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Aug 01

How to Write for Web Pages - Part 3 - Preparing To Write a Story

Posted by Bill Anderton

In the second installment of this series, we discussed making an overall editorial approach for your website plus collecting stories idea into an editorial calendar that is the master list of all potential upcoming stories that may appear in the website.

The next logical step in producing content is assigning the story ideas from the editorial calendar to writers for developing and writing a story.

his_girl_friday_400w.jpgIn many churches, the pool of available writers who will work on the church website is relatively small. Webmasters quickly get to know the capabilities and skills of each member of their teams. Webmasters will make subjective executive decisions about which writers get certain assignments. These judgments are typically based not only on the skill of the writer but also on the past work of the writers on certain types of stories.

A wise webmaster will always endeavor to increase the size of the writer pool available to the website as well as the skill levels and experience of each member of the talent pool. This process will require the webmaster to do recruiting and management as well as training.

Also, experience itself is a great teacher. New members of the web team might get some initial training (like reading this tutorial series) and then assigned smaller stories in order to gain experience without becoming overwhelmed by the scope of the writing larger feature stories. With some experience gained from working on smaller stories, the rookie writer will typically be given more challenging assignments progressively.

One of the important processes that a rookie writer should learn first is how to prepare to write. If a writer prepares properly and in depth, seasoned writers will often say, “The story wrote itself!” Translated from writers’ jargon, this means that the facts discovered in research and the information and quotes uncovered in field reporting meant that the story was clear and obvious before the writer wrote the first word of the story.

If well prepared, writing the actual words of the story can become very easy.

This installment of the series will discuss how a writer prepares to write a story.

Assigning a Story To a Writer

The webmaster of the website will typically draw upon the master list of story ideas from the editorial calendar and assign one or more of these story ideas to the writer for the development of the content.

Typically, an assignment is a semi-formal arrangement wherein the webmaster offers a story to a writer along with any of the editorial “givens” of the story. In turn, the writer accepts or declines the assignment.

The editorial givens of a story will include the general idea of the story plus any information about the story that can serve as a starting point for the writer. Other story specifications might also be included such as a suggested length of the story, pictures (if needed), deadlines, publishing dates, story contacts, etc.

Upon acceptance of an assignment, the writer agrees to develop a piece of content by its deadline and to do all of the required research and any field reporting necessary.

In many cases, the writer may be given a free hand in developing the story as the writer sees fit. In other cases, the webmaster and other web team resources (editors, photographers, etc.) may closely collaborate with the writer in the development of the content.

Upon acceptance of an assignment, the writer will typically perform certain research, planning and preparation tasks before writing the assignment. The purpose of these preparatory tasks is collect all of the verified facts needed to write an accurate and interesting story.

The time required to do these preparatory tasks can range from minutes to days. The time required is typically a direct function of the complexity and depth of the story. Also, the availability of the principals that should be interviewed to collect facts and quotes in the field reporting phase can impact the duration of the preparations.

With some experience, webmasters and writers can typically make reasonable estimates of the duration of these tasks upon make the assignment of the story. Since the duration of preparation tasks can impact deadlines for the finished story, the webmaster and writer should discuss the required preparation schedule when assigning the story.

How Many Words Should Be On a Webpage?

How many words to put on a web page is a tough question to answer because there is no one correct answer except “as many as you need to tell your story.”

Pages of about 250-500 words are considered minimum for pages. You do want a web page to have some substance. A page with just a single short paragraph on it always begs the question, “Why is this even a page?”

Also, there are some indications that if there are too few words on a page, Google and the other search engines may not rank the page very high.

As to the maximum, I rarely worry about any maximum number of words. Instead, I am more concerned with the overall optimized user experience. Structure your ideas on the page, so the content is easy to consume. Break up your page into logical chunks with subheads.

Users will scroll down the page but don’t make the length go on forever. Some experts recommend a page be no more than three scroll-jump lengths. I don’t think page maximum length can be set to such a rule except as a rule-of-thumb guidance.

You should focus on the user experience. If a long page works better broken into two pages (or more), do it.

Some ideas will take many words to express, some ideas will take less. What results is a lot of variation in the number of words on your pages. You will have some pages of 300 words and others of 3,000 words. Diversity of page sizes is good and natural. Don’t write only to  develop unnatural patterns, or give your writing arbitrary constraints just to meet a targeted average.

