Six brief news writing tips — or are they?

Every semester I tell students in the introductory news writing class that the basics of writing in a news style will be useful in other types of writing.

Take this list, for example:

  1. Keep it brief. Be concise, simple and precise…
  2. Keep it simple… Use short words, active verbs, and common nouns.
  3. Be friendly. Use contractions. Talk directly to the reader…
  4. Put the most important thing first…
  5. Describe only what’s necessary…
  6. Avoid repetition.

Which Journalism 101 textbook did that come from?

Answer: None. It’s part of the “writing” section of Google’s design tips for developers of apps for Android phones.

The details of each step aren’t exactly what we tell news writers. With luck, journalists will be telling their stories on a larger canvas than a smartphone screen, and to an audience whose thumbs aren’t twitching for a return to Angry Birds. But good writing should work on both page sizes. News writers might think of themselves as designing a “user interface” for the information in their stories.

I especially like the ultra-conservative Android version of the “most important thing first” rule (emphasis added):  “The first two words (around 11 characters, including spaces) should include at least a taste of the most important information in the string. If they don’t, start over.”

The old conclusion-first “inverted pyramid” news story’s summary lead emphasizes the first sentence. But the “two words” idea isn’t unique to Google. For online reading, usability experts with eye-tracking devices have been telling us for years that readers skim down through the start of each line. The “11 characters” reference leads me to believe that  Jakob Nielsen’s work is on someone’s desk (screen, bookmark list, bookshelf) at Google.

If nothing else, following that two-word rule might get beginning news-writing students to stop starting stories with the words “Last night…” — which could be the first two words of every morning-after story in a newspaper.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in Android, communication, Journalism, Newspapers, Online-Only, usability, WebDesign, writing

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