By Melanie Eversley, Rewrite Reporter at USA Today, DJTF Treasurer
The internet has dramatically changed journalism and chances are you’ve had to make the transition from writing for print to writing for the web – or, at least, you might be curious about it.
Good writing is good writing. But because the web is so immediate and because it widens your audience, it changes a few little details.
I’ve never worked for a wire service, but I’ve spent lots of years relying on the wires and reading them for my work. I think writing for the Internet is most like writing for the Associated Press (wire colleagues feel free to pipe in if you don’t agree — smile). Here’s why:
Stories are written, for the most part, in the inverted pyramid style. You’ll want your most important information at the top, winding down to the bottom, where you’ll put your least important information. This is because there are going to be many readers who might only see the first couple of graphs of your work. The homepages of websites often use programs that feature, say, only the headline and first two sentences of each news story. This might be all some harried person flying through a train station gets to see of your story. Try to sharpen your writing skills so that you can get the key elements into those first sentences. Save your lengthier anecdotal leads for print.
Your story is constantly changing. If it’s a story about a sniper, your death toll might rise, the police will gradually release more information about the suspect, neighbors and coworkers will step forward to fill in the blanks about the suspect’s personality. If it’s a story about Supreme Court arguments, earlier versions will lay out all the players, what organizations they represent, what’s behind their thinking. A later story might feature the decision and how it’s going to change the landscape of some part of American culture. If you’re working for a newspaper website, the basis for your story will be what is published in the newspaper early that morning, but then, it will change and evolve throughout the day. Be flexible as your lead and even the theme of your story changes. Always force yourself to look ahead, anticipate what might be coming down the line and the direction in which any of these changes might take your story. This all will help you stay on your toes.
Outside of these considerations, here are some other issues to consider too when writing for the web:
Writing a good, compact lead is crucial. When you’re writing for print, you can afford to take the extra space further below your lead to explain why a reader should care about a particular item, or why it’s significant given the context of history or a string of events. In writing for the web, practice trying to get that element into your very first sentence. Here’s an example of a good lead by John Fritze of USA Today on a story about the advance of the health care bill:
Despite fierce Republican opposition and the lingering effects of a major Northeast snowstorm, Senate Democrats cleared a critical vote on a 10-year, $871 billion health care bill early this morning, steering the proposal toward approval on Christmas Eve.
Even someone who has not been following the movement of this legislation can figure out from this sentence that this was a major accomplishment because it happened “despite fierce Republican opposition,” that the bill itself is significant since it will affect Americans’ lives for 10 years, and can sense the drama in the negotiations as lawmakers, fresh from surviving a major snowstorm, prepare for a climactic vote on Christmas Eve. Even more importantly, it includes up-to-the minute developments on the bill’s advancement.
If you’re writing for a newspaper website, you’re probably monitoring what other sites are reporting. Fierce competition and the immediacy of the web might prompt you to try to be first at all costs. You’ll find that there are many sites out there in the race that might not use the standards for sourcing and verification that we might like. On the day that late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio was reported to have suffered a brain hemorrhage, several news organizations reported that she had died, then had to retract that about a half hour later (she actually died later). News organizations had gotten the word from reputable Democratic officials who’d heard from Democratic leadership — certainly not shaky sources. But the incident showed just how careful we need to be in this world of immediate journalism in making sure our sources are the people who would know. These days, it’s more important than ever to resist the urge to rely on widely reported but unverified information. Only print what you’ve verified yourself.
And finally, it may bother you to think of the web in such formulaic ways, but this is the reality — people will use keywords to search for your story via search engines, and because of this, it’s best if you can get any of the obvious keywords in your headline and/or lead. Save the pithy, poetic headlines and leads for print. Even better, if you can be pithy, poetic AND manage to use the obvious keywords, you’ll have a winner.
Happy writing and happy holidays!