Web Writing and Editing Basics

Reporting & Research

By Chris Harvey, online journalism lead lecturer,
University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism
Email: charvey@jmail.umd.edu

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Many of the rules you're already familiar with from writing for print or broadcast outlets also apply to Web storytelling. Write tight. Use short words, short sentences, short paragraphs.

Use action verbs and concrete nouns.

And some lessons from broadcast and feature writing are especially pertinent. Write simply, as if you're explaining a story to your spouse or mother. Use present tense when possible. Get rid of the jargon.

And, if you're writing a quick, breaking story as it unfolds, an inverted pyramid structure -- with the who-what-when-where-why-how details in your lead -- can be highly useful.

But fortunately, the Web also allows you to meld the best of the other mediums into a product that will grab viewers on a number of sensory levels.

The best Web stories explain partly with words, partly with photos and graphics and map mashups, and partly with video and sound. They provide interactive features -- polls, quizzes, searchable databases, games, maps, blogs, discussions -- that allow for audience participation.

And in a departure from the standard inverted pyramid story, some Web stories inform in a nonlinear fashion. There sometimes is no clear middle or ending. The reader can choose the pieces of information she wishes to sample from, in the order she chooses--diving in deep, or simply skimming the surface.

Journalism professor Mindy McAdams of the University of Florida uses the expression "the inverted pyramid--blown apart" to describe the unfolding of some digital stories. What she means is that some stories are created in chunks that they can be read or watched in multiple directions. The reader, not the writer, determines that direction. 

A story about witnesses' reactions to a shooting at a public school, for instance, might start with a few paragraphs of summary text, then quickly lead to multiple links. Each link could give text and photos--and perhaps audio and video--from one witness. A reader could read one witness' account, two, three, or more, in any order.

Jonathan Dube -- who's worked as a reporter at ABCNews.com, as an editor at MSNBC.com, and as editorial director of CBC.ca -- argues that even Web chats, when moderated thoughtfully, can tell a story--tantamount to a smartly done Q&A in a traditional magazine.

Other online storytelling forms? They include:

  • The photo essay, gallery or slide show, in which pictures and their captions and audio tell the story. They're sometimes a wonderful alternative to traditional photos and text storytelling; sometimes the slide shows are used to complement a traditional text story. Audio slide shows should have a narrative thread. For examples of student slide shows that incorporated photos and audio in a flash tool called SoundSlides - see the "Fantasy Comes to Life at the Rennaissance Festival"; "Fans Find Favorite Authors at Book Fest"; the "Eastport Group Welcomes Spring with Sock Burning" and the "9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon". Washingtonpost.com links to its showcase work in photos on a page called Photography. Among the galleries displayed are "Kosovo's Sorrow" and "Dogs that Heal" from Pulitzer-prize winning photographer Carol Guzy; and the "War Zone Eyewitness" page, from photographers Lucian Perkins and Lois Raimondo. In this young rapper story on an after-school program in Silver Spring, photos and audio are merged into a really fun package.

    What media work best when?

    The Knight Digital Media Center offers advice on "Picking the Right Media for Reporting a Story":

    • In general, stories that work well in video include those with strong action, drama and one or two central characters. Think fire, accident and sports stories, for instance--giving on-the-scene accounts of unfolding stories. See the spokesmanreview.com's story on a fuel truck explosion. Video works well for bringing users to the scene, for evoking emotion and humor. People also love to see animals, kids and celebrities on video. (See "Charlie Bit My Finger - Again!" on YouTube, for a kid/humor combo.) And video can be used to help engage the senses. The Detroit Free Press does a beautiful job with this with "Ernie's Market."
    • Photos work great for relaying emotions and a sense of place and people, and giving viewers a chance to reflect. There is overlap, though, between stories that can work well as audio slide shows and video. Some visual stories can work well in either format.
    • Text is still a workhorse, useful for complex stories (budget stories, meetings, hearings, for instance); breaking stories that need constant updates; analysis; explanation; bios of candidates. It can often be used in conjunction with multimedia - including charts, tables and explainer graphics.

    Other writing tips:

    Studies by Web consultants have shown that online readers are likely to quickly scan a page, reading from left to right, then scrolling down it in an F-shaped pattern, before deciding whether or not they'll stay with it. Thus when you package content for the Web, it's wise to make it easy to scan.

    • Use small subheads, such as the ones I've broken up this document with, every few hundred words. Because you can only see a few hundred words on a screen, it won't look excessive.
    • Break up important points with bullets.
    • Bold important words, but do so judiciously.
    • Leave a blank space between paragraphs, and align those paragraphs to the left.
    • Keep paragraphs simple, limiting each to one thought.
    Remember also that readers are rightly wary of information they find on the Web. Objective language reassures them that the information you're presenting is fair and trustworthy.

    A study by Web consultant Jakob Nielsen showed that less boastful or slanted language is also more likely to be read and remembered. His credibility study on this can be found at http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9710a.html

    To quote from Nielsen: "...promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts 'Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,' their first reaction is no, it's not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site."



    Headlines reign supreme on Web sites, according to eye-tracking studies conducted by the Poynter Institute. Their studies have shown that readers' eyes gravitate to the main headline on the opening screen first -- ahead of the dominant photo or graphic. And the first few words of the headline have the greatest impact; readers will often move on to another element on the page after processing the first few words.

    It's important to note that there are some key distinctions in headline writing for print and Web.

    A newspaper headline is meant to appear on the same page as a story. If that same headline is used on an Internet home page or section front, a click away from a story, it can look strangely out of context-- or, worse yet, meaningless. So when writing Web headlines, avoid pun or overly cute headlines that could be misinterpretted a click away from a story.

    Rewrite the print headline with enough specificity so that it makes sense as a free-standing bit of text.

