When writing for online publications and larger websites, many of the same considerations apply as covered in Journalism. However, online articles can be more flexible than traditional journalism, and in many situations the house style of a website will be less formally fixed. If you write for a new website, small website, or your own website, you may have to make these style decisions yourself.
In most cases, online articles are short and direct, seldom more than 500 words long. Readers online look for easily identified summaries, such as headings and lists, so online articles are often formatted in short paragraphs using different sized fonts. Bold and italics are commonly used. Effective online article writing particularly rewards a short and simple style, as many readers merely skim articles.
Online articles tend to be less formal than traditional journalism, often using lighter language, such as colloquialisms, phrasal verbs and idioms, and personal opinion. Online articles are also rarely edited as thoroughly as traditionally published journalism, so mistakes are more common (perhaps even forgivable), though they still reflect badly on the writer (and/or the host website).
The biggest difference between writing online and in traditional journalism, however, is that the emphasis has swung towards engaging rather than informing the reader. In a newspaper or magazine, it is understood that the reader is already engaged in reading your publication.
Online, it is difficult to keep people’s attention, so writers must employ methods to actively keep people reading.
If you can break down your articles into points with clear headings, this helps separate text on a screen. Likewise, keeping your paragraphs and sentences especially short makes them easier to follow, which encourages a reader to keep reading.
It is also worth spending more time on your titles and headings than in other forms of writing, as these may be the focal points of online writing.
In general journalism, you may use a limited number of titles, and can get away with being more informative without resorting to tricks to engage the reader, but online titles are used more frequently, and are designed to entice.
Consider the following article plan about a popular story from history in which explorer Henry Stanley met Dr Livingstone in Africa:
How Stanley Found Livingstone
Title 1: The Disappearance of Livingstone
Title 2: The Origins of Stanley’s Expedition
Title 3: The Famous Meeting
Spread over one or two thousand words in print, this could be a perfectly acceptable article. Online, however, readers are likely to be searching for the juicy details quickly, so the story might be divided much more frequently with more enticing titles:
“Dr Livingstone, I presume?” – The True Story Behind This Phrase
Title 1: How the West Lost Livingstone
Title 2: Stranded in Zanzibar
Title 3: Henry Stanley: Journalist, Explorer, and Adventurer
Title 4: A Hundreds-Strong Expedition
Title 5: The Perils of African Exploration
Title 6: The Famous Meeting
Title 7: What Became of Livingstone?
The traditional style could be possible online, depending on the website, but more casual, energetic writing styles are increasingly common. A popular technique is to engage the reader with questions designed to inspire curiosity:
- How much do you know about Livingstone’s peril?
- Did Henry Stanley invent the details of his meeting?
- Was Stanley best for the job – or the only man who’d take it?
In informal online article writing, this can even shift towards challenging the reader in manipulative ways, without necessarily saying what the article is about:
- Could you have survived Stanley’s expedition?
Extreme examples of this are common now, and online readers are often presented with articles that exaggerate or may even falsify information. This creates a negative side to online writing:
- 92% of people don’t know the true story of David Livingstone –do you?
This is commonly called clickbait, which is when writing (or other media) is designed entirely to get people clicking. It often uses irresistible questions and withheld information. Deliberately bad English may also be used in such articles and headings, because it draws attention to itself, for example with colloquial first-person captions.
This style of writing should be avoided, as it relies on tricks instead of good writing. It may work on occasion, but it is unlikely to be taken seriously. If you wish to be respected online, stick to the principles of effective writing to engage and inform your readership, and your work will have more long-term impact.
Once you have established a style, how do you create a typical article? Articles can vary in length, and topic, with many online examples relying on media such as pictures. For the purposes of standard written articles, however, a few basic principles can help.
Before you write anything, ask:
- Who is the article for?
- What do they want to know?
For example, the answers for a football game report might be:
- Football fans.
- What happened in the game / how the teams performed.
- Because they didn’t see the match and are interested in the details.
With those answers in place, you know what is important and what can be left out. In this case, you need to focus on action and results, and should use the vocabulary of football (such as fouls, passes, goals, etc.).
The more detailed your answers here, the easier it will be to get started. If we aimed this article at football fans from one particular team, we would also know how to set the tone of the report (celebrating a success / mourning a loss, how to present the atmosphere).
Following from your planning questions, you can brainstorm all the information you might present, then decide which details are the most important.
Mind maps (arranging your ideas in a diagram) and brainstorms are useful, where you simply list everything you can think of.
Depending on the length of the article, aiming for three to five main points of discussion should be enough to form a logical paragraph plan. You can group your ideas under these different points.
When you have a simplified structure in place, the article should have a clear direction: you will be aware of why you are writing each section, and what details each paragraph should contain.
When you are ready to start writing, the following general structure may be useful. This is not universally used, but it is a common way to approach article writing, and a good, logical starting point:
Introduction: With online articles, introductions are typically used to grab the reader’s attention and generate curiosity. Try to summarise what the article will be about in a way that invites the reader to ask questions, so they will read on.
Middle/Main Content: Online, it is important to keep paragraphs short and to the point. Consider giving each major point and viewpoint its own paragraph. When presenting information, instructions, or a narrative, similarly divide information frequently for new ideas.
Conclusion: The conclusion should present the main points of the article in a clear and succinct way. Online articles typically encourage action from the reader, so consider this when writing your final sentence. Even something as simple as inviting the reader to read another article or leave a comment can be useful.
As online introductions and conclusions act as summaries and can be designed to directly engage, it may be easier to write these paragraphs last. Your ideas will be more fully formed after you have written your main content, so you can focus on how to effectively engage the reader with them.