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Online Writing Tips From a Long-Time Pro


Writing for online readers is mostly very different from traditional journalism and article writing but some parts are similar to newspaper writing. Others are similar to writing for a wire service, something with which few journalists really have experience. Almost all aspects of online writing are very different from writing for magazines.

None of this is really easy; it takes work and if you check my stories I still seldom get everything right. This is especially true when I am rushed - I get sloppy. But if you keep these notes in mind it will improve your writing and, most importantly, you will have more readers - which is the whole point.

Headlines - critical online just as they are with newspapers but even more so online because if you don't catch the reader's eye in the first two or three words they will never surf back to that story. With a newspaper at least they still have it around for a while.

Here's an example.

"Next Chernobyl - Japan?"

is far more likely to get a click than

"How bad is the Nuclear Threat in Japan?"

Don't use a great headline for some wildly different story just to get readers; there should be some logical connection or you will leave the reader thinking you tricked them and wasted their time.

It can be a delicate balance.

This one is probably just on the line.

"Fat, Drunk, and Stupid" America Reacts to Nuke Threat"

But it is certainly more likely to get a reader to finish the headline than.

"America Reacts Badly to Nuclear Threat."

The saving grace is that the complete headline describes the story accurately.

Lead - Never, never, never bury the lead. After you catch the reader with the headline you have to pull them into the story.

That means you put the most important part of the story in the first paragraph.

Did I bury the lead in this story?

I couldn't summarize all the points but I did tell readers how different online writing is from other kinds of writing they have probably done.

This has to be tailored to the publication. For example, essentially has two leads.

The first is the Summary, which is the blurb you see on the main page.

The second lead should usually be different and is the first paragraph of the main story.

Other online publications will have different styles but a number use this two-lead system.

Links - this is where online writers have a big advantage over print writers.

In magazines and especially in newspapers, there is always a battle for space and detail. Just how much to explain is a very difficult problem.

Online it is simple. Just add links to more detailed explanations either in your other stories or some preferably non-competing reference site such as Wikipedia.

You still have to give some thought to where to place the links. Sometimes they go best right in the story, other times you might want to include a short reference list at the end. Or, do both.

Length - For most online stories writing a minimum of 400 words or so is important but some stories just don't support that much copy, although if you can't squeeze 500 words out of a story you should ask yourself if it might not be worth telling. That's not always true, but keep it in mind.

If you have a story with more than about 800 words I think it is a good rule to break it up into two or more 500-600 word stories if you can, perhaps linking to the others. An alternative is to write a bit tighter.

Remember, people are only seeing one screen at a time and it may be on a small pad.

This article is about 650 words more or less, about what most of my columns were.

I have written this guide from personal experience having been published in more than 100 magazines, written more than 500 individual columns for newspapers, and been a successful freelance reporter for 40+ years.

I was also part of the first independent technology wire service which actually predated the Web.

See John's Story: Next Chernobyl: Japan?

John McCormick is a reporter, /science/medical columnist and finance and social commentator, with 17,000+ bylined stories. Contact John through NewsBlaze.

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