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Sloppy copy

A call for better writing on the internet.

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The internet has dumbed down the written word. It’s not a good thing. Consider this as a call to action to sharpen your writing skills.

As Ernest Hemingway, one of the leanest and meanest writers of the 20th Century once said, write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it, and rewrite it again.

I’ll come back to Hemingway later.

Fact checking

Accuracy was the first casualty of speed on the internet.

Brands and media race to be the first to share a story.

The European Referendum in the UK, and the upcoming US Presidential election show that emotion has replaced truth as the quality threshold for argument.

Deadline paradox

While we race to share information and news online, when it comes to creating content we’ve limited respect for traditional workflow.

Growing up in a newsroom taught me the discipline of filing copy on a deadline.

Subeditors, editors, printers and the distribution supply chain were dependent on you hitting your deadline. Nothing would hold the presses.

Few people respect deadlines on the internet. A colleague working on a crowdsourced book with a six week lead in reported this week that more than half the content was late.

You either need to create false deadlines or build slack into your schedule.

News spike

Newsroom discipline used to mean that stories that weren’t deemed worthy of print were spiked.

There’s no word or page limit on the internet. You can post as much as you write. Web pages soak up copy.

News discipline has been replaced by the dynamics of search and social.

We’ve swapped reportage for Buzzfeed style lists and cats doing daft things, in a bid to bait search engines and newsfeeds.

Structure

Writing is much more than chucking words down on a screen. What, why, when, how, where, and who, are the six tenets of reporting from Kipling’s I Keep Six Honest Serving Men.

News stories should start with a lead in, and follow this structure. Facts and quotes are added for colour.

It’s a faithful format that means a story can be told in 200 or 400 words.

A benefit of this approach is that you can shorten articles without losing meaning, by cutting paragraphs from the bottom.

The format also works for longer form, allowing for argument, discussion and examples.

Subediting

When your currency is as many words as will fit on a printed page, the skills of a subeditor are critical to refine and tighten copy.

Third party opinion and scrutiny will always land your work in a better place.

It’s a means of catching basic errors; tightening language through nips and tucks; and catching errors.

Americanisation

The internet is slowly adopting American English.

I blame a generation of writers weaned on word processor applications. I’m guilty myself.

There are two schools of thought: write for your largest public, in my case US citizens, or write in your native style. I’ve landed on the latter.

Back to Hemingway. I recommend the tool of the same name, spotlighted in #PRStack, as a writing coach.

You can either write directly into the app, or cut and paste your copy when you’re done.

Hemingway will highlight sloppy copy and help tighten up your writing. I recommend it as a tool for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a writer.

Thank you

Thanks to Julian Christopher, Judy Gombita, and Sarah Hall and for comments and inspiration via Twitter.

Image via Flickr by Ami Harikoshi.

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Stephen Waddington

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

5 Comments

  1. I support your wise words completely and utterly. I began as a reporter using typewriters (yes I know I am showing my age) but to us the quality of stories was important. A well written story, properly researched, well-constructed and thought through is not only a good story, but a more effective story. It is a joy to read, understandable and better conveys the author’s message.

  2. Enjoyed your article Stephen. Not harking back to the ‘good old days’ but stating the obvious that we’ve all allowed to slip past us.
    Thank you

  3. I agree, Stephen. I don’t remember seeing anyone writing ‘Your welcome!” before the world went online. (By contrast, people have always confused it’s and its.) And Americanisms are taking over. I read dozens of examples today alone of people saying, ‘I’ll reach out to…’ instead of ‘I’ll contact/call..’ I pointed out to one that only the Four Tops are allowed to use that phrase.

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