Be economical with your writing and writing style; don’t add unneeded words. The overall length of your pages isn’t a virtue, the effective content on your pages is!

Write for a Reason

Give your story a mission, have a reason to write! Don’t just write to fill up the space on a web page. If your story is worthy of publishing, it should have a mission, perhaps specific objectives too.

You should care about what your write. If you don’t care, don’t write. Not caring about what you write is difficult to hide from your readers, as it is very obvious.

The story you write for a church or ministry website may be small in scope. In fact, most of them may be small. However, if you are going to publish any story on your website, it is worthy of diligent effort and have a reason to publish.

Honor both your content and your readers by being worthy of the assignment.

Let Your Story Tell Itself

Let your story unfold naturally. It usually won’t have to be forced and should never be pushing into a certain direction just for the story.

Simply tell the story accurately and truthfully. In fact, learn the art of storytelling and narrative. You can use these techniques to shape the structure of your resulting narrative, but don’t force it into an unnatural or untrue direction. Your narrative may bring out things people normally don’t see and can add a unique perspective that adds to the story.

Relate To Your Reader

Before you start writing or even planning your story, begin with the mental exercise of describing your ideal reader to yourself.

Making a mental description of an ideal reader is a trick that a lot of writers use.

If you can, visualize your ideal reader like an imaginary friend. Know your imaginary friend (your ideal reader) so well that you can converse with them at any time.

Don’t just think about generalized demographics like age, gender, income, education and family circumstances. These descriptors aren’t personal enough. Instead, image the person.

You should know when they will agree with you and when they will disagree. You should know what makes them smile, giggle and laugh. Know what makes them sad or cry. Know what it takes to charm them. Know them well enough that you can anticipate what questions they will ask.

The better you know your reader, the better you can communicate with them.

Write to that imaginary reader. It makes your text more vivid and personal. It is also easier to write using this trick of the trade; you are merely telling your friend a story.

The hard truth is that your imaginary friend may not be interested in you or your church per se because people are usually only interested in themselves.

Professional copywriters know this when writing copy for ads; they always try to talk about benefits rather than features. When you write to your imaginary friend, you need to focus on the benefits to your friend.

When you start preparing for your story, create a full list of features of what you are writing about. Then, translate each feature into a benefit for your ideal reader. Consider their problems and issues and how you can help (as a friend.)

Inverted Pyramid Style of Writing

Many of the visitors who come into websites are looking for something specific. They are not there for a casual and leisurely read.

As a result, these users are a bit impatient. They want to first of all determine if they are in the right place and if your page is worth their time. Second, they want find what they are looking for quickly.

This reading style is very similar to newspaper readers and has led newspapers writers and editors to use an inverted pyramid style of writing that is uniquely different from other styles of writing like the academic writing you practiced in high school and college.

The classic academic writing style is like a normal (non-inverted) pyramid with the pointy side up. This style starts by laying a broad foundation with lots of supporting information, research and research data. With a foundation established, the writing then goes on to discuss the foundational information and make a series of summaries. Near the end of the paper, it synthesizes conclusions.

The purpose of pyramid style writing is to educate the reader along the way as the paper goes from the introduction to the conclusion. The reader is expected to work their way up as the writer builds the case for the conclusion.

The classical newspaper style flips the pyramid on its head (thus called inverted pyramid style) by putting the conclusion first (often in the lead). Next, the supporting information and summaries are provided. The story ends with the foundation information and data for further detail. This style of writing gets the reader off to a quick start by providing the broad conclusion first and then supporting the claim of the conclusion in the remainder of the story.

The purpose of the inverted pyramid style is to get the reader hooked quickly so they will hang around and read the rest of the story. Rather than attempting to change the readers’ behaviors, the writer is catering to it.

The academic style is inappropriate for web pages because most of your readers will be too impatient or won’t work hard enough to get to the conclusion. They will likely click away to other sources before they find the payoff.

On the other hand, newspaper readers are very similar to web readers. The inverted pyramid style is excellent for capturing readers quickly, within their attention span.

Any discussion of writing in the inverted pyramid style also has to include a discussion of another newspaper term called "above the fold."

