Proper English grammar, syntax and spellings are the same whether the text appears in a book, on a website or as part of a social media blast. It doesn’t mean print and online content are the same, though. If you’ve been transcribing your tri-fold brochures verbatim to your website or repurposing blog posts as hand-outs at conferences and trade shows, you could be losing much of your audience. Writing that’s out of place is like wearing board shorts in the boardroom or a tie to the beach – it just isn’t comfortable.
Print Readers and Online Skimmers
When people read online, study after study has shown they skim or scan whole paragraphs instead of reading every word. They might read the first few lines of a paragraph to get the gist of it and skip the latter half; others don’t even make it to the end of the article, instead reading the salient information at the top and leaving the rest. A few only read the title before making judgments about what’s written, as this NPR post for April Fool’s Day showed.
Researchers tracking eye movements have found that people read books and print magazines in a column that looks much like a newspaper column or a page of print. The map of eye movements is the same width at the top as at the bottom. Online content is a different story. When mapped, online readers’ eye movements followed a capital “F” shape, taking in a few full lines at the top of a page, reading much of the subsequent few paragraphs and tapering off dramatically at the end. If you want readers to see something in online text, put it in that F-shaped zone. Otherwise, they may miss it entirely.
Organizing Thoughts on the Page
Open a favorite print novel or non-fiction book to a random page, and unless you’ve landed on a dialogue-heavy section or the first page of a chapter, you’ll notice the words are densely packed. There’s very little white space on the page, and paragraphs have only their indentations to mark them. Contrast that with a blog entry or article that’s surrounded by white space and set off with line breaks for each paragraph.
Online writing almost always has sub-headers, and that isn’t just for aesthetics. When people scan longer articles, they often look at sub-headings to see if that section’s relevant to them. If it isn’t, they skip it and move on to the next sub-header. Readers are looking to sub-headers as signals of relevance and value; so do search engines. SEO content often uses keywords built within section headers to boost relevance. By contrast, long-form print media rarely needs many sub-headers. Short-form printed media, including brochures, might use them, but even they have fewer than many web-based pieces.
When printed, online writing looks choppy. When viewed online, print writing looks crammed and crowded. Those differences go deeper than formatting; they’re baked into the writing style itself. Online content tends to follow straightforward, organizational frameworks. List items, step-like top 10 pieces, nested outlines and keyhole writing work well for online copy because they’re easy to track. Written features more often include complex structures, such as multiple narratives or different timelines that braid together by the end of the piece. In a format that might only be 600 words long and require scrolling multiple times, those textual acrobatics are often more confusing than engaging.
Redesigning Content for Different Formats
Your blog posts and e-newsletters shouldn’t be lost to the ether just because they only exist in a virtual space. Convert them to print media by adding body to shorter pieces, expanding on key concepts, condensing sub-sections and rethinking the overall organization and flow. Similarly, printed content can make the digital leap once it’s streamlined, reorganized with sub-headers, filled with expanses of white space and reshaped to put the most salient information first.
Make your content comfortable by placing it where it belongs and redesigning it when it doesn’t quite fit.
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