Print Versus Screen: Information Pros and Cons

The way we read has changed dramatically in recent years.

Reading text off a screen – whether for cost, convenience, online content, collaborative reasons, or otherwise – is normal.  We read from computer monitors, handheld devices, TV screens, you name it.  What used to be in a textbook or magazine is now held on a PDF, through an online subscription, or from an RSS feed.

The change in format brings with it a change in reading methods.

You may not realise it, but what you see on screen can be altered in so many ways.  For example, Twitter users don’t have to read user updates via the site.  They can read from a standalone software client, such as TweetDeck.  They can use an alternative website, such as Brizzly.  The relationship with the text changes each time.  The question is, how much can the relationship change?

Whether it’s 140 characters of text or an entire ebook, you don’t know how others are consuming information compared to you.  What you see is what you get.

But what do you see?  How are you getting it?

With books, you had less choice.  Yes, there are hardback and paperback versions.  Yes, the layout of a new edition of a textbook can radically change.  Yes, a scribbled-in-the-margin copy of a book can suddenly look very different to a brand new copy of the same book.  But most of the time your view on paper isn’t going to be radically different to another person’s view.  What you make of the text, of course, is a different matter.

Moving to the screen, it’s impossible to tell all the different ways a text can be consumed.  Even a relatively standard PDF of a book can be resized, reshaped, and made to scroll in different ways.  The customisable nature of the texts should help you concentrate on the writing itself, but I’m sure it doesn’t work as simply as that.

There’s no right and wrong, but there are advantages and disadvantages to whatever method of reading you employ.  Here are some:


  • Easy to annotate.
  • Customisable.
  • Cuttings, screenshots and quotations are easily taken.
  • Can be read in many different setups.  Even printed out on paper, if you must.
  • Even non-customisable text can be customised for easier reading with the right tools.
  • Often have access to links and further discussion.
  • Can easily look up terms and definitions with a quick copy and paste.


  • Not reading in isolation.  Disturbances away from text and other on-screen interruptions.
  • You’re more likely to scan the information, rather than fully immerse yourself in important detail.
  • Suits most in small doses and quick hits.  On screen reading doesn’t work for many as an extended exercise.
  • Not portable…unless you have an ebook reader and compatible file.
  • We’ve become used to reaching for the keyboard and Google for finding something out.  The Web is our dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, textbook, and more.  Yet the answer may be in a reference book right next to you…


  • In print, we’re naturally faster readers.  Reading from a monitor slows reading speed down. [Could we end up evolving as electronic text becomes the norm…?]
  • Much easier to focus on a physical text.  No *direct* distractions.
  • Portable.  Sometimes heavy, but still portable!
  • Easy to flick through and scan.
  • Quick access to contents, index, glossary, and any important pages.
  • Physical bookmarks stand out and take you straight there.


  • Not easy to search.
  • More difficult to make notes.  Either deface a book, make a formal note (when it isn’t always convenient), or buy expensive post-its/bookmark tabs.

We can’t live without physical books OR electronic text.  Both are required for effective study.  The same can be said for our own writing.  Do you take electronic notes, or use good old handwriting?  As HackCollege explains, there are pros and cons to both methods.

But are we beginning to treat books with less importance?  Once you get used to so much online reading, returning to a book can be a strange experience.  You end up reading as if you’re browsing at times.  Your eyes wander without focus and you look for the bottom line, that important take home point…even in fiction!  Through fear of wasting time, we’re losing touch with the detail.

How do you prefer the written word…virtual or physical?

[Update: On March 21, @jamesclay published a podcast “Do you like books or do you like reading?” which gives more information on the pros and cons of e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and Apple’s iPad. Well worth a listen.]


  1. I keep loving print, mostly because I can call myself a speedreader, so if I want to go through a text quick, no problem.

    That is why I’m still at home now reading this post and my friends are already in the library reading. I’ll read way faster! Mhuhahaha!

    Nice post Martin!

    1. Indeed, speed reading is the gift that keeps on giving.

      I’ve been an avid speed reader since I was a child (my Dad bought me a book about reading techniques when I was in single figures…I was hooked from there). Given the differences between print and screen, I’ve tried to implement various techniques to speed reading electronic text.

      Many techniques are basic variations of those you’d use in print. But you never know, perhaps there’s another post looking to be written about it! 🙂

  2. Nice one martin, I always use printed word after I have written something. I can see the structure and relationships between paragraphs easier, I tend to write as a stream on electronic media, print it and re-arrange it, best and worst of both worlds. I think the way you make connections between data, either stream-like or tree-like dictates the preference for electronic or written media

    1. Good point, just as reading comprehension changes between print and screen, so does the way we write. I try to write in a number of ways, because it allows different parts of me to shine. I guess it may have something to do with the connections you mention. The way I write through typing is nothing like the way I write with pen and paper.

      My output tends to differ even when you compare A4 paper and a Moleskine notebook. That’s why – for handwritten output at least – I’ve started using a different notebook for each project. Different notebooks for different situations. It’s working amazingly well so far.

  3. I took a class in college called “The History of Media: Print to Internet” I learned a lot in that class. However the professor focused way too much on print and not enough on Internet.

    Great article. I would add that screen media hurts my eyes. I can sit and read a book for hours, but staring at the computer too long makes my head hurt.

    1. The more you stare at that screen, the more it hurts. That pain behind the eyes slowly becoming a migraine…ouch.

      A 5 minute break every 30 minutes – or 10 minute break every hour – is a great help. I sometimes forget, so my trusty timer helps out and I don’t need to think about it.

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