Law Blogging for Readability on Mobile Devices

Posted in Blogs | Commercial Publishers | Content Marketing | Email Newsletters

Tight writing is always appreciated, today more so than ever as mobile devices become the dominant venue for online content consumption. Small screens held by distracted, mobile readers present law bloggers with a significant writing challenge that can’t be met with technology alone.

This post offers a dozen strategies to help law bloggers communicate more effectively on mobile devices.

The consensus advice from mobile usability experts goes something like this:

  1. Titles should be short and engaging.
  2. Articles should be written with skimmers in mind — front-loaded and formatted for easy consumption.
  3. Paragraphs should be brief, launched with a topic sentence containing the most important idea.
  4. Sentences likewise be brief, stripped of unnecessary language.

Many law-trained writers recoil at this advice. They say:

“Short sentences may be all right for news journalists, but it is impossible to convey complicated legal concepts in short sentences. I’ll look silly.”

“My readers are sophisticated professionals. They won’t be deterred by difficult material.”

“My written communication skills are superb. I don’t need this ‘writing for the web’ stuff.”

Read on if these excuses sound familiar.

In Limine: Responsive Websites and Ideal Readers

Coding that looks sharp on a mobile device is of course necessary. Readers need to be able to optically discern text characters on their device. By all means install a responsive theme or some other technology that presents your words with a mobile viewport in mind.

Law bloggers should also have an informed opinion regarding the fish species on the other end of the line. Is it a journalist, a harried office worker who can’t get his medical bills paid, or an in-house attorney thumbing through emails during her morning commute? Why is this person reading a law blog?

Get on With it Already: The Writing Tips

The main problem I see is that lawyers travel with all of their rhetorical baggage wherever they go. You might see them metaphorically sporting a ski jacket at Zuma Beach in July, or attempting to dazzle the Dublin locals with a rendition of “Cheeseburger in Paradise” at The Cobblestone.

There is a time and place for everything.

When blogging for mobile readers, lawyers can safely leave behind writing styles that are appropriate for contracts, demand letters, briefs and even client alerts. The mobile reader craves a stripped-down, get-to-the-point writing style.

Writing in a mobile-friendly fashion is cost-free: A law blog that reads well on a mobile device will read well on the desktop too. Law bloggers have nothing to lose by writing for the mobile reader.

1. Edit Your Work

Duh! Careful editing is the sine qua non of concise writing. Writers should should anticipate spending at least as much time editing as they did writing an article — the more time spent editing the better. A good edit can cut a 1,000-word article down to 600 without losing any meaning.

Editing is how the writer notices that the third paragraph is actually a better lede than the first one.

Editing is the writer’s opportunity to ensure that the article comports with the law firm’s style guidelines and content marketing strategy.

Editing is the most important part of the writing process, never more so than when the writer is courting a mobile reader.

2. Copy the Experts

Law bloggers are competing against professional news publishers for reader attention. Large online publishers pore over their server logs and monitor the latest thinking on effective online presentation. Their websites are the result of thousands of hours of deliberation, trial and error, and user feedback. Consider piggy-backing on these efforts.

How does your blog stack up against lean-and-mean news sites like Axios or Recode? A typical article on Axios is brief and laden with formatting aids such as lists, subheadings, lead-ins, tables and bolded text.

Take note and do likewise.

3. Keep Titles Short

The title is the first and best chance to catch the reader’s attention. A good title can be grasped in an instant, inviting a click for the remainder of the post.

The sweet spot for title length is somewhere between 60-70 characters. After 70 characters, Google will truncate the title in search results.

The table below lists average title lengths during a recent sampling of news websites and law blogs. The law blogs I reviewed frequently exceed the recommended 70-character title limit. The commercial news site titles were quite short, the result of extensive editing.

Title Length on Selected Publications

Patently-O Blog57
New York Times61
Privacy Matters Blog69
Ohio Employer's Law Blog72
All About Advertising Law Blog73
California Land Use and Development Law Blog92

4. Front-Load Articles With Your Good Stuff

No doubt your marketer has shared those F-shaped heat maps describing how users typical interact with online content. Users tend to read the title and the beginnings of the first few sentences. After that point, average engagement drops off rapidly.

Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen says that bloggers have 10 seconds to capture a reader’s attention.

The message for law bloggers is clear: Get to the point quickly.

Blogging in the inverted pyramid style is a good way to connect early with mobile readers.

The same advice applies equally to sentence structure. A skimmer will grasp your point more easily if the meat of the sentence comes at the beginning. Let qualifying information trail behind your main point. For example:

Connor McDavid scored 30 goals in his first full season in the National Hockey League.

is superior to

In his first full season in the National Hockey League, Connor McDavid scored 30 goals.

5. Write With Short Sentences

My betters have already addressed the subject of sentence length. Bryan Garner says 20 words per sentence is about right for legal writing. Garner was addressing legal writing generally, not writing for the small screen. Still, it’s a good target to shoot for.

6. Eliminate Footnotes, Definitions, and References

These rhetorical aids don’t belong in mobile content. They add words and impair readability online.

Apple Inc. (“Apple”) recently filed a patent with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) for new technology that allows users to charge their devices over a Wi-Fi network.

The reader will know what is meant by “Apple” and “USPTO” without the excess parenthetical baggage.

Regarding footnotes, the choices are (1) fold the footnoted material into the body of the blog or (2) remove it from the post.

7. Read Carefully, Several Times, Then Write

Read the legal material you’re about to write on until you know it so well you can describe the outcome and its significance without looking at the document. This is the straightest route to concise writing. Failure to thoroughly understand the material at hand invariably yields meandering, unremarkable work.

