16: Let’s start writing

One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
…Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums


MOJO, mobile journalism, is the practice of producing images and text. Citizen journalism is the practice of turning images and text gathered by MOJO and combining them with media ethics and practices to produce stories. Basic writing ability is the critical ingredient in doing this.

WRITING IS A BASIC SKILL in citizen journalism just as it is in any other kind of journalism. Whatever our chosen media — text, photography, audio — we need good writing skills.

Developing basic proficiency in writing is highly recommended as it makes our stories intelligible, understandable and easy to read. It turns images and words into cohesive stories. If on reading our stories people are unconscious of the structure of the writing itself, that is a good because writing is a means to an end, the end being the meaning embedded in the text and not the way it is written.

Website and especially social media best include original content, that which we produce. This makes us a producer and not simply a reposter of someone elses’ material. It brings us greater credibility and authority.

In writing our stories there are some practices brought over from the traditional journalism or print that can improve our work.

Provide a hook

A hook hangs our story from something that is of current interest to readers. It is a connecting link that contexts our story in the bigger picture. That might be something in the news, a recent development, an idea, some topic being discussed publicly.

A proposal for a new highway, for example, might be the hook for a story about the city’s transport problems. The homeless peoples’ occupation in Martin Place in mid-2017 provided the hook to write about the growth of homelessness in the city.

It is the currency of the story around the hook that attracts readers.

A hook connects to the larger context for our story. It makes clear that we are writing about something of current or potential interest.

Use headings, subheadings

A long page of dense text does not encourage reading, so we make use of heads, subheads and, perhaps, sub-sub-heads to break up our article into readable-sized chunks and to open it visually so as to encourage reading.

This is important when we put our story on our website. An open-looking story with white space, empty areas of page background, is more visually inviting to read.

Heads and subheads form a reading hierarchy through a story.

Main head

The main headline, usually called the ‘head’ or ‘headline’, appears at the top of our story and describes what the story is about. Like the head of this section, main heads are commonly in larger font and in bold typeface.

Avoid:

  • obscure words that do not clearly identify the content in a clear, straightforward way; they will deter readers
  • technical or jargon terms that are only understandable to those working where they are commonly used
  • words that allude to some historic or classical instance that would require knowledge of history or the classics to understand.

Use:

  • descriptive headlines
  • short headlines headlines designed to attract a certain readership.

Here is an example of a head that uses obscure words that are less-commonly understood:

Technopessimism the path to obfuscation, says technophobe

The person who has a fear of technology is saying that pessimism regarding technology leads to a lack of understanding due to being unclear or unintelligible.

Here is an example of a headline with technical terms written for a specific readership:

Rad News: WSL’s Bringing in Equal Pay!

The story head uses technical/jargon terms. This is generally a no-no, however because the headline appears on a specialist website attracting a specific audience familiar with slang terms such as “rad”, and who would know WSL means World Surfing League, the headline works. It might not on a website featuring general news.

The headline uses familiarity for its impact, familiarity specific to its readers.

This is an example of a head alluding to some historic or classic event:

A Russian-Turkish alliance could divide the Mediterranean world as did the fall of the Western Empire

The head likens the potential for the alliance to the division of the Roman Empire into the Eastern and Western Empires in 395BP (BP: Before Present, an alternative term for dates not reliant on the Christian calendar as is AD — anno domini, which means ‘in the year of our Lord’ — as in AD395).

The head might do for a readership of historians and those whose education includes the classics, but not for a general readership because it presupposes familiarity with the history of Imperial Rome.

Here’s a few examples drawn from the Sydney Morning Herald in September 2018:

Malcolm Turnbull’s son solicits donations for Labor Byelection

The headline uses surprise for its impact. It is newsworthy because he is the son of the recently-ousted prime minister of Australia and his action goes against the policies his father supported.

The texts, threats and lies that will haunt the Morrison government

The headline uses intrigue. What do those texts, threats and lies say? Who made them? What was their motivation?

New road rule could prove deadly, lobbyists say

Contradiction is the hook here because road rules are supposed to make travel safer.

The Sydney suburb where fresh air is a luxury

Deprivation and pathos as well as intrigue are the hook. Readers may feel sympathy with people living in the suburb and will want to discover which is the suburb in question and why fresh air there is a luxury.

