Know Your Medium
Our page Know Your Audience discusses the importance of knowing who you are writing for, or your target audience. However, it is equally important to consider the medium you are using to publish or share your writing (and that your audience will therefore use to read it).
This page discusses some issues about writing for different media.
Traditionally, the written word was read in print form, and this is still true in some circumstances. Many people still like to read books, magazines and newspapers in print.
However, many more people consume their reading in electronic form. They may read it direct from the website on which it is published, or via social media, or using an electronic reader.
All these options have different implications for readers, and therefore for writers. It is therefore wise to be aware of how your writing is likely to be consumed.
Different Types of Media
The main distinction between different types of media for publishing writing is between print and online media. However, there are also what we might call non-print media, such as diaries or letters.
Writing Letters: A Lost Art?
Very few people now write handwritten letters. As a form of communication, it has largely disappeared, along with handwritten diaries.
Writing for Print Media
Print media include newspapers, books, journals, magazines, and leaflets.
E-readers: a special case?
Should e-readers such as Kindle be considered a print or electronic form of publication?
E-readers are primarily used for books, as an alternative to print, and sometimes for newspapers and magazines. However, they are not generally used for short-form web content such as blogs. E-readers are often used by publishing houses to create electronic copies of print books, but it is also possible for authors to self-publish in e-reader form.
Generally speaking, publishers of texts for e-readers tend to try to make the text look as much like the print version as possible. eBooks and e-magazines have formal ‘pages’ that fit on the screen, and are all the same length.
It therefore seems reasonable to consider e-readers as a special case of print media.
Usually, print media are distinguished by having a publisher. In other words, you are not usually responsible for publishing your own copy (although this may not be true for more informal publications such as leaflets).
This means that your work is likely to be edited before publication. This should pick up basic errors and typos, and ensure that your work is put into the required ‘form’ for printing.
However, because of the cost of printing and publishing, some publishers now require authors to format their work in a particular style, or to have it checked for language and style.
Most print media, especially magazines, journals and newspapers, have a ‘house style’. This may include the use of a particular language (for example, US or UK English), the use of first-person or third-person language, and the level of formality. Some books will also have a style guide, especially if they are edited books, with chapters written by different authors.
This may therefore place some constraints on your writing—and you need to check for guidelines before you start to write.
Writing for the Web
Nowadays, many people consume much of their reading via the internet, or on websites, and often via smartphones. This has some important implications for writers.
Most importantly, people do not consume written material on websites in the same way as they do in print.
Research has shown that reading from a computer monitor increases eye strain and fatigue. Reading from a monitor is also slower (typically by about 25%) than from print. Typically, web users often also scan centre–left–right rather then left to right as in print.
Web users are mostly content-oriented. In other words, they are searching for particular content rather than reading a narrative for pleasure. Most web users scan documents before deciding whether it is worth their while to read the text. Writers therefore need to ensure that their text is written to show the reader clearly whether they want to read further.
There are plenty of guidelines published online about writing for the web. However, the most important points are:
- Web content should be shorter than its paper equivalent, perhaps by as much as 50%.
- Content written for the web should have simpler sentence structures and shorter paragraphs than content written for print.
- Key words and messages can be highlighted using a bold typeface to ensure they stand out from the narrative text.
- Long runs of text should be broken up with headings and subheadings. This makes it easier for the reader to find the information they are looking for, and helps them to navigate within the page when they have to scroll down.
- Writing for the web should also take into account search engine optimisation (SEO) where appropriate.
There is more about this in our page on Writing For the Internet.
Writing for Social Media
Many people now find the majority of their reading matter via social media sites, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
Different social media sites have different constraints on length, and attract different types of content. However, generally speaking, they include two main forms of written copy:
- Stand-alone posts; and
- Short posts that include a link to another site, which contains a longer article.
Much written content is therefore published elsewhere and then shared on social media. The writers and publishers of this content therefore need to consider how they will share it, and how to ensure that readers click through to their article.
It is usually helpful to include a short post summarising your longer article, so readers can judge if they wish to click through.
‘Clickbait’ headlines: a scourge of social media?
Some media publishers use what are called ‘clickbait’ headlines to encourage readers to click through from social media posts.
These are (often misleading) headlines or summaries that make the content sound more interesting, or interesting to a wider audience, than is actually the case.
In the long term, using clickbait headlines is not helpful. People may click through, but they are unlikely to stay long on your site, or click through again, unless they are genuinely interested in your topic and article. Instead, it is better to use a more descriptive headline to ensure that you attract the right readers to your article.
Writing for Other Electronic Media
The advice on material written for the web is also largely true for emails, which will also be read from a computer monitor or even a smartphone. Emails tend towards a less formal style than printed letters but unless you are already familiar with the reader, it is safer to assume a formal style for initial communications.
There is more about this in our pages on Writing Effective Emails and Good Email Etiquette.
The Bottom Line
Different forms of media are better suited to different styles of writing, and even different content. Knowing more about your planned publication media can help you to write more effectively. Nowadays, writers also need to consider the use of social media sites, either for direct publication, or for sharing a summary and link.