I once wrote a newspaper story that killed a man.
That’s actually a true (sorta), but not the takeaway I hope you get from this blog post.
For almost four years, I was a stringer for a local newspaper. I sat in on all the public meetings, interviewed people in their homes, carried my camera to take my own photographs for the stories, watched for peripheral stories, took phone calls from the public about the stories, did research, and met deadlines. I wrote about politics, education, and exciting topics like the state barley show. (Yes, a barley show.)
Though blogs might not be traditional journalism, the techniques used to report the news have been proven effective in getting information to people who want to read it. Blogs can use these techniques with success.
What can you learn as a blogger based on what I learned as a reporter?
The Inverted Pyramid: News ASAP
The inverted pyramid is a news technique which packs the opening of an article with the most important information, getting to the heart of the news ASAP. It originated when consideration for column availability and space were necessary, allowing editors to cut the bottom portions of stories off to fit in the space allotted without worrying about cutting out important details (an important plot point in the story of when my writing killed a man).
The inverted pyramid approaches an article with the idea that your job is to give your reader the most important and necessary information as quickly as possible. The start of the article is where you have to answer all the questions that your reader has.
The inverted pyramid is not the only method you can use.
Traditional storytelling doesn’t follow the inverted pyramid, working in the opposite direction as it starts small and builds narrative and suspense. Some writers even suggest that the inverted pyramid is “artless” because of this. But don’t discount this inverted pyramid just yet.
- It attracts skimmers. If online readers aren’t actually reading full articles and are sharing content based on skimming a few starting paragraphs, the inverted pyramid is a valuable tool.
- It improves your thinking. It helps you develop critical thinking as you approach your blog posts; it does a great job of cutting down on meandering posts that don’t solidify. Creative writing is great, but structured writing is, too.
There is value in understanding the inverted pyramid and it should definitely be a part of your writing repertoire. The inverted pyramid has two unique and important components.
Powerful Informative Headlines
We talk a lot about headlines on this blog, and have even shared with you some techniques to writing great headlines.
Headlines are the big immediate grab. People make snap decisions on what to read, and the headline is what makes them tip one way or another.
Headlines should, in their purest news form, tell the truth. In blogging, headlines haven’t necessarily followed that tradition. Headlines now tend to be stories unto themselves, and there are often claims of “misleading” headlines.
In the inverted pyramid format, the headline must be a truth-teller. It must perform that top-level duty of getting the important facts out ASAP. In other writing forms, however, that may not be the case. That would explain the rise of the “what happens next” kind of headline, where it is almost a short story unto itself.
Catchy, quasi-misleading headlines may be acceptable in some situations (though you should be careful about the trade-off a misleading headline will give you, which is sometimes upset readers), but if you are using the inverted pyramid approach, your headline should be factual and direct.
Ledes And Nut Grafs
Ledes (or leads) and nut grafs (or nut graphs) aren’t exactly the same thing.
Ledes are that troublesome beginning writers struggle with. They mention the most important, interesting, or attention-grabbing element of the story. More often than not, we have pleasant opening paragraphs to our blog posts that aren’t particularly interesting. I’m guilty as charged, I know that for sure.
A great lede provokes curiosity
The nut graf, on the other hand, is located up towards the beginning of the story, but it isn’t just a hook. It’s a brief paragraph that tells your reader what the entire story is about, and why they should keep reading it. The reader can decide if they want to read at that point, but whether they do or not won’t matter: they’ll know the gist of your story. If they stopped reading after the nut graf, they’d have a basic understanding of the story.
Nut grafs are tough to do. Most writers (myself definitely included) aren’t very good at writing concise summaries of longer articles because we don’t always know ourselves what the post is about–it’s never a good sign when the writer has a difficult time summarizing her own blog post for the reader. Becoming skilled at writing the nut graf is a worthy goal.
A good nut graf also makes an excellent meta summary. Having them not only helps your blog post for your reader, but helps in your SEO plugin, too.
Having a good nut graf is also going to help you with social media messages and summaries as well.
How Reporters Get Information
As much as I love Wikipedia and the ease at which we can all be annoying “experts” in any discussion by simply doing a search, you simply cannot use that as your only information source. You cannot always turn to the same blogs, the same online sources, and do all of your research or content gathering from your computer.
