Web Writing vs Print Writing: 4 Differences You Should Understand
by Marianne Stenger
Posted: August 11, 2014
Web writing and print writing are similar, yet are also very different skills.
Both forms of writing should be engaging and useful to the reader, of course, but there is a big difference between readers who are browsing the web for news and other content, and those who settle down with a physical book or magazine.
Here are four important differences between web and print writing that you should understand.
While print readers tend to follow a more structured reading pattern, starting with the introduction and moving on to the main body and conclusion of an article, research shows that 79% of web users scan rather than read word for word.
Eye tracking studies have also shown that when reading print, a person’s eyes move from left to right. But on the web, people’s eyes start at the centre of the page and move to the right.
What this means is that web content needs to be structured quite differently; text should be broken up into shorter paragraphs, and subheadings, bullet points and numbered lists should be used to make the text more visually appealing and easier to scan.
“Writing for the web is generally designed to be scanned with the eyes instead of read deeply. Web articles tend to be shorter overall, with shorter sentences in shorter paragraphs, and greater use of both numbered lists and bullet points,” says editor and writer Rodney Ruff.
Another factor to consider is that while print readers are generally prepared to spend more time reading a single article, web users often don’t have time to read through a whole article, and would rather have the most important points laid out from the beginning so that they know whether or not they will want to keep reading.
Research shows that reading on a computer screen can slow readers down by up to 30%, and web users also experience visual fatigue more quickly.
With this in mind, web content is often shorter than printed content. If you have a lot of information about a particular topic that you want to share, you should consider splitting it up into two articles or even a series of them.
“I think there is a bit more of a challenge to writing online than print, because even though there is more space, you need to condense your information to get your point across,” says freelance writer and copywriter Renayle Fink.
“Of course, writing for print has its drawbacks too, such as having only a limited amount of space,” she adds. “But print can be a little more in-depth, which helps with long news stories.”
In addition to word count, print writers must be aware of space limitations. For instance, if a magazine commissions a two-page, 1000 word article, the writer must not only make sure that they stick to the word count, but also that their content will fit on those two pages. So bullet points and subheadings are used less frequently in printed publications than online.
In print, headlines tend to be shorter and are often accompanied by a photo and/or subheading that provides context. More important headlines are often also bigger, so readers are naturally drawn to those stories first.
On the web, headlines are generally longer because they must be able to catch a reader’s attention and convey the point of a story without the help of photos, subheadings or larger fonts.
They also need to sum up the article’s content accurately and use the right keywords and phrases so that it becomes more “searchable” online.
In short, web content has links, while print content doesn’t.
Writing consultant Stephanie Oley notes that the opportunity to add links in web content provides writers with the valuable opportunity to include calls to action everywhere.
“The author can think whether they want readers to sign up to an offer, subscribe to a newsletter, download a fact sheet, contact the organisation or anything else, and they can build these actions into the story lead, picture captions, footnotes and more,” she says.
This difference makes online writing easier in some ways, because rather than going into great detail about something that provides context or adds value to your story, you can simply make a brief mention of it and then include the link, allowing the readers to decide for themselves how much detail they want or need.