12 tips towards successful online writing

1. Solve the attention economy problem All writers on the web must remember one thing – that all readers on the web are distracted folks. They don’t read, they scan. They scan through headings, sub-headings, picture captions, hyperlinks, data and numerals. They scroll back and forth, trying to figure out where to start and when […]


1. Solve the attention economy problem

All writers on the web must remember one thing – that all readers on the web are distracted folks. They don’t read, they scan. They scan through headings, sub-headings, picture captions, hyperlinks, data and numerals. They scroll back and forth, trying to figure out where to start and when to end. There is only 1 word to describe readers on the web: impatient.

And this is the challenge that web writers must overcome, by keeping things short. Keep your post to a maximum of 700 words in length. It is much easier to write a 1,300 word piece than it is to keep it to a crisp 400 words. But brief, we must be. And for every 200 words, give us one photo.

2. Be visual

Visuals are critical to tell a good story. Take the time to get a good set of authentic pictures to accompany your piece. Sending us generic, poor quality, unfocused images just makes publishing the piece a much more long drawn process. We are very particular about picture credits and attributions here. And we completely abhor plagiarism and dubious copyright protected images. Wherever it is important, also include video links to the piece.

3. Always write for one reader

Ideally you should have only one reader in mind when you are writing a story. You are not going to be able to satisfy a 16-year-old’s curiosity and a 30-year-old discerning reader’s need for information in the same piece.

Have your main reader – where she/ he stays, socio-economic info, likes, dislikes, where she/ he shops and for what, goes for a weekend break, leisure spend in your head when you write. How educated is he/she, what biases them, what she/he is afraid of.

When you write a story, ask yourself if it will appeal to your target audience for that particular section.

4. Every story has a purpose

What do you want out of the story? To inform and educate? To move the reader to action? To be controversial, start a debate? To shock the reader? To inspire them?

Complete this sentence for every story – “I want this story to ____” Ideally, you should have only one goal, and never go beyond two. If there are many goals, try and spin the story as a series, each installment focusing on one of those set of goals.

And when you read the final draft of the story, does your takeaway/reactions match the goal mentioned above? If not, can the story be rewritten? The tense, the words, the style changed? Maybe more images or videos added? Bring it closer to the intended goal.

5. The title says it all

On the web, you live and die by your headings. The headline is a critical part of the story. It is what users see first and react to. It is what leads them to click or not click. A good headline is –

– Snappy and (where possible) witty.

– Has a conversational tone, is easy to read. It is not verbose and long.

– Has SEO friendly keywords – names of important people, events, current topics. Tries to guess what people are searching for.

– Where possible, it is framed as a question, an inquiry, rather than a statement or a pronouncement.

6. Use subheads

One proven device for keeping a reader moving forward through an article is to insert subheads (subheadings) every few paragraphs. Just as a well-written heading can draw a reader into a story that he or she might otherwise skip over, subheads provide a visual road-sign for readers, alerting them that something different and potentially interesting is coming up.

7. Get the tone right

We are not prophets of doom. They were anyway doomed to die for the world to go on. So, stay away from terrifying your readers, predicting judgement day, guilt tripping them or adopting a holier than thou approach. In the world of sustainability, none of us have figured out the holy grail. Shock them with facts, data, photos or analysis instead.

Do not tread on the ‘downtrodden’ or the ‘poverty-stricken.’ Use respectful and sensitive terms to describe the communities you are talking about. The poor, the impoverished and the underserved are not waiting for us to arrive and lift them out of their situation. Empathize and don’t sympathize.

Do not exaggerate. Be even both in praise and critique. Someone who does ‘good’ does not by definition grow a halo automatically around their heads. Use data, objective references, a measure of size and scale to have a frame to what you are talking about. And always contextualize.

8. Stick to short paragraphs. Varying sentences

Do not exceed 6-7 lines per paragraph. Regular paragraph breaks give visual relief and make it easier to read longer stories. Within each paragraph, vary the length of the sentences to avoid monotony. A staccato style sentence followed by a longer one, for example.

9. Keep it simple and crisp

You are writing for the readers, not for yourself. Your objective is achieved when the readers understand you the first time they read. Do not be verbose; do not use complex words and sentences when simple structures can convey the same meaning. Convey your meaning in as few words as possible.

10. Include the punchline 

A punchline is usually a one-line summary of the story. It is also thought provoking, sometimes it questions, sometimes it is open-ended, but mostly it leaves your readers with good “food for thought”.

11. Don’t see those red lines? We do – all.the.time

Thanks to wonderful tools like Microsoft Word, one can actually make out when there are typos and grammatical errors in your composition. Once you have written copy, take a break. And come back and read it. Correct it for common mistakes before you dash it off to the editor. Here are 15 grammar goofs you would good to avoid like the plague.

Ironically, know what stands at #1 on The Alternative’s submissions goof list? NGO’s that are changing the world. Yes, change is hard to come by.

12. Be focused

Minimize distractions when writing stories. It might sound obvious, but this point is all too often overlooked and you end up with phones buzzing, IMs popping, Facebook alerts, Twitter updates and whatnot. Numerous studies have proven that multitasking is a myth. People are hardwired to do only one thing at a time. So do it well. Take breaks between writing to catch up with your Facebook friends. But when at it, be at it!


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