9 Making Your Writing Scannable

Mary Ton

Writing for the web means that you’re creating content for readers who are often skimming and not reading deeply. There are a number of factors which contribute to this: type of device, length of time readerswant to devote to looking for relevant content on a page, reading environment, and more. It can be difficult to engage with long passages of text on a cell phone or while you’re on the move or when you need specific pieces of information. Making your writing scannable facilitates this mode of reading while also providing signposts for readers who want to engage with sections of the page more deeply.

Start with your tl;dr.

Posts on sites like reddit often begin or end with a tl;dr (too long; didn’t read): a short statement that provides a 1-2 sentence summary of content. These can be matter-of-fact, or they can use wit and humor to engage the reader. Summaries can be a useful guide for you as you write and for your reader as they engage with your content.

Making the tl;dr the first thing that you write can help streamline your writing process. A strong summary will contain the main message or goal of the text, plus a few points to support your argument. You can use this list of topics as an outline. Some topics will need only a paragraph to fully develop. Others will need multiple, in which case it may be helpful to break topics into sections.

The “tl;dr” doesn’t have to be just for you– you can add it to the beginning or end to guide your reader. Placing a short summary at the beginning helps the reader determine whether or not they want to engage with the content of the page. A tl;dr at the end identifies key takeaways for your reader. Some writers include the acronym “tl;dr” to signal that the following statement is a summary. Keep in mind that “tl;dr” can come across as too casual in professional contexts, but you can still add the short summary in emails and other forms of web writing to support skimming.

Break long passages of text into paragraphs.

Long passages of text can be challenging to follow, especially if the reader does not have much time, energy, or attention to devote to a page. For this reason, paragraphs in web-based writing vary in length, but they tend to be less than 6 sentences in length. This not only helps your reader skim, but it also adds variety to the cadence of your prose.

Let’s say that your page uses paragraphs that are consistently 5 sentences long. Visually, this looks fairly monotonous because the chunks of text are the same size. Using the same style of paragraph makes the rhythm of your prose feel repetitive, and you could lose your reader’s interest. Now, to spice up your writing, you add a one sentence paragraph.

The short paragraph grabs the reader’s attention, right?

Short paragraphs can help you emphasize key points, especially when they contrast sharply with the rest of the content on the page. Opening and closing paragraphs are excellent places to put short paragraphs because they are easy to skim, and they often contain a short summary of the page’s content.

Longer paragraphs engage readers who are looking for more detail. These readers want an expanded discussion of evidence to support your argument, so they will take the time to read the entire paragraph. You also need longer paragraphs to make the short paragraphs more punchy. A page with only short paragraphs can feel just as repetitive as a page with only long paragraphs. As you are reviewing a draft of your page’s content, count the number of sentences in each paragraph to see if you are adding enough variety.

Create strong topic sentences.

The first sentence in each paragraph is the most important because it shapes your reader’s expectations about what will be discussed in the sentences that follow. Readers skimming material will often determine if a paragraph is worth engaging with more deeply based on the content of this topic sentence.

Topic sentences provide a preview of the paragraph’s content. As a mini summary, the topic sentence needs to provide an overview without sacrificing clarity. If your paragraph discusses a particular term or key word, it can be helpful to include it in the opening sentence.

Like paragraphs, topic sentences need to vary in length and structure. Short topic sentences grab the reader’s attention. They can be a pithy summary of the paragraph’s content, or they can use pathos to engage readers: rhetorical questions invite the reader to think about a particular topic whereas a surprise can pique a reader’s curiosity. Complex topic sentences use a comma or a transition to string two ideas together. These are particularly useful in paragraphs that introduce an opposing viewpoint. Topic sentences can also contain a transition. Creating links between the paragraph above or evoking content mentioned earlier on the page helps your reader connect ideas.

Take a moment to read all of the topic sentences on this page. If you read only these sentences, would you have a good idea of what kinds of things help make your writing more scannable? What types of sentences do you see? Which topic sentences contain a transition?

Add headings to break longer text into sections.

Adding section titles as headings break up longer passages of text. These can be complete sentences (like the ones you see on this page), but they’re more commonly short phrases that summarize the content of that section. Because they are often styled differently than the text on the page, they visually stand out to the reader, making it easier to skim the page. (More on formatting in a moment.)

Headings also improve the accessibility of your page. Keep in mind that the headings should be properly nested– the most important section titles should be styled as an H1 with subsections as H2, H3, etc. Doing this makes it easier for visitors who use screen readers to navigate your site. If you’re tempted to use an H3 because it looks better than an H2, use CSS to change the style of the headings instead of changing the heading type. Content Management Systems like WordPress often have tools in their editorial interface where you can insert custom CSS to style features like headings. Changing the styling of headings on the site-level rather than on the page-level makes your website look more polished and uniform.

Use formatting to call the reader’s attention to key passages.

In addition to headings, there are other formatting choices that can highlight sections of text. Special formatting like bolded words can visually call attention to terms and phrases, especially if they occur in the middle of a paragraph.

Using bullet points to style short lists improves the scannability of the text. For example, which is easier to skim: “cats, bats, and automobiles” or the following?

  • Cats
  • Bats
  • Automobiles

Limiting bullet points to short words or phrases makes each item in the list more memorable.

But not all formatting choices are reader-friendly. Italicized words or long passages of italicized text can be challenging for readers with dyslexia to follow. If you have to include italics, you can make the text more accessible by using the <em> HTML tag instead of <i>. This enables readers with assistive technology to adjust the formatting as needed.

Pull-quotes, short quotations of the main body of the text that appears off to the side, can present accessibility challenges as well. While they visually set apart key passages, text that is aligned to the center of the page slows the reader down because they have to relocate the edge of the line as they move down the page. For this reason, centered-aligned text should be used sparingly, if at all. If you do opt to use a centered aligned paragraph, try to make ends of the lines as close together as possible, as seen in the examples below.


Difficult to read

Easier to read

The ideal length for a centered paragraph


three lines.

The ideal length for

a centered paragraph

is three lines.

Because pull-quotes repeat content, a screen reader will announce this part of the text twice, but you can make these passages more accessible by adjusting the HTML and CSS.


  • This page uses several strategies to make writing scannable: topic sentences, paragraphs, headings, and formatting choices. Can you spot these techniques in action?