10 Reasons to Stop Reading Listicles and Start Reading Articles

Scott Merilatt / 11th May 2015 / Comments: 5 / Blogging

reading laptop in a library
Well, you fell for it. Sorry to say, this is not another listicle. So dig out those dusty reading comprehension skills and focus! I’m not even going to give you subheadings, because that’s cheating. Subheadings are like the Spark Notes of online articles.

Are you even still reading this?

As a web content writer, I’ve been trained from the beginning to focus on what we call “scannability.” Even as far back as 1997, a study by the Nielsen Norman Group found that 79% of readers scanned content. Only 16% read word-for-word. And while that’s not exactly surprising, I’m not sure it’s a good thing.

We’ve all seen the effects: It’s BuzzFeed. It’s “29 Cute Puppies That Will Make You Die Inside,” “10 Signs You Hate Your Job,” or, a personal favorite, “14 Classic Novels Rewritten with Clickbait Titles.”

Readers of the 21st century, after all, have very little time to consume vast amounts of content. And I’m just as guilty as the next person. If you were to check out my preferred news sites after a typical morning coffee-and-reading session, you’d find very few purple links. I consume the headlines. It’s led to more than a few conversations like this:

Friend: “Hey, did you read about Tesla’s new low-cost home batteries?
Me: “Yeah!”
Friend: “Would you buy one?”
Me: “I mean, yeah seems cool.”
Friend: “I wonder what they can be used for?”
Me: “I didn’t actually read the article.”
Friend: “Me neither.”
Me: “Okay, see you later!”

What way is this to live? For many of us, online reading has become the equivalent of fast food – and just as with happy meals, we get very little sustenance. We are all tweeting and linking and building complex webs of shared content, and sometimes I wonder if anyone has read a full article in the past decade.

So instead of calling on writers to stop stooping to the population’s ever-growing attention deficit, I’m making my plea to the readers out there (that would be all of us). Maybe we should be spending less time ensuring all of our content is scannable and more time practicing the act of reading in its more historical form: comprehending ideas.

Why does it matter? Well, here’s one alarming potential consequence: the way we read online may be starting to affect how we read and interact in the offline world. Researchers cited in a 2014 Washington Post article claim that our brains have been rewired from pre-internet linear reading (one thing leads to the next) to nonlinear reading (scanning back and forth, quick scrolling, searching for key words and headlines). Human logic is being replaced by hyperlinks. Links – rather than our brains – are making the vital connections.

Soften our capacity for logic, and you begin to lose critical thinking, which is the cornerstone of business, politics, justice, and society as a whole. This change is so dramatic that even the simple pleasure of reading a novel has become challenging. From the article:

Humans … seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

The key word here is “deep.” In my line of work, I’m asked to walk a delicate line between quality and efficiency (“Write great content … but faster!”). And I’ve learned that you can’t have too much of one without less of the other.

Similarly, our brains don’t seem wired to comprehend the inherent value of quality reading – or “going deep.” If we can get through our day with the shallowest understanding of information – like browsing the headlines – we’re good to go.

But there is existing, and there is living. Existing is shallow and efficient (eat, drink, sleep, repeat.) Living is the depth – the search for meaning, the expansion of knowledge, and the drive to communicate with others. The depth is what makes us human. So, to say that we are losing our “deep reading circuitry” to me signals we are losing a bit of what makes us human.

As scientists suggest, we as a culture seem to have developed the need for a “slow reading” movement. Like the Slow Food movement from the past few decades, it is no longer tenable to be carried quickly down the fast-moving river of modern society. We have to get to the shore and continue at a pace that allows for deep comprehension and an appreciation of all that life has to offer.

And there’s an irony in all this: much of the scannable, lacking-in-depth content out there comes from powerful and effective digital strategies that are crafted by thoughtful and contemplative marketers. There are plenty of defenders of the practice, too. For all intents and purposes, listicles and other forms of linkbait work to drive traffic, increase social sharing, and build brand awareness, among other objectives. Its success as a marketing strategy ensures it won’t be going the way of the QR code.

So how about a goal?

The amount of thought and time that goes into writing meaningful content should be roughly equivalent to the amount of thought and time that goes into reading meaningful content. Imagine a world where comments go from “Hey, great blog post!” (read: “nice title, subheadings, and unsubstantiated bullet points!”) to actual thoughtful responses that drive the Great Conversation forward. It all starts with how we read.

In the meantime, I will continue to write scannable content (and hey, if you made it this far then we’re making progress!). Readers will do what readers do, and it’s my job to get useful content in front of their eyes.

But as a reader myself, and a lover of literature, I lament the notion of scannable novels (shudder) or a BuzzFeed Pulitzer Prize for List-erature. So I’ll do my part and start reading with purpose. Maybe the content will follow.


Photo credit: Chris Devers via Flickr.

By Scott Merilatt