In newspapers, above the fold is the top half of the folded newspaper that is visible to passersby of newsstands. Newspapers used to be sold on a paper-by-paper basis to the public from newsstands, and the above-the-fold part of the front page of the newspaper were designed to hook readers within seconds and get them to buy the paper.

In websites, the same mechanics are in play. The above-the-fold space for a web page is that portion of the page visible to the user when they first land into the page without scrolling. Content below the fold requires scrolling.

Your most important information and content that will best help to hook the reader into opting to read your page, rather than clicking off to another source, should be above the fold. The above-the-fold content aids the visitor when they skim the page when they first click into the page.

The user is making a decision within seconds if they are going to stay and read further. In essence, you are “selling” each page to each visitor. Good use of the above-the-fold space helps the user decide whether they’re in the right place and that your page is worthy of their time to stay.

Before You Begin Writing, Establish Your “Givens”

Before I begin writing, I always find it helpful to gather all of the “givens” of a story. Givens are all of the known established facts or situations. Givens help set the context of the story for the writing, and some of them may influence how you write a particular story you are working. After you get your writing assignment, gather as many givens as possible.

Do Your Basic Research

Depending on the nature of your assignment, you may have to do some research on your topic to familiarize yourself with the basic context of the story you will be writing.

Use the search engines to search for any background material on your topic. Also, gather any examples of similar stories you can find that can provide guidance for your story.

Give Some Thought to Your Peg and Hook

Start giving some thought about the journalistic peg and hook you will use within your story.

For some stories, their pegs and hooks will be obvious before you begin to write. For other stories, they may not be obvious until you get into your initial research or your field work such as talking with your sources.

It is sometimes helpful to give some thought to the peg and hook for your story before you write it, but always be prepared to change your mind based on what you find in your reporting.

The writer and the webmaster may collaborate on both the peg and hook for a story. Alternatively, the webmaster may assign one or both as part of the writing assignment. For assigned pegs and hooks, wise webmasters will be open to making changes in the slant of a story if the writer discovers something better while developing it.

Think About Appropriate Keywords for Your Story

The words that you use when writing your story will determine how the search engines index your story. Often, this is so simple that people overlook how search engines work. You don’t arbitrarily declare the keywords under which your story gets indexed or how you would like the story indexed; the words that are actually in your story ARE the keywords.

In other words, if you only use the word “yellow” in your story, it won’t be indexed as “orange.”

It is possible that if you are targeting certain keywords that would help your story get discovered in the search engines, proactively plan: (1) which keywords would be both desirable targets, and (2) keywords that would appropriate for your story. Both criteria must be satisfied: desirability and appropriateness.

Your target keywords must be able to be organic to the story, and be able to be used naturally, not forced into the text just to get the indexing you wish. Remember, it is always wise to put the user experience for reading your story first.

Once you have determined your story peg and hook, give some thought about how you are going to write your story, and the opportunities the story organically allows for having the story’s web page found by people using search engines.

Remember, your goal is not only to produce a good story, but also to be instrumental in getting you story found and read!

Consider the words you write and how they can contribute to the visibility within search engines:

  • How should the story be structured on the web page (what important information that should be revealed higher on the page)?
  • What are the best keywords to use that fit the story?
  • Which keywords should go in headlines and titles?
  • Which keywords should go in the lead of your story (the first several paragraphs)?

Here too, it will be helpful to have some idea about keyword usage before you begin writing, but always be prepared to change your mind as you get into your reporting and find out more information.

The ability to think like search engines’ crawlers and indexers are learned skills. It will be a big help to any web-story writer to gain some experience in these processes. Fortunately, there are web-based tools that allow you to enter the URL of a web page and have the tool analyze a specific web page like Google does. The tools will show how your pages look to the search engines’ indexing processes. It can be very illuminating and instructive.

You may find that the keywords that you are actually using in the way you write the story are not the ones you think. Using these tools will allow you to learn to write your stories in a different way to better achieve your goals. Use these tools to gain first-hand experience on how to leverage search engines to your advantage.

Establish Your Publication Date

Pay some attention to the timing of your story. You will want to release it far enough ahead of time so people can make use of the information within their personal schedules. A news story published the night before your event won’t do much good.

Also, be aware that it typically takes a week or more for the search engines to get your story indexed into their databases, so it is available for searching.

