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A Dozen Online Writing Tips

Poynter Institute visiting faculty member Jonathan Dube shared these online writing tips with participants of the institute’s first “Writing Online News” seminar. (Also published on Poynter.org and in the book “Shop Talk and War Stories.”)

By Jonathan Dube
Publisher, CyberJournalist.net

(Also published on Poynter.org and
in the book "Shop Talk and War Stories"
)

 1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

Write and edit with online
readers? needs and habits in mind. Web usability studies show that
readers tend to skim over sites rather than read them intently. They
also tend to be more proactive than print readers or TV viewers,
hunting for information rather than passively taking in what you
present to them.

Think about your target
audience. Because your readers are getting their news online, chances
are they are more interested in Internet-related stories than TV
viewers or newspaper readers, so it may make sense to put greater
emphasis on such stories. Also, your site potentially has a global
reach, so consider whether you want to make it understandable to a
local, national or international audience, and write and edit with
that in mind.

2. THINK FIRST ? AND THINK
DIFFERENT

Before you start reporting and
writing, ask yourself: What is the essence of the story I am trying to
tell? Then think about what the best way is to convey that story,
whether through audio, video, clickable graphics, text, links, etc.
? or some combination. Collaborate with audio, video and interactive
producers. Develop a plan and let that guide you throughout the news
gathering and production process, rather than just reporting a story
and then adding various elements later as an afterthought. 

Look for stories that lend
themselves to the Web ? stories that you can tell or differently
from or better than in any other medium.


3. TAILOR YOUR NEWS GATHERING

Just as print and TV reporters
interview differently because they are looking for different things,
so must online journalists tailor their interviewing and information
gathering specifically to their needs.

Print reporters tend to look for
information. TV reporters look for emotion on camera, sound bites and
pictures to go with words. Online journalists must constantly think in
terms of different elements and how they complement and supplement
each other: Look for words to go with images, audio and video to go
with words, data that will lend itself to interactives, etc. . . 

Remember that photos look better
online when shot or cropped narrowly, and streaming video is easier to
watch when backgrounds are plain and zooming minimal. Tape interviews
whenever possible in case someone says something that would make a
powerful clip. Look for personalities who could be interesting chat
guests. And always keep an eye out for information that can be
conveyed more effectively using interactive tools.

4. WRITE LIVELY AND TIGHT

Writing for the Web should be a
cross between broadcast and print ? tighter and punchier than print,
but more literate and detailed than broadcast writing. Write actively,
not passively.

Good broadcast writing uses
primarily tight, simple declarative sentences and sticks to one idea
per sentence. It avoids the long clauses and passive writing of print.
Every expressed idea flows logically into the next. Using these
concepts in online writing makes the writing easier to understand and
better holds readers? attention.

Strive for lively prose, leaning
on strong verbs and sharp nouns. Inject your writing with a
distinctive voice to help differentiate it from the multitude of
content on the Web. Use humor. Try writing in a breezy style or with
attitude. Conversational styles work particularly well on the Web.
Online audiences are more accepting of unconventional writing styles.

At the same time, don?t forget
that the traditional rules of writing apply online. Unfortunately,
writing quality is inconsistent throughout most online news sites.
Stories suffer from passive verbs, run-on sentences, mixed metaphors
and cliches. This is a result of fast-paced news gathering, short
staffing and inexperienced journalists. This is also a big mistake.
Readers notice sloppy writing and they don?t forgive. They?ll stop
reading a story and they won?t come back for more. Unlike local
newspaper readers, online readers have options.

5. EXPLAIN

Don?t let yourself get caught
up in the 24/7 wire-service mentality and think all that matters is
that you have the latest news as fast as possible. Speed is important
online. But people want to know not just what
happened, but why it matters. And with all the information sources out
there now, in the end it will be the sites that explain the news the
best that succeed. Write and edit all your stories with this in mind.

6. NEVER BURY THE LEAD

You can?t afford to bury the
lead online because if you do, few readers will get to it. When
writing online, it?s essential to tell the reader quickly what the
story is about and why they should keep reading ? or else they
won?t.

