10 Ways to Master Writing For the Web
Your friendly neighborhood PolicyMic editors spend all day, every day, reading, editing, commenting on, and writing web content. What have we learned from this constant flow of information, besides the fact that the internet is really into cat videos?
Quite a bit, actually. Reading — constant, engaged, purposeful reading — is the key to good writing. Editors are your first readers. If your story doesn't work with us, it likely won't work with a broader audience.
Here are one editor's top 10 tips to master web writing.
Tip #1: Come up with a great lede.
What's a lede, you ask? The Op-Ed Project defines a lede (or lead) as "what sets the scene and grabs your reader's attention — it is your introduction." Poytner adds, "Leads are the foundation of every news story, no matter what the medium." There are many strategies to developing a lede; here are some tips on how to learn to write them.
Ledes are the hardest part of the article to write, and a bad lede can turn off your reader before they have a chance to scroll farther, so make sure you're investing your time in coming up with a good one.
Tip #2: Pick a timely news hook.
The news hook is fairly self-explanatory: What makes your story news? What makes it timely? Why should someone read it, and what will they learn?
For some stories, which deal with long-standing issues (e.g. immigration reform), you can pick a news item that occurred within the last week or month, but generally it's best to pick as fresh a hook as possible. This both demonstrates to your reader that you are "up on the news" and that your story is relevant right now. (This ties into the lede, and to SEO, which I'lll discuss further on in this article.)
To find good news hooks, stay abreast of the news; you can use many convenient news-aggregating apps and services to help you do so. It's often also useful to use your Twitter stream or Facebook newsfeed as a source for hooks, since it will tell you what others in your peer group want to know more about.
If your story is not explicitly tied to a recent news event, then you will have to work harder to come up with a good lede.
Tip #3: The thesis statement is your friend.
The vast majority of stories on PolicyMic (and on other analysis and opinion news outlets) are not hard reporting; instead, they are a form of argumentative writing. By the third paragraph of your article (at the latest), the reader should have an idea of your ultimate point in writing the article; as our own Chris Miles puts it, "the argument and rationale for this argument."
The rest of your article should use evidence to develop, explain, or prove your thesis. This thesis generator, which helps you identify the crucial aspects of an argumentative thesis, is worth playing around with.
Tip #4: Link, link, link.
I love Andrew Sullivan's take on hyperlinks:
"An old-school columnist can write 800 brilliant words analyzing or commenting on, say, a new think-tank report or scientific survey. But in reading it on paper, you have to take the columnist’s presentation of the material on faith, or be convinced by a brief quotation (which can always be misleading out of context). Online, a hyperlink to the original source transforms the experience. Yes, a few sentences of bloggy spin may not be as satisfying as a full column, but the ability to read the primary material instantly — in as careful or shallow a fashion as you choose — can add much greater context than anything on paper. Even a blogger’s chosen pull quote, unlike a columnist’s, can be effortlessly checked against the original."
The link is the digital version of a citation; use it to cite all background and data you use in a particular piece. To create a hyperlink in Microsoft Word, simply highlight the word or phrase you'd like to hyperlink, go to the "insert" tab, click "hyperlinks" and paste in a URL of the webpage from which you gather your data. Avoid footnotes, parenthetical citations, etc; those are not used in web writing.
The link is also your communicative tool; you use it to start a conversation with other writers. (And then you can use social media tools to start the conversation with writers you link to in your own writing!)
Tip #5: Think in multiple mediums.
Pictures, YouTube videos, Tweets, screen-caps, memes ... they're all at your disposal. You can use images to illustrate your point easily and quickly on the Web. Do so.
Tip #6: Ask yourself: SEO or shareable?
For those who don't know, SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO stories are designed to be picked up by search engines like Google or Bing; shareable stories are designed to be shared on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.
SEO terms are closely tied to the news hook for your story (see Tip #2). If you're writing about immigration reform, for example, an SEO keyword would be "Immigration Reform 2013." Editor Chris Miles says, "SEO means that you tie your story to relevant Google trends. This could include adding searchable key words (i.e. Ron Paul, millennials, Bono) or phrases into your headline. It also includes adding an ultra relevant news hook in the first sentence of your article. Google News scans headlines and the first paragraphs of stories, using the key words it finds in its algorithm. Thus, any key words that you can place in your title or first few sentences provide your story with an extra traffic boost." Here are some other tips to on how to use SEO.
Upworthy and Buzzfeed specialize in shareable stories, so much so that The Awl satirized their popular headline composition techniques. But what you can learn from these outlets is what kinds of stories people want to share. Know the audience you're writing for, and think about the kinds of stories they want to read and share with their friends. Ideally, you want people reading AND sharing your story, so you need to come up with a good angle for Facebook and still follow through on content. Sell the steak with the sizzle.
Tip #7: Share, but don't overshare.
There are a lot of different opinions on how and when writers should use first-person narrative or anecdotal evidence. In truth, when to write about yourself and when not to depends on what kind of piece you are writing; writing a personal essay or a piece of memoir is impossible without using the first person is impossible and pointless. Emphasizing a personal connection to a story can be powerful. Alternately, framing a larger story as being "just about you" can detract from your ultimate argument.
The best advice I can offer: Be purposeful.
Of her own early forays into memoir, feminist journalist, critic, and author Vivian Gornick writes, "I learned the importance of using myself — not writing about myself — in those years. People who knew what they were doing would use themselves to illuminate a subject beyond themselves. The bad ones were falling into it and ending up writing about themselves and they were the worst writers of personal journalism. I never lost sight of the story that was outside myself."
Tip #8: Be a structuralist.
Think about the progression of your argument, both from paragraph to paragraph (intro-thesis-data-data-data-conclusion is the rough structure) and within individual paragraphs. Most major editorial overhauls of your articles have to do with their structure. Here are some tips on how to create structure within your articles.
In The Elements of Style, William J. Strunk offers the following advice:
1. Make the paragraph the unit of composition: one paragraph to each topic. (These topics may contain subdivisions, or subtopics.)
2. As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence, end it in conformity with the beginning.
3. Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
4. Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.
Tip #9: Use your active voice.
Forgotten what distinguishes active voice from passive voice? Grammar Girl's got you covered.
Here are some tips on using active voice, courtesy of Michigan State University's journalism department:
1. Identify who or what is doing something.
2. Make that noun the subject of your sentence.
3. Next find a powerful verb to enable that subject to do that action.
Tip #10: Avoid common errors.