5 Things That Make Me Stop Reading Websites & Blogs

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:

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 has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. This fall, she's proud to be offering two creative nonfiction courses from experienced university writing professorsFind out more.


  1. says

    I’m with you on each of these, especially the ones that make me turn down my speakers when unexpected (and unwanted) music blares from them. Thanks for the post. Looking forward to future ones.

  2. says

    You nailed it on every one of these.
    The cool thing is that your article reflects each of those ideas also.
    Speed to market often causes these problems. We all want to get published immediately, and the Internet is immediate, if nothing else.

    Shameless plug:
    You can get my DailyJournal software for free at my web site. And, when you click the link, it won’t attempt to force you to download the software, instead there is a landing page first, so you can learn more and decide if you want to get the software.

  3. says

    Nicely expressed (and welcome to WU!) A lot of writers get so caught up in making their sites different! and exciting! and personal! that they lose track of whether the site is, well, readable.

    (Not just writers that do this, of course… the web is full of fuchsia Comic Sans on flowered backgrounds…)

  4. says

    Welcome Jane!

    I agree website design can be a clincher whether or not I visit again, but if the content is compelling enough, then I at least subscribe by email.

    A website has a very small window with which to make a good first impression.

    (Writer’s Unboxed post by Therese and the uncluttered layout drew me here the first time.)

    I’d be curious to see what makes writer blogs readable and compelling in terms of content, too.

    Maybe you can address this in a future post?
    .-= Jewel/Pink Ink´s last blog ..No Guts No Glory =-.

  5. says

    This are great insights, Jane. Thanks for posting. And thanks to Writer’s Unboxed for inviting Jane to participate!

    To add my two cents, I am also using the Thesis WordPress.org theme that Copyblogger uses and I LOVE it.

    For a many-balls-in-the-air writer like me, it’s a lifesaver b/c I can communicate on several topics to several audiences and share my many offerings without (I hope, maybe Jane should decide) creating overload for anyone involved.

    Looking forward to more posts from Jane!

  6. says


    You’ve listed excellent examples of things that turn readers off a website or blog. I agree with all of them…especially the black background!

    Thanks for your insight.

  7. says

    Great post! I try to keep my blog simple, meaning not too busy.

    And, I agree on the black background as well. However, I did chose a theme with a gray background. I like the theme (actually, I love the theme), but sometimes I do worry that it’s difficult to read the text. I guess it’s time I check out THESIS.

    I’m looking forward to your future posts!

  8. Stephen Tiano says

    I have to agree, even tho’–early on when I wrestled with designing my own site–I loved some of the no-nos, at the same time that I knew they were just bad for the readers I hoped to attract.

    Reverse type and music–how cool I thought it would be to have my site come up to the opening piano notes of Dave Brubeck’s (actually Paul Desmond’s) “Take Five.”

    Fortunately I thought of my potential readers. I’m always preaching how book design should be transparent to some degree and bring the readers to the author, rather than be something in its own right. It would have been ironic if I’d pushed my own readers away from what I had to offer by my site’s design.

  9. says

    I am SO with you on the black background. I simply can’t read them. Hurts my eyes.

    Likewise — no music.

    I try to keep mine simple, although it’s still a ‘novice’ site.

  10. says

    Cannot agree more! It’s always good to remember some basic annoyances of online reading. I do try to keep my own blog of’em, heh.

    However, although I generally agree about black backgrounds there are some exceptions. Sometimes an well designed blog/website can be a good read even with darkness within. :)

    Ah, and I too love the new pic!
    .-= Mariana´s last blog ..Christmas Tradition for Me, Experiment for You =-.

  11. says

    Great points, Jane. I just realized that my paragraphs are too lengthy and I need to add some bold print. Ironically, I had been using bold print for key points, but I stopped for some unfathomable reason. Doubly ironic is that I didn’t realize those were my most read posts. Hmm…am I intelligent enough to be a blogger?

  12. says

    I wouldn’t click ‘back’ if I find the website/blog difficult to wade through, but it definitely makes it more of a chore to read, especially when it has black background or blaring music.

  13. says

    Ditto all of the above!

    One thing that helps me with blog reading is that I tend to read everything in my Google Reader first (which defaults to black Arial type on a white background) and only to go the site to comment. That means even hard to read or annoying sites don’t bother me AS much.

