How the Web changed reading, and how writers must adjust

InternetReading online is a different experience from reading print. In part because hypertext has made it easy to jump from one place to the other, people’s attention spans have gotten shorter.

It almost seems a stretch to call most people’s online behavior “reading” at all. They wander throughout the Internet searching for something in particular. They stop to read only when they find it.

Perhaps they want simple facts. Beyond just facts, people look for explanations of unfamiliar topics. They look for reviews of products or movies or books. They look for controversy.
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Foraging baboons

Whatever any of us look for, we’re seldom sure what it is when we start out.  So we search. We hunt. We sniff around until we find it. Then when we find a source of what we want, we raid it. We gorge ourselves on the value we have discovered.

In other words, we forage, just like medieval armies or wild animals looking for food. We search high and low, quickly abandoning places where we don’t immediately find what we want.

I just said that most people’s online behavior hardly counts as “reading,” but foraging behavior in general isn’t quite like having a meal, either. Real reading, like eating, begins once foraging has located the feast.

Technology writer Nicolas Carr used a different metaphor when he observed, “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski.”

In print, Carr was the scuba diver. The online environment practically forces people into the jet ski mode. The Internet is too recent for us to know its long-term impact.

So far, no one treats print so superficially, unless perhaps they’re just looking up something in a dictionary. What makes the online environment different?

The linearity of reading a book or article in print hardly allows for instant gratification. Hypertext, on the other hand, promises instant gratification at the end of every link. Every browser has a back button for times when the promise fails.

For all the advancements in technology, reading online tires our eyes more than reading print does. On the other hand, it’s hard to stop.  If finding an answer requires leafing through half a dozen books, we might give up and decide we don’t care much.

Online, we find it easier to keep clicking than to get off the chair. As difficult and tiring as it can be, the online environment has become quite addictive.

It’s almost as if the Internet has rewired the human brain. And that shouldn’t be surprising. Societies of hunters and gatherers are seldom literate. The development of reading soon began to detract from human memory. Why remember what you can easily look up?

What the Internet has done to the human brain is nothing that hasn’t happened somehow or another many times before. It’s simply a sign on human adaptability.
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What online reading means for online writers

writing at computerPerhaps the most difficult task for any Internet writer is to understand how differently the “print mind” and the “digital mind” operate. Here are a few observations to keep in mind.

Research indicates that people looking at a web site for the first time will begin by scanning it. They want to decide whether it’s worth reading before they commit much time to it.

I assume everyone has learned something about the difference between formal writing and informal writing in English classes somewhere. Most strictly informational writing in the print world is formal.

Scholarly writing in particular has for centuries used “big” words that have a very precise meaning. It has likewise used long sentences with multiple clauses and phrases.

Scholarly sentence structure has the virtue of being very precise in its meaning. It also requires readers to read slowly and analytically. Once I got to college I was glad my 7th-grade English teacher had taught us how to diagram sentences. One of my professors assigned a book with only a few very long, complex sentences per page.

Even with shorter sentences, people online lack the patience to read the kinds of paragraphs we learned to write in school. Each paragraph for a school paper had to have a subject stated in a thesis statement and substantiated by other points. That meant it had to be at least four or five sentences long.

When I was writing for publication in academic journals, I wrote long sentences and paragraphs. I don’t write online that way. I want people to read what I write!

So I’m providing serious content using informal writing. If I write a paragraph that takes more than five lines (not five sentences), I look for a logical place to divide it.

Online readers’ habit of scanning also requires writers to provide additional signposts. Some involve hypertext. Otherwise, online signposts simply make greater use of certain print techniques.

From grade school through college, students hardly ever write anything that requires section headings and subheadings. Graduate level term papers don’t often need them, either. In print, it’s a technique reserved for theses, dissertations, books, and long journal articles.

Even a 600-word blog post needs headings, bullet points, and other typographical ways to make it easy for visitors to scan. The post might have exactly the information visitors want, but they’ll leave if they don’t notice it in a few seconds.

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