There is ongoing tension between old-school reporters and new-school bloggers. What a perfect setup for this post on the principles of good storytelling.
Newspapers as we know them will soon cease to exist. The L.A. Times is the nation’s fourth-largest newspaper. Its website posted record traffic in July with 127 million page views, thanks to better SEO and some help from Digg. Yet the blog network Gawker Media had twice as many page views (254 million) with only about 15 percent of the staff. The newspaper model is broken.
To which the reporters of the L.A. Times might respond with something along the lines of “quality is more important than quantity” and that reporters represent the vital Fourth Estate (despite failing us miserably in the run-up to the Iraq war). In any case, we’d much prefer to read the work of professional journalists, no matter what the medium.
Professional writing is more engaging and thought provoking. It’s more entertaining. Bottom line: it’s easier to read. But it’s not easier because it’s simpler or more pedestrian. On the contrary, it’s more substantive than what you’ll get from your everyday blogger. The work of journalists is easier to read because they know how to write. More than a matter of word choice, grammar, or sentence structure, though, good writing follows certain principles of structure and style. Journalists know how to deliver and tell a story. This is largely what separates good writing from bad. And it’s not a skill that’s beyond the reach of most people.
The fundamental problem we see is that many bloggers don’t get the craft of journalism; and that journalists don’t get the medium of blogging. Journalists see bloggers as hacks in pajamas who steal their work. Bloggers see journalists as dinosaurs who are out of touch with the new-media conversation. Both have strong cases. As we’ve found, though, a lot can be learned from one another.
In the following, we’ll offer seven principles or tactics that can help bloggers better utilize the craft of storytelling, which includes journalism, since story is the soul of any piece of content. And since content is king. As we recruit and hire bloggers for our burgeoning network of blogs, this is the first thing each of them will read.
1. Content is Storytelling
Newspaper reporting, screenwriting, advertising, public relations, blogging, marketing, vlogging, and your personal diary all have this in common. You are telling a story. The difference is whether it’s compelling to read or watch. For this, we refer to Robert McKee who’s name is synonymous with story.
McKee is a cult figure of sorts in the screenwriting world. His nationwide seminars are attended by Oscar-winning screenwriters and lemmings alike, and his book is well worth the read. He doesn’t tell you how to write a script or tell a story, but he does provide all of the tools.
“Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works…and has through all remembered time. The difference is crucial. Your work needn’t be modeled after the ‘well-made’ play; rather, it must be well made within the principles that shape our art. Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”
The same can be said for journalists and bloggers. Every post, no matter how trivial or profound, should follow the basic principles of storytelling. Which is to say that, at the very least, it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. What is the Conflict?
Conflict and tension are at the heart of any good story. It’s a universal principle shared across cultures and throughout all of human history. Whether it’s Gone with the Wind or the climate-change debate or a product review about a new type of light bulb, there are always competing forces. It’s the job of the storyteller (blogger) to present them in ways that make the reader care and, therefore, continue reading. Why? Because they want to know how it turns out. What’s the resolution? What’s the answer? How does it all unfold or come together?
Just as conflicts have resolutions, problems have solutions. If a company is introducing a new light bulb, there must be a problem with existing ones. Therefore, the new light bulb is the solution.
The longer the post, the more need there is for tension to carry the reader through to the end…to the resolution. It doesn’t have to be profound or unsettling. There simply needs to be enough curiosity–enough unknown–to keep one interested and reading.
3. What’s your Angle?
When it comes to journalism, it’s all about the angle. How are you approaching this story or topic? What is unique about your way of writing about it? Why does someone have to read your post on a topic as opposed to 50 others? It’s because of your angle. Three different sources can cover the same story in three different ways, each of which can provide equal value to three different people.
For example, Business Week, TreeHugger, and Max Gladwell can cover Sun Chips. Business Week could write about the CEO, focusing on his or her plan for expansion. TreeHugger could delve into the nutritional value and how the company powers one of its facilities with solar panels. And Max Gladwell would write about the company’s use of social media to market its products and promote its use of solar power. This is one way that blogs provide value, because readers come to know how you approach the stories and topics you blog about. They come to appreciate and identify with your angles more so than the other guy or gal.
4. Write thoughtful and strategic headlines.
One of the biggest differences between journalism and blogging is how headlines are written. With the exception of cover lines that are intended to spark interest on newsstands (e.g. 10 Ways to Anything), they share very little in common.
If you’re reading a magazine or newspaper, it’s already in your hands. At that point, the headlines need only be informative and/or somewhat clever. They don’t even need to have much to do with the article itself. We once wrote about an island that Jose Cuervo tequila owned. The headline read, “One Nation, Under the Influence.” That would not fly on a blog. Since blog traffic often originates from search and RSS feeds, where readers only see the headline, it’s important to be as descriptive as possible, including keywords that help search engines to categorize the posts and people to find them. If you can also be clever, then you’ve nailed the perfect blog headline. Otherwise, we recommend writing more creative and/or cheeky sub-headlines.
5. The importance of the sub-headline.
As you’ll notice on Max Gladwell, each post has an introductory line or two about the article. This is a practice carried over from our days of magazine writing. It’s also known as the DEK. Since you may not have been clever in the headline, here’s your chance. But this is also an opportunity to expand on the headline, giving readers an idea of what to expect from the post and selling them on why it’s worth their time. You can set up the conflict by identifying both sides of an issue. You can pose a question or tease some controversy. This is a window into the post.
Lastly, the sub-head presents an additional opportunity to either repeat keywords from the headline or else use alternative keywords that didn’t fit in the headline. After all, this is the first line that will show up in search results and expanded RSS feeds, and it’s one of the page elements that gets indexed by search engines.
6. A good lede needs a compelling hook.
There are chapters written about the crafting of ledes, otherwise known as the first line or paragraph of an article. This sets the tone and ultimately serves to hook the reader. Yes, like a fish. It should pique their interest and reveal something of the angle, enabling you to reel them in. It should introduce the conflict, together with the basics of who, what, when, where, and/or how.
7. Quoting Sources
One of the supreme virtues of blogging is that you can grab quotes or whole passages from innumerable sources, integrate them into your post, and link directly back to them. This adds to the substance of your article while providing immediate support for your case, as it were, and providing additional information on a topic without having to bog down your post with it.
Our advice for quotes is to make them flow as naturally as possible. You can do this by writing in such a way that the quote follows from what you’re writing, complete with quotation marks and a link. So the quote could have come from you, if it weren’t for the marks and the link.
Or you can set up larger block quotes by providing a natural segue of sorts as to how this information fits within the context of your post. The quote can serve to either increase the tension or else support the resolution. It can undermine your case, thereby showing a different point of view, or support it and help to lead to your conclusion.
To the degree that blogs serve as filters, a post can quote liberally from a long article in order to help readers cut to the chase without having to invest hours into a 10-page feature story.