    (Actually, Writer Unboxed, one of the RSS “no no”s is only allowing a snippet of your posts to go to RSS. This is inconvenient for your RSS readers who then have to leave their RSS stream to go specifically to your site. Luckily I love you so much I still come! :P But I mention it because I know some people will give up on a site for that.)
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..All shapes & sizes =-.

  14. Vera says

    Found this blog via Julian Friedmann’s tweets – very useful advice, thank you!

    I would like to add my own pet peeve – links that navigate away from the page you’re currently on. I have read that it is bad etiquette to open in a new window but frankly, I sometimes follow link after link and kind of lose where I started from (which is bad if that was a site that required loggin in as it leaves my connection open). But perhaps other people are just as annnoyed about having to “x” multiple windows :).

  15. says

    Great advice. The blogs that have “snow” falling down their screen bug me, too. Maybe it’s cute, but the falling snow is distracting when you’re trying to read.

  16. Jennifer Spiller says

    I agree with many of these, except for the black background. I think it is a preference. Studies have shown that white on black text is actually *easier* on the eyes. One of my favorite writer blogs has light text on a black background, and I have my iphone Kindle app set to that as well. My eyesight is terrible and I get eyestrain very easily. I find the reverse text so much more soothing to my eyes. (FYI, I don’t have a blog or website, so this is just my preference).

    One thing I want in a site is the ability to navigate anywhere I want within the site with the fewest clicks possible. Preferably, I could go anywhere with one click.

    I also prefer shorter blogs. Scrolling is evil. If it is too long, I prefer that the author break it into shorter segments. Post in installments throughout the week.

    My other peeve is not updating on a regular schedule. The blogs I follow most religiously update each morning. By 8am, when I sit down with my coffee for my 20 minutes of me-time, those sites have new content. If a site isn’t reliable this way, then I am not going to waste precious clicks checking it out.

  17. says

    If a blog only offers an RSS feed that contains the first 50 words of an article (usually cutting off mid sentence), I won’t subscribe and I’m unlikely to return, regardless of how good the content is.

    All my web site/blog reading habits are pretty much defined by Google Reader, so if I can’t read an article there I’m unlikely to visit the site directly to read new articles. It might sound a bit selfish, but there are so many hours in the day and Google Reader (or any other news reader) makes it easier to keep on top of as many web sites as possible. If I had to visit each web site in turn to see if it had been updated, I probably wouldn’t get much reading done, so the lack of a decent RSS feed is a deal breaker for me.

    I don’t necessarily want a full article feed (although it’s preferable) and will quite happily visit a web site after I’ve read a concise, well-crafted summary on a news reader. But if I’m just given a short, automated feed that churns out the first 50 words (which usually don’t give any indication as to what the article’s about), that web site loses a subscriber and regular reader.

    Having said that, your RSS feeds appear to be broken, Jane! Clicking on the RSS feed button at the top of your page returns a page that isn’t parsed as a valid feed by Chrome or Firefox (don’t know about other browsers). Clicking on the drop-down menu of feed options next to it and selecting Google returns an error message (“The feed being requested cannot be found”)in Google Reader.

    I managed to dig around your source code to find a valid feed, but noticed it only gave the first 50 words of the article. :( I’m going to make one of my rare exceptions and subscribe anyway.
    .-= Mark´s last blog ..My Gaming Life (Part 1): Life Before Gaming =-.

  18. says

    Right on, Jane. One of my biggest pet peeves is the use of ANY shade of gray on white or light backgrounds. It’s like reading in a fog. How is this a common practice?

    Animation of any kind — snow, whatever — is distracting.

    Yes, drives me nuts when people send you to home page instead of article. What if they find the link to said article a week after it’s posted? Then they’re going to have trouble finding it.

    Italics should be used sparingly — not as a entire quote or pull out quote. Like gray on light… hard to read.
    .-= Meryl K Evans´s last blog ..50+ Writer Uses for Facebook =-.

  19. says

    Thanks to everyone for their comments! A few follow-up points:

    @Jael – What you say about writers wanting to make their sites different! and exciting! and personal! — that’s so true, and true of EVERYONE. It took me ages to convince my significant other that he should not start thinking about his site by envisioning a cinematic flash intro.

    @Jewel (and a few others who mentioned Google Reader) – Definitely. Google Reader can be a blessing when you really want that content but can’t stand the site itself.

