I’m a big fan of the “distraction free writing mode” within WordPress.
For those of you who haven’t seen it – launch a new post in WordPress and click the full-screen icon on the editor. Your mind will be blown. The sidebars, admin interface, and all of the other UI cruft of the WordPress interface drops away to leave nothing but you and your content.
As it should be.
As a writer, I love being able to make everything else disappear so there’s nothing distracting me from the story I’m trying to tell. There’s enough in the way already – other random thoughts, the radio in the background, my latent addiction to social media. Too many things try to pull me away from the story for me to ever actually get things done.
As a blogger I maybe push out one post a month. As a fiction writer I have at least a dozen unfinished stories languishing in notebooks or forgotten in Scrivener because everything else distracted me enough that I lost interest. WordPress, though, does a great job of getting out of the way so I can just write.
But I’m not just a writer, I’m also a reader. I subscribe to feeds from over 100 different sites and frequently cull my Google Reader feed for the cream of the crop first thing every morning. RSS feeds are simple, don’t (for the most part) clutter the interface with ads, and let me just read.
About half of my reading, though, is done through references others pass along. Links on Twitter, on Facebook, in email, sent over Skype or IRC. My days are filled with reading – and its painful. Most sites – and mine is no exception – put so much crap between the reader and the content that trying to suss a story out of the noise just plain hurts.
This is one of the truths of the Internet that’s leading me to redesign this site. Like the distraction free writing mode I enjoy on the content creation side of things, I want to extend a distraction free reading mode on the content consumption side of things.
The Fold is Dead
Not too long ago, we read most of our news not online but in the newspaper. The most important stories were all “above the fold” – in the few inches of page real estate at the top-half of the page. Where things were visible when the paper was folded in half and on display in the paper machine.
If you wanted to run an “above the fold” story it needed to be important, have a catching headline, and have some sort of measurable impact. These were the stories that sold the paper, so getting anything wrong in this space was a fatal sin.
Now that we’re living in an Internet age and everything’s consumed in a browser, this isn’t the case much more. Readers are quick to scroll down a few inches, so packing all of the important stuff above the invisible “fold” of the browser is an almost laughable objective.
Instead, we make pages extra long so we can focus on telling a story with as many words as are needed. Many sites are now implementing a feature called infinite scroll so readers are never met with an abrupt “the end.” For most of us it’s truly a better world.
As such, most web designers and developers have decreed that the concept of a “fold” with respect to a website is dead.
Long Live the Fold
Sadly, the abundance of screen real estate has destroyed the art of storytelling. When you tell a story, you’re building a house. One brick at a time.
You place the first brick – your first sentence or thought or paragraph. If it stands, the reader continues on.
You place another brick – introduce another character or twist the plot slightly. If it stands, the reader continues on.
Another brick. Then another. And another. Every line in the story builds upon the next until the reader can’t not keep reading. They’ll scroll indefinitely so long as the foundation is solid and the house keeps standing. But they have to get past those few foundational elements first.
This is why the most important part of your website – your story – your copy – must lie above the fold. If the headline is not enticing, if the first few lines of story aren’t deeply moving, if the reader has no reason to care … no one will scroll past the invisible fold of the browser.
This is why sites that clutter the top section of their site with huge graphical banners, related posts links, recent comment boxes, or paid ads are so annoying to me. They distract from the story, and are the number one reason I use Evernote’s Clearly in my browser.
In short, I’m redoubling my efforts to bring you a better experience. If anyone needs to use Clearly or Safari’s Reader on this site to separate distracting design from the message I’m trying to convey, then I’ve failed as both the site designer and the story teller.