We see that most of these heads make use of some emotional trigger to get readers to continue into the story. That is because emotion is the primary reaction people have to something. Shock, horror, surprise, sadness, pathos, intrigue, happiness — all are emotions that are worth considering in writing headlines.

Some blogs use more prosaic, descriptive headlines because they suit the style of the publication. ‘Property market affected by economic downturn”, or ‘Permafund Grants Now Open for 2018’ that appeared on an organisation’s website might be such a headline. Even though the first could trigger the emotion of fear in some, it and the other is written in a largely unemotional way. They might read as flat and devoid of emotion, however that might be the style of the publication. How headlines are written depends on the style adopted by our blog.

Subheads

Subheads segment different points being discussed in the article. Like the subhead to this section they are commonly in a smaller font and less bold than main heads.

They divide our story into sections about the points we are discussing.

Sub-sub-heads

Depending on the complexity and length of our article, sub-sub-heads separate minor but distinct points within the subhead sections.

Like the sub-sub head for this section they are commonly a smaller font than subheads and less-bold.

Use contrast

The purpose of heads and subheads is to make reading easier.

The hierarchy of headings is highlighted by the use of bold, coloured or different sized typefaces. This contrasts with our paragraph or ‘body’ text in typeface density, size and, sometimes, colour to make our story easier to read. Heads of all kinds are usually larger than body text.

Contrasting heads and subheads assists readers scan our online article to assess whether they are interested in reading the entire thing, just sections of it that interest them or none at all. Descriptive headings are more-easily found in search engines.

Write in short paragraphs

We could write:

Only one or at most two related ideas go into a single paragraph because they increase readability and break up what would otherwise be large blocks of text, so as to making reading easier.

That is readable but it is more to comprehend that to write:

Only one or at most two related ideas go into a single paragraph. This increases readability and breaks up what would otherwise be large blocks of text. Separating ideas into different paragraphs makes reading easier.

Use common language

Unless we are writing for a technical journal or a website aimed at a technical audience where acronyms and technical language would be understood, use simple, everyday language to connect with readers. Imagine they are of average educational standard and language ability.

Technical language and uncommon words can confuse or hide meaning. They disrupt reading if the reader has to go to a dictionary to find out what the writer means. At worse, they lurch into jargon.

If we have to use a technical, academic-sounding, obscure or uncommon words, explain briefly what the word means, as in the following example.

“The trees are infected with phytophora, a disease of plant roots, and will be removed from the park.”

The em-dash

“An em-dash ‘ — ’can be used as a replacement for brackets or semicolons.

Alternatively, place the meaning in brackets (punctuation the separates additional information from the body of a paragraph). Otherwise, write the sentence so that subsidiary information, which explains the main term, can be separated by commas, as in this sentence.

Measurement

Use the measurement system of the country where most of your readers are. For most of the world, that is the metric system. There are only three countries that continue to use the imperial system — Liberia, Myanmar and the USA.

Even though Australia converted to metric in 1971, we still occasionally hear people using imperial measurements, especially that of area, the acre. The difficulty arises because we adopted the hectare as the measure of area decades ago and because children are taught the metric system in school. Why use units of a system of measurement that many do not understand?

Acronyms

An acronym is a word formed from the first letters of a name. Unless the acronym is common knowledge (eg. UN, ACT, ABC, BBC, CNN, CIA, EU, UK, USA, PM, MP), write the name in full at first use followed by the acronym in brackets (eg. the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)), then use only the the acronym in following mentions.

For example:

After investigating the crop failures in the region, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recommended immediate action.

Speaking for the FAO, director Mandy Mellow said…

Be careful of acronymic confusion. Some acronyms are culture or nation-specific. For example, Americans are likely to understand the acronym, POTUS, however there is no guarantee readers unfamiliar with US government will understand its meaning (POTUS is an acronym for President Of The United States).

Likewise, we might write about the Australian PM. Those unfamiliar with the Westminster system of government might not know that PM is the common acronym for Prime Minister.

In the US, ABC is likely to be read as the American Broadcasting Company, but in Australia as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It also refers to Airway, Breathing, Circulation, the ABC of first aid assessment.

An example I encountered was where I wrote about something in Perth, WA. For Australians the meaning is clear — Perth, Western Australia, the capital city of that state. Writing in the comments to my social media post, someone in the US said that they searched and searched but could find no town called Perth in Washington state (in the US, WA is the acronym for Washington state).

