Originally published Sept 19, 2014, on Pulse, University of Utah Health Care’s intranet. Used with permission.
Every medium requires slight adjustments in writing style, tone, punctuation, formatting, and the like. The web is no different. While the current goal of web content specialists is to create content that is device (or it could be said medium) agnostic, the overall style and tone of web writing is far more personable and relaxed than has been the case for print writing. Here are five reasons why web writing is different from writing for print:
1. It’s interactive.
When we visit any page on the web, we do so with the expectation that we can leave the page at any time via hyperlinks or search if we don’t find what we’re looking for. And there, in a nutshell, is the web: we are usually searching for something. While this can be the case with printed material, the web culture demands faster results—pretty much right now.
2. Readers scan paragraphs rather than reading them.
Most readers are either searching for specific content or browsing. As such they tend to scan paragraphs for the information that most appeals to them. Usability tests have overwhelmingly confirmed that this is how we read the web.* If that’s the case, we need to alter our writing techniques to match. We need to include subtitles, catchy first lines, and highlighted areas of importance via techniques like bold text, anchor text for a hyperlink (though this will take your reader away from your page), or bulleted lists.
3. Tone and style are more informal.
There are tons of different articles and pages, even books, on the web, but the writing tone and style that overwhelmingly define it are more informal. This is in part due to how we read articles, but it’s also a product of the intimacy of the web. Web pages have varying levels of credibility due to the democracy of the web: anyone can post almost anything, and many, many pages are personal sites and posts by individuals, which are not vetted through editors or any other sort of accrediting body. This naturally leads to a lighter, more informal style.
4. TL; DR: Shorter is sweeter (most of the time).
Too long; didn’t read. Literally. Readers are turned off by articles that take way too much time to describe something that could be done in a condensed manner. For example that last sentence could have been: “Readers are turned off by articles that aren’t succinct,” or “Readers like short articles.” The general rule of thumb is to cover the subject adequately, but not over the top. Some writing styles lend themselves to the verbose, but know your audience. As a general rule, shorter is sweeter.
5. It’s never finished!
People who spend vast amounts of time on the web innately understand this. News that is updated in real time is valued more for its timeliness than for its definitive nature. This doesn’t mean that content of a more evergreen nature (or always valuable) isn’t an essential part of any site, but rather that updates, corrections, or changes are just as important to the written piece because of the way we use the web.
* http://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/ Yes, this article is older, but it’s that evergreen sort of content, and from a highly, highly reputable source.