Writing news for the web

The rules for online news writing are very similar to writing for print. Your piece should be snappy, the intro must sum up the entire story and you should follow the ‘inverted pyramid’ principle; the most important stuff goes at the top.

But there are a few important differences. The way people look for news is very different when they are online compared to when they are reading a newspaper or magazine. A news search starts with a word or phrase typed into a search engine, so using key search words in your article is essential, especially when writing headlines and sub-headings.

Look at online news stories and you will see that the headline often gives names and titles in full and uses more words than we would find in a print publication. Prime Minister David Cameron, for instance, in place of just Cameron or Dave. This is to maximise SEO (search engine optimisation) because you can’t use a giant typeface or striking picture to attract a reader’s attention online – instead you have to rely on key search words.

Bin Bagged - Sun headlineFor instance, when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated, the Sun’s front page accosted readers with this giant two word head-line: Bin Bagged. A clever and highly eye-catching, if somewhat tasteless, double pun.

But it would have been useless as a headline for an online news story on the same topic. Search Bin Bagged and you would pull up nothing but endless links to refuse collection.

Instead, an online journalist would have to make sure the headline contained as many key search words as possible.  Something like this: Al Qaeda terror chief Osama Bin Laden shot dead. 

Some people think this tendency of online news to chase search terms is taking the wit and fun out of headline writing.

Here are a few more tips for writing online copy:

  • Keep it short – attention spans tend to be shorter online

  • Break up copy with sub-headings

  • Include audio and video clips where you can (usually no more than two or three minutes each)

  • Include links to websites, documents, reports etc. but don’t overdo it