Different meanings for acronyms in different countries is something we need keep in mind in our writing. This is especially so because the internet is a global media and what we write is available globally. Where acronyms have different meanings in different countries, and where we suspect the wrong meaning might be applied, use the full wording at first mention followed by the ancronym in brackets, then just the acronym in subsequent mentions.

Avoid culture or nation-specific terms

The internet is a global phenomenon, so the best English language terms to use are those that are widely understood.

All too often, and it is US writers who are the main offenders. I don’t know if this is plain negligence or their belief that the world beyond the US is myth. Writers use jargon or slang terms that are current in their own country and culture but that leave readers elsewhere puzzled. They refer to celebrities or politicians or to events largely unknown outside their country, to news stories circulating only in their own country, or make reference to culture-specific concepts and leave many foreign readers in the lurch.

Doing these things might be okay for bloggers and citizen journalists writing only for an internal audience, a focus that would be made clear in the name or in the ‘about’ page of a blog. Those terms are not so good for writers producing for a global readership.

Were I to write that someone was as angry as a cut snake, Australians would understand but I doubt all that many beyond our borders would. Likewise, addressing someone in terms such as ‘you lucky bastard’ is a complement in Australia but in other countries might be taken to refer to the circumstances of someone’s birth.

If we have to use culturally-specific terms, briefly explain them.

Describe quantity by analogy

An analogy uses similarity between two things to compare, explain or clarify one of them. Analogy likens something to something else that readers will be familiar with.

This is what we do with large numbers. To explain quantities, liken the number to something people understand.

Rather than saying that a farm dam holds twenty megalitres or 2,000,000 litres of water, explain that it is just under the amount of water in an olympic-size swimming pool (2.5 megalitres).

Analogies of quantity makes it easier for readers to visualise amount or volume.

Avoid the advertising-speak of superlatives

Something is said to be ‘the best’, ‘the biggest’, ‘the most respected’. Someone is positioned as ‘the world renowned’, the ‘most accomplished’, the ‘acknowledged expert’, the ‘best known ‘the noted’.

These claims are superlatives, words used to boost our perceptions about something or someone. They are competitive and usually-unsubstantiated advertising-speak.

Superlatives are a type of fluff, a form of promotion closely associated with marketing. Even so, we should keep our ears open that a claim made using superlatives could be true, so we ask why it could be so:

  • where is the evidence?
  • who regards a person as ‘world renowned’, an ‘acknowledged expert’, the ‘best known’ or whatever claim is made?
  • are they universally regarded in this way?
  • are they regarded so by a relatively small number of people?
  • are they so-regarded by members of a professional body or other organisation or practice and is this a universal sentiment within that milieu
  • is it merely the unsubstantiated claim of marketers, public relations people or other boosters?

If answers are not available we look for secondary or circumstantial evidence such as whether the claim is supported by a significant number of people, and why.

It is similar with the commonly-used term, ‘prize winning’ or some similar term meaning much the same thing. The question here are:

  • what prize?
  • when was it awarded?
  • why was it awarded?
  • who awarded it? (often, it is an industry body awarding prizes to its members, such as we find in the wine industry; are people in the industry not members of the industry association also included or is the prize exclusive to members?)
  • is there really much significance in receiving the award
  • how many awards are made in a year? (are they rare and awarded for something truly outstanding or are they freely-given?).

The use of superlatives suggests someone is trying to sell us something. For citizen journalists, skepticism is the best response to superlatives. We ask whether they are true, likely to be true or whether they are merely hype.

Make it visual and use captions

User experience research tells us that stories accompanied by a photograph are read more frequently than those without.

The web and social media make extensive use of visual communications. Accompany our stories with a photograph or illustration and, if available, use additional relevant images through the story.

Caption photographs to explain who is doing what and where. The photo of the gardener below is accompanied by a caption that answers the questions of who, what and why.

Community Exchange Systems Australia’s Annette Loudon was responsible for adapting software now used by Local Exchange and Trading Systems which make possible cashless trading between community members.

Captions that answer the journalistic questions of who, what, where, why and how, or that answer most of them, make a story in themselves. Without a caption, a photo may be ambiguous.

We can make our own photographs, get permission to publish someone elses’ or source royalty-free, free-to-use photos from a website providing these (include any source text the free-to-use image requires).

Avoid fluff

Fluff is a type of language designed to sound authoritative but which covers a lack of substance with largely irrelevant text. Fluff is hollow.

