Not only do digital journalists need to follow the basic principles of journalism, which include objective and accurate reporting, fact-checking, citing sources, following proper grammar and spelling rules, and knowing the audience. They also need to write in a way that suits their medium.
Today, people read text on ever-smaller screens, including tablets, smartphones and e-readers like the Kindle, making reading even more difficult. Web-usability research also shows that users tend to skim or scan content, especially when they first visit a website. For all these reasons, text has to be presented differently online.
Tips to improve your writing for the Internet
Clear and concise writing is important in every medium but even more so online for the reasons cited: Internet users who want information fast and the slower speed of reading online. A simple and direct style works best. Make sentences and paragraphs short -- three to five short sentences at most. Leave breaks between paragraphs. Use active verbs and write in present tense. Avoid the passive voice, as it complicates the sentence.
Shorter is better online, in most cases. While space on the web is practically unlimited, very long stories are generally not suitable for web readers. Most reports should be no longer than 800 words.
- Headlines serve the same basic function on the web as in print, to communicate information and attract readers. Unlike print, however, straightforward headlines work better online than indirect headlines that play on words. Why?
Internet users want to get information fast. Headlines that leave them guessing about the topic of a story do not entice them to click through to read the rest of it.
Internet users often search for information. Headlines that do not include keywords directly related to a topic will not be picked up by search engines.
Subheads every few paragraphs can help to direct the eyes to "entry points" where users can start reading. They should be concise and to the point – preferably three to seven words - giving readers a clear indication of what comes next. They also help to break blocks of text into manageable chunks.
- Bullet points and lists are another effective way of breaking up a long story to facilitate reading and attract attention, as they make absorbing the information easier. They can be used in the body of a story or at the beginning to highlight the most important points in a report. CNN.com does this routinely.
This post was originally part of an online course by ICFJ Anywhere, which supports journalists worldwide with free training on a range of topics. Courses are offered in a variety of languages including English, Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and French. For the latest ICFJ Anywhere course offerings, click here.