One of the most commonly held beliefs about writing for the web asserts that people read text differently online compared to print.
In this view, content has to be drafted – or adapted – to a series of very different narrative conventions in order to work online. Users don’t read, they scan, so you have to grab what little attention they have: cut out 50% of your words, only have one big idea per paragraph, write short sentences or bullet points where possible and pick out key words in bold.
Of course, there is a lot of truth in this, but is it also in danger of becoming a bit of a lazy generalisation?
The obvious problem with this one-size-fits-all approach is that it ignores demographics. The web caters for many audiences with many different needs and appetites. Is it really credible that when we go online, we all end up reading in the same way?
This is not to question the basic logic of this content-lite approach, certainly where social media is concerned: Twitter is many things, but it’s certainly not suitable for big words and long sentences. It makes good sense in other contexts too, like shopping, or porn (so if you are one of those people who only scans articles, this is probably where you’ve stopped…)
But complex thoughts require complex language to express them, whatever your medium. Anybody who reads newspapers or magazines in print and online will recognise that although there is plenty of welcome innovation in the way in which features and articles are promoted online, you actually end up reading exactly the same content, with the points and arguments developed just as they are in print.
Given the speed with which ‘serious’ publications have embraced digital publishing, then it seems safe to assume there’s a sizeable web demographic that’s happy with this approach. Maybe the accelerated growth of e-readers provides another form of evidence that our current assumptions about presenting content digitally need to develop further. After all, even the Kindle version of Fifty Shades of Grey hasn’t yet adopted the picture / bullet point / key-word-picked-out-in-bold approach. Now there’s a thought.
So perhaps it’s time we moved our understanding of this issue on a bit. It’s true that most digital developments are currently being driven by the ‘I prefer pictures to words’ demographic, but then the web is still a very juvenile medium. It should still strive to be an inclusive one though. There are plenty of users who are more interested in sense than sensation, so let’s not forget to cater for their needs.