Writing for the web is different: Print-style article needs re-focusing, rewriting and/or re-formatting

Web writing requires a straight “inverted pyramid” style – the first paragraph needs to provide the key information for the readers to quickly get the gist of the article, and to decide whether he or she wants to read on.

A case in point is a recent post I read which, although well-written (for print), does not suit the need of information-seeking online audiences. Or some may say it makes use of a misleading headline to generate traffic. Nonetheless, this article seems to be getting quite some traction: 540 tweets and 160 Facebook likes in just two days.

The article has mismatched headline and contents

Published at the popular Nieman Journalism Lab, this article caught my attention because of the “five web literacies” and the “essential survival skills” in the headline that was tweeted by a person I follow, but the “literacies” and “survival skills” are not made clear upfront in the first paragraph, which instead reads:

Howard Rheingold isn’t too concerned about whether Google is making us stupid or if Facebook is making us lonely. Those kind of criticisms, Rheingold says, miscalculate the ability humans have to change their behavior, particularly when it comes to how we use social media and the Internet more broadly.

It took me a second read to find the “five literacies”: attention, participation, collaboration, “crap detection,” and network smarts. They are buried in the sixth paragraph.

This article reads more like a typical speech story for a print publication, following the writing guidelines in a “news reporting and writing” class: the lead paragraph summarizes interesting or important points in the speech, the article body explains who the speaker is, the purpose of the speech, location, time, etc.

I felt having been fooled (in a smart way): the writer or editor knew what would attract people’s attention, and came up with a headline that would generate traffic but doesn’t quite match the contents.

How to rewrite so that contents match headline?

For web audience who seek out specific useful information such as “survival skills,” they are not that interested in reading a regular speech story; so the focus ought not to be the speech itself or the speaker. Instead, the article may be rewritten and focus on the “five literacies” that are becoming “survival skills,” at least that’s what drew me to this article: I would not have clicked to follow the tweet if the headline reads “Howard Rheingold on his new book.”

That said, the “five literacies” should be clearly listed out in the first paragraph, and the rest of the article serves to explain and expand on the “five literacies.” The speech and the speaker should be used as background or secondary information later in the copy.

As I discussed in another post which talks about specific web writing techniques, this particular article could use some of the tips such as a list – the “five literacies” should be written as a bullet list, and the article could use some subheads to break into smaller chunks.

One practical reason why the first paragraph needs to get the point across

When one shares an article on Facebook or LinkedIn, the headline and part of the first paragraph are visible – long paragraphs will get cut. The same is true when the article shows as a Google search result.

See below three images for how my article, “Will Facebook fail in the web 3.0 era?” displays as being shared on Facebook and LinkedIn, and as a Google search result.

The point here: people will not be enticed to click on the shared link if they don’t read something of interest in the truncated synopsis (i.e., the beginning one or two sentences). And no, my shared article below is not a prime example for that purpose – I was counting on the headline to be enticing enough.

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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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