Writing for the web vs writing for print

Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlogue has recently posted about writing differently for the web. I started posting a comment but it grew out of all proportion, so I decided to move it here instead. Tim talks about the need to write more simply on-line than for print and I agree. I think we need to think very carefully about the relationship between content and formatting and I offer the following observations:

  1. For some reason, it is more difficult to follow long, multiclause sentences on line than it is on paper. Shorter, more simple sentences are easier. I wonder if this is because we tend to think of the web as a more informal medium, so we expect less complex material?
  2. I am sure that extended argument is more difficult to follow on line because of the nature of the medium. I know that I tend to want to glance back at a previous part of most extended academic works and this is far more difficult to do on line than in print. I think this is how it works:
  3. Mostly, when people read an academic article, they read with a purpose in mind – to find out more about X. This means that they don’t pay as much attention to some parts of it as they do to other parts, because they really only pay careful attention to the bits than are informing their quest for information about X. The author almost certainly doesn’t have the same purpose in mind in writing as most readers do in reading. Thus, the reader reaches various places in the text where s/he goes “huh? I don’t remember her/him saying that!” and needs to backtrack. I don’t know about others, but some of the way I navigate around a paper text is visual – I know that the bit I want to re-read is on the top of a left-hand page and several pages back. On-line text doesn’t work like this, so there need to be other landmarks. Thus, just dumping a paper text into electronic format doesn’t make it on-line-friendly.
  4. It is also very much more difficult to skim-read effectively on line. We teach our students that in order to get the gist of an author’s argument they should read the abstract (if there is one), then the opening paragraph or two, then the first sentence of each paragraph and then the conclusion. This is reasonably easy to do with a paper text and very much more difficult to do on-line, where it involves constantly moving the text in front of your eyes, rather than working with a stationary text.
  5. I have been proof-reading an PhD thesis for an international student who is now producing his final draft back home and emailing chapters to me for final proofing. I am reading on-line and adding comments/suggested changes electronically and I find it most uncomfortable to read from the top to the bottom of a screen, then move the line at the bottom of the screen to the top. It takes time for me to relocate myself in the text before I can read on. This suggests to me that when writing for on-line rather than print, we need to try write in “chunks” that are no more than a screen long and to format so that each sense unit is easy to find.
  6. I have access to quite a large number of journal articles on line one way and another and I find that I need to print them out in order to be able to get the information that I need out of them. The on-line version is fine for seeing if it has enough information in it to make it worth printing, but not for reading. Some journals offer me the option of html or pdf format, but the html is invariably not formatted well for either on screen on paper reading!!
  7. Even with paper versions, formatting makes a huge difference. I read the manuscript version of April DeConick’s <i>The Thirteenth Apostle</i> while I was working with her at Rice University and then bought a copy of the book when it was published. The published version is much nicer to read because the publisher has paid significant attention to formatting.
  8. There are simple things about web vs print that people often ignore – like:
    • a serif font works better for blocks of print, while a sans serif font works better for blocks of on-screen material so just using the “save for web” option in your wordprocessor to turn your manuscript into html is not a good way to go.
    • two columns are quite nice to read in print, but if the columns are more than a screen long, they are the pits to read on-line because you have to scroll down and then up and then down. ( I wish my daughter’s school would understand this about formatting their newsletter, which is now distributed by email – I try to tell myself that it’s not too environmentally unfriendly to print it if I either use recycled paper or double side it.)
    • there is an optimum number of words per line for comfortable reading of large amounts of information and high resolution displays on large screens put far more than this on your screen, so on-line text needs to be formatted to control this somehow