However, don’t publish your story about an event too far in advance. If you have a major event to promote and want to get the news out early so people can get it on their calendars, it is okay. However, follow-up regularly as your event date approaches with new fresh and more-detailed information in a series of new or revised web pages.

Doing follow-up stories after the event is over is very good to do as long as you are providing new follow-up information, reporting on what happened at the event and results. Don’t wait too long to get this information out. Reporting on past events goes stale quickly.

Determine the Date and Time of Your News or Event

The date and time of your news are the date and time your event will occur in the future or the date your news occurred if you are reporting a past event.

Accurate dates and times are basic Reporting 101; get the date and times right. I have read web pages that totally omit the dates of significant events. Omitting dates and times leaves a big hole in your story because it leaves your reader wondering when the event will be happening or, if the story is history, when the event occurred.

Just as bad, I have read web pages that used incorrect starting times for events. People will be upset if they arrive at the time specified in the website only to find the event ended an hour earlier (this has happened!)

Remember that your readers depend on the dates and time you publish.

Also, don’t confuse the date of your news with the date of publication discussed above.

If you are reporting an upcoming multi-day event, feature the starting date (the first official day of the event) prominently. If you are reporting an occurrence within a multi-day event, use the actual date of the occurrence you are reporting.

Establish Your Deadline

Most stories will have deadlines (dates and times) by which stories are due. The writer should complete and submit the assignment to the webmaster by the deadline in order to meet the story’s publication date.

Always treat deadlines as firm commitments. In journalism, the 11th Commandment is, “Thou shall not miss deadlines!”

Using your deadline as a firm finish date, work backward to establish all of your waypoints needed to meet your deadline.

Know not only when to submit your story, but how and where to submit it.

Become Familiar with Your Website’s Editorial Standards

Most successful websites have certain established editorial standards for the text that appears on their web pages. If your website doesn’t have editorial standards, make them!

The majority of editorial standards are carried in a stylebook and most websites adopt one of the widely accepted stylebooks such as:

  • The Associate Press Stylebook (a.k.a, the AP Stylebook)
  • The Chicago Manual of Style

These two are the most-widely-used stylebooks in journalism among many others.

Stylebooks provide fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage and journalistic style. Having all writers and editors who work on a website using the same style book adds the needed consistency and continuity when multiple writers are being published in the same website.

I recommend the use of the AP Stylebook for websites. The AP Stylebook is considered the gold standard for journalism. It is about 500 pages in paperback. It is also inexpensive, costing less than $11 on Amazon.

If you want to use one of the other stylebooks, it is okay too. Many use the Chicago Manual of Style or even the Yahoo Style Guide. What is important is that you use one (or more) of them to establish editorial standards for all the text that appears in your website.

In addition to a good stylebook, many websites go a bit further and add additional standards for their websites for their writers for things like cultural sensitivities, using inclusive language, special terms of art related to religion or your denomination, colloquialisms, and “spin.” These additions to one of the published stylebooks are often called “house stylebooks” and establish style preferences unique to your website. Often, these house stylebooks incorporate elements of other style guides.

It is important to note that there is no one czar of the English language. There are many ways to do things that are equally correct usage. The overall objective of stylebooks is consistency within your website.

Remember that your web pages will be read far outside of your congregation and its traditions, perhaps globally. Be mindful when writing that your audience you are addressing might not be in your neighborhood, others will also be viewing your pages. Endeavor to put your best content forward to your congregation and neighbors, knowing full well that there is a dual aim of prospective physical visitors and others outside your region also viewing it.

The critical aspect of meeting dual aims is your conscious efforts of how you want to address the facets of your audience.

To satisfy the dual aims of content, you should consider developing specific editorial standards and house stylebooks. The guidance provided by the tools will help all of your writers achieve know their readership targets and how to write to meet your aims.

Specify the Identity of Your Church or Ministry

Specify the full name of your church or ministry, along with your city and town. Yes, people are already on your website and about to read your story on your web page so one would naturally assume that it is your event. However, state it definitively somewhere in your story.

Remember, your reader might not have landed on your home page when they entered your website and therefore might have missed your introductory material about your church.

Remember the readers outside of your community. You may be the First Methodist Church or the First Baptist Church in your town but not the only one in the country. I have been to many church web pages where the reader has to dig to find the answer to, “But the First Church of where?”

