Web Writing @ KerryR.net  

Web Writing vs Print Writing

People don't read information on the Web in the same way as they read printed material.

Print content allows us to 'control' the reader. We can write from introduction to conclusion and carefully build arguments. We know what they've read previously, and what they're going to read next. We can present information in a logical sequence, supported by peripheral cues.

We don't have any of that on the Web.

Web users skim content, they ignore details to read content faster, they even modify ingrained left-right viewing habits in order to drill down more quickly.

Who Says?

There have been a lot of usability studies done over the years, the most extensive of which were conducted by Dr Jakob Nielsen, and Stanford University/Poynter Institute.

Don't be put off by the 'expert study' tag. These were practical studies of real issues - the rare kind of studies that help us understand what our instincts have been telling us all along.

All the reams of information produced by the Sun Microsystems/Jakob Nielsen usability tests, and the Stanford University/Poynter Institute eye tracking studies, boil down to a few basic facts:

  • Web users generally ignore extraneous graphics.
  • 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions.
  • Web readers are three times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs.
  • Of those Web users who do read the entire page, most only absorb 75% of the content.

Reasons for this behaviour include:

  • Reading from a computer monitor is 25% slower than reading from print.
  • Reading from a computer monitor increases eye strain and fatigue.
  • Web users often scan centre-left-right, instead of left-right.

Dr Nielsen also developed a number of content-oriented conclusions:

  • Web users are active, not passive. If a quick scan doesn't show them the information they need, they won't spend time searching for it.
  • The longer the text, the less likely Web users are to read it.
  • The longer the text, the faster Web users will skim the scannable elements (headlines, summaries, and captions) - if they scan the page at all.
  • Web users don't believe hype. Any claim needs to be backed up by facts.

You can read the original Nielsen research report at: http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html. It's a bit wordy, but not hard going, and it's worth the time.

The Most Important Conclusions

The two most important conclusions of the Nielsen report are:

  1. Web content should have 50% of the word count of its paper equivalent.

Why? Because:

  1. Users don't read on the Web. They scan pages and pick out headings, sentences, and phrases to find what they need.

Why Do We Need Web Writing Guidelines? Previous Next Most Important Rules of Web Writing

Scannability and Readability in Web Writing
Structuring Web Content
Clarity and Brevity in Web Writing