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Writing for the small screen

Writing for a mobile screen is a skill in much demand as attention shifts from print and desktop to mobile.

But it’s not easy. You need to be lean and efficient with words.

Rules for small screen

A provocative headline and first sentence will draw readers in.

Sentences should be short and tight. Always prune rather than punctuate.

No paragraph should ever be more than two or three sentences long.

Content should be clearly signposted with subheads. Images are helpful to engage a reader but remember to optimise them for mobile.

Stories written for the small screen should not run to more than a couple of screen lengths. 300 words is about the limit.

Break this last rule and your reader’s attention will start to flounder. If it hasn’t already of course.

Readers of content on mobile devices are a fickle bunch. There’s always another button to press or link to follow.

As a journalist I used to over work news stories, carefully crafting a beginning, a middle and an end. But then an editor pointed out few people will reach the end of your copy.

Follow the five Ws of who, where, why, when and what. Add how and you’ll never go wrong.

Examples of excellence

Traditional media brands are excellent at producing content for the small screen. BBC News, Mail Online and The New York Times are my favourite examples of the form.

There are lots of exceptions where long form writing works on a small screen but the audience will typically have an established relationship with the publisher.

I’m fairly sure that Leo Tolstoy didn’t intend War and Peace to be consumed at a bus stop. But I could be wrong.

Finally proof before you publish.

If you’ve any other tips about writing for the small screen I’d love to hear them. We’re all learning.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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