One solution is to use a
"Model T" story structure. In this model, a story?s lead
? the horizontal line of the T ? summarizes the story and,
ideally, tells why it matters. The lead doesn’t need to give away the
ending, just give someone a reason to read on. Then, the rest of the
story ? the vertical line of the T ? can take the form of just
about any structure: the writer can tell the story narratively;
provide an anecdote and then follow with the rest of the story; jump
from one idea to another, in a ?stack of blocks? form; or simply
continue into an inverted pyramid.

This enables the writer to
quickly telegraph the most important information ? and a reason to
keep reading ? and yet still retain the freedom to write the story
in the way he or she wants to. 

7. DON?T PILE ON

Another story structure that has
evolved online, mostly by accident, is what I call The Pile-On.

A common problem with online
writing occurs in breaking news stories. In an effort to seem as
current as possible, sites will often put the latest development in a
story at the top ? no matter how incremental the development. Then,
they?ll pile the next development on the top, and then the next ?
creating an ugly mish-mash of a story that makes sense only to someone
who has been following the story closely all day. Unfortunately, the
only people who are usually doing so are the journalists. Few readers
visit a site more than once a day. Remember this when updating
stories, and always keep the most important news in the lead.

8. SHORT BUT SWEET

Most stories online are too long
for a Web audience, and few readers finish them. Roy Peter
Clark has written a
wonderful essay
arguing that any story can be told in 800 words
? a good guideline for online writing.

But let that be a guideline, not
a rule.  Readers will stick with longer stories online if there
is a compelling reason for a story to be that long ? and if it
continues to captivate their attention.

Making readers scroll to get to
the rest of a story is generally preferable to making them click.
Online news users do scroll. If someone has clicked to get to a page,
it’s generally because they want to read the story, and thus chances
are high that they will. The Poynter
eyetrack study
showed that about 75 percent of article text was
read online ? far more than in print, where 20 to 25 percent of an
article’s text gets read, on average. Print readers have less vested
in any given story, because they haven’t done anything proactive to
get the article.


9. BREAK IT UP

Larger blocks of text make
reading on screens difficult, and you’re more likely to lose readers.
Using more subheads and bullets to separate text and ideas helps.
Writing should be snappy and fast to read. Keep paragraphs and
sentences short. Like this.

Try reading sentences aloud to
see if they?re too long. You should be able to read an entire
sentence without pausing for a breath.

It also helps to extract
information into charts, tables, bulleted lists and interactive
graphics. Even a simple box with a definition or summary can help
break up text and convey information in an easy-to-read format.

10. ELIMINATE THE GUESSWORK

People often don?t know what
they?re going to get when they click on stuff. And people are not
going to click on something unless they know what they?re getting. 
When they click on something that?s not worth it, they lose trust in
you as a source and are less likely to come back and click on things
in the future. So make sure you tell people what they?re going to
get.

Studies show online news users
preferred straightforward headlines to funny or cute ones. Cute
headlines didn’t do as good a job of quickly explaining what a story
is about and thus discouraged online users from clicking through.

11. DO NOT FEAR THE LINK

Don?t be afraid to link. Many
sites have a paranoid fear that if they include links to other sites,
readers will surf away and never return. Not true! People prefer to go
to sites that do a good job of compiling click-worthy links ?
witness Yahoo!?s success. If people know they can trust your site,
they will come back for more. 

At the same time, journalists
have a responsibility to apply news judgment and editorial standards
to the links they choose. Avoid linking to sites with blatantly false
information or offensive content. Select links that enhance the value
of the story by helping readers get additional information from the
people behind the news.

And of course, link to related
stories on your site, past and present. This is truly one of the
advantages of the Web. By linking to other stories to provide context
and background, writers have more freedom to focus on the news of the
day without bogging stories down with old information.

12. TAKE RISKS . . . BUT
REMEMBER THE BASICS

Online journalism is a new and
evolving industry and we are writing the rules as we go along.
Challenge yourself and your colleagues to question the way things are
being done and to stretch the boundaries of what can be done. There
are no rules, only ideas. Take risks. Try something different.

But don?t forget the
fundamentals of journalism. Facts still have to be double- and
triple-checked; writing still needs to be sharp, lively and to the
point; stories should include context; and ethical practices must be
followed. Don?t let the 24/7 speed trap and the new tools distract
you from these basics.

With so many alternative news
sources now at everyone?s fingertips thanks to the Web,  it is
now more important than ever that we stick to the fundamentals of
journalism to produce news people can trust, because in the end
that?s what will keep people coming back for more.

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