Using language to keep your reader hooked (In-depth guide)
Reading is an intellectually demanding task. Even the most fun, gripping story demands a lot of effort from our brains in terms of translating words into images and emotions. This effort is called “cognitive load,” and it refers to how much working memory a task takes up. Even when it feels effortless, reading takes a lot of brain power. A distracted reader has less cognitive load available for reading because their attention is split with other inputs.
Because the web reader is usually a distracted reader, it’s important to make your sentences and paragraphs easy to understand so that they are lighter on the reader’s cognitive load. This leads to overall better engagement and retention of the text—and readers who keep coming back for more, no matter what other notifications pop up.
The point of this is not to tell you what to do with your writing or to alter your voice. It’s your art, you can do what you want with it. Rather, we wanted to discuss the overarching features of writing that do well on Wattpad so that you can decide how you want to use them.
Key language principles
Keep paragraphs short, and try to limit them to one idea per paragraph. Along with simple sentences, short paragraphs are a key element of readability. The distracted reader is less likely to read every word on the page and more likely to skim for key information. Big blocks of text are hard to skim quickly and easy to get lost in; navigating long paragraphs requires more of the reader’s cognitive load. They can also look intimidating on the page for a reader who hasn’t bought into the story yet, and who may choose to find something easier to read.
Simple sentence structure is one of the biggest contributing factors to readability and reduced cognitive load. Syntax, or the way words are ordered to create a sentence, is the biggest determining factor in readability (vocabulary, or specific choice of words, is second). The English language is extremely context-dependent—the same word can act as a noun or verb depending on context and usage. Much of the cognitive load of reading in English is the result of trying to understand and predict the parts of speech in a sentence. By keeping your sentence structure simple and brief, you can help the reader absorb the story quickly and easily.
What this means in practice is:
- Keep subjects and verbs close together. The verb and the subject are the most important parts of a sentence. When they’re close together, the reader can grasp the context and meaning of the rest of the sentence more quickly.
- Do: Fatima felt the wind in her hair as she ran.
- Fatima is the subject, felt is the verb, the wind is the object, and in her hair as she ran is a modifier.
- Don't: Fatima, a runner in loose-fitting athletic wear, felt the wind in her hair as she began to run.
- Fatima is the subject and felt is the verb, but they’re separated by the modifying clause a runner in loose-fitting athletic wear. Figuring out how the subject and verb relate to each other is more complicated because there’s this extra clause in the middle. This slows the reader down and can affect emotional investment.
- Do: Fatima felt the wind in her hair as she ran.
- Keep sentences short and to the point. Long sentences create a greater cognitive load, especially if the subject and verb are far apart. Try not to pack in too many modifying clauses into a sentence and instead break clauses up into their own sentences.
- Do: Meredith had barely slept that night. It would be her first time traveling alone and she kept touching the passport in her bag to check that it was still there.
- Don't: Never having traveled alone, Meredith had slept poorly the night before and she kept reaching her hand into her tattered backpack to ensure the passport, which she had carefully packed that morning, was there.
- Breaking this into two sentences allows us to understand more easily what is happening and why. In the second example, it’s unclear what happened in the past vs what is happening in the story’s present, which creates more work for the reader.
- Emphasize nouns and verbs and de-emphasize adjectives and adverbs. Verbs and nouns are the key to understanding what is going on in a sentence, so emphasizing these elements in your writing will help the reader move more smoothly through your text.
- Do: Lyssandra crept into the dark vault and switched on her night-vision goggles in search of her family's magical jewels.
- Don't: Searching for her family's stolen priceless magical jewels, Lyssandra slowly, silently, tip-toed into the dark and cavernous vault, peering through her night-vision goggles.
- In the first example, we understand immediately who is doing what and why. In the second, the context (searching for family jewels) comes before the subject (Lyssandra) and the action (crept), and so it’s hard to grasp what is happening in the immediate present of the sentence.
- Do: The kittens devoured their food.
- Don’t: The kittens ate their food hungrily.
- In the first example, the choice of the verb “devoured” conveys the kittens’ emotional state. In the second, the adverb hungrily adds an extra word and modifies the verb (ate), creating more work for less emotional payoff.
Simple sentences combined with the storytelling techniques we covered previously create invested audiences who are eager to click through to the next chapter.
Keep descriptive passages tight, short, and to the point. Focus on one or two key details to create emotional resonance, rather than trying to fully describe everything in the scene. Remembering lots of detail and description is a hard task for a reader’s cognitive load, so don’t ask them to read and remember something if it isn’t crucial to the story.
Keep your vocabulary recognizable and simple. There are no hard and fast rules for what makes vocabulary “recognizable,” because it’s dependent on context and education. Preferring shorter words over longer ones is a good place to start, but keep in mind syllables alone don’t determine complexity—“action” and “praxis” have similar meanings and the same number of syllables, but “praxis” is a much less commonly used word. In general, stick to words you use in everyday life, and try to avoid the thesaurus.
Emphasizing action is crucial to readability, especially for Wattpad stories where readers want to know what happened and who did what. If you make that information easy to understand in your sentence structure, your reader will have a much easier time understanding what’s going on in the story.
- Use active voice. Active voice is more concise, and direct, and emphasizes the subject. The order of the words in the sentence mirrors the order of events the sentence is describing, so it’s easy to understand what happened, and to emotionally connect to it.
- Do: Callista slapped the mafia Don.
- Don’t: The mafia Don was slapped by Callista.
- Use specific action verbs whenever possible. Action verbs describe what happens and who does it, while non-action verbs (like is/was, felt, perceived, etc) describe static states of being. Static states are less interesting than action and change, and so sentences constructed with “static state” verbs don’t give the reader as much emotional payoff for their cognitive load investment. This is why we recommend removing filtering because filtering describes the perception of an action and not the action itself.
- Do: Christabel crouched in the dark, waiting for Bryce to get home.
- Don’t: Christabel was crouching in the dark as she waited for Bryce to get home.
- The first example here is more immediate, and we have a sense of who (Christabel) is doing what (crouching). The second example pads out the sentence with extra words, and the verb construction “was crouching” is less immediate than “crouched.”
Note: This does not necessarily mean using more complex vocabulary. Don’t, for instance, replace “said” with “replied,” “chuckled,” “shouted” and so on every time. “Said” is an excellent action verb that concretely conveys what is happening in the scene with very little burden on the reader’s cognitive load. It’s an ideal verb in this respect. This note is about preferring words that convey action over words that convey static states.
- Do: The screen door slammed.
- Don’t: Christabel heard the screen door slam.
- In the first example, the emphasis is on the door slamming. In the second, it’s on Christabel’s perception of the door slamming. This adds extra words and softens the verb here, making the action less immediate.
Technical grammar can be a bit overwhelming, so don’t worry if this module has felt dense or hard to understand. The point isn’t to rigidly follow all these rules all of the time, but rather to understand what is going on for your reader when they’re encountering your story so that you can make choices on how you direct their attention.