the page. If the average time spent on the page is relatively short, many people may be avoiding reading your content, and you can try to optimize it.
Remember, clickbait headlines aren’t the best way to keep readers’ attention. They drive more clicks, but they make readers feel manipulated, which makes them up to 48% less likely to share the content.
🔍 Study type
Online experiments and market observation (analysis of 649,129 reading sessions of 35,448 articles across several news and entertainment sites).
What Holds Attention? Linguistic Drivers of Engagement. Journal of Marketing (January 2023)
Remember: This is a new scientific discovery. In the future it will probably be better understood and could even be proven wrong (that’s how science works). It may also not be generalizable to your situation. If it’s a risky change, always test it on a small scale before rolling it out widely.
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