Teacher resources: How to write for the web

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BBC journalist Iain Mackenzie explains the key elements of a good web story and how to engage your readers.

Writing stories for a website is very different from writing essays at school or from writing scripts for radio and television - it's even different from writing for a newspaper!

Here are some of the key elements to think about when you are producing a webpage for your reports.

Keep it snappy

Think about how you read when you use the internet. Most people scan the page and quickly click onto something else if they aren't interested, so you have to grab their attention.

The three C's - making sure your writing is Clear, Concise and Correct - are a good starting point for any web writing.

Short words in short sentences give you a much better chance of keeping hold of your reader. In many cases there are longer alternatives - but do they really add anything, or are you just trying to sound clever?

BBC website journalists have to be able to get all the key information inside the top four paragraphs of a story, as this section is used on the Red Button service.

The top four paragraphs should provide all the information a reader would need if they didn't know anything about it in advance.

Try to answer all the 5 Ws - Who, What, When, Why and Where.

Get the basics right

Nothing undermines a story more than getting a simple fact wrong, like somebody's age or the spelling of somebody's name.

Truth and accuracy are two of the BBC's most important values, so double check all the facts with two sources whenever you can, and stop to think before you use words like "unique", "unprecedented", "first", "last" and so on.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Always check your spellings

Read your story back to check it makes sense. Get somebody else to read it too, and see whether they understand the story. In journalism, getting someone else to read your story and check it for mistakes is called "sub-editing".

And always run a spell-check, but don't totally rely on it: a spell-checker would be perfectly happy with this sentence: "The Primer Minister mad a trip tot he White Hose to discus the issue wit the Resident" - but it doesn't make a lot of sense!

Never assume!

Think about who your readers are. They aren't all necessarily going to be like you, either in their age, where they live or what they are interested in.

So to help them understand your story, you need to explain things to them.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Don't assume everyone knows who this is!

For instance, Sir Alex Ferguson might be very well-known in the world of football, but you need to tell your readers that he is the former manager of Manchester United.

It's good to talk

A great way to liven up a report is with some quotes from the people who are part of the story.

The best way to get these is to speak to and interview the people involved yourself, so you can ask the questions you want to know the answers to.

Make sure you quote them accurately, but don't feel you have to get every "...erm", "...like I say" or "...yeah" in the report. You can tidy up somebody's words as long as you don't change the meaning.

It's not always possible to talk to somebody directly, so sometimes you might need to use quotes from other sources: perhaps a press release or a personal website. That's fine, but you should make it clear where the quotes came from, so your audience understands.

Break it up

One of the most important elements of a good online story is to avoid large chunks of unbroken text.

Lots of research has shown that it is very off-putting to readers, who tend to click onto something a bit easier on the eye.

So use photos, bullet points, crossheads or other techniques to help break up the page.

Look back at this page and see some of these features in use, and think about how the page would look if they weren't there.

Sell your story

A good headline should "tell and sell" the story. Think about what would make you click on a story, and about how to get the most interesting elements of your story across.

Image copyright Times and Daily Mirror

Avoid headlines which are unclear, assume too much knowledge or promise something that the story doesn't provide.

Always re-read your headline to check if it could be taken the wrong way.

Most journalists have produced a few shockers during their careers, but thankfully most have been changed before getting published!

But here's a few that didn't, from various sources:

  • Firm uses students to insulate roof (not literally! The story was about a company using local students to help with an insulation project)
  • Miners refuse to work after death (again, not literally! The story was about miners going on strike after a tragedy)
  • Seasiders handed Blues Cup carrot (on its own this is just surreal and assumes a lot of knowledge. The story was that Blackpool FC - nicknamed the Seasiders - had been drawn against Chelsea - the Blues - in the FA Cup, if they got through their third-round replay. Clear as day now?!)

Remember - the best headlines are often a result of collaboration, so chat to other people and see what ideas you come up with.

For more tips on writing for the web, you could also read this more advanced guide from the BBC's College of Journalism.