Handy hints for writing snappy, userfriendly copy to interest the 21st century reader.
Shoppers visiting a big department store tend to fall into one of two categories. They either go because they need a particular item, or they go for a browse round and only stop if something catches their eye.
Modern newspaper and magazine readers tend to be the same. They are either looking for a particular item, like the crossword or the TV guide, or they skim the pages and only stop if something catches their eye.
The pace of modern life means that many readers fall into the second category. So we need to adjust the way we write to accommodate their reading habits. These people do not read the pages. They skim them.
The modern journalist must be able to write ‘skimmable’ text. Here are some tips:
1 Sentences and words must be kept as short as possible.
2 Unfamiliar and complicated words should be avoided.
3 Caps should be kept to a minimum. They slow the reader down. So we don’t refer to Uptown Borough Council Cabinet Member for Arts and Recreation, but to Uptown district council’s cabinet member for arts and recreation.
4 Avoid unnecessary punctuation. Just use punctuation that is vital: full stops, apostrophes and speech marks. Commas should be kept to a minimum by using simple sentences. Semi colons should be eliminated.
5 Try to make the subject of consecutive sentences the same. Look at this piece of text: “Harry Dwyer has been voted secretary of Uptown Labour Party for the fifth year running. The committee endorsed him unanimously at a special meeting last night. Emily Dwyer was appointed social secretary for another year.”
You will see that each sentence has a different subject. It would be better to rephrase the copy: “Harry Dwyer has been voted secretary of Uptown Labour Party for the fifth year running. He was endorsed unanimously by the committee at a special meeting last night. His wife, Emily Dwyer was appointed social secretary for another year.”
Harry Dwyer is now the subject of every sentence, making for a smoother read.
6 Don’t set text across wide column measures. Double column is best. Readers will give up struggling to get to the end of lines that are set across three or four columns.
7 Don’t finish a sentence or a par at the bottom of one leg of copy if the text continues into a second leg. Otherwise the reader may stop reading at the bottom of the first leg. If the sentence continues to the top of the next leg, they are more likely to read on.
8 Make good use of headings, sub headings and standfirsts, especially with news stories and features. Many readers read headings and not the story itself. So the headings should inform rather than intrigue. Readers should be able to turn the page, knowing the key facts of the story that they haven’t read, because they have gleaned them from the headings.
Cleland Thom runs Journalism Training Services