Wading through the waffle

When thinking about how to introduce the concept of putting together clean, crisp, readable copy to my blogging students, it occurred to me (flash of inspiration if you will) that several news articles I had done this week were notable for one reason.

They all came from source material that was lengthy or dry or incredibly technical.Bill Burris

Not perhaps unusual for a journalist specialising in medicine and science.

But there did seem to be more chopping and simplifying than usual.

Which brings me to my tip of the week – be ruthless.

Deciding what to leave out can be just as vital as the text that ends up in your final copy.

It is tempting to be precious about every clever metaphor/explanation/quote.

But the readers will not thank you for waffling on.

This week’s haul started  with a bit of molecular biology from a team of US scientists who had worked out the nitty gritty of how zinc can help the immune system fight infection.

Crafted from a 1,200-word press release going into some pretty high-level scientific detail and a 25-page Cell Reports article with the snappy title ZIP8 Regulates Host Defense through Zinc-Mediated Inhibition of NF-kB, this was not straightforward.

In fact very little of the scientific detail even included in the press release made it to the final version.

This was all about a novel concept with a little bit of context.

Then there were the results of a trial comparing treatments for stroke where the main problem was trying to explain the concept of intra-arterial device-based approach for clot removal to the non-vascular surgeons in the audience.

And a sigh of relief as a slightly more simple paper crossed my desk showing that GPs are pretty quick at picking up cancers – unless you have a hard to spot type of cancer.

Chop, chop, chop

Yet complex science papers are not the only time I get to practice cutting out reams of text.

The next day started with a survey from a cancer charity who were launching a report on patients who lack support from families and friends.

I had a well written press release and report to work from.

But piles of statistics.

No one wants to read a long long list of survey results and so there I go again, choosing which is most important, finding new ways to present figures, and chopping through the bits that can be excluded.

Last but not least was an exclusive story on doctors missing signs of being underweight in children – one I found in a medical journal.

Researchers do not write for the general public and use lots of strange phrases that would not spring to mind when chatting about study results down the pub (as I have been known to do).

It means coming at the information in front of you from a completely different point of view, with the reader always at the front of your mind.

All this shows one thing, whatever source material you are working from, always look for better, snappier, shorter, clearer ways to say what you need to say.

Whether it is news or views, the rule remains the same – be ruthless, tell the story, and above all, keep it simple.


What type of blogger are you?

So my intrepid band of student bloggers are on the starting line ready to go.

They all have an idea for a topic – related somehow to student life – they want to write about.

Credit: Maria Reyes-McDavis

The next step is to get them up and running.

With that in mind, I am going to offer some thoughts on what I think blogging is for.

I have to admit, I was a somewhat of a sceptic when blogging first became the latest cool pastime.

And I still do not believe on any level that blogging will replace or poses any real threat to traditional journalism.

But it does have several important functions.

1. Reportage

Eyewitness reports are a vital part of journalism and with traditional hacks increasingly chained to their desks or without the budget to travel to far off lands, a blogger can provide that all important firsthand account of an event.

This has been shown to great effect in recent uprisings in parts of the world the media cannot easily access or where stringent censorship is in place.

And of course, the blogger can put themselves in grave danger by telling their story.

Reading this sort of writer makes me think that the media could often do a lot better at getting to the heart of a story, and without blogs and social media there are those who would have barely any voice at all.

2. Shared experience

The first thing that comes to mind for me under this category is the mummy bloggers.

Often stereotyped in the media as bored middle-aged women used to being at the cutting edge of whatever world they once worked in, I am actually a huge fan.

There is nothing that isolates you from your old life/friends/reality quite like having a tiny human to care for and while you are completely obsessed over your new responsibility, few others care at all.

Mummy blogs basically create a community of people going through the exact same, crazy, head-wreaking, life changing experience as you.

As someone who often read mummy blogs on my phone in the early hours, while trying to get a unsettled baby to sleep, I would say do not knock it until you find yourself craving a connection with someone who knows exactly what you are talking about.

Also under this heading would come all bloggers writing about life experiences – divorce, illness, bereavement, etc, etc.

3. How to…?

The most obvious how to blog that comes to mind is the cook trying out recipes.

But this category is incredibly broad.

For anything you want to know how to do there will be someone teaching you how. Off the top of my head – dog training, make-up lessons, knitting tea cosys.

4. Professional promotion

I probably come under this category, having set up a blog partly as a teaching tool but partly as a way of having my very own opinion column.

As a freelancer, I do not often get the chance to do analysis, comment or editorial style writing.

Blogging gives me the chance to do all of the above.

Researchers and academics are among those who commonly use blogs in this way.

5. Campaigning

Then there are the bloggers who are using their site as a platform to promote a certain political view or to raise awareness of an issue.

According to this piece in the Guardian, feminist blogs are booming.

One of the most famous bloggers from last year was a young schoolgirl posting images of her school dinners to highlight the fact that Jamie Oliver may not have had the impact many claimed.

While a lighthearted take, it raised awareness of an important issue.

Bloggers can often shine a light on topics forgotten about or ignored by the mainstream press.

6. Unique perspective

Do you have an interesting tale to tell?

From the paramedic, whose blog became a bestselling book, to the researcher turned escort which led to the TV series Diary of a Call Girl, bloggers with an individual take on life can stand out from the crowd.

It does not have to be a completely unique experience like the man who won the ‘Best job in the world’ competition to be a caretaker on a paradise island, blogging about his adventure.

Even the seemingly day-to-day can be intriguing if you have a quirky take on it.

7. The reviewer

From music to film to books, if you want an independent opinion of the latest release then the blogosphere is where you need to be.

For anyone wanting to go down this route, it is hard to stand out.

The key, it would seem, is having a different insight, perspective or covering stuff that does not normally get picked up by the mainstream reviewers.

8. Hyperlocal

A group of Sheffield University students won the Guardian Student Media Awards best website last year for their take on independent people, places and organisations in the Steel City.

These types of blogs have in some cases proven pretty successful and build an audience by creating a niche guide, tips or insights into a community.

In fact such is the interest in hyperlocal media that last year Nesta announced a £1m funding drive.

Seems counterintuitive when journalists lament the death of the local paper but there you go, maybe we are coming full circle.

Where will the next generation of bloggers take it?

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.