The differences between digital and analog…and I don’t mean clocks

Imagine that you write for the business section of the print version of the New York Times. The editor you work under decides one of your stories should be published on the New York Times website. Do you copy and paste the story from your word document or do you re-write it, using some of the information from the print version?

I hope your answer was to re-write the story. Why? Because writing for online reading is different than writing for analog reading.

Image Credit: “MacBook Keyboard” by Daz JDM

I’m sure you’re asking by now, “Well, in what ways are they different?”

Let’s tackle the ways in which they differ.  According to Writing for Digital Media by Brian Carroll, “web users do not merely read online content, they interact with it, because unlike print media, online media are not static or one-way, or at least they shouldn’t be.” Carroll also writes that “the ways in which credibility is established, maintained and measured are changing online as compared to traditional media. Given the preponderance of Web page publishers and the relative case of publishing, in may ways source credibility has become an even bigger issue on the Web than it is in other media.”

Chapter two also includes information such as “some research has shown that the credibility of blogs has to do with bias– that is, the inclusion of the writer’s perspective in blogs rather than its absence in traditional news media following the model of journalistic objectivity…blogs represent an important step for journalism outlets in generating more audiences by offering more expression by individual voices…these voices provide a sense of presence with the reader in a way traditional media’s detachment…prevents.”

Regarding transparency, Carroll writes that “blog readers respond to authors’ willingness to disclose their personal politics and biases, their readiness to acknowledge error and to incorporate or consider new information, and the sharing of and pointing to original source materials that go into their posts…of course, allowing journalists to acknowledge and even base comments on their biases, as well as to point to and otherwise reveal source materials, is to relinquish control, and institutions are reticent to yield control.”

Linking is also another difference between writing for online reading and writing for analog reading. As Carroll puts it, “paper has a fixed structure. Hypertextual environments, in contrast, do not…web writers are not merely presenting a narrative…they are building spaces.”

Image Credit: “Taking notes” by Lee Caligiuri

This is obviously a lot of information to take in, so let’s narrow it down to 10 do’s and 10 don’ts for writing for online reading.


  1. “Think of the rhetorical possibilities of video, then opportunistically offer video when and where it makes sense.” –Writing for Digital Media
  2. “Web writing should take advantage of the Web’s capacities for interactivity, and it should be created with a potentially international audience in mind. Visitors could come from anywhere, which provides yet another reason for short sentences, an active voice and simple, concrete words.” –Writing for Digital Media
  3. Use hyperlinks
  4. Make lists
  5. “Text for the Web…must be rich in key words, the keys to Google’s search engine.” –Writing for Digital Media
  6. “If there is a lot of content to present, it should be layered, or arrayed to permit drilling, skipping and scanning. Readers online typically want to read only as much as they have to; layering allows them to read as much or as little as they want.” –Writing for Digital Media
  7. “Rather than creating a story or article, online editors…are striving to present story packages that link related content. Readers can delve into the package as deeply as they like, and they can access the content in the order they like. The goal is to create a visually and intellectually appealing site that tells a story in such a way that the advantages of the media are maximized and its disadvantages minimized.” –Writing for Digital Media
  8. “If the experience of reading online is fundamentally different, then online writing should be fundamentally different as well. Web writers must get to the point. Brevity is valued in all media but can be the utmost priority on the Web.” –Writing for Digital Media
  9. “Put the most important information at the beginning of headlines, paragraphs, and sentences. Don’t spend time leading up to your point.” -“Get to the Point” (Yahoo! Style Guide)
  10. “Choose common words over more difficult ones. Even if more technical or sophisticated language is appropriate for your site, your readers will appreciate simpler language in the areas where their eyes are scanning to determine what a page is about.”          -“Sentences” (Yahoo! Style Guide)

Image Credit: “Stenographers” by Michal Hadassah


  1. “As with all media and technologies, social tools should be carefully and purposely offered. Not every story should be accompanied by forums or discussion boards.” –Writing for Digital Media
  2. “One of the mistakes inexperienced Web writers make is to assume that everyone enters a site through the home page. Writers may assume that the visitors know the context of all the other pages on the site. Often, this is not the case, so each and every page should be designed and written with this consideration in mind. Each page should be able to stand on its own as independent, self-contained content that does not require readers to only access a Web site through a prescribed sequence.” –Writing for Digital Media
  3. Don’t wait until you’ve written a couple of blog posts to define your voice. Go into your blog knowing what you want to write about and the point of view you want to write the content from. -“Translate voice into words” (Yahoo! Style Guide)
  4. Don’t use expressions that you’re unsure whether or not your audience will understand. -“Translate voice into words” (Yahoo! Style Guide)
  5. Don’t assume that your site is readible for everyone. -“Gauge your site’s accessibility” (Yahoo! Style Guide)
  6. Don’t forget to consider how mobile readers will view the text on their phones. -“Consider how copy will look on mobile devices” (Yahoo! Style Guide)
  7. Don’t just re-post the content others have written. It is important to generate new content or else readers will find what they’re looking for elsewhere.
  8. “Don’t pile on.” -“A Dozen Online Writing Tips”
  9. Don’t be afraid to try something new. -“A Dozen Online Writing Tips”
  10. Even though you should follow through with #9, remember that everything you post will exist on the internet for eternity, even if you delete it. -“10 web writing tips (Article)”

I hope this helps you as you learn to write for both digital and analog. What tips do you have for writing for online reading? I’d love to hear them.


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