The Mueller Writing Blog

Blog posts, eBooks and other content marketing resources written by Heather Mueller

How to Write for the Web: Lessons from the Newsroom

Newsroom lessons: how to write for the web

Some of the most effective web copywriting strategies come from my old stomping grounds: the newsroom.

Before I became a professional web content writer I worked in traditional journalism and public relations, writing for newspapers and, later, pitching some of America’s highest-circulation publications.

In the newsroom, we had assignment desks, niche reporters, editors, proofreaders, fact checkers and photographers. Every story was vetted through every channel.

Now that WordPress has made it possible for virtually anyone to become a publisher, things are different. On the upside, this means that instead of trying eagerly and waiting anxiously to land a quote in a great news feature, we can write our own stories.

The downside? We don’t always write them well.

Fact is, many small companies simply don’t have the resources for an extensive content marketing team. And many bloggers are going at it solo.

When writing for the web, some of the best strategies come from lessons I learned in the newsroom. Try working the following tips into your own writing—for your web pages, landing pages, blog posts, eBooks, white papers and other content you want people to read and remember.

11 Ways to Write More Effective Web Copy

1. Proofread

In recent years, cash-strapped newspapers have had to cut a lot of employees. Reporters have been replaced by stringers, international correspondents by news wires, and photographers by stock images. But proofers? They’re not going anywhere. Always, always have someone proof your web copy before you publish.

2. Check your facts

Check your facts before publishing web copy

Don: “You can’t just look it up on Wikipedia, Maggie.”
Maggie: “I wasn’t going to.”
—HBO’s The Newsroom, pilot episode

In 2003, the New York Times’ decades-long reputation as one of the world’s greatest newspapers came crashing down. The reason: people found out a young reporter named Jayson Blair had filled stories with plagiarism, fabrication and made-up quotes. Somehow, the young reporter had managed to evade the newspaper’s fact checkers. Readers were outraged.

Every major news outlet adheres to a process to assure readers each factual statement has been checked and verified. When that trust is broken, credibility tanks.

The same could happen to your blog, eBooks, articles and white papers. Verify any sources you quote and meticulously check all your facts. (And no, I’m not talking about referencing Wikipedia.)

3. Cite your sources

When I was writing for newspapers, the anonymous quote was always frowned upon. Rarely were reporters permitted to include a quote without attribution.

If you want to be seen as a credible source of helpful information, you’ve got to let your readers know exactly where you’re getting information. This might mean linking text to another authoritative website, accompanying customer quotes with headshots or simply using quotation marks and attribution.

4. Vet contributors and guest bloggers

Landing a freelance gig with a major newspaper or high-circulation magazine is tough. Only the best writers get bylines. So should it be in your company’s digital marketing.

Matt Cutts, who heads the Webspam team at Google, has frequently warned against the dangers of guest blogging. Not because it’s a bad strategy, but rather a good strategy gone wrong. So take a cue from the newsroom and vet anyone who wants to write for your organization: check out previous experience, ask for writing samples and consider whether or not proposed story angles are new and different.

5. Use the inverted pyramid

People don’t read web copy. They skim. Most readers will check out your headlines and subheads first, then decide if they want to go back for more. One of the best ways to grab the attention of time-strapped readers is the old tried-and-true inverted pyramid.

Using this method, you’d place your most important information in the first paragraph, followed by supporting details in descending order relative to their importance.

While this technique won’t work well for every blog post or web page, it’s a good system to incorporate into your writing. At newspapers, it enables editors to simply cut from the bottom when there’s not enough space to print the whole story. In the digital realm, it helps ensure even the fastest skimmers will see the most important details right away, even if they don’t read to the end.

6. Craft powerful headlines

Ever notice how the front page (or the website homepage) of a newspaper never features just one story? It’s all headlines. Headlines entice readers. They compel you to choose one magazine over another in the waiting room and then make a split-second decision to read more. Headlines should not be an afterthought. Take your time on them.

There are a lot of great resources for crafting headlines. One of my favorites is Copyblogger.

7. Research, research, research

Award-winning stories aren’t crafted by the writer who sits behind a computer screen all day. Great reporting involves tracking down the best experts, talking to real people and interviewing sources. Talk to your customers, chat with members of your sales team and listen to the conversations that are taking place about both your industry and your brand. Your web content will be much more powerful (and easier to write).

8. Tell a story

Storytelling is a hot topic in content marketing circles these days, and with good reason. It can turn bland, boring copy into a page-turner. Or, in the case of the web, a reason to keep scrolling. (For a classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning example of excellent story telling, check out Thomas French’s Angels and Demons.)

There are a lot of copywriting formulas and step-by-step instructions for turning bland copy into compelling stories, but it all comes down to this:

Make it meaningful to your readers.

For example, compare this original intro from the SignoSeis Vineyards “About Us” page:

SignoSeis Vineyards lies in the renowned Valley de Uco, some 60 miles (100km) southwest of Mendoza, Argentina. The vineyards lie on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains at a height of approximately 1050m above sea level. The soils are largely rocky, gravely with significant drainage (low salinity levels). Many of the rocks are rounded as a result of snow melt runoff from the mountains

To the revised web copy, which opens with a hook to draw in readers and get them curious about what else is behind the wines:

When you happen upon raw, undeveloped land in the middle of a breathtakingly beautiful desert valley, there’s really only one thing to do.

Plant a vineyard.

Especially when it’s tucked into one of the world’s greatest regions for growing superior grapes and turning them into super premium wines.

9. Write short sentences

The best advice I ever got from editors was this:

“Write your story so an eighth grade reader can understand it.”

I know using words like “innovative” and “unparalleled” might make you feel smart. In reality, they could be causing your web visitors to hit the back button. Translate complex topics into everyday language and avoid business jargon wherever possible.

10. Think like a reporter

One of the biggest challenges in the newsroom is enticing readers and viewers with stories that are new and different. This is especially true in a world where breaking news hits Twitter and Facebook at breakneck speed.

You can’t always be the first to report on a topic. But you can be the first to offer a new and exciting slant.

Brainstorm new angles on tired topics and human interest stories. A lifestyle editor isn’t likely to feature yet another playlist for the gym, but might consider an angle like “The Science of Workout Music.”

11. Read

And lastly, don’t forget about the best way to get better and faster at writing. Read! Sounds simple, but trust me: This works. When I was reporting on Capitol Hill, I’d set aside time every morning to comb through The Washington Post, print magazines and news sites. When editors asked for suggestions, I was always armed with dozens of story ideas. Just from reading.

Take note of eBooks you like, blog posts you don’t, websites you visit often and stories you actually read to the very end. Save your favorites in a digital folder you can refer to later for inspiration. (Copywriters call this “swiping.”)

Not sure what to read next? Try your local newspaper!

Mueller Writing website copywriter


Heather Mueller’s writing career started with a Pulliam Journalism Fellowship back in 2000, when she covered news and features for The Indianapolis Star. Since then she’s reported for newsrooms ranging from The Australian to The Washington Diplomat and worked as a media relations specialist coordinating with national newsrooms including USA Today and The Washington Post. Now an experienced digital content writer, Heather helps companies turn web copy from ho-hum to high-converting. Connect with her on Google+, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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