Photo by Lauren Peng

5 fun ways to test words

How to tell if your writing is any good

John Saito
Aug 15, 2017 · 7 min read

How many words do you see in a single day? Believe it or not, studies have shown that a typical social media user sees about 54,000 words a day.

Heck, that’s more words than you’d find in a book! For example, Fight Club, one of my favorite novels, weighs in at a mere 49,962 words.

With so many words fighting for attention, good writing is more important than ever. Anyone can create crappy content. To stand out from the crowd, you need to create top-notch content.

But how can you tell if your writing is any good? Well, that’s where testing comes into play. Testing helps you see how your words resonate with readers—before you hit that scary Publish button.

Let’s have a look at 5 fun ways to test the content you write. Using these tests, you can get valuable insights about your writing, and even have some fun along the way.

🤔 Reaction cards

Back in 2002, a couple of folks from Microsoft created a testing approach known as the Microsoft Reaction Card Method. It’s a way to measure the desirability of a product, using a set of 118 reaction cards.

Each reaction card has a single term on it, like Annoying, Fresh, or Helpful. After looking at a design, each test participant is asked to pick out the cards they find most relevant. Then they’re asked to explain their choices.

Reaction cards

This method was originally used to test designs, but you can also use it to test the words in an email, a website, or even a Medium story.

With this method, you’ll be able to get feedback that’s a lot more specific than “Do you like it?” It captures the emotional reactions people get, using a controlled vocabulary. By limiting the words people can pick, it makes it easier to compare and combine results.

If you find 118 cards overwhelming, try using fewer cards. The Nielsen Norman Group recommends using 25 words or less.

And you don’t have to use the same words Microsoft used. If you have specific brand attributes or goals in mind, try using those words as a starting point. If you’re feeling especially brave, you can even use emojis instead of words 😮

🖍 Highlighting

Do you use the highlighting feature in Medium? Many people use highlights to mark the passages they love. Clearly, some words are better than others, and highlights help you see which parts people love most.

You can use highlighting to test content, too. Just print your content out on paper and hand your participant two different highlighters. Then ask them to highlight the parts they liked in one color, and highlight the parts they didn’t like in another color.

In the end, you might end up with something like this:

Color-coded content

Afterwards, ask the participant why they highlighted the words they did.

The great thing about this method is that it gives you feedback about the specific words you’re using. If you used certain words that rubbed people the wrong way, you’ll see it highlighted right there. If people loved certain words, you’ll see that, too.

Plus, marking things up with bright neon colors is a lot more fun than clicking some buttons on a computer screen.

⭐️ Stickers!

Boy, do I love stickers. They’re just little pieces of sticky paper, but I swear they have magical powers. Take any old document, pop a silly sticker on there, and BAM! That document is now beaming with fun.

Stickers are so magical that they can also be used to test content. Remember the highlighting method from above? The sticker method is a lot like that, except you use stickers instead of highlighters.

Highlighters are cool, but you’re limited by the number of colors you can use. If you use more than 2 or 3 colors, it can be tough to remember what each color means. (Wait, what does yellow mean again?)

Stickers, on the other hand, carry more meaning. You can use stars, faces, phrases, emojis—whatever tickles your fancy.

After printing out your content, ask participants to put relevant stickers next to the words as they read. For example, you can use stickers like these:

🤷🏻‍= This part didn’t make any sense

💡= This part was insightful

👹 = This part was scary

🤕 = Ugh, this part was so awful it made my head hurt

Afterwards, ask them to explain why they labeled the things they did. In the end, you’ll have tons of helpful feedback in the form of fun, colorful stickers.

🗣️ Explain this to a friend

Friends are often the best people to explain things to us. Friends have our best interests at heart, so they tell it like it is. Plus, our friends tend to talk like we do — without the fancy jargon or mumbo jumbo.

To do the friend test, ask the participant to read one small chunk of content at a time, like one section of your webpage. Then ask them this magical question:

“How would you explain this to a friend?”

If they explained your topic using the same words you wrote, chances are your words stuck with them—and that’s a good thing. Your messaging worked!

If they’re not able to remember anything they read, well, that means your content sucks. Okay, maybe not, but it probably means your content wasn’t memorable or “sticky.”

In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath say that an idea needs to have these 6 characteristics in order to be sticky:

  • Simple: Does it have a core message?
  • Unexpected: Does it grab people’s attention?
  • Concrete: Is it specific enough to be remembered later?
  • Credible: Is it believable?
  • Emotional: Does it make people care?
  • Stories: Does it get people to act?

If your readers aren’t able to explain what they just read, your writing is probably lacking in one or more of these areas. Try your best to focus on each of these areas until your words stick with your audience.

👉🏽 Choose your favorite

A lot of times, I find myself rewriting the same stuff over and over again. For example, I’ve rewritten this paragraph about 5 times already! I’m indecisive and sometimes I just can’t decide which direction works best.

A question I ask myself daily

What if there was a way to test two or three versions and let readers choose their favorite version? That’s exactly what this method is about.

To do this test, print out different versions of your content. Then show the participant each version, one at a time, and get their thoughts on each version. Finally, have them choose the version they like the most.

Try not to show too much content at a time though. Each version should be 150 words or less, which is roughly the size of two or three paragraphs. Also, the different versions should be as different as possible, so participants can clearly see what’s different.

Once the participant has chosen a favorite, ask them why they chose it. You’ll hopefully uncover specific traits about that version that can inform how you write the rest of your content.

This method is kind of like A/B testing at a much smaller scale. Unlike A/B testing though, this method helps you understand why someone prefers one version over another. Plus, it helps you during your writing process. A/B testing usually happens after you finish writing.

Time for testing!

Now that you’ve seen a few different ways to test content, hopefully it’ll inspire you to run your own tests in the future.

What’s nice about these tests is that they’re lightweight and don’t require too much prep work. Some might even say these tests are fun. Participants get to play with cards, highlighters, and stickers, while writers get to collect valuable feedback. Everyone comes out a winner.

When you’re ready to find participants for your tests, try to find people who’d be potential readers of your content and shoot for 5–7 participants. If you get mixed results, you can always do more rounds of testing later.

And if you want to learn more about content testing, here are some related articles to get you in the mood:

Do you have other ways of testing content? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to chime in below with your own ideas, success stories, or horror stories. We all have things we can learn from each other.

You might be seeing over 50,000 words today. Hopefully, these 1,500 words were well worth your time. ✌️

John Saito

Written by

Words @Dropbox Paper. Games at home. Previously at YouTube, Google, and Konami.

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