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Formatting Content: The Medium IS the Message

by Linda Jenkinson |

What you say might be less important than how you say it.

Look Here!

This holds true, in fact, even truer for material that is published on the web.

People read differently on the web than they do in print. To begin, browsers are back lit in contrast to print where the reader must rely on ambient light. Although the introduction of HD and LED lights on browsers helps reduce glare and the resulting eye strain, still this difference in lighting makes reading web content more difficult.


Online readers tend to scan web pages while those who read print are more likely to read an article word by word from top to bottom.

Jakob Nielsen, a recognized expert in web usability, has written several articles on how users read on the web. The Nielsen group has also done eye-tracking studies to show how readers approach web content. One notable study was the F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content which showed how little (two paragraphs) is often read before the reader begins to scan the web page.

Be pro-active in working to keep your reader's attention.

You don't have a whole lot of time to get your point(s) across unless you are.

Taking Nielsen's results into consideration as well as browser lighting concerns, if you write for your readers there is a big difference in how you will style your content.

  1. Draw attention to your important points through use of headings, bullet points, and highlighted keywords.
  2. Nielsen recommends that you put the meat of your content up front within the first two paragraphs.
  3. Don't be afraid to use outgoing links. They build credibility and that is important on the web. Print articles generally have a credible publication behind them. Unless you are a recognized expert, such as Nielsen, the best way to show your credibility is through linking to other sources that agree with your premise or citing them.
  4. Speaking of linking, learn to segue your writing. Let the last thought of one paragraph draw the reader to the next paragraph. You'll learn to keep paragraphs shorter, which has the added benefit of making your writing easier on your reader's eyes.
  5. Stay away from hype and buzz words. Give your audience a taste of something fresh and honest and they will keep coming back for more.

Writing online is a whole different medium than writing for print. The bottom line is that it is essential for contemporary writers to understand how people read online. Novels, articles, blog posts — all of today's written media are subject to Internet publication.

No matter what type of writing you do, you must know how to write for your audience because the medium, and how you format it, IS the message.


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