    Promise to follow up in early 2010 with a post about what makes writer blogs readable and compelling. (Though I believe CopyBlogger has said almost all there is to say. :-)

    @Christina – Yes, I know many people thrilled with Thesis. Great choice. :-)

    @Laura – LOL. Everyone who blogs should be keeping track of their most read posts and try to figure out what made them so popular. Readability is usually a big factor.

    @Kristan – Completely agree on only allowing snippets for RSS. Extremely annoying.

    Here’s to snow-free, music-free, black-background-free, and gray-type free websites!
    .-= Jane Friedman´s last blog ..I’m Now a Regular Contributor to Writer Unboxed =-.

  20. says

    Jane, what browser/OS are you using?

    Sadly, I can’t afford a massive cube-farm of web developers making sure my site looks aces on every browser/OS combo in the world, but I do make sure it looks as intended on IE and Firefox.

    If you’re using something I can get access to (anything that’s not Mac-only), I’ll see what I can do. Thanks for the critique!
    .-= Jason Black´s last blog ..Villains are heroes too =-.

  21. says

    @Jason – I sent a separate message to you – but to confirm for readers, I am a Mac user!

    @Jennifer – I do agree it can be a stylistic preference, but a site owner or blogger must accept it will create some very mixed reactions for readers.

    If you have any information on those studies that show it’s easier to read white on black, I’d like to see! I don’t believe them. If that were the case, wouldn’t more magazines and books be printed on black paper?

    I suppose one could argue that printed materials are not on black paper because there might be an increased cost, but then how about e-readers — why don’t they reverse-out option if it’s actually easier to read?

    @Mark – I believe you’re referring to the RSS feed of my posts through Writer Unboxed? Yes, I would love to fix, but I’ll leave that up to Therese. (Or maybe you should submit a request to her.) My everyday blog over at Writer’s Digest does allow for full reading via RSS.
    .-= Jane Friedman´s last blog ..I’m Now a Regular Contributor to Writer Unboxed =-.

  22. says


    I’m truly vexed with my blog. Why? Seems all the successful writer blogs give, or try to pass on *secret tips, inside info, ways to a leg up on the biz,* etc…

    I don’t have tips, tricks or any legs to give my very few readers. So I’m goin’ in circles! I’d really appreciate if y’all would stop by and give me an honest critique. Yes, I know I’m guilty of not providing consistant content. I know that’s a problem! And what are keywords, or this SEO thing? Anything else ya notice?



    Haste yee back ;-)
    .-= Haste yee back ;-)´s last blog ..Nathan Bransford’s contest… continued =-.

  23. says

    Most annoying to me are websites that open their own pages into a NEW window. I hate that! If I go to an author’s webpage, I don’t want to have 5 windows on my taskbar after I’ve flipped through the entire site. :) Ack!

    Great post, Jane.
    These are great things to think about for my own spots on the web. Take care.
    .-= Bethanne´s last blog ..Loners =-.

  24. says

    I’m practically a blog virgin and so have found this whole discussion on the mark. From a design eye though, I prefer mine and any other blogs to be clean, clear, quiet, no extraneous advertisements, or clicks to this and that, apart from people’s blogrolls which I always find fascinating. I also need good writing content, ie info, because that is such an instant way to pick up knowledge. I like blogs that have the look of really top-notch print media mags. Thanks Jane, I so look forward to more of your articles.


  25. says

    @Jane, I know you’re on vacation at the moment (enjoy it!), but I just wanted to drop a note to say that I really appreciate your feedback.

    My site has a new look now, which I hope is easier on the eyes. It’s easier on mine, anyway, and hopefully that generalizes outward.

    And although most people who have read this far in a comment thread probably know it already, Jane’s aces, folks! Not many people would take the time to a) promote a z-list blog like mine in the first place, even in a critical context, or b) take the time to e-mail me some really helpful screenshots and suggestions. All this, as she was no doubt furiously preparing to be on vacation for a couple of well-earned weeks.

    It’s people like Jane who give me faith in humanity are why I love the internet.
    .-= Jason Black´s last blog ..Villains are heroes too =-.

