Web literacy: can they read what you wrote?

365192The term web literacy has been used to describe being fluent with the latest Twitter apps or how to use YouTube. But in this case, it means, quite literally, the ability for an online audience to read what you wrote. So, the question is, can they?

The data is so far inconclusive. Sure, much of it points to increased time spent reading and writing—a writing renaissance, as it were, albeit sometimes limited to 140 characters. As to whether or not all the text-based time people spend online is helping or hindering that ability, there is great debate. (Not surprisingly, the answer is near and dear to those of us who write copy for web sites and interactive apps that primarily rely upon language for their interfaces.)

Take for example the advice on writing for the web from webdesignerdepot. They recommend that you write for an audience with a low-level reading ability, citing an extensive Pfizer study in which “43% of web users are ‘low literacy’ users who cannot understand a page written above Grade 6 level.” They say to write top pages at Grade 6 reading level, while more in-depth pages used deeper in the site at Grade 8 level.

But that seems to contradict what Clive Thompson on the New Literacy writes in Wired magazine. Clive states “Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring…young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text…But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.”

Of course, skeptics reading this are already saying, that’s lovely that Stanford students are so literate. Considering what their families are paying for their tuition, they better be. But does that really answer the question for the online world at large? Exactly how literate are people online—and what does the mean for those copy writers who write for them?

The answer, like so many things in this business, is that it depends.

It depends upon who you’re writing for. And it depends on for what purpose they’re reading what you wrote.

A New York Times article called Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? states it aptly. “The question of how to value different kinds of reading is complicated because people read for many reasons. There is the level required of daily life—to follow the instructions in a manual or to analyze a mortgage contract. Then there is a more sophisticated level that opens the doors to elite education and professions. And, of course, people read for entertainment, as well as for intellectual or emotional rewards.”

Which brings us back to the touchstone of writing for the user experience—namely, writing for whoever is going to read what you wrote, while keeping  in mind when, where and how they’re going to be reading it. Something that those aforementioned Stanford students apparently excel at, according to Dr. Lunsford. The key is to get good at kairos to get your point across, whether it’s in 140-character Twitter text, a graphic novella or a technical manual in PDF.

Coming from a direct marketing background, it’s fascinating for me to see the idea of kairos come full-circle. We weren’t taught the term back when I was a fledgling copywriter. We were taught, however, to visualize the person who held our direct marketing efforts in hand not even reading what we were writing, but flipping through the pile of envelopes, postcards and self-mailers retrieved from the mailbox as he or she stood over the trash can. If we didn’t make a connection lightning fast, we’d get plunked in with the rest of the junk mail. These days, one hopes it’s the recycling bin, but the point is the same. Start with the premise that you must earn your readers’ attention first in order to have the privilege, not the right, of having them read what you’ve written.

So perhaps there are quite a few folks online now who aren’t likely picking up a Dostoevsky once they close their browser windows. So be it. If your job is to write for them, you better know how to reach them first. It’s less about the choice of words than it is the choice of story. Choose well.