Media

6 Ways Writing for Online Is Different Than Print

By Jason Steele May 12th, 2015

This post originally appeared on our sister site, Contently’s The Freelancer.

When I heard Spud Hilton, the travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, once say there is no difference between writing for print and online publications, I nearly fell out of my chair. It was 2012, and I had just started writing full time about travel and personal finance, almost entirely for online outlets. When I spoke to my colleagues who write for print, I almost got the impression they were working in an entirely different industry—and possibly on a different planet.

Suffice it to say, Hilton is wrong: There are plenty of differences between writing online and writing for print when it comes to factors like style, sourcing, and payment protocol. Sure, there are exceptions depending on the subject matter and the publication, but it sometimes seems like writers come in with the same mindset regardless of the medium, which can lead to declined pitches, extensive revisions, and wounded egos.

To avoid these problems, here are the six major differences you should take into account when pitching online.

1. Hooks

Whenever someone checks out an article online, there are links to a dozen other pieces vying for attention just a click away. And as former Slate writer Farhad Manjoo explained in his popular 2013 article about reader habits, odds are most people won’t finish what they read on the Internet. Digital editors are well aware of this, and as a result, they insist on content that clearly informs the audience from the beginning.

In contrast, the reader of a magazine or newspaper has made a significantly larger investment of effort, time, and money to select an article. So even if a magazine article takes a few paragraphs before getting to the nut graph, the reader is less likely to just flip the page and move on the way we tend to do with online content.

For example, Gene Weingarten’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning article for The Washington Post about a remarkable children’s magician is vaguely titled “The Peekaboo Paradox” and runs over 9,000 words. His article begins slowly, yet readers can savor the rewards as the story unfolds gradually. But when the Huffington Post’s Parents blog covered the same subject from a different angle in 2014, the story contained only 700 words and began with much more Internet-friendly “fun facts” to hook the reader.

2. Length

While readers may stare at their computer monitors all day, they rarely focus on a single article for more than a minute or two. That’s why the vast majority of what’s written for the Internet is under 1,000 words. Reading multi-page articles online can be a frustrating challenge, but taking in longform content in print, or at least on an e-reader, tends to be much more enjoyable.

Great longform journalism still gets published on the web every day, but it often comes from outlets traditionally known for print. But considering what it takes to keep up with the speed of news, longer articles just aren’t cost effective for anymore for a lot of online outlets.

For instance, I write feature articles every week for a travel site called The Points Guy, which typically run 1,000–1,500 words, and most of the articles I write for personal finance sites are under 1,000 words. And for every story I write, I make sure the scope of the subject matter fits within those standards.

3. Sourcing

The sourcing requirements for print outlets can be so stringent that I often joke a print writer must quote a professional astronomer before claiming that the sun will rise in the morning. Yet online, authors are commonly allowed—and even expected—to exert their own authority. And even when they cannot claim to be experts, many bloggers use their inexperience as a way to write from the perspective of a novice.

Again, this comes down to speed. Online writing has such different sourcing standards than print because it’s much easier to hyperlink to source material instead of explicitly attributing and fact-checking information.

In print, there are certainly gossip magazines and other less prestigious publications that don’t require much sourcing, but publications that deal with travel, finance, health, or other blog-friendly topics will want authors to quote professional sources rather than rely on person opinions.

4. Accountability

Online journalism has created an interesting relationship between sourcing and accountability. While digital writers are expected to be their own authority, their readers will take note of any errors in real time. Make a specious claim in print, and your editor will publish a reader’s letter rebutting it or print a retraction in the next edition. Try that online and, within minutes, you will be barraged in the comments sections by knowledgeable readers and trolls alike.

Readers still have the opportunity to engage with print writers over social media, but online readers can comment on the writer’s work just below the article itself, where their opinions are much harder to ignore. And for some digital publications, editors even demand that writers participate and respond to questions and constructive criticism.

For example, I recently wrote an article for The Points Guy about the credit card benefits offered to active duty members of the military, and several commenters immediately pointed to personal experiences that contradicted what I had written. Minutes after the article was posted, I learned some card issuers were denying service members the benefits, and that there were other nuances to promised benefits I was not aware of. You can read the dust-up for yourself in the comments section.

5. Pitching

I once heard a magazine editor say that he expected authors to spend hours working on stories and refining their ideas before submitting a pitch. And while this isn’t true of all print publications, it speaks to the high expectations many print editors have when evaluating new ideas.

However, when establishing a relationship with an online editor, I’m often asked “How many articles a week can you submit?” Then I might offer a series of one-sentence pitches for approval. And in the case of the more blog-style sites, editors might just ask me to use my best judgment to write about whatever I think would make for a compelling article.

Pitching is more of a case-by-case issue than the other factors on this list, but if I’m writing an 800-word article for a digital publication, my pitch will only be a paragraph or two. And I probably won’t spend hours researching an idea for an article that will only take an hour or two to write, because that isn’t an efficient use of my time.

6. Pay

Since online content is generally easier to produce, it should come as no surprise writers are generally paid less for online work than print work—but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Because of all of the time saved during the pitching and writing processes, online writers who are subject matter experts can often make more money per hour, day, or week than they would have contributing to print. And since online outlets typically publish more than most print outlets, there is the opportunity to make up the difference in total compensation with volume and more diverse opportunities due to the volume of opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love reading magazines on airplanes or curling up with a good book in bed. But I recognize that print authors essentially work in a different field than I do. Producing labor-intensive, high-quality content for print publications may be more professionally satisfying than writing for the web, but it has its trade-offs. By understanding the distinctions between print and online writing, freelancers can choose the medium that makes the most sense for their careers.

Image by Helder Almeida
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