BASIC principles of online journalism: B is for Brevity

In the first part of a five-part series, I explore how and why a talent for brevity is one of the basic skills an online journalist needs – whether writing an article or employing multimedia. This will form part of a forthcoming book on online journalism – comments very much invited.

It shouldn’t have to be said that the web is different, but I’ll say it anyway: the web is different. It is not print, it is not television, it is not radio.

So why write content for the web in the same way that you might write for a newspaper or a news broadcast?

Organisations used to do this, and some still do. It was called ‘shovelware’, a process by which content created for another medium (generally print) was ‘shovelled’ onto the web with nary a care for whether that was appropriate or not.

It was not.

People read websites very differently to how they read newspapers, watch television or listen to radio. For a start, they read 25% slower than they do with print – this is because computer screens have a much lower resolution than print: 72 dots in every square inch compared to around 150-300 in newspapers and magazines (this may change, but usage patterns are likely to stay the same for some time yet).

As a result, you need to communicate your story in less time than you would in print. You need to develop brevity.

Forms of brevity

Brevity comes on a number of different levels. At the most obvious level, shorter articles tend to work better online because most people struggle to read long documents on screen, or find scrolling too much hassle if they’re looking for something specific or succinct.

This doesn’t mean you should write a 500-word snippet rather than the grand 3,000 word opus you were planning – but it does mean you should consider splitting that opus into smaller chunks (chunking): six 500 word sections, for example, each with a particular focus. You can always provide a link to a printable version of all the parts together.

That said, don’t split arbitrarily, or for the sake of it: every webpage is a potential entry point, and users need to be able to instantly orientate themselves.
More important than the length of the article overall, within the article itself, paragraphs should be succinct. Stick to one concept per paragraph. Once you’ve made your point, move on to the next par.

This may seem simplistic writing at first, but you soon become used to it. It’s how BBC reports are written online – see how effective it is.

Brevity in video and audio

Brevity is equally important when producing multimedia material. For the medium that brought us YouTube, anything over three minutes is too long.

One simple technical reason is bandwidth – even now that the majority of users are on broadband, a significant proportion remain on dial-up, including overseas users.

Even those on broadband will not want to wait for video or audio to download, or their connection to slow down while they do.

Once again, this does not necessarily mean editing your whole story down to three minutes; it means a chunking approach to multimedia: breaking it down into its constituent parts.

As Andy Dickinson explains it, this is a non-linear approach. Because unlike with TV or radio your user can enter the story at any point they choose: this might be the interview with the witness – or it might be, more specifically, the chunk where they describe what they saw. It might be raw footage of the aftermath. It might be the contextual information.

In short, you are released from the pressure of condensing everything to a three minute package (although you can do that as well), and instead provide readers with a range of paths to pursue.

Brevity works particularly well online because it allows for more effective distribution: others can link to the specific element they are commenting on, or even embed it on their site.

What’s more, it provides the raw material for further journalism: a user might decide to re-edit the material to provide a different narrative; or mash it up with maps or databases; or they might incorporate it into further investigation into a particular issue – all of which further distributes your good name, and provides further material for you to build on.


60 thoughts on “BASIC principles of online journalism: B is for Brevity

  1. Pingback: In and Out, Wicak Hidayat » Blog Archive » Prinsip Dasar Jurnalisme Online

  2. JohnofScribbleSheet

    “This doesn’t mean you should write a 500-word snippet rather than the grand 3,000 word”

    Very true, but as you say 500 words work better. We found with ScribbleSheet that 500 word article gathered a lot more readers for a lot more time than 800 words. People were actually complaining 800 words were waaaaay too long.

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  4. Rick Waghorn

    We found with ScribbleSheet that 500 word article gathered a lot more readers for a lot more time than 800 words. People were actually complaining 800 words were waaaaay too long

    Mmmm… disagree. Depends what your subject matter is, but find yourself a passionate niche – be the subject matter football or, say, your kid’s education – and punters will read every spit dot and comma… that’s why we aim for 900-1,000 word pieces every time.

    People want a good read; that’s why we’ve got an average visit time to MFW of seven minutes.

    And you have to think commercially – 1,000-words allows us to spread that over two pages; two chunky 500-word pieces that allows one story to provide two page impressions and six, not three ad slots around it…

    Again if advertising is moving ever more towards a time-based metric then the higher the ‘stickability’ of the site – ie the longer the eyeballs are on the site, the more advertisers want their brand to be there…

    As I say, it works when you’re servicing a passionate niche; may not be for everybody. But if your market is the 10.50am coffee break one, then people are drawn to the good, reliable, engaging reads… before the boss saunters back into the office and sees what’s on your PC.

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  24. john p


    i have a learnt a thing or two indeed from this blog because I myself write content for an entertainment blog! thanks for these tips..Will definitely keep them in mind.

    I think that content with a few pictures is usually moer interesting to read on the internet. That’s my viewpoint.

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  28. Wicker

    John, thumbs up for what you have said, pictures in articles is the best thing, also for seo! Becuase the more you have the more they will show up on google images with the relavent keywords.


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