Dr. Thomas Klipstine
basic principle in developing any written communication is when content is
developed in a user friendly format and adjusted to meet the needs of the
consumer, readability increases and message effectiveness is enhanced.
In writing for today's electronic medium, key factors in developing and
formatting content can be basically boiled down to what I believe are
three fundamental principles or rules for electronic content. If these
rules are followed and applied to material developed for electronic
distribution, content will become user friendly and messages will be more
effective. Based on various usability studies and writing research my
three rules are:
The Three Fundamental Rules
Rule 1 - Reduce Written
Content by 50 Percent
Users read content slower from a computer screen when compared to a
paper based document so material prepared for electronic distribution
should be reduced by as much as 50 percent when compared to a typical
paper based document and the overall content should be as brief as
Rule 2 - Do Not Use Large Chunks of Text
In any electronic document or Web page, users do not like to scroll
through documents or see large chunks of text so the average paragraph
should not exceed 50 words
Rule 3 - Use Hypertext, Headings, Highlights, Bulleted Lists
Users tend to scan written material and do not read electronic content
word for word so material should be developed in chunks of information
with easy to find headings, highlights, bulleted list and hyperlinks
Of the three rules outlined,
the third principle, which I consider the most important aspect of writing
for the electronic medium, is unfortunately the one that is overlooked the
most. A recent study of on-line public relations documents posted for
electronic distribution on Web sites found that:
Less than half, 43
percent, used headings or subheads in the text;
Only 17 percent used
bulleted information in the text;
Only 14 percent contained
bold highlights; and
Hypertext was used in 34
percent of on-line documents.
The study also found that
public relations material developed for electronic distribution is
actually growing in size and is not being reduced as noted in rule number
one. An example is that the study found that the average electronic news
release contains some 568 words compared to the "rule of thumb"
500 words (two pages) for a paper based release. In addition, the study
noted that the average paragraph in a news release is 55 words.
The analysis clearly shows electronic content is not being developed
according to the basic rules and principles for electronic writing. It
also tells us that as a profession we are reluctant to abandon our paper
based bias and embrace the techniques necessary for effective electronic
To see if your electronic content is user friendly, simply answer these
The Three Fundamental Rules Test:
1. Have I used any extra words or sentences that are not
2. Is my average paragraph
approximately 50 words?
3. Did I use any headings or
subheads in the text?
4. Could any information be
presented in a bulleted format?
5. Would the use of bold print or
other highlights enhance key points?
6. Should any information be linked
to other documents?
7. Is my work mechanically
The bottom line is basically
if you want to get out of the "paper based stone age" and make
your electronic material more user friendly and enhance your message
effectiveness, your focus in developing electronic content should include
the Three Fundamental Rules for effective written communications.
Klipstine is an assistant professor of public relations at
the University of South Carolina. Prior to teaching, Klipstine spent
25 years in corporate communications with the General Motors
He can be reached at Klipstine@sc.edu
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