Here are the seven tips I give our WebU students who are learning how to write for the web.
Stop before posting ANY story and ask yourself these seven questions about how you can enrich your story for the reader:
1) Are there original documents you can link to?
If you've downloaded a report, meeting minutes or agendas, watched a video or listened to a tape — share it. If it's living elsewhere on the web, link to it. If you have your own copy - can you scan it? Post it yourself? Tell people how they can get their own physical copy? You've already done the hard work, share it with your audience. The few people who want that level of detail will love you.
2) Are there any photographs (related videos, sound files, slideshows) online?
You don't have to own a file to share it with your audience. Need a photo of a coffee-addicted dog for a story on off-leash dog parks? Go to Flickr's creative commons site and search for what you need. That looks for photos with a Creative Commons attribution licence - you can use the photos so long as you attribute them.
(The dog photo comes from Bruce, by the way)
If you can't get permission to post or host the file yourself - why not link to it? Just always make it clear what the reader/user can expect on the other side of the links you create.
3) Can you map it?
Mapping information - especially interactive mapping - can offer readers highly useful information. And with tools like Google's free map api or even their wsywg My Maps, a simple locater map or a route map can be created and embedded directly into a story in a matter of minutes. Some stories might even best be told entirely as an annotated interactive map. Ask yourself if this is one of them.
4) Can you gather past stories together and link to them?
It's a conversation, remember? You've gone and dug out and re-read the old stories to prepare for your interviews and to nail down the background - why not share them? Two of the biggest complaints we get about stories we do are that we fail to follow up or provide context. Providing a sidebar or box with links to 2 or 3 or 5 related stories takes care of both those complaints. It also potentially increases our sites page views which adds up to more revenue.
5) Can you post the audio or video of an interview or performance or meeting?
If you've recorded your interview or the meeting, if cable television (or a parent or your photographer) has taped the meeting or show or game, can you post that material for people who are gluttons for the topic?
6) Can you direct them to an authoritative site for more info?
Again - you've probably already visited related, authoritative sites during your reporting of the story. Why not do your readers a favour and share those links with them? The web is all about linking. Don't be afraid to send them away somewhere useful - if it's truly useful they'll come back for more. Use verbs of power and clarity when linking ("Listen to the Mayor cry" or "Watch a distraught mother hug her baby" and "Read the original document for yourself"). Use the quote rule when deciding if you want to link to someone as "authoritative": Would you quote that person/institution in print on the issue? If yes, link. If no, be very cautious about linking.
7) Can you invite comment or start a conversation?
Is this story - and the ongoing 'conversation' it represents - a chance for us to host discussion or debate or any kind of sharing of stories and views from and with our community? Why herd our readers and community into the Letters to the Editor ghetto? And it's not enough to just say "Have your say". Invite conversation and stories the way a good dinner party host would. The real stories are out there - not in our newsroom - and we'll never hear them unless we ask.
What tips would you offer to improve the quality of web writing?