  26. says

    And then there are websites that are important to have for professional reasons over which one has little control, like The Red Room and academia.edu This was interesting, Jane. I actually don’t have a personal website. With these two (and others – I have a web page on 85 Broads, a Welsh cultural site and another, “for members only” professional site). I don’t need another one. But the design of the ones to which I belong is not mine. I tend to think that the status of the site is as important as the aesthetics, but perhaps that isn’t the case. I’d be interested in your opinion.


    last prose blog: http://www.redroom.com/blog/harrison-solow/out-town-visitor

    another website: http://lamp.academia.edu/HarrisonSolow

  27. says

    I agree, especially about the music issue. How am I going to secretly read blogs and websites at work if your music comes blaring to give me away?

    However, I’m on the fence about subheads and bullets. I think those types of layout attributes can hurt the flow of writing on personal blogs by making them feel less extemporaneous and more like a print journalism piece. I think you can achieve a similar effect by using short(er) paragraphs.

    I believe in multiple points of entry to make posts scannable if you are delivering information. But if you’re writing personal essays, as I do, a subhead is as intrusive there as it would be in a book of fiction.
    .-= lynn @ human, being´s last blog ..Best of ‘09: Unsung Hero #best09 =-.

  28. says

    @Lynn – If you’re posting a narrative piece (like a personal essay, short story, or novel excerpt), then no doubt creating multiple points of entry would be distracting.

    But I would warn against any writer looking to get known or build a platform by writing/posting long/narrative works on a blog or site. Most people aren’t capable of focusing on one thing, for long periods of time, on a computer screen.

    That said, it is useful to post longer creative works if it helps you share with friends/family — or for critiquing purposes.

    @Harrison – Excellent point. I would say it all boils down to readership. How many people are reading your stuff on these sites?

    I usually advise writers to use such networks as outposts that direct back to your own homepage — a home that serves as a hub or clearinghouse for everything you do online. Every writer really needs an online home, and services like WordPress.com make it easy to get a decent site running in just an afternoon. (And Google Analytics, free and also easy, helps track how visitors find your site and if your traffic is growing over time.)

    One of the problems of using a third-party site as your “home” is that you’ll never know how many people are reading you or finding you there. But if you have a link back to your homepage, or direct people to do something specific (like sign up for a newsletter), then you can start to measure how your efforts online are paying off. E.g., most traffic to my personal homepage (http://www.janefriedman.com) comes from Twitter and my Writer’s Digest blog.

    It’s important to know how people are finding you, and through which channels they appear to be the most engaged.
    .-= Jane Friedman´s last blog ..Best Tweets for Writers (week ending 12/18/09) =-.

  29. says

    @Maya – It’s definitely not as difficult to read as white letters on black, though your righthand column design is easier on the eyes. If you’ve never had a single complaint, then maybe you shouldn’t mess with it.

    However, if you’re hoping for further audience growth (better traffic), and you’ve been plateauing, the design may be playing a role.
    .-= Jane Friedman´s last blog ..Best Tweets for Writers (week ending 12/18/09) =-.

  30. says

    @Haste yee back

    If you’re using Blogger or WordPress, there should be some built-in tools that indicate where your site traffic is coming from. It’s usually a mix of referrals (people clicking on a link somewhere), search engine hits, and direct traffic (when people type in your address or use a book mark).

    I recommend using Google Analytics to get good information on your site traffic, how long people spend on your site, where they are from, how many pages they look at, etc. It’s an easy tool to use, and free. (www.google.com/analytics)

    If you’re not sure how to put the code for Google Analytics on your particular site or blog service (let’s say it’s WordPress in this example), just Google the following phrase: “Google Analytics WordPress code”

    Hope that helps!
    .-= Jane Friedman´s last blog ..Great Storytelling 101 (or: We’ve Forgotten How to Tell Stories) =-.

  31. says


    You hit the nail on the head with these. Especially with #4. Even if a blog has fabulous content, I won’t read it if there are no paragraph breaks! Such a simple things newbie bloggers can do to improve.

    Happy Holidays, all!
    .-= Alexis Grant´s last blog ..Stephen King’s On Writing =-.

  32. says

    Great piece and I agree with you on all. You busted me on one, though. I need to use more subheads. I try to keep the blog posts short as is, but for the longer ones, I think it really does make for a more enjoyable reading experience.

    Thank you, and have a great 2010.


  33. says

    Jane, terrific post. Using a premium theme like Thesis or something similar really helps clean up a lot of these problems without having to hire a designer.

