It’s been said many times that printed newspapers won’t last – they’ll be killed off by the web.
And that would be a shame: the death of papers would see the demise of some tremendous writing and editing skills. I should know – my last job on a newspaper was just last year.
So, while we still have ink on paper, here are five things you can learn from newspaper editors and reporters to improve your blog’s copy.
1. Chop it down 4 inches!
Space is at a premium in newspapers. And cutting a 800-word story down to 100 words (or, to use the measurement-speak that newspapers favor, by four inches) isn’t easy.
It’s a skill practiced by editors every day, and enforced conciseness has its benefits. There’s nothing like brevity to concentrate the mind and bring focus to a story. And a story that gets to the point quickly is more likely to be read and understood by busy readers.
So, bloggers…: What would happen to your writing if space was limited, and you were forced to edit your blog post down by 50%? Would cutting out 300 words make your post punchier and easier to read? How about you try to cut your favorite post in half to see what happens?
2. What’s the hook? Where’s the lead?
Editors across the world scream at reporters, “why did you bury the lead?”
News stories are usually written in inverted pyramid style: the first paragraph encapsulates the story, the rest fills in the details. (Another, less common style is the “dropped intro:” the story starts with an intriguing proposition and the main point is made a few paragraphs further down. This works well for quirky stories and longer articles which need a set-up before you hit them with the pure facts.)
Readers want to skim the page and get their news quickly, deciding after a couple of paragraphs whether to read the rest. So if the lead (or lede), as it’s called, doesn’t hook them, why should they stick with the story?
So, bloggers..: Are readers going to get the point of your post in the first couple of paragraphs (or the abstract in their RSS feed reader)? Or are they going to get lost, give up and click away from your post?
3. Headlines: the ultimate salesman for your story
If a reader is not grabbed by the headline, only the most ardent follower of the news is going to stick around for the rest of the story. So newspaper editors spend inordinate amounts of time writing the best headlines they can.
Headlines often tell the story in a succinct manner – this works well with big stories featuring famous people. And it works well with quirky stories that are just – well – so bizarre that the headline doesn’t need to be clever. (A story headlined Sudan man forced to marry goat keeps popping up in the most-read section of the BBC news website.)
But even if your story isn’t about a goat or Britney Spears or the iPhone, spend a few extra minutes on your headlines to maximize readership.
So, bloggers…: How long do you spend working on the headline of each post? Are your headlines compelling enough to make people click through from their feed reader?
4. Captions: the Cinderella sentences
Captions, poor things, are much underrated. They’re just there to explain the picture and give credit to the image’s source, right? Well, no. Pictures are one of the most looked-at elements on a newspaper page. And where do the eyes go after glancing at a picture? To the caption.
So that’s why editors spend time working on captions that help push people into the story; captions act like a second story lead. If the caption is good, maybe the reader will stick around and take a look at the rest of the article.
So, bloggers…: If your blogging platform allows it, do you put captions or alt tags with the images in your posts? Are they as compelling as your headline?
5. The blog of record
Newspapers like to think of themselves as the first draft of history, so accuracy is a vital part of a newspaper’s brand. Every article is written carefully by the reporter, and then fact-checked and copy edited by multiple editors before it makes it into print.
Of course, most bloggers don’t have that luxury of editorial support. But accuracy – spelling names right, linking URLs to the right places – is important in building your blog’s brand, too.
So, bloggers…: Have you taken the time to read through your post more than once to ensure there are no howlers?
(On that point, I’d better go back to the start and take another look at this post!)