I haven’t read a whole book for at least five years – I’m trying to work out why. What makes me give up on a book, or close an article or blog post?
In fact, I read a lot. But most of my reading is just skimming bits here and there – homepage headlines, social posts, sections of articles.
I hate the cliche of this phrase, but it’s true: we live in a content-saturated world. We are in the generation of distraction. And many of us crave both fewer and better choices. I know I do.
So, what keeps us reading? And what are some key takeaways for copywriters and content creators?
Here are four factors that keep me reading:
- Emotional investment
It is said ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, but in reality it is often a dealbreaker.
‘Although first impressions are notoriously prone to error, we just can’t stop ourselves from making them’, says psychologist Dr David Ludden in Psychology Today.
I haven’t got any empirical evidence to back this, but I reckon the title and cover copy are the biggest influences in whether we decide to go with it or not.
If there was never an attraction to the book or article in the first place, then it’s likely my attitude towards it is a bit cautious and my appetite low. Should I put hope in this book?
By attraction I mean the design (layout, fonts, paragraph styles etc), the copy (particularly headline and opening line/s to begin with, but also throughout), and the social proof of knowing others have enjoyed it or found it valuable. These are elements that will start to build good foundations in my relationship with the content.
If my first impressions haven’t been good, I’ll remember this. It’ll niggle at me. I probably won’t really have the desire to complete it, and am more likely to not forgive and accept things I don’t like about it as I progress through.
- Your book or article’s main body copy may have Booker or Pulitzer Prize winning potential, but if the title and cover copy doesn’t attract, you can go home and try again. Get the first impressions right and your book will be judged favourably.
- When a reader starts well with your book or article it’s more likely they’ll be forgiving and keep going in any weaker parts as it progresses. So copywriters, we need to start well and build strong foundations. Once your reader’s gone, they probably won’t come back.
If my first impressions haven’t been good, I’ll remember this. It’ll niggle at me.
Next, the narrative needs to set up a sense of intrigue for me. It needs to form questions in my mind which I feel I need to resolve. Even glimpses of sub-plots or tiny character details which glisten can do this. Primarily a good narrative arc should set up a compelling level of interest and intrigue. I don’t want to let go. I want to know what happens next!
‘It’s the way we’re wired’, says Heather R Morgan, founder of SalesFolk. ‘No matter how many times we’re exposed to cliffhangers, we can’t seem to get over wanting to know what happens next.’
- Don’t reveal your hand too early. Remember, your reader has chosen to invest in your book or article, so make sure you keep them with you not just for your nice, attractive opening, but for the long haul.
- Actively work to build intrigue. You know how the story ends, but your reader doesn’t. Try and put yourself in their shoes and perceive how they are going to be assimilating your narrative arcs.
If I’ve been drawn into the narrative and immersed into the content, it’s more than likely I’m emotionally invested in it. I care.
I’m choosing to read it in place of something else I could be doing. I also don’t want it to let me down. So that makes me vulnerable. I’ve not read any of the Harry Potter books, but I’ve seen how emotionally invested readers are in them.
When the seventh and final part of the Harry Potter series of books was released in July 2007, 16-year-old fan, William Bishop, told Reuters that it would be ‘like losing part of my childhood’.
Writing in Teen Vogue, Justine McGrath notes: ‘Harry Potter means so many things to so many different people, but everyone experiences a similar emotional journey when they read the series. You’ll smile, you’ll learn, you’ll laugh, and you’ll cry; but no matter what, you’ll never forget the time you lovingly spent catching up with Harry, Hermione, Ron, and the rest of the treasured characters that not only drive the story, but become a part of your story, too.’
- Don’t underestimate the power and necessity of emotionally connecting with your readers. Your copy may be beautifully written and 100 per cent grammar perfect, but if it doesn’t tug on the heart strings, or move or improve someone’s day, then try again.
- Try and consider: what is at the heart of what you’re trying to write, and how can you share that heart with your readers? A favourite quote of mine is ‘Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.’ (Hamza Yusuf). Make your words move hearts.
What is at the heart of what you’re trying to write, and how can you share that heart with your readers?
Finally, to help heal the pains of my vulnerability I need resolution. I crave it! I hope I’m not left hanging or disappointed, and need to find out what happens – how the narrative tension is resolved.
And even if I am left feeling disappointed, I’ve got so far now that I need to finish and find some sense of personal satisfaction and resolution. I think there’s a tipping point for me with an article or a book. That point when I will either plough on to get that sense of achievement, or that point when I’m sucked into an enticing narrative and I just can’t stop.
Ultimately I want what I’ve just finished reading to be simultaneously a building block and a spring board. A building block to add to my personal knowledge base and bank of wisdom etc. And a spring board to the next book or article which keeps me growing and winning at life.
- Don’t scrimp on the end of your book or article. Don’t flag. Keep strong. Your reader has got this far, don’t give them a damp dish cloth now. Reward them with some carefully-crafted, sensitively written resolution – whatever genre you’re writing in.
- Point people onwards and upwards on their journey. For a web article, the tried and tested method is ‘You may also like…’. But, what should really be the basis for creating that spring board is how well you’ve incorporated attraction, intrigue, emotional connection and resolution into what you’ve produced for your readers.
OK, if you’ve read this far, thank you!
Here’s a building block and a spring board just for you: Why great content is like a trip to your favourite restaurant