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What You Need to Know About Writing for Web vs. Print


Photo of woman's hands on laptop keys, showing a screen with a blog page that she's typing on. The blog page has a headline that says "Rocket Book Academy."
Writing for online readers? Use shorter paragraphs. (Photo: Daniel Thomas on Unsplash)

Some people think writing is writing, so they don’t make any adjustments between print and online copy.

That can be a mistake.

You’re dealing with different constraints in print compared with online. Also, the reader’s mindset changes between the two.

In this post, I’ll share a few key differences and some adjustments you can make.

Writing for Web vs. Print: What Adjustments Should You Make?

Fonts

To most of us, fonts aren’t the most exciting topic. But it’s definitely an important topic. Not only do fonts add style to the writing, but they also impact the readability.

Some fonts are easier to read on the web, while others are better for print.

  • This is a guideline rather than a rule because it depends on screen resolution—but to be safe, it’s better to stick with sans serif online. As technology continues to evolve, this should become less of an issue.
  • For print, serif is recommended for readability.

You’ve probably heard of (and even used) some of both. For example, Arial and Helvetica are examples of sans serif fonts, while Times New Roman is a serif font.

Keep in mind, as is the case with most elements of design and style, there’s some debate about this. These are just guidelines. Depending on your project and design strategy, you might want to use serif online and sans serif in print.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that works on every project.

10 Great Fonts for Print Materials:
  1. Century Gothic
  2. Helvetica
  3. Georgia
  4. Palatino
  5. Garamond
  6. Minion Pro
  7. Merriweather
  8. Caslon
  9. Myriad
  10. Calibri
10 Great Fonts for Web Readability:
  1. Verdana
  2. Helvetica
  3. Georgia
  4. Droid Sans
  5. Lato
  6. Merriweather
  7. Tisa
  8. Quicksand
  9. Lucida Sans
  10. Tahoma
5 Worst Fonts (Just Don’t Use Them):
  1. Comic Sans
  2. Papyrus
  3. Harrington
  4. Courier
  5. Impact

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Photo of young woman with glasses holding up and looking at a smartphone.
On the web, your content will look different on every device. (Photo: bruce mars on Unsplash)

Layout and Formatting

In print you generally know the size you have to work with, but on the web you don’t know if someone will be reading what you wrote on a large monitor or a tiny phone.

That means web copy is dynamic. You won’t know which words will be on each line.

The screen on a typical phone might display 10 words per line, whereas a 30-inch monitor can display several sentences per line. Online readers can zoom in and out with their browser, which also changes the format.

In print you usually have more control over the exact layout because you’re dealing with more constants. On the web, however, you don’t have this level of control, so don’t waste time trying to micromanage every detail because it’ll look different on every device.

Paragraph Length

In print you can usually get away with longer paragraphs, but on the web longer paragraphs can be tough to read.

This is partially related to screen sizes. Additionally, scanning and skimming happen more on the web. Shorter paragraphs are easier to scan and skim.

Why do people scan and skim more online?

Maybe it’s because readers are more distracted online. Or maybe it’s because you can’t tell how long something is when it’s online. When you hold a sheet of paper in your hand, it’s easy to guess the length. Online it’s more difficult to estimate the length.

As a result, many readers try to quickly get the gist of it by scanning and skimming. If they like what they see, then they’re more likely to start over and read it word for word.

Readers Are Usually More Distracted on the Web

People can be distracted regardless of whether they’re reading something online or in print, but online there are more potential distractions.

  • If someone is reading an article in a print magazine, there might be a few ads next to or underneath the article. Maybe the TV will be on.
  • But if they’re reading a blog post online, there might be many banner ads on the screen (some of which are right in the middle of the blog post), and the blog post itself will probably have several links to other websites. Not to mention the reader might have five other tabs open with their email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Don’t Miss: Top 3 Social Media Writing Tips to Grow Your Business

Image of a quote that says: "Whether you’re writing for web or print readers, proofreading is an important step in the writing process."

Writing for Web vs. Print: What Should Never Change? 

The differences between print and online copy get discussed a lot, while the similarities are often forgotten. That’s a shame because there are more similarities than there are differences.

Whether you’re writing for the web or print, keep the following in mind:

Know Your Audience

Understanding your intended audience is always important whether you’re writing online or in print.

If you don’t understand your target audience and typical reader, it’s hard to know what to write about and the best way to reach them.

Go beyond simple demographic info, such as the age and educational background of your audience. Those can be important, but they’re not enough. You want to know their interests, attitudes, and goals. These are often referred to as psychographics.

  • For example, if someone is reading an article on reducing their car insurance, it’s less important that they’re 45 years old and graduated from college.
  • What’s more important is that they’re probably interested in cutting their expenses.

Grab Their Attention

With both web and print copy, you’re bidding for people’s attention.

Think of it as a competition. The reader can choose between what you wrote and the hundreds of other pieces of writing that are quickly within view. Or they could choose to not read anything and instead watch a movie, go for a walk, or call a friend.

Sure, there are typically more distractions when someone is reading on the web. But in both print and online you still have to compete for their attention.

To grab their attention, create titles and headlines that pique their interest. The title or headline should indicate the topic while also making the reader curious to learn more.

Don’t Waste Their Time

Before writing anything, ask yourself:

  • What’s in it for the reader?
  • Why should they care?

Your audience isn’t doing you a favor—they’re trying to improve their own lives.

For example, depending on the type of writing you do, the reader might hope to solve problems, acquire knowledge, or be entertained. It might even be a combination of all three.

The important point is that readers are self-interested. They might also be busy. As long as you’re trying to write about things that help them, you probably won’t be wasting their time.

This is another reason it’s so important to know your audience. What’s a waste of time for one audience isn’t a waste of time for another.

  • For example, if you’re about to buy your first home, you might be interested in articles and reports titled “5 Common Mistakes of First-Time Homebuyers” and “10 Ways to Get the Best Interest Rate on Your Mortgage.”
  • But if you’re not planning to buy your first home for another 10 years, these articles might sound incredibly boring. 

Understanding your audience lets you put yourself in their shoes, so you’re much less likely to waste their time.

Always Proofread

Whether you’re writing for web or print readers, proofreading is an important step in the writing process.

The bottom line is you’ll want to clean up typos and grammar mistakes as well as make sure everything is presented in a coherent and logical way.

It’s best to have someone with a fresh pair of eyes do the proofreading. They’re likely to pick up all sorts of mistakes that you initially missed. At Super Copy Editors, we’re experienced with both print and online copy. Contact us today to learn more about our range of proofreading services.


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Dave Baker

View posts by Dave Baker
Hi, I’m Dave Baker, founder and copy chief of Super Copy Editors. I have more than two decades of professional proofreading and copy editing experience, including work for The Nation magazine, The New York Times, and The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, where I shared two staff Pulitzer Prizes after Hurricane Katrina. Today, I have put together a hand-picked team of copy editors, and we especially love working with ad agencies, marketing departments, and education companies to make their text as polished as possible. Learn more here.

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