Writing for the web is not the same as writing for print

It’s kind of obvious when you think about how you read a book, a brochure, a magazine and a website: You use different reading techniques for different media.

I came across this post on BestBizCom, which is an interesting site, which discusses printed brochures and ends with “Just be sure to put the PDF up on your site, so you’re covered on all fronts!”

The reality is that most web users hate PDFs:

  • If they don’t have Adobe’s reader, they have to download it. A big distraction.
  • Unless they are used to it, they find the change in the UI from browser to Acrobat very confusing.
  • There are weird delays in downloading the content.  Most web pages should download in under 10s on the slowest connection.  PDFs almost never manage that.
  • PDFs are hard to navigate for the average user.

I was at a conference a few weeks ago where someone told me that their boss insisted that all the content on their website, except the home page, was delivered in PDF format.  What a disaster!

Then we come to the question of how to write for the web.  Basically, it’s not the same as writing for print media.  It needs to be:

  • Shorter by about 50 per cent compared to print
  • Free of hype or marketing polyfiller
  • Free of long words and jargon
  • Written for scanning: bullets, highlighting, shorter paragraphs
  • In my opinion, left justified not fully justified down both margins

9 Responses to Writing for the web is not the same as writing for print

  1. George June 6, 2006 at 7:48 pm #

    I totally agree! PDFs on the web are most annoying – Acrobat takes ages to start even on the fastest computer, displays an annoying logo splash screen and tends to crash firefox. Every time I accidentally click on a PDF link from google I instantly regret it, but I have already lost control, because for the 10 or more seconds you write about the browser does not respond to anything.

    I’m not sure if I’m the average user, but if you don’t want to annoy the likes of me do not put PDFs on your pages, or if you do, mark them clearly as PDF, so I only go there as a last resort.

    I suppose what’s even worse is a Word document…

  2. Matthew Stibbe June 7, 2006 at 9:39 am #

    You can stop the Firefox crashing when you open a PDF and generally speed up Acobat by following the tips on this page: http://kb.mozillazine.org/Adobe_Reader. However, the fact that you need to get all geeky on it to make it usable underlines how irritating PDFs are!

  3. Jane September 30, 2008 at 1:15 am #

    Hi,
    One question I would ask is, does a website that is an online version of a magazine necessarily need to follow these rules? What about a site like The New Yorker, which, to my knowledge reproduces the printed articles as is, as do newspapers.

    Jane

  4. Matthew Stibbe September 30, 2008 at 2:24 am #

    Hi Jane,

    I’m pretty sure that The New Yorker or any major newspaper forces readers to download articles in PDF format. In fact, it would be really bad for them because of the lost advertising revenue.

    Matthew

  5. Riccardo March 2, 2010 at 8:08 pm #

    “Basically, it’s not the same as writing for print media. It needs to be: [...] Free of hype or marketing polyfiller ”

    Wouldn’t that be true also of print media (or any other kind of media)?

    • Matthew Stibbe March 2, 2010 at 8:12 pm #

      Riccardo, yes, of course. In my view all copy should be direct and straight with the reader, no loaded with hype and sales waffle. But there are cases where you might be more ‘sales-y’ in print than you are online; for example a product brochure or an advertisement. I think the fundamental point I was making is one that Jakob Nielsen has repeatedly made: people don’t read online the same way they read printed copy. Let’s put it another way: they have low tolerance for hype in print but it’s even lower online! :)

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