Fluff is filler intended to puff-out a communication with unimportant verbiage padding the factual. It includes jargon as well as the bureaucratic, official-sounding, impersonal style favoured by government departments and corporations. Its main practitioners include politicians, business and public servants.

Fluff uses flowery, sometime obscure terms and unnecessarily lengthy passages. It is important to differentiate fluff from techniques used in literary journalism and creative non-fiction where writers describe the people, places and events in detail. That is a different type of journalism than we are discussing here.

Fluff might not be a deliberate attempt to obscure, deflect, mislead and inveigle. It might merely be the anodyne, a spiritless and bland language of bureaucracy.

For example, this piece of obscure governmental verbiage:

We will provide an answer to your questions as soon as possible after due consideration. The Department’s decision will be final and we will not enter into further discussion after making our decision and communicating it to you.

The bureaucrat is saying that the question will be answered at some undisclosed time and they won’t talk to the questioner after that.

Note how the language is stilted and unspecific. It is vague as to timing and notifies a closure to further discussion. It signifies a power imbalance between department and questioner and is authoritarian in tone. This is not good communication.

Reframe to change the argument

Issues are often put in terms of for-and-against, black-and-white or some other polar opposites. If we simply respond in support or critique of any one position or to the argument as presented, we buy into a conversation the parameters of which have been set by someone else. They have defined the positions in the argument, what it is about and where it starts and ends. They set limits that without thinking we can easily accept.

Doing this is quite alright for some stories. Sometimes, though, the argument as presented ignores other possibilities. To consider those possibilities we reframe the argument.

Reframing an argument or question changes the environment or context the argument exists in rather than responding directly to the argument. It opens it to broader considerations.

Let’s take a real-life example.

Responding to public demand, a council raised the possibility of a community garden being incorporated into the make-over of an inner-urban park. Some residents whose properties backed onto the park objected. They said they had no objections to community gardens in principle, just to building one in this particular park.

This attitude presented a classic win-lose proposition and was a typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) response. As it turned out, the community garden was built in a more suitable location at the local community centre. This is where the issue ended, however let’s go hypothetical and look at how the local newspaper, community radio station or local bloggers might have reported the dilemma.

One approach would be to talk to the protagonists, those for and against the garden, and to get comment from the council. This would produce an adequate report on a neighbourhood controversy as defined by the for-and-against arguments. It would clarify why some people wanted a community garden and why some did not.

The other option for a fuller consideration of the issue would be to step outside the simple for-and-against argument and reframe it. This would position the garden as a social opportunity for community participation in public land usage. It would look at the broader opportunities a garden would bring, such as healthy physical activity and as a social focus bringing people together to build a sense of place and community in a way that the limited passive opportunities of a conventional city park would not. Reframing would position the garden as social opportunity rather than limiting reportage to a simple for-and-against story the arguments for which would appear within the larger story.

In brief

Here are the main points:

  • use a hook in our opening paragraphs to link our story to events in the news or to ongoing trends in society.
  • if writing for a specialist audience, link to some topic current among that audience
  • write a descriptive, compelling headline to attract readers
  • use short sentences and paragraphs
  • write in commonly-understood language unless writing for a specialist audience that understands technical concepts, acronyms and jargon used; this makes reading easier and more fluid as readers do not have to stop to think about a term, disrupting their reading flow
  • use subheadings so that readers can skim the article to see whether it would interest them, and to visually break up large blocks of text
  • use •dot-points for lists or put key words in bold to highlight them and to provide visual diversity in our story; numbered lists are an used for sequential steps
  • evoke emotion in feature stories to involve readers at the visceral level of feelings
  • vividly describe experience as if the reader were there participating
  • if describing our own involvement, include internal thoughts; what were we thinking at the time? did we experience curiosity, fear, tension, elation?
  • include quotes made by our sources to bring other voices to the story and so they can describe something in their own words
  • because the web is visual media, take photographs or obtain them elsewhere, such as the free online photo galleries; attribute them to the photographer/service; attribution is intellectual honesty and an ethic in journalism
  • add descriptive tags and keywords so search engines can find the story
  • hyperlink to related posts, original documents and sources and earlier articles on the topic so readers can learn more and see how a story developed
  • if it is the right type of story include a call to action, ideas on what the reader can do, so as to increase engagement with the story and take it further.