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.

Sheldon Nesdale offers five tips to help newcomers to web writing.

Nesdale is a marketing consultant. So his approach to web writing differs from mine.

When I wrote  Writing for the web in 300 words I called on the lessons I first learnt as a newspaper journalist almost 30 years ago.

Nesdale’s How to write for the web attacks the same subject from a marketing and sales point of view.

The two approaches overlap. We both prefer snappy, well sign-posted text. We both pay attention to the organisation of words on a page.

There’s only one piece of Nesdale’s advice I disagree with. And then only partly. He starts by telling readers to write long descriptive headlines to help skimmers find their way to the story.

I say skilled writers should do the same job with tight, smartly written headlines.

If you’re not a skilled writer, then by all means use long descriptive headlines. But think how you can compact the same meaning into fewer words.

Good technology writing doesn’t always come easily.

Most people can usually produce simple, straightforward copy even if they’ve little experience.

It boils down to thinking clearly — then turning your thoughts into words in a logical fashion.

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 this 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.

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.

Good writing is direct, clear and precise. It sends your thoughts and ideas directly to readers.

Concrete nouns keep your writing on track. They are unambiguous and specific. Use concrete nouns to pin down facts and inform readers.

Nouns are concrete when they refer to something you can touch, smell, see, taste or hear. They are things you sense directly.

Banana, chair, piston engine, trumpet, pterodactyl are all concrete nouns.

I like to think of concrete nouns as crunchy, but they could just as easily be squishy, smelly, loud or colourful.

On the other hand, abstract nouns are things you can’t form a picture of. They are ideas, conditions and qualities, such as courage and happiness.

Many abstract nouns started life as verbs or adverbs, but become abstract nouns with suffixes. So fascinate, becomes fascination, credible becomes credibility and so on.

If you report on events steer clear of abstract nouns.

Abstract nouns are useful when you want to generalise or when writing about ideas. At the same time they make it hard to figure out exactly what the writer means and are open to misinterpretation.