    As a new blogger with a design background, I was really concerned most of all with readability, and it seems that a lot of your comments are aimed at helping people improve on that score, which would be great for all of us who get eye strain trying to read some of the small, grey, dense paragraphs you run into all too often.
    .-= Joel Friedlander´s last blog ..How to Make PDFs for Lightning Source Print-on-Demand—A Free Report =-.

  34. says

    I agree with your 5 points. I would also add sites that make me jump through a half a dozen hoops to leave a simple comment or force me to go through an entire “registration” process in order to comment.

    I don’t mind leaving name/email/site. I do mind having to enter and re-enter the information and then enter a series of letters and then be told my ID couldn’t be verified and so on and so forth or have to become a “member” in order to leave a comment.

    I click away and don’t come back.

    It’s like joining a conversation on the subway — sometimes you never want to see these people again, but it’s fun in the moment. So keep it fun, instead of being a chore.

  35. says

    Hi Jane-
    I can always count on your views about the art of writing and blogging to help me improve. I have not kept up with your blogs for a while and was quite surprised to read this posts. I had just changed some things on my blog thinking it would make it stand out more. However, when you shared the way you saw these things it made me quickly change it again, so again I thank you.

    Tracy, a.k.a (black background blogger)

  36. says

    Partial feeds! Seriously. I can’t tell you how many blogs I’ve finally deleted off my reader because the first sentence, or title, or whatever bit they have, is never enough to entice me to click through and read. They just end up filling space that I have to scroll past, and since I rarely click through, I eventually delete them from my reader.

    I now have one very good friend who has a partial feed. And I only click-through about one in ten of her posts. My other friends with full feeds? I’m there every day. Weird, but true.

    There’s a reason why full feeds get more click-throughs!
    .-= Natasha Fondren´s last blog ..Thousand-Word Characters =-.

  37. says

    Yet more useful advice squeezed into 2009! I’ve made a couple immediate changes to my blog, and will continue to look at it with a (renewed) critical eye for readability. Thanks as always and happy new year!
    .-= Jane Koenen Bretl´s last blog ..peace on earth =-.

  38. says

    I hate, hate, hate it when I get to a blog or site that automatically plays music. Also hate it when a video automatically plays.

    Now I need to go work on a re-design for my blog, which is in desperate need of some freshening up.

  39. says

    Your post made me rethink (agonize over) the layout of my blog. Last night, I changed the template, and then I played around with the fonts and colors this morning. The result is a much cleaner blog. Thank you.
    .-= Theresa Milstein´s last blog ..Surveying the Squares =-.

  40. says

    Excellent advice! I love it all, and frankly couldn’t have said it better myself.

    I’m sure mine is bit too distracting as well, but that’s the kindergarten teacher in me. I also feel the need to highlight others on my blog- I can’t help myself. That ANOTHER important rule I learned while teaching kindergarten. You always share.
    .-= vodkamom´s last blog ..My lips move, but the kids don’t hear a word I say. =-.

  41. says

    Hi Jane, Thanks for picking my site out as one that improved! I used to use a free theme and then moved to Thesis after paying for a critique as you pointed out. As a new blogger, I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was so helpful to have someone more experienced with blogs giving some pointers for improvement which I implemented immediately. I am still trying to improve.

    I agree with your points absolutely – my biggest turnoff is definitely streaming video and audio, and I never read black blogs.

    However, I do read most blog posts in Google Reader on the iPhone so don’t actually see the layout, but my decision to subscribe is influenced by look and feel.

    Thanks for all your hard work and great writing, Joanna
    .-= Joanna Penn´s last blog ..5 Reasons Writers Need To Embrace Technology =-.

  42. PhyllisC says

    I enjoyed reading your post. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one that has things I dislike on some sites. The comment about the music is one that I especially agree with.

  43. says

    Those are some good tips you have and I totally agree with them. I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to play music when a website loads, but it needs to stop.

    I tried to go to Huffington Post the other day and it was so cluttered that I just had to leave without clicking on anything because it was just so jumbled together that I didn’t want to have to take the time to make sense of it all.



  1. […] Friedman of Writer’s Digest, I did a little cyber redecorating again. Her guest post, “5 Things That Make Me Stop Reading Websites and Blogs” appeared on the blog Writer Unboxed.  In it, she outlines a few easy blog fixes that can […]