Editing for the web: discussion notes for journalism instructors

These notes are designed for editing instructors who want to conduct a section on editing for the web or online journalism instructors who want to teach their students about the special considerations for editing for a news web site.

An example of taking a “for print” story and making it into a “for the web” can be found here at JPROF.

Begin with the basics

Any discussion of journalistic editing should begin with reminding students of the basics of copy editing that do not change no matter what the medium:

  • Grammar, spelling, punctuation — These are always considerations for the editor. It is just as important to be technically perfect in use of the language on the web as it is in any other medium. Two common mistakes in punctuation: direct quotations and forming possessives.
  • AP style — Style rules are not optional in any journalistic setting.

  • Syntax, sense, repetition and redundancy — All of these are problems that need to be dealt with in any writing, web included.

  • Accuracy — Always, accuracy. (See JPROF’s notes on Achieving Accuracy.)

  • Structure and emphasis — The basic form for news on the web is still the inverted pyramid news story. (Checklist for inverted pyramid news stories.) Readers of the web want their information immediately; writers and editors need to give it to them.

  • The five Ws and H. Editors should make sure that there is a clear statement of who, what, when, why and how in the story. (Where and when, too, certainly.) These things tend to get lost in all the verbiage that we are likely to produce.

So, what’s different about the web? Well, here are a few things:

Conciseness

Wordiness is one of the chief editing problems that a web editor must attack. (See discussion notes for Attacking Wordiness.) The web demands — and readers demand — that information come packaged in the fewest words possible. They want detail, they want color, but they also want efficiency. Read the before and after stories in the editing for the web example (referred to above) and see how the editor has attacked the verbiage of the writer. Has anything been lost or left out? Was it that important to understanding the story?

(You may want to talk to your students about a broadcast writing approach if you have not done so already: simple words, simple sentences, telling the story quickly, getting out. We don’t really have to go that far on the web, but we do need to emphasize conciseness.)

Visual aspects

On the web, one of the most important aspects of writing is how it looks. Computer screens are sometimes difficult to view, and text on a computer screen takes some extra effort. In addition, many readers are in the habit of “scanning” rather than “reading.” As editors, we need to offer them visual cues that interrupt their scanning to concentrate on the words that are on the screen. An editor needs to ensure that the presentation of the words is as legible and easy to understand as possible. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Paragraph separation — A pretty standard presentation on the web is to have a line of white space between the paragraphs. Some programs do this automatically, but if they do not, the editor should see that this is one, as long as it is consistent with the visual style of the web site. Here is a good time to bring up the value of WHITE SPACE in design; white space is what allows us to see items on a page or on a computer screen. The web has unlimited space, so creating the appropriate amount of white space should not be a problem.

  • Lists — Creating lists, where they are appropriate, is one of the most valuable things a writer or editor can do for a web audience. Lists are easy to read because they are short and the white space is built in. But a good list should also be informative and should add value for the reader.
  • Block quotes and indentations — Block quotes, as long as they are not too extensive, are another device that makes reading easier. Like lists, they have white space built in.
  • Pull quotes — The pull quote is a graphic device used for many decades in print to create white space on a gray page. A pull quote can also be used to emphasize certain information. This is an important editorial decision that the editor should take seriously and give a good deal of thought to. A pull quote does not have to be an direct quotation, although that is often the way it is used. A pull quote can be anything that editor deems relevant and worth emphasis.
  • Story box — A story box is like a pull quote in a graphic sense: an insertion of larger type into the body of a story. The box doesn’t pretend to be a quotation, however. It is an explanatory paragraph of list that adds something that is not in the story itself. It introduces both graphic variety and new information to the reader. An editor who creates a story box must spend some time and effort on it.
  • Subheads — Subheads serve the same purpose on the web that they do in print: to break long stretches of copy. Subheads should be consistent and logical in their placement, and they should be accurate in their description of the text below them. They should be general enough to cover what the text says in the next few paragraphs.

Links

Links represent one of the special powers of the web as a news medium — the ability to put the reader in touch with additional information about a top. For more on linking, see The Art of Linking article on JPROF.

For the editor, two major questions about links arise:

Where can I insert inline links into the text? And from this question comes those of where will be link take the reader? And will the purpose of the link (that is, where it will take the reader) be apparent? The editor needs to construct inline links so that they fit into the copy flow but that they are also obvious about what the reader will get if he or she clicks on that link.

What links do I list separately (related links)? Why are they there? Sometimes the reason for their presence will be obvious. At other times, the editor will need to describe them succinctly but in a way that will inform the reader.

Chunking

Chunking is an inelegant term for breaking up information and presenting it to the reader. In print, we think in terms of a single “story” and possibly a few exras: pictures, graphs, sidebars, etc. On a web site, we should think in terms of a subject/event and the different pieces of information we have about it.

At this stage of the web’s development, we still think of the central piece of information as a “story,” albeit a shorter narrative that we might have in print. In the near future, we may see a reduction in the use of the “story” as the organizing center of a web package. It may instead be the video or the photo gallery.

Chunking means that we need to consider the pieces of our package. Many of these pieces may be put together in some kind of text/narrative, such as an inverted pyramid news story. Other pieces, however, may not fit into that genre, and as editors we should be intellectually nimble enough to handle them.

Jim Stovall (Originally posted on JPROF Feb. 7, 2007; updated Feb. 3, 2009)

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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