    Example: Dating and mating on the Internet (a MSNBC home page link on May 12, 2004) was better written for the Web at another spot on the site:


    The second version is more specific, and easier understand, when separated from the text of the story. It also follows a noun-verb-object format, which readers are accustomed to processing.

    In addition, because many readers now enter stories through search engines --and not just from the home page of a site -- news Internet  companies are also training headline writers to use words that are specific enough that they will be found and ranked high through a search.

    This search engine optimization, or SEO, steers clear of witty but vague headlines, in favor of clear, specific ones with likely search terms.

    (For more on SEO, see "This Boring Headline Is Written for Google," by Steve Lohr, in the April 9, 2006, issue of The New York Times.)

    As Larry Kramer, president of CBS Digital Media, told The New York Times: "... there's nothing wrong with search engine optimization as long as it doesn't interfere with news judgment."

    Fortunately for copy editors who spent their early years at newspapers, there are rules of print headline writing that work well online as well.

    Do write headlines that are

    • accurate, fair and grammatical;
    • attract attention;
    • in active voice and present tense (when possible);
    • summarize the key points of the story; and
    • jibe with the mood of the story and the tone of the site.
    (If you think a site's tone doesn't matter, compare headlines on the home page of the gray lady, newyorktimes.com, with those on the sassy Web magazine salon.com or on the satire site The Onion.)
  • Most headlines on news stories have a subject, verb and direct object--although this is not ironclad. (Headlines over feature stories are sometimes written as phrases, without a verb.)

    Headlines should not have an unintended double meaning.

    They should only include names or acronyms that are easily recognized.

    You can have more fun with headlines over feature stories than those over news stories, sometimes using rhymes or repetition of words for effect.  Rather than use cliches, however, try to turn a cliche on its head.

    Other tips: Headlines should not repeat the lead. They should be better than the lead.

    They should not give away trick endings on feature stories.

    They should be in good taste.

    Be sure to attribute headlines that convey opinion. If the lead needs attribution, there’s a good chance the headline will, too.

    Often the attribution can be set off by a colon, as in: Kerry: Bush Offers Nothing on Health Costs (from MSNBC.com on May 10, 2004.) Or, the attribution could follow the main words of the headline, to give more emphasis to what’s happening, rather than to who said it. (Bush Offers Nothing on Health Costs, Kerry Says)

    Use commas to replace “and,” and semicolons to split two-sentence headlines.

    Use single quotation marks in place of double quotation marks.

    Avoid words that could be read as either a noun or a verb. They will lead to confusion.

    Try to avoid headline jargon: With someone eyeing a bill, or someone else heading to the Mideast.

    Take a minute to think about why these headlines are less than desirable:

    ·        From the DesMoinesRegister.com, April 13, 2004: “Race helps hone writing, math skills.” Here’s the lead: “Students in Johnston are using the Iditarod sled-dog race to learn about math, writing and even logic.”   

    ·        From CNN.com on April 14, 2004: “Teen gets 50 years for hitting jogger on purpose.” Here’s the dateline and lead: “GREAT FALLS, Montana (AP) – A teen who wrote about wanting to do “horrible things” was sentenced to 50 years in prison for trying to kill a woman by driving up onto a sidewalk to hit her with his sport utility vehicle.”

    Copydesk.org has links to several good tip sheets on headline writing, including one from John Schlander of the St. Petersburg Times and another from Joel Pisetzner of the Newark Star-Ledger.

    And Poynter.org's Howard I. Finberg writes about the importance of  Web headlines.


    SEO - Getting Beyond Headlines:

    To increase the likelihood that a user will find your story in a search query, you need to think about a lot more than the headline, according to the Knight Digital Media Center. Here are a few factors to consider:

    Page "titles" in the html code should at a minimum repeat your headline. They should ideally also include the site name. Titles appear in bookmarks and query results.

    Descriptive "meta tags" within your head tags on an html page can increase traffic. The summary of your story or site can be up to a paragraph. Put the best description within the first 166 characters, for best results on google.

    Smart URLs are rewarded in query returns. Use hyphens to separate key words in file names for stories and photos, and lowercase all file names for readability. Filling in the alt attribute in an image tag with useful, searchable information also increases SEO.


    Photo Captions:

    Many rules of traditional caption writing apply to the Web. For instance:

    • Identify people whose faces are recognizable in a photo. You might say, "They are, from left..." There's no need to add "...to right." That's understood.
    • Don't state the obvious with other phrases. Avoid saying "the picture shows..." or that someone is "looking on."
    • Give the general time frame a photo was taken if it's an old picture.
    • Be sure the mood of the caption matches the mood of the picture, just as the mood of the picture should match that of the text and headline.
    • Be sure to credit the photographer. Maryland Newsline's style is to put the credit information inside parentheses, directly after the caption, but in a smaller point size. (Newsline photo by Stephen E. Mather) or (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

    On the Web, you should also when possible put additional useful photo information inside the "alt" attribute in your <img src /> tag in your html code. This gives users something more to read as your page is loading in their computers; it gives search engines another term to look for, and it gives users something to read if they're looking at your page in a text-only format. This "alt" text also shows up as you hover your mouse over the photo when viewing it many Web browsers. So write it carefully. If space is limited on a page or a headshot or thumbnail photo is extra small, you may choose to put all your photo information into the ALT attribute, abandoning the traditional caption below the photo altogether. 

    Bill Walsh offers "The Nine Commandments of Caption Writing."

    Additional resources:

    The Nieman Storyboard: more examples of strong multimedia storytelling.

    Search engine optimization basics from the Knight Digital Media Center.

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    Last updated:Oct. 8, 2013.

    Copyright © 2001, 2002,  2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 Chris Harvey. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Feel free to link to this resource page, but do not cut and paste it onto your own site.

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