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November 5, 2014

How to make journalism work online: Five writing tips

By Jon Bernstein

Writing for the web is exactly the same as writing for print. It’s also completely different. The trick is knowing which rules from the older medium still apply and which don’t.

Here’s my starter for five:

1. Orwell was right then. And he’s right now

It’s nearly seventy years since George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language but it remains a brilliant guide to writing and readability. His six-point checklist – which includes “never use a long word when a short word will do” and “if it’s possible to cut a word out, always cut it out” – is worth reading each time you write.

2. Length (still) matters

Infinite space is not the same as infinite time. Print journalists, especially news journalists, are guided by the inverted pyramid, a model that dictates the most important details go at the top of a story while general background and context appears lower down. It means that when words need to be lost, cuts are made from the bottom. It was designed for a medium (print) where space is at a premium. Apply it to a medium (digital) where time is at a premium.

3. Blogging is a digital form. Embrace it

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A blog post is not a newspaper op-ed (opinion/editorial) piece, running to a fixed word count and appearing on a regular daily/weekly/monthly cycle. Blogging is different, digitally native. Frequency should be dictated by the demands of the story or the message, while length should be dictated by what you’ve got to say, not the space you are obliged to fill. And what you’ve got to say should be in the form of a single point, a single anecdote or a single piece of insight that brings something meaningful to bear to an ongoing story, discussion or topic. (Oh, and don't forget to choose your archetype).

4. Headlines have to work harder online

As I’ve written before, a web headline has to work harder than its print equivalent because it often acts alone. Moreover, the only successful web headline is the one that gets clicked on. That means combining the wit (both meanings of the word) of print headlines with a touch of digital pragmatism. Readers are time-poor, and often in task-mode, so don’t leave them wondering. Want proof? Here’s proof.

5. You’re still writing for humans

An awareness and understanding of search engine optimisation (SEO) is useful; an obsession is not. Write for humans, think about how the reader might discover what you’ve written – search and social remain the main drivers – and then carry out some keyword research to challenge your assumptions. To start with SEO in order to reverse-engineer a content strategy is a zero-sum game.

Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News. He is running a ‘Writing for the web’ workshop at the Frontline Club on 14 November. More details here

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn


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