Six Content Lessons from Newspapers

Even though newspapers are disappearing, their rules for writing good copy live on. Remember newspapers? Back in the last century, that was where you’d find the punchiest, most informative writing around — the kind of writing you want on your website today.

Newspaper writing is all about grabbing — and keeping — the reader’s attention. Here are six ways to do that:

  1. Write a great headline. Remember the 80/20 rule — only 20 percent of your visitors read the whole post; the other 80 percent only scan the headline. Make sure that headline pays off.
  2. Don’t bury the lead. The story’s “lead” is the first sentence. What one bit of information is the most useful, important, or interesting for your reader? (In the first draft of this post, “Even though newspapers…” was in the second paragraph. I had buried the lead — so I moved it up to opening line.)
  3. Tell a story. Instead of generalities and abstractions, tell a story about real people and their experiences. Don’t say “Many clients noticed significant improvement because of our services,” say “Cathy Client’s weekly sales increased 12.8 percent after she took action X.”
  4. First things first. Journalists write stories in an inverted pyramid, with the most important information at the top and the least important at the bottom. (This way, the editor can just “snip” the story at whatever length there is room for and not risk skipping crucial details.) Put the most important information in the first paragraph; put the second-most important information in the second paragraph, and so on.
  5. Keep it simple. High-falutin’ language doesn’t make you sound smart, it makes you sound pretentious — or perhaps like an idiot, if you’re using the thesaurus willy-nilly and don’t get the meaning of the word exactly right. Good writing communicates clearly without drawing attention to itself.
  6. Cut it out. Newspaper writers are used to working with very specific word counts because there’s a finite amount of space on the page. Don’t let the fact that your cyber-page is more flexible lure you into using more words than you need. Do one final read-through before you post and see if you can cut your word count by 10 percent. (For instance, I just changed “will be able to” to “can” in that last sentence.)

Using these rules will keep your copy interesting, informative, and reader-friendly.

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