Chris Harvey, online journalism lead lecturer,
Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism
Many of the rules you're already familiar with from writing for print or broadcast outlets also apply to Web
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.
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
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?
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"
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.
- interactive quizzes, designed to
educate readers about a specific topic without telling a traditional news story. The New York Times offers a different news quiz every day. Among the
student-researched quizzes on Maryland
Newsline are ones on Harry Potter (click on start on the right), Maryland political dynasties and on a nonscientific study on how height factors into presidential elections.
A 2008 elections page of quizzes
from Maryland Newsline allows voters to compare their stances
on issues to the presidential candidates'.
- interactive maps, such as this one on homicides in the first quarter of 2011 in Prince George's County;
- interactive graphics, such as this one on the faces of the homicide victims in Prince George's County in early 2011,; this one on media use - and misuse - of immigration terms; and this one on assaults in girls' juvenile facilities in Maryland.
- immersive data visualizations: Hans Rosling's "200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes" - The Joy of Stats
- interactive games, such as Minnesota Public Radio's
Budget Balancer, which offers users 62 different cost-cutting and
revenue-raising options to reduce the state's $4.2 billion budget deficit.
- interactive databases.
- Of course, multimedia packages or special reports combine
many of these storytelling elements, plus audio/video/text and photos, to tell ongoing stories. USAToday's home page was devoted to 9/11 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks. Washingtonpost.com,
and BBC News offer video, audio, photos,
graphics, chats and text on the life and death of Pope John Paul II.
features multimedia in "Fixing D.C.'s Schools," and the site's Being a Black Man incorporates video, slideshows, photos and more to tell a story.
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.
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.
- 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.
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."
- Keep them concise and straightforward, with declarative phrases or sentences. Tell folks where you're going to send them, and for what. If you can't grab a reader with these few words, he or she is unlikely to click on the link to read more.
- Don't order people around with your links.
- Avoid "Click here."
Everyone by this point now knows that a hyperlink is clickable.
- Don't promise more than you can deliver. It will only lead to disappointment and distrust of your site.
- Link smartly. Don't
overlink. Remember that with each link off your site, you are giving readers a
temptation not to return. If you're writing a story about a gun bill being considered by
the Maryland Legislature, don't hyperlink
the Annapolis dateline to a tourism guide. That strays widely from the point of the story.
- Develop a strategy and a policy for what you'll link to. On our student news site, Maryland Newsline, I generally prefer that we link to relevant .gov., .mil and .edu sites over .com, .org and .net
sites --for reliability reasons. But if something important to a story is posted on those latter sites, I allow the link to the relevant page inside those sites. (Don't send a reader to the home page of a site and expect her to search the site for the page you wanted her to see!)
- Develop a policy on whether or not you'll link to porn sites or hate group
sites--even to illustrate a news story.
- Stick to a style guide, such as the Associated Press', for the text and headlines on your site. Consistency of look and style are very important for a professional product.
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.
print headline with enough specificity so that it makes sense as a
free-standing bit of text.
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:
MORE WOMEN SEEKING ROMANCE ONLINE
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
(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.)
- 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.
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
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
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:
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.”
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.
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
- 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."
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.
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