Also, if the event is being conducted by a specific ministry or group within your church, specify they name and provide some “about” information too.

Don’t use abbreviations like “FCC;” spell out “First Christian Church” and all other acronyms. Remember, your web pages are seen  far outside the scope of people who might know what FCC means. These abbreviations may not be understood by most of the people reading your web page.

Establish a Contact Person for Each Story

Every web page should have a contact person and a stated contact method for a website visitor to contact for questions or information about your ministry.

Also, certain events may need a designated contact person to handle questions about a specific event.

Make arrangements so responses from any collected contacts from visitors happen very quickly. Hour's count, so a policy of same-day responses is a good place to begin.

Don’t think of servicing these contacts as a drudge. You will want them! Part of the mission of any church website is to make contact with people in your community. You want positive dialogs with your website visitors, not just use the website to broadcast information to people on a one-way basis. Contacts from the public are perfect opportunities to create the desired dialogs. Websites are about dialogs not just monologs.

Put a contact phone number or link to a contact form on each page so your users can easily get in touch with you or the ministry team leader for the event you are promoting.

Before you write your story, get all of this figured out, and all of the people who will be servicing as contacts briefed. Also, get exact spelling of names and confirm phone numbers and any URL links.

Specify Your Website and Any Important URLs

Specify the Home Page for your church or ministry and any specific pages important to your story.

Any link used should be the exact and complete URL so it is fullt declared. If the page gets printed, the link will be visible for use. For example http://www.my_church.org.

It is okay (and even recommended) to put links into your story that go to other pages. The general idea is to prove all the useful and helpful information you can to your readers.

The general guidance here is to don’t make your readers have to dig for this information. State everything explicitly and clearly.

Develop Sources for Your Story

Make a list of people who can serve as your sources for your story, people who can provide first-hand information for your story. Get their telephone numbers and email addresses.

Most events will have someone acting as a leadership. These people will have lots of first-hand knowledge and facts about the event. This information can form the foundation of your story. Event leadership might give you additional names that also can be good sources.

There can be other important sources too. For example, talk to people who attended the same event last time. Find out their experiences.

Remember the basic news-style formula so every story tells about who, what, where, when, how and why.

Using this basic formula, develop a set of questions you can ask your sources. In advance of talking to your sources, also give some thought about how you will ask your questions. Doing a bit of homework at this stage will improve your reporting.

Do Your Field Reporting

Use your list of sources for your story; give them a call to arrange a meeting or an appointment for a telephone call for the purposes of collecting information for your story.

Ask questions and collect first-hand reporting from your sources.

When speaking with your sources, look for quotes to use in your story. Be sure to quote your sources accurately and verbatim. Don’t take liberties with what they say, be exact.

Collect their answers in a notebook or make a recording. Get hard copies of any existing fact sheets or press releases that your sources might have.

As best as you can, verify the information provided to you by your sources, and also verify any prepared fact sheet or news release. They are likely accurate, but another set of eyes checking facts never hurts.

Weave your sources’ answers and their quotes into your story. Use the verified fact sheets and press releases and weave this information into your story too.

Writing Conference

For important feature stories, it is sometimes a good idea to have a writing conference with your webmaster after you have completed all of your research and field reporting, but before you begin writing your story. Sometimes, the webmaster may request such a conference.

The general idea is that at this point in the content development cycle, you will have a very good idea about what you are going to say in your story. You will have collected all of the facts and information and have likely determined the best peg and hook for the story.

In a writing conference, you can review all of your information and notes with the webmaster and collaborate on any tweaks or improvements that might be suggested by the webmaster before you write a story.

Even if the webmaster has no editorial input for writing a story, writing conferences ahead of finishing the story can provide important information that the webmaster can use to prepare for the best positioning of the story and search engine optimization (SEO). For important stories with great potential for attracting visitors, the webmaster can begin developing important keywords for the writer to integrate into the story. Developing a few important keywords is a very collaborative process, and the webmaster will typically have more experience in SEO that the writer. If the webmaster has a general idea of how the story should go, the webmaster can provide the writer help in this important aspect of writing a story.

Writing conferences are typically optional and might not ever be suggested or needed. Certainly, on small stories, they will hardly ever be done.

Writing conferences, if done at all, may usually be reserved for only the largest and most important feature stories.

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