OJ: Writing for the web: What online media and journalists need to be aware of

This Unit is about Writing for the web.

Digital story telling is the future

“Digital storytelling begins with the notion that in the not too distant future, sharing one’s story through multiple medium of imagery, text, voice, sound, music, video and animation will be the principal hobby of the world’s people.” – Joe Lambert, co-founder of the Center for Digital Story Telling

The new media revolution has made many to realize the importance of online and mobile platforms of communication. As more and more people go online to meet their news, information and entertainment needs, and many more use mobile phones and other gadgets to access the news and information, it is vital for journalists and all writers to write and package news and information appropriately for online.

Reeling with the successes and challenges of Metal Scrap industry in Uganda   Uganda Multimedia News   InformationTake advantage of this opportunity and distinguish yourself by writing in a clean, active, conversational style that will make your readers feel as comfortable reading your words as they feel when talking with a close friend. You also need to mind Key words.

Great online communicators speak with informed, personal authority through an honest, lively voice. Their posts often engage readers in a productive conversation through comments posted to their blog or website.

For Bloggers: To write a great blog, write about what you know – your passion, well researched and reported. Employ the skills of a news columnist, crafting a personal, first-person voice that readers will find engaging, comfortable and honest. When you don’t know something, do not be afraid to admit it. Great bloggers see their posts as the first comment in a conversation, rather than the final word on that particular topic.

General tips
The shorter, the better: Readers appreciate writers who do not waste their time. Simple, direct language communicates your thoughts more efficiently than your bloated demonstration of all that stuff the rest of us slept through in English class.

Active voice: The active voice makes you write more clearly and in a linear order: subject, verb, object. E.g Sarah was sent home for not paying school fees. Active voice would be: The Headmaster sent Sarah back home over not paying school fees. Reserve passive voice for situations where you don’t know the subject, such as crime and court reports. But even then, try to cast as much of the action in the active voice as you can.

Strong verbs: The best verbs demonstrate action. If you’re writing a string of weak linking verbs, think about the action that’s happening in your post, then rewrite a new draft using nothing but nouns and verbs in an attempt to better engage your vocabulary. E.g breath Vs gasp, walk Vs stride or trudge, kill Vs murder etc

Attribute sources: If you don’t tell your readers where you got your information, many of them will assume that you are just making it up. You aren’t, are you? Attribution brings you credibility, because readers know that you’ve got nothing to hide if they want to check you out.

Contextual hyperlinking: Online narratives should allow readers to “branch off” and click through to other, more detailed, supporting content, depending upon a reader’s level of interest. Almost all journalism refers to other sources, but online, a writer has the ability to link readers directly to those supporting sources. Note the URLs of those sources when reporting, and work those into your piece with contextual hyperlinks. Hyperlinks can be outbound or inbound.

Try to link those URLs to the relevant proper names, keywords and phrases, rather than to the URLs themselves written out, or worse, the over-used “click here.”

Use formatting: Break up that boring mass of gray type by using:

One topic per URL: If you are using a contextual ad system on your site, such as Google’s AdSense, help the program select the most appropriate ads for your page by limiting each URL to a single topic. Don’t write “catch-all” blog entries or discussions covering a wide range of subjects. Build those out on their own, separate URLs and you’ll get better targeted ads, and better ad click-through rates.

Easy to read: No block of text more than five lines on the screen.

Spell check: With both an automatic checker and a manual re-read. Beacause no won wants to look like an idiot. 😉

Use Lots of Headlines: Ideally, any site page or blog posting should read much like this article, with a headline and then a paragraph or two. Headlines act as important signposts for the reader to decide whether or not they want to read those paragraphs, so the headline should always describe the subject matter of the paragraphs which follow it. This will look weird to those used to more conventional forms of writing, but the more you break it up, the more readable it is.

 Overuse Of Punctuation: Excess punctuation should be left out of most sentences on the web. If a reader sees a sentence with more than one comma, the sentence becomes harder to scan and therefore more likely to turn a reader off. More advanced punctuation such as semi-colons and colons should be avoided completely by starting new sentences instead.

