March 2, 2012
Writers measure copy in words, inches or pages. Readers use a different measure: time.
So instead of using writer-centric measures, think like your reader. Measure ART, or average reading time, suggests Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute.
Here’s how to apply Clark’s idea to your copy:
1. Establish ART. Before you hit the keyboard, determine how much time you’d expect readers to spend reading each piece you write or assign.
Clark figures the average adult can read 200 words per minute, so:
Multiply 200 words per minute by the number of minutes you expect readers to spend reading. This should be your word count.
If your audience members aren’t likely to spend more than 15 seconds on your content, then you’re looking at a 50-word piece.
Multiply 200 words per minute by .25 (one-quarter of a minute).
This should equal 50 words.
Readers might not be as interested as you wish they would be. Employees participating in a 2000 London study, for instance, spent only about two minutes reading their own CEO’s message. The longest message — Lloyd’s of London’s, at 872 words — actually got less reading time than the shorter two, from GE and Heinz, which were about half that length.
Also consider how much time you want readers to spend learning this information. After all, if you’re producing employee communications, then your readers have to take time off from working to read your piece. How much staff time are you willing to dedicate to getting the word out?
2. Measure ART. During the editing process, divide your total word count by 200 to find out how many minutes it will take the average reader to finish your piece.
Divide your word count by 200 words per minute.
This should equal your ART.
3. Reduce ART. It might make sense to cut your piece to save your readers’ time.
4. Report ART. You might be able to encourage readership by telling readers how long it should take them to read it upfront.
If your piece is short enough, then reporting ART may increase readership. Readers who had planned to put your piece in the pile of things “to read later” (aka, the rest stop on the way to the trash can) may say, “Oh, I can spend two minutes on this now.”
ART for this article: Word count — 500. Average reading time — 2.5 minutes.
Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.