Writing well for the web: a basic guide

Writing well is about as tricky as being a good puppeteer. And writing well for the web can be even more challenging, because you’re also thinking about the “wow” factor as much as you are about grammar and clear writing. Video, audio, infographics,  great images, catchy headlines, SEO words and phrases. These days, all of that responsibility often lies squarely in the hands of the newsroom web writer.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when composing news for the web:

1.) Headlines:

  • Artfully condensed sentences’ (whole story boiled into a line)

Need to sum up the story & suck-in the reader (crisp, clear, accurate & compelling)

  • Act as title, link & signposts
  • write it first! (then change it)
  • brief – shorter is better – Do not let it run into second line
  • Sentence case
  • Concise and precise: accurate fair and grammatical
  • Active voice and present tense
  • Summarizes the key points of the story
  • Write using Subject-Verb-Object as a rule of thumb
  • Never a play on words or with a double meaning

2.) The Lead:        

  • First line of the body of your post
  • speaks to the focus of the story – use this line to target your focus
  • Must draw people in
  • flesh it out with following sentences & paragraph

3. )Incorporating alternate media and social media

  • Whenever possible incorporate other sources of media – photos, audio, video – as well as social media into your post to give it more “punch”
  • Initial photos should always appear at the top left, with text wrapping around…subsequent photos can be aligned right or left for visual impact.
  • Photos must be scaled down to an appropriate “web” size (640×480 is a good rule of thumb)
  • If you use Youtube videos – embed them directly into your post
  • You can screen grab or embed twitter feeds and tweets
  • Use audio archiving tools like Soundcloud to archive and post audio to your stories

4. Writing Basics

Most important information at the top (i.e. don’t burry lead) in the fewest words.  A punchy headline steers readers into the story, revealing the focus of the piece. Details are fleshed out in the body paragraphs.

Details: Who, What, Where, When, Why & How

Attribution:  who said what, goes at the end.

Ex: “The Federal Finance Minister needs a calculator!”, said Finance Critic Abigail Abbacus.

AND…unless it’s a universally-known fact…Eg: The Earth is round… Banff National Park was founded in 1885…it must be attributed!

Story Telling:

Create a sense of place & atmosphere – describe what was seen and heard… unlike TV, readers can’t ‘see’ what’s being talked about.

Quotes – Transcribe verbatim – rewrite for the eye

Transcription: ‘You know, there’s this ranger near Swift Current. His name’s Bill Bogus. Well, he thinks kooks from Calgary are feeding his cattle peanut butter.

TV/Radio: ‘Bill Bogus is a rancher near Swift Current. He thinks kooks are feeding his cattle peanut butter.’

Web: ‘Bill Bogus, a rancher near Swift Current, thinks kooks are feeding his cattle peanut butter.’

Time & Dates:  use exact dates – don’t worry about ‘dating’ your piece.  Web posts stay up and are read over a peried of days/weeks so they must make sense and read accurately no matter when they are being read.

Ex: “On Tuesday, the final day of the Braidwood inquiry into his death, the makers of the Taser stun gun rejected any suggestion the weapon figured in the death of the Polish immigrant.”

“Robert Dziekanski died Oct. 14, 2007, after the RCMP fired a Taser at him five times when he was creating a disturbance in the international arrivals lounge.”

5. Photos

Photo Sources:

  • You
  • Our newsroom
  • Our Flickr archive
  • Media releases
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Corporate/promo shots

Write a Good Caption:

Captions explain what the reader is looking at. The specific information required can vary from one photo to the next. But for most pictures a reader wants to know such information as:

  • Who is that? (And, in most cases, identify people from left to right unless the action in the photograph demands otherwise.)
  • Why is this picture here?
  • What’s going on?
  • When and where was this?
  • Why does he/she/it/they look that way?
  • How did this occur?

Finally, captions should satisfy readers understanding of the picture. They should NOT tell what the picture has made obvious. It should supply vital information that the picture cannot.

For example, a picture can show a football player leaping to catch a pass, but it likely does not show that the result was the winning touchdown. The cutline should give that information.

How to Courtesy:

We always courtesy where our photos come from: twitter, yourself, another reporter, etc.  Always check with your editor for the proper protocol.


About Anna Kalfa

Anna teaches Digital Journalism at BCIT in Vancouver, BC. She is fascinated with the future of journalism, and the intersection between information and technology as the industry makes leaps and bounds into the digital age.

Posted on January 27, 2015, in Resources. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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