On smartphones, pantries and where people read

Hellbrunn Palace
As nice as it might be to suppose that your audience is reading from the distraction-free comfort of a medieval garden, that is very rarely the case. Image courtesy of Tjflex2/Flickr/Creative commons

The other day, whilst researching reading habits in the 19th century, I came across something that made me pause:

‘The intense concentration required by autodidact could sometimes only be achieved by a certain posture, and in the right surroundings. Thomas Carter needed a great deal of sensual stimulation. He usually read sitting on the floor in the ‘Oriental’, or tailor’s posture, in a vegetable store-room full of the aroma of herbs and onions, which he needed to stimulate his concentration.’¹

While it is true that this is probably an exception, and that not everyone read in their pantry, it is certain that during the 19th century, popular reading practices were quite different from our own.

In Britain during the industrial revolution, cramped housing conditions and a lack of indoor lighting forced many working-class readers to escape to the woods to read. During working hours, it was not uncommon for labourers like shoemakers and metal workers to read aloud to one another as they worked.

And while these observations may seem quaint and old-fashioned to the modern reader – the kind of anecdotes you would bring up at a dinner conversation for amusement – they do call attention to an important question for anyone writing in the digital age.

The question is not so much what do your readers want to read but where do your readers habitually read?

Today, it is becoming increasingly common for people to access their news and reading material through a screen, and while on the move. This means that online content writers hoping to communicate in the modern era must keep not only their target audience in mind, but also their target audience’s location in mind. Because in reality, the attention of mobile users will be limited, short-term, and not as focused as it would be were they secluded in the peaceful confines of a herb-scented pantry.

So, here are four tips to keep your content engaging for mobile users.

1. Keep it short

Write what you want to say and then halve it. Think about where mobile readers may be standing when they reach for their phone. How much time will they realistically have at a tram stop, a doctor’s office or in the few spare minutes on their morning work break?

2. Use clear language and write in the active voice.

Tired readers on the train home from a long day at work won’t be interested in long-winded prose, no matter how important your central idea may be.

3. Include visuals

Visuals that complement your prose will bring it to life in a way that words alone can’t.

4. Keep videos short

Mobile users won’t be willing to waste their data on a long video unless it’s promising something particularly epic or relevant.


¹Martyn Lyons, ‘New Readers in the Nineteenth Century’ in Cavallo and Chartier (eds) A History of Reading in the West (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999), p. 339



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