Sometimes you have to get your information and ideas elsewhere. Otherwise, your blog starts to sound like every other blog, echo chambers using the same resources and merely rearranging the words.
Listen To Your Readers
As a newspaper reporter, I learned that sometimes your readers have bad suggestions, such as the time I received a phone call at 6 a.m. from the head of a sanitation department who wanted me to read back the story I was going to run on the new recycling program and proceeded to tell me he didn’t want me to use contractions.
But sometimes readers do have good suggestions, and you should listen to them.
“The story you wrote didn’t even interview the people in the neighborhood!” said an angryvoice on the phone after I’d written about a storm that had done severe damage and what the city was doing to handle it. I acknowledged that the caller was correct, that I ought to have done more digging, and I arranged to drive over and meet with her and others and do a follow-up. Her tone changed, and it ended up becoming an article that got the city to reconsider their plan of action once they heard what the people who would be affected thought.
Maybe your readers have suggested a post to you in your blog comments section or on social media. Take a leap and write the post. Listen to what your readers are saying, decide if it has value, and write.
Get Out Of The Office
Your next blog post might not be written at your desk. Please, please, please, get out of the office. Get out of the bubble. Find a different input source.
Lately, I’ve been hitting the local library every week, and blocking out several hours. Periodicals I’d not heard of, books both new and old–there is something to writing in a different place that makes you think differently. I go there to see if anything jogs an idea for a blog post. Maybe it’ll be a psychological study, a new trend, or an old story that applies to today.
Call clients, talk to people, dig into research that isn’t online, go somewhere else. Think like a reporter, and go out and get the story. Go out and live an experience so you can write about it. Don’t wait for all of your writing input to come to you in a tidy RSS feed each morning at your desk.
Write About Things You Don’t Know
As a reporter, nearly everything I wrote about was something I didn’t know about.
Every year, for example, I would write about the State Barley Show in Osnabrock, North Dakota. It was held in a vacuous hall with tables and tables of barley samples ready for judging, and plenty of older farmers with cups of coffee milling around.
Though I grew up on a farm, I knew nothing about barley beyond the basics of small grain production, yet I was tasked to write authoritative articles about it that were also interesting. People were paying for their newspaper and they expected some value. So what did I do (besides feeling completely out of place?)
I sat in on speakers talking about barley, barley disease, and barley trends. I wrote notes that made no sense, and talked to the people there to clarify. I noted questions that I had (if I had them, a reader would have them) that I would research later if no one could answer them at the event. It was both exciting and terrifying.
Write about things you don’t know anything about. Start by answering the questions you have. Others have the same question.
And then get out of the office and ask someone, try it out yourself, observe–Wikipedia can’t be your only source, other blogs can’t be your only illustration. Not if you want to bring something fresh to the table already crowded with regurgitated content marketing.
Take Notes Habitually
Be observant, and have situational awareness. Pay attention to what is going on around you. Carry a notebook and write down thoughts, quotes, book titles, ideas, and whatever else comes to mind as you are out and about or at conferences.
I will never understand people who are attending any kind of session or lecture and aren’t taking notes.
I will never understand people who ask me why I am always taking notes.
As a reporter, I was a note-taking machine, careful to get the accurate quote, quickly coming up with a system to make sure the quotes were attributed to the correct person with a number grid, even if I didn’t learn their name and correct spelling until after the meeting was over. Everything was a possible story, even the casual side conversation I was hearing all around me at public meetings. I found several interesting stories to cover just by hearing what other spectators were talking about.
Lots of good stories don’t announce themselves, quietly existing until someone bothers to notice something and ask a question about it. The same can be said for blog posts. Take some notes. See what pops out. Because here’s a secret you may not want to admit about yourself: you’re pretty forgetful.
We forget a lot more than we realize. Take notes.
Granted, I wasn’t reporting for the Wall Street Journal or anything, and my many stacks of notebooks from all the meetings are as full of caricatures of county commissioners as it is notes. Still, there is extreme value in facing down a story filled with real people, real opinions, real emotions with just a notebook and a deadline to keep you going. There’s nothing tidy and sanitized about it. Bring some of that dead tree reporting style to your blog and see what happens.
And no, I am not going to tell you why that man died. I’ll save that for another day.