ComPRehension

Professional development and training blog of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)
June 4, 2012

Writing Around the Obstacles of Reading On-Screen


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Constant problem solving (to click or not to click?) and divided attention (you’ve got mail) lead to cognitive overload on the Web.

And according to Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain,” cognitive overload can:

  • Make distractions more distracting. Some studies link attention deficit disorder to overtaxed brains.
  • Cause us to overvalue the new, even when it’s trivial and irrelevant. Checking out the latest YouTube video becomes more important than analyzing the 46-screen study on illiteracy.
  • Lead us to lose the ability to think and reason.

In fact, a 2005 study by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London showed that online multitasking temporarily lowers your IQ more than smoking marijuana does.

Symptoms of screen reading

Cognitive overload isn’t the only obstacle to getting the word out on the Web. Backlit screens, scrolling and other mechanisms of online reading can also cause:

  • Headaches
  • Tired, achy eyes
  • Dry or watery eyes
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Neck, back and shoulder pain
  • Nausea

What’s the bottom line? With Web writing, you can literally make your readers sick, resign and forget where they parked their cars.

So how do you write blog posts, Web pages, email messages, status updates and other copy without repelling your readers? Here are some pointers to consider:

  • Get to the point faster. Don’t expect readers to read the entire first paragraph to figure out where you’re going.
  • Chunk it up. Break your message into several shorter Web pages.
  • Write tight. Use the tools that you use to condense copy for print more aggressively online.
  • Lift your ideas off the screen. Make your copy easy to scan with microcontent or display copy.
  • Cut the fluff. Drop the adjectives, adverbs, hyperbole and other useless words.
  • Make it friendly. Engage readers with a conversational, me-to-you voice, not an off-putting, stiff corporate style.

Reach readers in print

Don’t overlook print as your medium of choice. If you are writing a thought piece on the state of the industry, the CEO’s vision for the future or the company’s five-year plan, then put it on paper.

Sorry, what was I saying?

Oh, yeah. The way that the Web distracts and overtaxes your readers’ brains doesn’t make it a place for long, difficult messages. So deliver complex ideas in print, and nuggets of data online.

Copyright © 2012 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Public Relations Tactics.

Ann Wylie, president of Wylie Communications, serves as a PRSA writing trainer and presents writing workshops throughout the country. She is the author of more than a dozen learning tools, including “Writing for Social Media: How to Write Blog Postings, Tweets and Other Status Updates” and “Writing That Sells.”.

  • Brigitte Gisanti

    I have to agree.I work on the computer for may hours a day and my brain seems over loaded at times.I catch myself reading Google news all the time.

    Brigitte Grisanti