Internet Generates New Style of Writing

By Anne Peterson

The Internet is barely out of puberty. And, like a typical teenager, it is going through transitions, growth spurts, and identity issues—and tech writers are going along for the ride! We have entered the new world of online documentation.

How does online documentation differ from traditional print documentation? There are physical as well as conceptual differences. A print document forms a complete unit. Typically readers go from one page to the next. However, online documents should be developed as individual pages for the World Wide Web connected by hypertext links. Ideally, each page should be able to stand independently. Itís hard to predict how an online user will enter a site. These individual pages are sometimes referred to as "chunks." Writing in chunks allows readers to deal with one idea at a time.

Besides structural differences, the way people read (or more correctly scan) information online requires a different approach to writing style.

Web Facts

  • 79% of users always scan; only 16% read word-by-word
  • Reading from computer screens is 25% slower than from paper
  • Web content should be 50% the size of its paper equivalent

(Nielsen, Schemenaur, & Fox, 1994-2006)

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D. is a founder of the Nielsen-Norman Group and a world-recognized leader in the field of Web design and usability testing.

One of the points Nielsen (1996 - Updated 2007) makes in the Alertbox "Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design" involves text thatís difficult to scan for content. This is critical since the majority of users always scan web pages and sites.

A wall of text is deadly for an interactive experience. Intimidating. Boring. Painful to read. Write for online, not print. To draw users into the text and support scannability, use well-documented tricks:
  • subheads
  • bulleted lists
  • highlighted keywords
  • short paragraphs
  • the inverted pyramid
  • a simple writing style, and
  • de-fluffed language devoid of marketese (a promotional writing style).

Nielsen supports his theory with the results of usability tests. Sites were created with the same basic information, just different writing guidelines applied. Users were then asked to perform the same tasks on the separate sites. This is his conclusion: "Measured usability was dramatically higher for the concise version (58% better) and for the scannable version (47% better)."

According to Nielson, it's not just tech writers who need to rethink their writing style. Journalists are now writing for both paper and online distribution. Guillermo E. Franco (2007) interviewed Chris Nodder from the Nielsen-Norman Group for the article "What is the Future of Text Online?" which appeared on Poynter Online, a Web site dedicated to better journalism. He stated:

Our basic theory about how to write for the Internet comes from research into how users read online. Our recommendations, developed from this research, are often the same as those made in the journalism world. We have found that solid journalistic skills often translate well into legible online content .... good journalists may write very differently if they consider their primary audience to be made up of Web surfers rather than newspaper subscribers

Veteran technical writers and journalists who have made their living writing for print are busy retraining their brains to adapt to this new entity with its unique jargon and style. College students taking writing courses are being introduced to an expanding field where, thanks to the Internet and corporate intranets, their online documentation skills will be in high demand.

As the Internet grows in maturity, the future is bright for individuals who understand how to write online documentation.




Franco, G. E. (March 23, 2007). What is the Future of Text Online? Retrieved March 25, 2007, from

Nielsen, J. (1996 - Updated 2007) Alertbox Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design. Retrieved March 23, 2007, from

Nielsen, J., Schemenaur, P., & Fox, J. Sun Microsystems (1994-2006) Web Facts. Writing for the Web.
         Retrieved March 25, 2007, from