Example: “It is really important to keep three principles in mind, when thinking of the best shoes to buy; comfort, style, and eco-impact.” Should be: “Comfort, style, and eco-impact should be kept in mind when thinking of the best shoes to buy.” Short, sweet and no semi-colon.


Weasel Words: These are vague generalizations that are made for the convenience of the writer, not the audience.

If a writer is rushed for time, they may write something like “most people feel that juice is 100% tasty”. The proper procedure is to find out the statistics and facts and work those into the sentence. The correct form would be “60% of people feel that juice is 100% tasty, while only 5% feel that it is only 10% tasty”. Web readers are reading your site to get information, not opinions.

Acronym Use: It is a good idea to limit acronym use even if you think your audience will know the acronym.

The 10% who don’t know it will be annoyed and may click off of your site. If an acronym will be repeated throughout a site page or an article, it is only necessary to define it the first time it is used. Once again, this is context-specific.

You don’t need to spell out UN or WHO all the time, especially online, while you would have to for a mainstream media article. Wrong Acronym Use: “UJCC, MISR, and the UMC are running a joint venture to better educate the public about how hard drugs are influencing family life in Uganda.” Right Acronym Use: “The Uganda Joint Christian Council (UJCC), the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), and Ultimate Media Consult (UMC) are running a joint venture to better educate the public about how hard drugs are influencing family life in Uganda.”

Keep Person On Track: If you are referring to yourself as “I” at the start of your piece, don’t shift to “we” in the middle. Keep grammatical person use consistent.


  1. Write relevant content
    It may be tempting to write about your brother’s dog, but if it doesn’t relate to your site or page topic, leave it out. Web readers want information, and unless the page is information about said dog, they really won’t care, even if it is a good metaphor for what you’re trying to say.
  2. Put conclusions at the beginning
    Think of an inverted pyramid when you write. Get to the point in the first paragraph, then expand upon it.
  3. Write only one idea per paragraph
    Web pages need to be concise and to-the-point. People don’t read Web pages, they scan them, so having short, meaty paragraphs is better than long rambling ones.
  4. Use action words
    Tell your readers what to do. Avoid the passive voice. Keep the flow of your pages moving.


  1. Use lists instead of paragraphs
    Lists are easier to scan than paragraphs, especially if you keep them short.
  2. Limit list items to 7 words
    Studies have shown that people can only reliably remember 7-10 things at a time. By keeping your list items short, it helps your readers remember them.
  3. Write short sentences
    Sentences should be as concise as you can make them. Use only the words you need to get the essential information across.
  4. Include internal sub-headings
    Sub-headings make the text more scannable. Your readers will move to the section of the document that is most useful for them, and internal cues make it easier for them to do this.
  5. Make your links part of the copy
    Links are another way Web readers scan pages. They stand out from normal text, and provide more cues as to what the page is about.

Always Always Always

  1. Proofread your work
    Typos and spelling errors will send people away from your pages. Make sure you proofread everything you post to the Web.


Things to Avoid When Writing for a Global Audience

  • Don’t make assumptions
    Never assume you know where your reader is coming from, unless you have done extensive survey work, it’s hard to say. Even if your readers aren’t coming in on .jp domains, doesn’t mean they aren’t located in Japan, they may be on IP addresses that don’t resolve to domains, or their ISP is global and has a .com or .net domain.
  • Avoid generic terms such as:
    • foreign/domestic/local — what’s foreign to you may be local to your reader
    • international — many people use this term to imply “any country other than mine,” but what it really means is “all countries”
    • regional designations — “east coast” means something completely different to someone in Moscow, Russia than to someone in Moscow, Idaho, US.
    • cities without indicating state and/or country — there is at least one London in the United States, as well as in England, and I used to live 20 minutes from Brisbane, but not in Queensland, Australia.
    • slang and dialect — words that are not found in a good dictionary should be avoided, as they won’t be easily translatable.
  • Poor translations are much worse than no translation at all
    As I mentioned above, poor translations can really hurt a website. Many people will forgive a site for not being in their native language, and will be willing to go to a translation site if they need the information, but if your translation is bad, they won’t trust you or your site as providing a quality product. Make sure that whatever language your site is in is grammatically correct, and free of spelling errors. http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html

Here are some good references on writing help and online documentation:

See also my lists of recommended books about Web design and hypertext






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