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Bill Bennett

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Online writing means losing bad habits

Print publishers paid freelance writers by the word. They needed plenty of words to fill spaces around lucrative ads and draw readers in with entertaining, informative copy.

Before online publishing 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 pay for a night in a restaurant.

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.” (Although please don’t think of a journalist’s words as ‘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.

We touch-typed stories on manual typewriters. We used small sheets of paper and made handwritten corrections. The technology of the day helped keep our copy tight.

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