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Print publishers paid freelance writers by the word. They needed to fill space around lucrative ads and draw readers in with entertaining, informative copy. There was a market for bulk, readable copy.

Freelance writers responded to market forces. They learned to write long. Some padded their prose with waffle. Most didn’t feel pressure to write tight copy. A longer sentence bought a cup of coffee; a couple of extra paragraphs could fund a night in the pub.

Online publishing follows a different economic model. Web readers don’t hang around. As usability expert Jakob Nielsen says: “If you want many readers, focus on short and scannable content.”

Online publishers want snappy copy over and over to maximise page reads and advertising clicks.

Which means freelance writers have to unlearn bad habits and get back to writing tight copy. For  us older journalists this means going back to our roots.

Those of us who learnt our trade in the 1970s grew up in a world where newspapers and magazines didn’t have acres of space to fill. And well-staffed newsrooms meant every available column inch was fought over.

6 thoughts on “Online writing means losing bad habits

  1. Thanks for the reminder that unlimited space doesn’t necessarily require unlimited copy. I suspect that a lot of the people who are suffering right now in traditional media could find their skills very useful in the online economy if only they could find a way to repackage them in a way that makes sense to businesses, web designers and techies rather than editors.

  2. I agree that freelance writers submit loose copy more often than not. I’m not sure I entirely agree about the causes.

    If print freelancers were given the leeway to pad their prose with waffle, they did so because their editors allowed them to. After all, most of us were briefed and had a word count to abide by.

    Don’t you think it would be truer to say writing gradually became sloppier because editorial training and by-the-word rates didn’t keep pace with the market?

    I blame publishers and their financial controllers’ cost cutting. But then again, writers’ acceptance of by-the-word rates ultimately led to their ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’ approach.

    Editors also felt less inclined to reject work – or bounce it back to the writer for a rewrite – knowing experienced freelancers who were writing for peanuts in the first place wouldn’t take kindly to knock backs.

  3. Chris – I think your point about editors not sending copy back is important. It’s not just a question of knock-backs, editors often also have time constraints, so they’ll run with what they have and move on to put out the next fire.

  4. “If print freelancers were given the leeway to pad their prose with waffle, they did so because their editors allowed them to.”

    – Chris Bell

    This opens up a whole new subject – it deserves, and may get, a post to itself. I’ll just throw a few first thoughts here.

    I’m going to upset people saying so, but copy-fitting is among the skills that now appear to have been lost to posterity.

    Many modern print publications, with squared-off page designs and art directors, are less word oriented – more ‘look-oriented’. Advertisers love it.

    This has contributed to a culture of padding – where many editors view text as something to wallpaper the space with and don’t give it the attention it deserves.

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