Short, sharp and straight to the point

While I am clearly far too young to be starting sentences with ‘when I was a lass’, online journalism did not really exist when I started out.

My journalism training contained nothing of writing for the web and only a few news organisations were starting to tinker with their internet presence.

The first publication I worked for did in fact have a website but unimaginatively used it as a place to put up PDFs of the magazine.

Most people still got their news from a newspaper that they bought in a shop or had delivered to their door.

Then a few years later I found myself working for BBC News online.

And one of many things the experience taught me is that writing for the web is absolutely different to writing for print.

I am about to start passing on my wisdom to the next generation of student journalists, who these days do have the concept of online journalism as a core part of their training.

So after a quick email and Facebook survey of my journalism colleagues, here are my top ten tips for Writing the Message Online.

1. Get straight to the point

Journalists are taught that the intro is the most important part of the a news story because its purpose is to grab the readers attention.

Online this is even more vital, with users flicking rapidly from one item to the next.

If the reader cannot understand what you are telling them within the first few seconds, it is game over.

You need to know what your ‘hook’ is and be able to sell it.

As one of my BBC colleagues put it – ‘boring intros won’t cut it in a crowded market’.

2. Short paragraphs 

I cannot stress this point highly enough and it is one that so many websites get wrong.

Lots and lots of text is hard to read on a computer, tablet, or phone.

How many times have you printed documents out because your eyes cannot follow huge blocks of text on a screen.

Short sentences and paragraphs make it easier for the reader and reduces the chance of them clicking away.

3. Less is more

On a similar note, just because there is no limit to the amount of text you can put on a web page does not mean you can waffle on endlessly.

Keep it short and the reader will, with any luck, read to the end of the article.

No one wants to keep scrolling indefinitely through reams and reams of text.

4. Be entertaining

Clearly, how entertaining you can be depends on the subject matter, but you do need to stand out from the crowd.

This is especially true when it comes to blogs.

I am far more likely to get hooked on some sparky writing than a boring treatise and humour is a great way to gain followers.

5. Include links

Readers get frustrated when they cannot check a fact, report, or previous article that you refer to.

Hyperlinks are also a great way to provide extra information for those who need it without going into masses of detail.

The Star recently covered a magazine launch by my Science Communication students and the first few comments underneath were all about how annoying it was that the journalist had not included a link.

6. Engage with your audience

Online journalism has the distinct advantage of getting real-time (or at least quick) feedback from readers.

This can be both a blessing and a curse (I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been forced to defend my writing to pedants who have wrongly accused me of errors) but you need to use it to your advantage.

Use social media to build an audience and once you have attracted their attention, communicate with them and keep them reading.

7. Multimedia

If you have good images, video, or audio that improves your writing then use them and make sure they are prominent.

But, and this is a big but, do not use for the sake of it.

Just like with reams of boring text, no one will scroll down through masses of dull, irrelevant pictures.

8. Use your head

The headline is a really key tool in drawing people to your article, news story or blog post.

You need to pique the readers interest, hooking them in, before reeling them in further with that superbly crafted intro.

9. Have an opinion but avoid a rant

This is one that mainly applies to the bloggers out there.

When writing an opinion piece, it is not going to be of any use unless it actually contains an opinion.

But this is not an excuse for a blustering rant.

The reader will still want to see that you have a well-thought out, supported view.

Angry rambling will just turn the reader off – like the drunk guy in the pub who is boring everyone unfortunate enough to get stuck next to him.

10. Keywords

You need to think about the key words that sum up your piece.

First are they in there, and second are they prominent.

Are they in the headline?

This is not just about making sure you have stuck to the point but also about searchability – a vital tool for drawing people to your article.


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