Saturday, January 1, 2011

More advice on how to write for online readers

Here's an example of a passage written two ways - one for a hardcopy reader and the other for an online reader.  Can you guess which is which and why?

Schedule a room 3 ways:
  1. Use the Outlook calendar.
  2. Email Charlotte at
  3. Call Charlotte at 253-780-XXXX.
Coffee: Visit the coffee room in the Conference Center.
Lunch, snacks, and coffee delivery: Call the Ricoh Cafe at 253-723-XXXX to make arrangements.
Here are three ways to schedule a room:
  1. You can use the Outlook calendar.
  2. You can Email Charlotte at
  3. Call Charlotte at 253-780-XXXX.
To find coffee: Visit the coffee room in the Conference Center.
To have lunch, snacks, and coffee delivered: Call the Ricoh Cafe at 253-723-XXXX to make arrangements.

While hardcopy readers move their eyes across the page left to right, people reading electronic text tend to allow their eyes to skim and skip across the page, often scanning the left margin to hunt for the most pertinent information.  According to the author of the Business Writing blog, Version 1 is better suited to an online audience because key words like "schedule, email, coffee, and lunch" are positioned in the left margin.

Nicholas Carr (among others), author of The Shallows, argues (here and here) that we read differently depending on whether the text is in hardcopy or electronic form.  A difficult question for lawyers is knowing whether judges (and their clerks) will do most of their work-related reading online or will they instead print out hardcopies to "truck around" with them as Justice Kagan says she occasionally does.  I've argued that anecdotal evidence suggests that sophisticated readers switch back and forth between hardcopy and electronic formats depending on whether they intend to read the material more closely or not.  Another bit of evidence comes from Bill Gates who says that any e-document over four or five pages that he needs to read more carefully, he prints it rather than reading it online.  (See Robert Darnton, The Case for Books:  Past, Present and Future 69 (2009)

The question for skills profs is what this means in terms of training students to prepare legal documents.  Do we teach them to write in a way that accommodates the "skim and skip" style of an online reader or should we assume that their audience is primarily going to read in a more traditional style (either by printing out the document or by disciplining themselves to read electronic text more carefully).

Hat tip to the Business Writing blog.


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Works both ways: when you comment on or grade a student paper, do you do so electronically or on hard copy? If the former, do you tell students you are doing so, and do you read it any differently than you would if you were reading a hard copy?

I've recently transitioned from reading hard copies to electronic copies of student drafts/papers. I don't think my reading style changed in the process, but my editing style has changed a bit. I type faster than I write, so I can make more -- and more-detailed -- comments; trackchanges makes it easy for me to show as well as tell; students no longer come back to me afterward asking me to decipher my handwriting; I use -- and easily can point students to -- online resources much more often when I edit electronically.

All, I think, is for the good. Any thoughts on possible negative effects of electronic editing?

Posted by: Rick Bales | Jan 2, 2011 5:29:09 AM

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