Writing for the web

I’m currently putting together an online CV and portfolio, in the hope that I can make a proper go of this freelancing lark around my part time day job.

I tell people I’m a copywriter, editor and proofreader – and of course, I am – but really, it’s the specialism that counts. I write for the web. It’s a skill that I’ve been honing over the last… ooh, twelve or so years, and it’s about time I started telling other people about it – putting my knowledge to good use.

Anyway, I guess you could call this a teaser. It’s a list of the differences between the way that you read content on the web and printed content. I started it some time ago and I find it helpful to refer to when writing content for the web.

I know I don’t usually put worky stuff on my personal blog, but I figured this was interesting enough and could even prove useful to others who are writing for the web.

When reading printed material… When reading on the web…
The reader tends to lean back – is passive The reader tends to sit forward – is active
The reader is browsing / reading to relax The reader is often looking for something in particular – wants immediate gratification
The reader has researched the publisher or author (eg has read reviews before buying book) The reader may not know content producer – has arrived via search engine, or having followed a link
The reader is loyal – trusts The reader is cynical – wants sources
There is a controlled “journey” – page 1 followed by page 2, then 3 etc The reader could land anywhere – and will then jump around pages within the site
Images usually enhance text Images are usually ads; users read the text first and tend to ignore images on first glance
The reader has a faster reading speed – is slower to feel eyestrain / fatigue The reader has a slower reading speed – is quicker to feel eyestrain / fatigue
The reader starts at the top, reads left to right The reader tends to start in the centre; concentrates on top and left side of screen; reads vaguely left to right, in an F shape
The page has only one reader at a time – and they’re using their eyes The page has many users at a time and all will see the page differently – some have large monitors, some are using screen readers, some are using mobile devices… and some are search engines

(Despite the point about web users being cynical, I haven’t cited any sources here. That’s because these are my own personal notes – and I know I trusted the sources that led me to include each point in the first place. I know there is bound to be controversy over some of them, but the idea is really just to get you thinking about the way you’re presenting content. If anything looks really wrong to you, or you’re intrigued and want to know more, ask away and I’ll try and find my original research.)

Of course, this is a work in progress. There are a million differences between print and web that should make a difference to the way you write. If you can think of any more, stick ’em in the comments – I’d love to add to the list.

Comments 8

  • This is fascinating! I haven’t got any brilliant insights to add, but really enjoyed reading this!

  • Thanks, Liz! I hope it’s handy.

  • Really, really interesting. I’m sorry I can’t provide a more useful comment, but just thought I’d let you know that it was a very useful read!

  • Ooh. Those are useful. I haven’t considered many of those before, despite writing stuff (in an amateur fashion) for a number of websites.

  • Si Whitehouse commented (in real life, when I saw him last week) that another big difference between print and web is interactivity. The user expects to be able to comment and feed back on web content. In a way I suppose this is a continuation of the point above about loyalty and trust; the reader is more likely to take printed material at face value.

  • Hi, (I’m sorry I haven’t known your name yet. I could find out it by looking through your page but I prefer to know your name from you).
    Do you remember me? I talked to you about my cracked kindle and asked your for advice. I think you have recalled it now. And FYI, I contacted to Amazon and amazingly, they agreed to send me a new one and I still can keep me malfunctioning one. :D. This happened few weeks ago and I wanted to tell you about it right after I received my new kindle but unfortunately, I couldn’t surf your page- I thought you had changed your web address. However, I don’t give up. And a reward for my persistence is I can read about your work today. :D
    One thing I have to confess is I have been reading both printed content and on the web but I haven’t thought deliberately about the difference between them as you have done, so thank you, your analysis is interesting, though I can understand all of those instantly.
    By the way, I would like to add one different thing based on my personal experience.
    Reading printed content: Focus since you have only one accompany, which is the book, even you don’t understand what you just encounter thoroughly.
    Reading on the web: distracted by a lot of factors: needing a little music, checking yahoo or facebook, use google to find out more about what you don’t really understand then it may lead you to a lot of other things needed to read.-> lose the main reading stream.
    Just a small thing I would like to point out and contribute to your work. I don’t know if it could help or not, still hope you find it useful.

  • Amusingly while I was reading this article I was guilty of doing most of the points you mentioned from leaning forward to flicking between tabs in my browser so the proof is in the pudding!

    Do you think this is why the web is now full of list style articles because people are craving instant gratification?

  • I leant back when I read that bit about leaning back.

    Perhaps I was leaning forward because I love the internet or because I’ve been ‘working’?

    Either way, this is a lovely informative piece.

    Thanks.

    Rodney

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