Jane FriedmanPlease welcome Jane Friedman as the newest contributor to Writer Unboxed. Jane is the publisher and editorial director of the Writer’s Digest brand community at F+W Media in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she oversees Writer’s Digest magazine, Writer’s Digest Books, and the Writer’s Market series. (Read her full bio HERE.) This is her first post.

Editors and agents often talk about “what makes me stop reading.”

What’s probably not discussed enough is what makes us stop reading online, especially websites and blogs by writers.

I’ve been compiling best tweets for writers for half a year now, and have scanned tens of thousands of blog postings and homepages, all by following a Tweeted link.

Just as I have a sense about whether a manuscript will be any good in the first few minutes, now I have the same gut feel about blog posts. Only it takes seconds.

Keep in mind: I have different standards for online reading than offline reading. People leave your site in a split second if they can’t find what they’re looking for. We all have the online attention span of an ADHD gnat.

What makes me stop reading online:

1. Sites with black backgrounds

I don’t care if it saves the world’s energy to have a black background, or if there’s a special function to reverse it. No one’s going to figure that out. If your site’s primary goal is to have people read it, then make it easy to read.

There are some sites that are fine with black backgrounds—sites meant to showcase photography, portfolios, products, etc—but most writers do not fall into this category.

2. Sites that play music upon entering; sites that take forever to load because of multimedia or Flash; links that automatically take me to a download with no explanation.

Any site that delays me from reading your content for more than a few seconds is risking abandonment. If I have to turn the volume off on my computer, if I have to download a plug-in or “click through to enter,” or if I follow a link that pops up a download window, then I’m outta there.

(Note to anyone sharing download links on Twitter: Please direct people to a landing page where they can read more about the download—more than 140 characters. Don’t make us depend on the Tweet alone.)

3. Links that go to a general homepage rather than specific site content.

Sometimes people will share a link about a specific piece of content that goes to a homepage rather than that specific content.

Maybe people think their link will be followed right away, and the homepage (at that moment) offers the target content, so why worry?

But links might be followed LONG after they are originally sent, and I hate to follow a link only to find a general site, and not the specific content that was mentioned. I usually abandon the effort.

4. Content without subheads, paragraph breaks, or breathing room.

Often I come across blog posts that look like they could have excellent content, but I’m not wading through two 500-word block paragraphs to find out.

Anyone who blogs and wants to build a readership should consider:

* short, easy-to-read paragraphs
* lots of subheads, breaking the content down
* bulleted lists and numbered lists, for easy scanning
* bold or colored text to bring out important points

You want multiple entry points into your content. Readers may scan all the way to the bottom of your content, just looking for a way in, and if they find it, may start again from the beginning. It’s never too late to catch someone—give them a chance to see what your point is.

5. Poorly designed sites

Unfortunately, there are so MANY ways a site can be off-putting or hard to read—but here are 3 key factors.

Poor leading (too little space between lines)

Here’s an example

Difficult-to-read fonts and/or colors

Creative Penn used to be guilty of this, and you can see a design critique here that helped her improve the site.

I was so thrilled when she made the changes!

Here’s a site that I know has great content, but doesn’t look good at all in my browser.

Too busy

You simply have too much crap on your homepage. (Yes, I know WritersDigest.com is guilty of this too.)

Paradoxically, I find the ProBlogger site now unreadable because of too many columns, too many ads, too many everythings. It’s exhausting. What am I supposed to focus on or look at?

Here is an example of a site with top-notch readability and design, but that still has advertising and promotions:
Copyblogger

And, of course, Writer Unboxed looks terrific too. That’s why I’m here!

*My future blog posts at Writer Unboxed* I will focus primarily on writing/publishing advice I find online that is questionable, debatable, or just plain wrong.

About Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman is the co-founder of Scratch, a new quarterly magazine focused on the intersection of writing and money. Her day job is at the Virginia Quarterly Review, where she leads online and digital content strategy; she also teaches digital publishing at the University of Virginia. Prior to joining VQR, Jane was the publisher of Writer’s Digest and an assistant professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati. Find out more at Google+ or her website.