We read things on a computer screen differently than we do on paper. It’s that simple. So when we write for the web, we should be aware of that and write accordingly. This is easier said than done for academics accustomed to writing books and journal articles.

Michael Agger has an interesting article on “usability expert” Jakob Nielsen’s thoughts on writing for the web. Using techniques like eye tracking, researchers have learned a lot about how people read on a computer screen versus paper and what writers need to do about it. In short, people don’t read: they scan. How to make scannable text?

  • highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and color are others)
  • meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones)
  • bulleted lists
  • one idea per paragraph (users will skip over any additional ideas if they are not caught by the first few words in the paragraph)
  • the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • half the word count (or less) than conventional writing