Skim vs. speed: Fs, Zs and Is

F has had a bad press, thanks to being the initial letter of a once notorious swear word.

F is a sound you cannot shout. So with hearing loss, the F-sound may be one that you just stop hearing. When a clear voice suddenly seems to mumble in conversation, perhaps it is saying an F-word. Possibly even the F-word.

But when we glance at web content, a great big F bellows out a message loud and clear. OK, it might be only a rough approximation of an F. But heatmapping shows the same story again and again: people glance first at the headlines, especially at the top of a web page. Then their eyes skip down the left-hand side of the content, glancing only at the first inch or so of text. Their eye movements frequently form a kind of F-shape.

CONTENTED (the course) trains writers to put crucial information on that F, where it will be noticed.

Skim-reading is not exclusively practised by web users, of course. We skim-read all sorts of things, from newspapers to shopping lists. But I'd be surprised if the F-pattern features so consistently off the web and off the computer screen.

With printed newspapers, research shows that people tend to look at the images first, followed by headlines. (On the web, we look at text before images.) This is genuine skim-reading, creaming the top off articles, deciding in a blink whether to read an article or move on. The F does not feature.

Speed readers don't run their eyes down the left hand side of the pages of a book. They read in a continuous ladder of squashed Zs. They're trained to focus just above the centre of a phrase, then the next phrase, and so forth. They might cover a line in two hops or three. Speed readers flick their eyes with economical movements, but this is not skim-reading: the aim is to read and understand the entire document.

Super-readers of novels (or other books without headlines) absorb a whole line or lines at a time, running their eyes down the centre of a page in an I-pattern. Peripheral vision does the rest.

I'm wondering whether human reading behaviour will change over the next generation. What do you reckon?


Rachel McAlpine
Rachel McAlpine

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