As citizen journalists we compete with hundreds of other writers for the fleeting attention of readers who quickly grow impatient with difficult-to-read copy. If they don’t get it right away, they move on. The click of a mouse will bring the world’s major news media instantly to their computer screens. Moreover, in addition to competing with professionals in mainstream media, we vie for readers against thousands of online journals, newspapers, and individual web logs (blogs). To get readers attention and hold it, we really need to be good news writers.
There was a time early in the last century that news reporters didn’t need to write well. Back in the day, reporters phoned their story to the rewrite desk. There a copy editor would jot down the “who, what, where, when, and why” in whatever scrambled form the breathless on-the-scene reporter dictated it. Once off the phone, the rewrite person would reorganize the story to make it punchy and compact. Often a different editor would write the headline and fit the story into the paper.
The structure used for news was simple. The first paragraph captured the whole story; subsequent paragraphs enriched it with more detail, quotes, witness reactions, and background. The final paragraph restated main points of the story. Readers did not need to read more than the first and last paragraphs to know the news, and they could drill down into the middle for details. Editors, trying to fit a story into available space, could excise middle paragraphs without sacrificing the sense and continuity of the story.
In the fast-paced competitive world of newspaper media, most papers evolved to have a consistent layout that allowed readers to quickly find the content that they most wanted to read. The front page contained hot news plus short leads to feature articles appearing deeper in the paper. Separate sections covered sports, business, and classified advertising—each with its own inside front page.
The Wall Street Journal even had a formal plan for the format of columns on the front page. Each issue had a box above the fold spanning the second and third columns that contained a lead for each of the major stories in the paper; it was a kind of table of contents. The far right column contained a feature story that fit a particular theme that rotated through a weekly cycle. Time-short readers could quickly turn to the articles that addressed their information needs and interests. The New York Times had a similar box on page 2 that served as table of contents for the issue. Contemporary News Magazines are also organized for quick reading. You may need to leaf through a few pages of ads, but somewhere in the front almost every magazine has a two page spread with headlines, pictures and a sentence or two that tells what each story is about.
Print news media is all about giving the reader easy access to what they want to read. The internet is more challenging for writers than print media. Once the reader buys the paper, it’s a commitment to read. Not so online.
On the Internet, space is virtually unlimited, and many sites are open to anyone who cares to contribute. No copy editing is offered. What you submit is what appears, except in rare cases. It’s a mad scramble of opinion, news, advocacy and creative writing. Too often it is none too clear which is which.
As writers we are submitting because we want people to read our work and share our thoughts and opinions. A couple of centuries of competition shaped today’s print media. We would be wise to look at what newspapers and newsmagazines have done to appeal to readers. Let’s look at the way stories are crafted: how they hook interest and how stories are constructed to be easily read or scanned.
News readers graze, jumping from headline to headline and picture to picture. When the headline stops them they read a paragraph, then they skip quickly through to the end. If the story is still interesting they return to the top and read all of it. Our articles should be designed for that graze, jump, read-it-all approach. That news-style writing expands the reach to your writing, because your story is communicated at whatever level of attention the reader invests.
Academic writing styles don’t work because they rarely tell the whole story up front. Fiction styles don’t work either, because unlike news readers, the recreational reader is more patient and likes some uncertainty about where the story will lead. As citizen journalists, our craft spans telling the story, editing the copy, and writing the headline all for one goal: to actually communicate with hasty readers. To that end, we need to “tell ‘em what we’re going to tell ‘em, then tell the story, then tell ‘em what we told them” and do it with style and economy of words.