A Twitter writing guide for journalists: Adapting conventional news writing for the digital age

Guidelines for print news writing and web writing have been well established; however, guidelines for journalistic Twitter writing have not been fully explored. I developed some writing guidelines for a live-tweeting assignment in a digital journalism class, and these guidelines are everything that is taught in traditional journalism classes.

News tweeting needs to follow a journalistic writing style

When a reporter is assigned to live tweet an event and to feed tweets to the news media’s Twitter account, he or she should write tweets in a way different from the (casual and cursory) writing style of his or her personal Twitter account.

I felt the need for some Twitter-writing guidelines when teaching a digital journalism class in fall 2012. I created a live-tweeting assignment for students to live tweet the homecoming celebrations at our university. As required, students were tweeting texts, photos and videos; but one issue emerged – the writing. If there was a sizable audience following these tweets, they may quickly lose interest if all they read are tweets such as:

  • Had so much fun at homecoming! Club, music & sports…can’t wait til next year!
  • Thank you to all the families who came out to support the clubs, organizations, and athletics
  • I wish I was little so that I could get on the moon bounce
  • Impressed with what they have lined up

And the photos and videos students tweeted/shared usually did not have necessary and properly-written captions or synopses.

A proposed tweet-writing guideline

Noticing these writing issues, I put together some writing guidelines for future live-tweet assignments.

  1. Use third-person writing: audiences are following the event, not the reporter, so avoid  using first-person pronouns such as “I/me,” “we/us,” “our,” etc. And avoid tweeting about your personal opinions and comments.
  2. Follow AP style; abide by correct grammar, spelling, punctuation; use full sentences.
  3. Tweet key information about the event/activity: Who, when, where, what, why, how. Need to have background information based on prior research and on-location interview.
  4. Attribution: For important/interesting comments or statements, name the source.
  5. Conduct interviews; tweet photo and quote of at least one participant and one organizer.
  6. When tweeting photos, include a caption that follows caption-writing guidelines:
    • Describe the action taking place in the photo.
    • Identify every person (or major persons) in the photo.
    • Put the picture into context by providing background or additional information.
    • Use present tense for the first sentence; use past or future tense for additional information.
    • Include some time and place references.
  7. When sharing videos, include a synopsis as well as information about video duration.
  8. Include hashtags chosen in class discussions: class hashtag, event hashtag, organizer hashtag, etc.

Looking at the above guidelines, one may realize that, for the most part, it is what a newspaper reporter needs to do for a print news article. And this again echoes what I have said in several other posts – the time-tested “old” journalism is still basis for good digital journalism.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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