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Writing Online Copy that Sells: Keeping It Short and Simple

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This chapter is from the book
When writing for the web, keep it short and simple. Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short words. How do you do this? Read on and find out.

Why Shorter Is Better

Back in Chapter 1, “What’s Different About Writing Online Copy?,” we talked about how the nature of online reading necessitated shorter copy than you might find in traditional print media. It helps to fully understand the why behind the issue before we get into the how to deal with it.

Computer Monitors Aren’t Made of Paper

There are some obvious physical limitations to reading online content. Reading a web page or email isn’t like reading a book or magazine; a computer screen doesn’t fit comfortably in your hands, nor does it reflect and absorb light like paper does. Instead, you’re dealing with a flat screen, typically sitting on your desk, that emits light from behind the words. The comfort level simply isn’t there for extended reading sessions.

Indeed, it’s the backlighting thing that bothers many people who try to do serious reading on their computer or tablet screens. Many folks complain of eyestrain when reading on computer or tablet screens, and I can understand that. The longer you sit at a computer monitor reading, the more tiring it becomes.

Resolution Is Poor

You also have to consider the resolution of computer screens, which are noticeably inferior to ink on paper. Resolution measures the number of dots (pixels) that make up onscreen text and images—the higher the resolution, the sharper the picture.

A typical 15.4" notebook computer screen has a resolution of 1440 pixels wide by 900 pixels high. That’s a pixel density of 110 pixels per inch (PPI). Apple’s third-generation iPad tablet is better for reading, with a pixel density of 264 PPI. A fourth-generation iPhone is even better at 326 PPI. (All of which tells me that the larger the screen, the less resolution we’re dealing with.)

Compare these resolutions with that of a printed book or magazine. Now, ink on paper doesn’t translate exactly into screen pixels (the more appropriate measurement for print is dots per inch, or DPI), but you can compare the two. Newspapers, for example, are typically printed at 1270 DPI; most books are printed at 2400 DPI. (Image-intensive coffee table books are printed at even higher resolution.) Assuming a dot is similar to a pixel, put a 2400 DPI book side by side with a 110 PPI computer screen; there’s significant difference in resolution and clarity.

So printed text and images are sharper than what digital media can offer. And that’s one of the contributing factors to online reading fatigue.

Screen Sizes Are Small

In addition, many computer screens are smaller than book or magazine pages, especially when you consider the landscape versus portrait orientation. Take a typical 15" notebook screen; it’s only about 8" high. Compare that to a typical hardcover book, which is about 9" high, or Time magazine, which is about 10.5" high. (Newspapers are even taller...) In short, large-format books have to be shrunk or reformatted to fit on a typical computer screen—or you have to do a bit of scrolling to see the whole page.

The situation isn’t much better on tablets, especially the smaller ones. The Amazon Kindle Fire, for example, is billed as having a 7" diagonal screen, which translates into a screen height of only 6". The larger Apple iPad is better, with a 7.75" high screen, but that’s still better suited for reading paperbacks than it is for reading magazines or newspapers.

The situation gets really bad when you’re talking about reading on a smartphone—which a lot of people do, whether that’s web pages or books or tweets or whatever. The typical smartphone screen is less than 3" high, which isn’t big enough to read anything of any length. Pretty much everything you read on your phone has to be scrolled—a lot. And that’s inconvenient.

Attention Spans Are Short

So the physical screens used for reading online are small and not as detailed as traditional paper media. That’s only part of the problem.

As a society, our collective attention span has gotten shorter over the years. It probably started with the widespread embrace of television in the 1950s, got worse with the advent of MTV in the 1980s, and shrunk considerably more during the personal computer revolution. (Phone texting also contributed to the issue, of course.)

In any case, people today don’t have the patience for anything long, whether that’s shots in a movie or words in a message. We want whatever it is we want to be short and sweet. We don’t have time for long conversations, or for reading in general. Decry that as you will, but it’s the way it is.

What this means is that you can’t expect online readers to actually read anything. People are more likely to “graze” your text than they are to read every single word. And they won’t put in the effort to scroll through a long web page or blog post; they have to see it all in a single glance.

That’s not to say that some people don’t read some things that are longer. Business professionals might read industry white pages; savvy shoppers might read detailed spec sheets. But in general, people don’t have the attention spans to read anything long at all online.

Got that?

It’s What We Expect

When you’re writing for an online medium today, you’re not inventing the wheel. There have been lots of writers before you, and they’ve established the way online writing looks and feels—which is short and sweet. Just look around the Web; most web pages are textually concise and don’t require a lot of scrolling. It’s what readers have come to expect.

So go ahead and write overly long web page copy. It won’t be what visitors expect to see, and they won’t like it. There’s no point trying to break the mold; you have to do things the way everybody else does. It’s a matter of meeting reader expectations.

And what happens if you do write overly long online copy? In the best case, people will just stop reading midway. In the worst case, they click away to another site that presents similar information in a more concise fashion.

In other words, long writing will drive online visitors away. So keep it short. Very short.

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