Writing For Online Readers Goes Against The Book

    April 17, 2007

It pains me to suggest this, but we must ignore (one of) the teachings of Strunk and White.  We must turn our backs on a number of other writing guides.  And we must break our own habit of writing out numbers as words.

Instead, we should represent numbers with numerals – a recent eye-tracking study suggests that they’re much more likely to capture online readers’ interest.

“[N]umerals often stop the wandering eye and attract fixations, even when they’re embedded within a mass of words that users otherwise ignore,” revealed Jakob Nielsen.

So if I was, for example, pointing out problems with a certain American car company, Nielsen thinks it’s best to write that the 2000 Ford Focus was recalled 14 times – not “fourteen times.”

Nielsen is in a good position to know this sort of thing – he’s a co-founder and principal of the Nielsen Norman Group, which, in turn, describes itself as “an expert on corporate culture and the human-centered product development process.”

As for my complaint that Nielsen’s advice goes against several well-regarded style manuals . . . well, “the guidelines for online writing differ from those for writing for print,” he pointed out.

It seems best, then, to let numerals rule the day, but with the provision that common sense and courtesy to your readers should still prevail overall (“Two trillion is better than 2,000,000,000,000 because most people can’t interpret that many zeros,” wrote Nielsen).

This new guideline wouldn’t have pleased William Strunk Jr., but E.B. White, at least, might approve.