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Producing high-quality web writing -- or any editorial content for digital delivery -- seems to vex a lot of people. It doesn't have to! Good writing is good writing, no matter whether it's consumed on paper or in pixels.

A terrific group of educators, led by Vicki Spandel, studied tons of great writing and identified six traits common to all of them. They codified the work in the 6 Trait Writing® model. Designed for school kids, I use it all the time for big kids because it's a terrific framework no matter how old you are or how good a writer you are.

Whether you use the 6 Traits to improve your own writing, or to evaluate other's work or create models, it's a must-have in your writer's toolkit.

The 6 Traits of Effective Digital Writing

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The Word Factory - Digital Journalism High School Journalism Conference 2016

I'll be speaking at the National High School Journalism Convention next month. One of the things I was asked about a lot at last year's event was how digital journalism differs from print. I'm sure there are tons of opinions on this. I'm basing my list on my own experience reporting for both channels.

The truth is, good writing is good writing, regardless of how it's delivered. Strong, credible sources also are required for both. When it comes right down to it, for me, the biggest differences between print and online journalism come down to what I call technical requirements, tactics that make digital content more discoverable, easier to consume on a variety of screens, and more useful for engaged readers.

8 things digital journalists do that print journalists don't have to

  1. Multiple Headlines.  We provide clients with two headlines: one that serves as the H1 header (the big title you see on an online article) and a shorter one that's optimized for mobile delivery. Many outlets ask us to submit up to three options for each and often use some of those as headers for social posts. Learn more about how to write headlines.
  2. Meta Data. Though our bigger clients have digital librarians who manage meta/title tag, meta descriptions and excerpts/slugs, we create this search-related "supplemental content" for our smaller clients. We either use key words and phrases they provide, or uncover a few as we're backgrounding. Read more on how to improve search engine discoverability.
  3. Formatting. Because online content is read on everything from giant TV-sized monitors to tiny watch-sized screens, formatting matters. Digital journalists strive to keep paragraphs concise and to add elements that encourage and support skimming and scanning, like subheads, bullet lists and images.
  4. Photos, Videos & Graphics. Many digital journalists also are responsible for suggesting or sourcing graphics from archives, video banks or stock photo inventories. Again, larger clients may have digital photo editors or designers who handle this, but even then, we provide guidance on the kind of image we think best supports the article. Get ideas for creating visual content.
  5. Key Words & Phrases. I'm not a fan of parking low-competition key words into any copy, particularly journalistic content, but if you're writing well about a topic, chances are good that you're using a lot of the key words people use to search for information on the subject anyway. Pay attention to the terms you use to background a story (as well as the autosuggestions that show up in the browser bar and related searches at the bottom of the results page. Jot them down and if they work for your text or your headlines, use them. Get more information on how to use key words and phrases.
  6. Related Content & Contextual Links. Connecting engaged readers to additional resources is a crucial function for digital journalists. This includes identifying related online content (including downloadables) within the client's ecosystem that's listed by title at the top or bottom of the article or inline, and creating contextual links within the text that takes readers to content that provides additional context or credibility. These are internal links to archived content, or external links to original sources such as academic studies or government data (we don't link to other media outlets unless they are "sister" titles).
  7. Length. Journalists reporting for any channel generally have assigned word counts for articles, but in print, those are based on the news hole, or space available. Online, the criteria is related to metrics we can track related to time on site, engagement, etc. The research changes regularly, so let's just say to be aware of the sweet spots for digital content readership and work within them. Right now, it seems the preferred lengths are under 400 and over 1600 words. If your articles fall in the gap, look for ways to serialize it into, say, two 250-word articles or combine two closely related shorter assignments into one larger one. Here's what you shouldn't do: Pad your writing to meet the word count. Readers will consume almost anything that's relevant and well-written. These word counts are guides only. Keep an eye on your metrics to figure out the length your readers like best. Get more tips for how to write concisely.
  8. Atomization. Just like digital journalists have more input on images that accompany their reporting, we're often expected to suggest ways of getting more coverage of a topic, or more use of information. Several of our clients ask us to provide suggestions when we file our articles. For instance, could we showcase some of the data from an article into an infographic, chart or other visual content? Is there an audio clip from the interview that could be integrated? Does the topic lend itself to a photo gallery/story or slide show? Learn more about atomizing content.

Even if your boss or client doesn't require you to do these things in your own assignments, start to develop the discipline anyway. Knowing how to do these things makes you a more valuable team member or contractor.

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One of the best parts of my job is traveling around the country helping nonprofits and advocacy groups communicate more effectively with supporters, activists and others.

Social Media for Nonprofits

Tomorrow, I present to the New Director Academy, a great program at UNC-Wilmington that provides mentoring and training to first-time nonprofit executives. Bonus: Working with my high school friend, fellow school paper reporter and lab partner, Boo Tyson. The topic is social media and marketing.

Download the Social Media for Nonprofits primer handout, then page through the deck:

Writing for Advocacy

Last week, I gave our popular workshop, The Power of Your Ideas, to a group of patient and healthcare advocates affiliated with the North Carolina AIDS Action Network. Download the How to Write for Advocacy packet (full of examples and step-by-step instructions) and flip through the deck:


One of the best ways to avoid burn out and increase creativity in whatever kind of writing you're doing is to step out of your usual forms and formats. Think of it as cross-training for your writing muscles.

Here are two tactics we use with our team and with our clients:

Breakroom Haikus: I was inspired to do this by the story of honku.org, then I found out the Haiku Foundation has a whole category devoted to workplace verse.

the acrid odor

launched from yonder microwave 

assaults olfactories

Web Error Messages: Challenge your team to produce more artful error messages for your company website. Here's a classic:

Screenshot of the Financial Times' 404 error page

You can do this on your own, or as a team activity. Either way, it's a nice break from the day-to-day content marketing and other business writing we do all day. Stretch those muscles and have some fun!

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A cute photo of a little girl who goofed

Is your social team ready to respond? Probably not.

For two awards shows in a row, pre-made montages included the wrong image of an honoree, and in one case, a misspelled name. But that's not the news story. After all, mistakes happen. The story is the lack of rapid response by the awarding organizations.

These events require Herculean efforts to pull off -- and it's a testament to the talented people who produce them that there are so few errors. What surprises me is that so few event teams seem to have a social media plan for addressing a mistake in real time. Or if they do have a plan, they don't run the fire drill enough to have the process reliably deployed when needed.

Your take-away: Create a plan for addressing errors at live events, and appoint a person or team to monitor social and produce a rapid and official response. You won't be able to plan the exact wording, of course, but you can have some stock language and an easy-to-implement process to rapidly acknowledge apologize for an error within minutes.

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