Get to the point. Don’t write what the case is about. Instead write what the court held.

Phrases like “the court decided a case involving” or “the court weighed in on the question of” are red flags for this kind of excess baggage.

For example:

Yesterday the Second Circuit, in United States v. Huertas (15-4014) weighed in on the question of when a suspect’s brief encounter with police can support a finding that the suspect was “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.  Judge Jacobs, joined by Judge Winter, concluded that a suspect who briefly pauses to answer a police officer’s questions, but then proceeds to flee, has not been “seized.”

Instead write:

Yesterday the Second Circuit held that a suspect who briefly pauses to answer a police officer’s questions, but then proceeds to flee, has not been “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

That’s better, but it can be improved. I forgot to front-load the sentence, didn’t I?

Correcting this error, the sentence reads:

A suspect who briefly pauses to answer a police officer’s questions, but then proceeds to flee, has not been “seized” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, the Second Circuit held yesterday.

The same advice applies to question leads. If you lead with a question then the next sentence ordinarily provides the answer. The question is unnecessary, isn’t it? Unless it’s provocative or otherwise rhetorically important.

8. Avoid (Excessively) Conversational Prose

Many good writers attack the blank page by unloading an unstructured account of what’s in their minds. If you write this way, you’ll need to go back and re-work that material into proper written< English. Look hard for passive construction and extra words.

Strike out any phrases that could plausibly have been uttered by a Downton Abbey character. “All things considered,” “as it were,” “as a matter of fact,” “by the same token,” “thus,” ”heretofore.” Etc.

Weak verbs hop around on crutches called adverbs. For example, “dashed” is preferable to “ran quickly.”

The phrase “in its opinion, …” is rarely necessary. The reader understands that you are writing about a court opinion.

Similarly, “the case at issue” and “the case sub judice” can go. What other case could there be?

9. Is that transition necessary?

Transitions help the reader jump from thought to thought, though often they create unnecessary speed bumps at the beginning of a sentence. Phrases like “Taking up the separate issue of” or “The court also ruled” might be unnecessary in well-ordered prose. Consider replacing transitional phrases with subheads.

Phrases that suggest the passage of time — e.g., “subsequently” and “next” — often can be deleted without loss of meaning.

If a sentence is understandable after arguably unnecessary words have been excised, good, keep them out.

10. Excerpt Sparingly From Legal Documents

A good summertime blog post is a court opinion excerpt adorned with a brief insight from the blogger.

Outside this scenario, however, the use of excerpts from legal materials create readability issues for mobile readers. Court opinions are dense, and they aren’t written with a mobile reader in mind. The reader is better-served by the law blogger’s distillation of the court’s ruling than by reading the opinion itself. After all, they’re reading your blog for your views.

11. Know Your Place in the News Cycle

You can write about yesterday’s fire today. But if you don’t file that story today, then you’ll have to write about fire prevention tomorrow.

Law bloggers should weigh whether they are writing about a development that, quite possibly, is no longer news. Instead of writing “The FTC decided recently that …,” the adept law blogger will begin “Here are four measures that social media marketers will want to immediately implement in the wake of the FTC’s recent decision to ….”

A good way to handle the lateness problem is to link to a news article from a non-competing source, then launch immediately into a discussion of the implications.

12. Create an Editorial Checklist and Use it

A pre-publication checklist is a good way to ensure that you are consistently turning out good work. Items on the checklist should include: title length, target keywords, article length, internal consistency and adherence to law firm style guides. A final proof-read for embarrassing typos, dropped words, and misspellings is a must. This final read should be handled by somebody other than the writer.

Find Out What Works for You

Nobody in the legal marketing space has published research on how online readers interact with law-related materials. As a result, we can’t be entirely certain that online marketing research describing general population behavior is directly relevant to consumers of law-related information.

We might guess that corporate counsel are more willing than the average reader to work through difficult, poorly-written material than somebody researching a new sushi restaurant. We might guess that these same readers will be engaged regardless of title length, formatting, and other readability challenges.

We might guess that readers looking for legal news are more receptive to blog posts in the early morning, and that readers of analytical content are more likely to engage after-hours or on weekends.

We might guess that mobile content works best for plight lawyers, less well for AmLaw 200 law firms. Or vice versa.

The only way to gain certainty is for law bloggers to collect their own data and continually assess it against pre-determined KPIs. It’s a good practice keep records of which law blog posts garnered the most hits and shares and, if possible, triggered phone calls, news media mentions, and conference invites. Bounce rates and “time on page” data should also be collected and logged.

Law bloggers can easily find out how many mobile readers are visiting their own website. Google Analytics provides a breakdown by percentage of readers on mobile, desktop and tablet devices. Just click through the left-side menus on the Google Analytics website for “Audience >> Mobile >> Overview.” This information is on the analytics home page as well.

Further Reading

Plain Writing Initiative, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages?, Nielsen Norman Group

55% of Visitors Read Your Articles For 15 Seconds or Less: Why We Should Focus on Attention Not Clicks, The Buffer Blog

The Optimal Post is 7 Minutes, Medium Data Lab

Do bounce rates affect a site’s search engine ranking?, Search Engine Watch

5 steps to optimizing your site for Google’s mobile-first index, Search Engine Land

How To Use Analytics To Build A Smarter Mobile Website, Smashing Magazine

Manage your sentence length, Legible Blog

Legal Writing Tip: Writing for Mobile, Legal by the Bay