It’s hard enough to get people’s attention online.

And it’s even harder to keep it.

There are a few very simple — but incredibly effective — elements you should incorporate into your writing to keep your readers’ attention. And I wouldn’t know these if it weren’t for Nicolas Cole of Ship 30 for 30.

The most valuable lesson I learned from my Ship 30 for 30 experience was how to write online.

First things first: take everything you learned about writing in school — and throw it out a 34-storey window so it shatters into a million fragments on the pavement.

Destroy it. Never think about it again.

Okay, clean slate? Let’s do this.

Here are 3 things you can do today to increase the readability of your work.

#1: Use Headings

Writing online is so different from anything you learned in school because you are writing for attention.

You land on an online article — the first thing you do? Click the link and start scrolling. Not reading.


You check how long the article is, then you skim for main points in the section headings.

This is how you’ll deem the article worthy of your time and attention.

(Even if you don’t skim — know that most people do. And getting paid to write is writing for the majority.)

So you need to break up your article with headings.

Notice the beginning of this main section has a heading.

If you were skimming this piece, you’d see the section title and make a snap decision on whether you wanted to read it. No heading? You’d scroll top to bottom. No idea what the main points are. And you’d bounce.

Articles with section headings are perfect for the modern-day internet skimmer.

Heading Types

You can use more than one heading type (H1, H2, H3, etc). This ‘Headings’ section has a main heading — it’s an H1 (Heading 1). Then the line above this paragraph (“Heading Types”) is a subheading. It’s an H2 (Heading 2).

Subheadings help break up the main sections. Again, this helps the reader skim each section and determine if it’s worth their attention.

But don’t overcomplicate things at the beginning. Start with one heading per section. If there are subsections, add smaller headings (like I’ve done for this section).

Medium, for example, offers you two heading sizes to achieve this.

#2: The 1–3–1 Method

Maybe the most effective writing strategy to keep your reader’s attention.

The 1–3–1 method is simple: start a section with one sentence, then add a paragraph break. In the second paragraph, include 3 sentences, and then add another paragraph break. Then the final paragraph will be one sentence.

This formatting works because, according to Nicolas Cole, it helps your reader “fall into momentum.”

Using the 1–3–1 method to explain it — so meta ;)

1–3–1 Helps You Avoid Overwhelming Your Reader

Don’t start your article or sections with large walls of text (i.e. massive paragraphs).

This does the opposite of building a reader’s momentum: it stifles it.

Readers become “mentally overwhelmed” when they see giant paragraphs, according to Cole. You want your reader to feel as though they’re making quick progress as they read.

The 1–3–1 formatting in your articles constantly rewards them with a simple, digestible thought or idea.

Not an impenetrable wall of words.

#3: Other Formatting

Don’t be shy to use…

  • italics
  • bolding
  • and bulleted lists.

These types of formatting help add tone and emphasis in your writing. They also help the skimmer see information in an easier-to-digest way.

Bolded words or sentences attract the eye and indicate importance.

Italics can add emphasis to words or phrases.

Bulleted lists help order and summarize information in a digestible way.

Be sure to balance this approach. If you emphasize everything with formatting, you’re emphasizing nothing. It all blends and becomes an awful experience.

Put it all together = get more pieces read.

So. A simple formula for getting more of your work read:

  • #1: Use Headings
  • #2: The 1–3–1 Method
  • #3: Other Formatting (bolds, italics, lists)

It goes without saying (so why am I saying it?) that all things equal, high quality content will “win out” over poor quality content.

But you need to get people to actually read your work to see the quality you provide.

So don’t short change yourself. Try these writing and formatting strategies to improve your writing for online readers.