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WordCamp how to blog like an old school journalist

On Saturday I gave a presentation to WordCamp Auckland 2014: How to blog like an old school journalist. Here’s a link to my slides. You can open it full-screen:

How-to-write-bill-bennett

Blogging isn’t the same as old-school journalism. It’s less about recording facts and more about ideas or experiences. Blgging has influenced modern journalism — the lines between the two forms of writing are blurring. Yet there are still lessons worth learning from the old way of doing things.

Much of the material is a shortened form of posts elsewhere on this site. You might like to explore the following:

Paul Bradshaw at the Online Journalism Blog says the BBC gave online journalist three things.

He mentions the editors’ blogging and the way the BBC opened up its back-end to developers. Both matter.

His first item, the BBC’s web writing style, may prove more important in the long-term.

The organisation’s online news writers write crisp, tight news copy. They get right to the point, line up the important facts, then get out-of-the-way.

Bradshaw says the BBC learnt to write tight news stories when it ran Ceefax – a teletext information service which predates the internet. Ceefax allows little in the way of graphics and only 24 lines of 40 characters. Journalists had less than 200 words to tell their story.

Sharpening skills on Ceefax before the internet, gave the BBC a head start over other written news outlets which had become wordy thanks to larger newspapers.

Bradshaw says: “Even now it is difficult to find an online publisher who writes better for the web.”

The online team is even better at writing news headlines. Its editors compress the gist of an entire story into just five or six words. Most headlines fit inside that Ceefax page width of 40 characters.

typewriter
Companies and insecure people often insist their job titles should be spelt with upper case letters. We are talking here of narcissistic capitals. This is incorrect grammar — capitals are used at the start of proper nouns. Bus driver is not a proper noun. Nor is marketing director or chief executive officer. For that matter neither is president. A job title can be a proper noun in some cases, that’s another issue. No matter. People who insist writers spell job titles in capital letters think it makes the person look more important. Or because they think some jobs are more important than others and deserve capitals for that reason. As if ‘head of marketing’ isn’t already impressive enough. Some people insist on using capitals even when they understand it is bad grammar. As my friend Chris Bell points out they worry that using titles correctly may show the world they are unduly modest. So they deliberately show the world they are semi-illiterate instead. Give me literate any day.
 

Good technology writing doesn’t come easily. Not at first.

Most people can usually produce simple, straightforward copy even if they’ve little experience. That’s the best place to start.

After that, good technology writing boils down to understanding your subject matter and thinking clearly — then turning your thoughts into words.

If you can do this in a logical fashion, the overall shape of your story will leader the reader through the key points.

Start with simple technology writing

Start by sticking to basic words and simple sentence structures. Don’t worry if it feels like plodding. You can experiment when you feel more confident.

Inexperienced technology writers often have one of three faults:

  • A pompous and overbearing style. Avoid this by being friendly, although not too chatty. And use active language.
  • Too technical. By this I mean it does not explain technical aspects clearly enough to non-experts. Fix the problem by keeping jargon to a minimum and explaining tricky ideas in simple terms. Don’t worry if  this makes your writing longer.
  • Trying to be cute. There’s nothing wrong with making jokes or using everyday speech, but beginner writers often take this too far, to the point where understanding their meaning is hard.

Hit the right note

Pitching your copy at the right level is the hardest part of technology writing. Experienced technology writers know no one ever succeeds in this business by overestimating the reader’s intelligence. They also know no one succeeds by underestimating readers.

Remember people who are expert in one area of technology, may not automatically understand other areas. And a technically literate readership does not give one a licence for sloppy explanations of complex technical matters.

If you find this difficult, imagine you are writing for an intelligent colleague working in another area of your organisation.

  • Picture that person reading your words.
  • What questions would they ask if you were in the room with them? Make sure your text answers these questions.
  • Have you written something they would find patronising? Hit the delete button and make that point again.

Lastly, always get someone to proofread your copy.

Ask them to point out what doesn’t make sense and to see if you’ve made any obvious errors. Don’t take offence if they find lots of things that need changing, your pride will be more wounded if the rest of the world saw your mistakes.

Update: I’m indebted to Thomas Beagle for reminding me about bullet points. Like the man says, use them where possible to break up block of text and make your writing easier to navigate.