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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

News Writing is Powerful Web Writing | Corina Ciripitca, Propeople Blog

Good Content Has A Purpose

While I think this article provides useful advice about writing for the Web, I'm posting it mostly as a starting place to rant about a point in it that I've also read elsewhere. I'm writing about the value of journalism as a style of writing.

Ciripitca writes (emphasis added):
People visiting websites are a special target for writers, hence a different approach should be taken once you start writing for the web. This is a bit different, from a design point of view, as well as content related point of view from press journalism. However- it doesn’t mean press journalism should be totally ignored – as it has the basic tips a writer should respect and insert into his stories.
What bothers me when I read articles about writing for the Web (and writing for other types of documents) is that the authors often minimize the value of the journalistic style of writing. And I have a hunch most of them do so because they have never studied journalism and never written as a journalist. I assume they've gotten their understanding of journalism by watching TV news, listening to radio news or, perhaps, reading a newspaper or news magazine.

I should admit, if you don't already know, that my background is in journalism. I majored in journalism (and political science), was editor of my college newspaper, became editor of a weekly newspaper editor when I graduated, studied journalism/communications again in graduate school, taught journalism part-time at a community college, and worked as a daily newspaper reporter (and photographer).

But I continued to use the skills, techniques and knowledge I learned and used in my journalism education and experience when I moved to public relations, communications and marketing for nonprofit and public agencies. And I daresay I would have continued using that background if I worked in the private (profit-making) sector.

Now, as I highlighted in the quotation above, Ciripitca gives news writing some credit.

Important Comes First

She emphasizes methods that should be important in both fields of writing (and other fields as well):
Like in press journalism – catchy titles should be one of the main points a web content writer should focus on. Better on to focus the attention of your readers on the main message you would like to pass on. You don’t want the message to get lost in a variety of letters, so that the reader has to think what to read first.
Journalism, of course, isn't just about writing "catchy titles" (aka headlines). The headline is supposed to be a short summary of the first paragraph (the lead) in a news article. And that lead is supposed to "focus the attention of your readers on the main message you would like to pass on," as she describes for Web writing.

In other words, the lead is supposed to provide the most important or most interesting details in a news article. The remainder of the article provides more information about those initial details.

In journalism, that structure is called the "inverted pyramid" -- and it is also the best structure, in my opinion, in writing for the Web (and many other types of documents).

As I've written in another related blog post, news articles can also have internal inverted pyramids -- often highlighted with a subhead. The first paragraph below that subhead provides key details, and the following paragraphs providing additional information.

In print, those internal inverted pyramids might be important enough to get a sidebar article (such as in a nearby box). That can be done on the Web as well, but the Web also can give those internal pyramids their own page -- with links to and from the introductory or main article.


The Shorter The Better

Ciripitca writes:
Concise writing is tough – it’s either too short without many details, or long with lots of useless stuff in it, making it impossible to finish. Most online stories seem long, even if studies show that users go online to read, rather then press stories. ...
I think she means that people are choosing to read Web articles instead of printed articles. I think that's true (sadly, for print publications). But her point about concise writing is just as important in journalism as it is in writing for the Web. One of the key elements I learned and taught in journalism is that articles must be concise. That means short sentences, short paragraphs and only as information as necessary to get the story across.

And referring again to the inverted pyramid: One of the useful things about that technique is that it aids readers in making their own choices about the length of an article, how concise it is. They can get all the key details in the first few paragraphs and then make a choice if they want to learn more. That works in Web writing too! Readers can follow a link to a new page for more details or stop where they are.

That technique is also useful for newspaper editors and Web writers/designers. If editors don't have room (in a newspaper or radio/TV broadcast), they can drop later paragraphs from an article. And if Web managers don't have time or interest for another page, they can drop it because they've already provided the key info on the intro or main page.


Include Call to Actions

Ciripitca writes:
Call to Action is important for any website. This is what engages the user to explore your website further, or get to the subject he might be interested in. The more time a user spends on your website – the better. This means that you are on the way to achieve the goal you are striving for.
This is the point that I think is most different between news writing and Web writing. Because the news media are not supposed to have a point of view (see the objectiveness section below), reporters and editors aren't necessarily as interested as Web writers in getting readers to do something after reading an article.

An article on a website -- or the entire website -- may have a goal of getting readers to buy something or form an opinion or attend a meeting or express an opinion or take any other type of action. A reporter or editor likely doesn't have the intense desire for readers to take action.

But: A well-written news article likely provides enough information to aid readers in responding in some way, if they choose to do so. It just doesn't tell readers the best way to respond.

In addition, writers and editors (and their publishers) are interested in people continuing to read specific articles and the rest of the newspaper (with its advertising). So they do try to provide interesting and useful, if not also provocative, information. The broadcast media also have those aims.

Also, most reporters are inspired by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- or at least they once were inspired by its free press and other free-expression rights. Quality journalists know that people need information so they can understand what's happening around them and to them -- and then take action if they choose to affect what's happening.


Objectiveness comes first

Unless you have an interest in being on one’s side – objectiveness is an etiquette any writer should respect. It’s not about arguing a subject over a drink with some friends. While making your point, try not to take a specific side. Write straight to the subject, stating your ideas in a user friendly way – so that no one gets offended.
Actually, I'm somewhat surprised by that statement. In my experience, most websites are likely to be promoting or highlighting products, services, points of view, people, places, and other things (including the website itself). They can be hard-sell marketing sites or subtle soft-sell informational sites.

So they're likely "to take a specific side," which Ciripitca cautions against doing. Of course, as she suggests, providing information in a user-friendly way, inoffensive way is a good idea. But if a website manager or owner wants readers to respond -- or take action -- in a certain desired way, it's productive to provide facts and reasonable opinions about those facts to accomplish those responses and action.

On the other hand, objectivity is a long-time principle of journalism -- even to the point of silliness. Despite criticism by politicians on both the left and right, most reporters try to be fair and balanced (though not "fair and balanced" as defined by the conservative Fox News network). Within an article -- or within ongoing news coverage of an event -- they try to represent at least two sides of an issue.

Now I wrote above about "silliness." While people and organizations in a controversy are entitled to their opinions and while the news media should report differing opinions when available, people and organizations aren't entitled to their own facts (IMHO).

The news media have a responsibility to fact-check what politicians, businesses and others are saying to determine if their statements are accurate -- accuracy being another key principle of journalism. And the media should report on inaccuracies, provide complete information and even reveal lies when necessary. To not do so is silliness, at best, and incompetence, at worst -- in a simplistic effort to be objective.

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For more information on clear, concise writing, check out Garbl's Plain English Guide. It describes plain-English (aka plain language) in these steps:
And for more information on what I call "action writing," see Garbl's Action Writing Links. It's an annotated directory of websites that can help you get people to read your writing, keep readers interested and persuade them to respond while they're reading or afterward.
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