e-Lab at AU : Build an e-Portfolio | Find useful tools and resources | Network with others | Contact us

Skip To Content

Athabasca University e-Lab

Online Writing


The easiest way to grasp the differences between online writing and feature writing can be found with simple shift of perspective. Think of yourself as a content provider rather than a writer.

Please see the following workshop to find some ways to work through the perspective shift you need to become a good writer for online plantforms.

It seems to me that the easiest way to grasp the differences between online writing and feature writing is a simple shift of perspective. Think of yourself as a content provider rather than a writer.

Online readers are usually looking for information that may be contained in merely one sentence of your piece. Believe it or not, most people do not look at the byline when they read a piece. This is sacrilege to writers and journalists. Think of the number of books you read before you became a writer. Did you note who wrote each book? Probably not. How could we have been such philistines? A writer puts his heart and soul into his work. Journalists pay attention to bylines because it is part of their jobs. The vast unwashed readership out there: not so much.

There are the basic tenets of online writing, including:

  1. Don’t be afraid of repetitiously using the key words of a piece, as this helps Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
  2. If you happen to be designing a piece (which you are not really responsible for in most cases; that is is why there are art directors), your most important information should fall on the left of the page. This is facilitated by the use of bullet points and sidebars to break up your text. This is known as chunking.)
  3. Should you be required to do your own layout, then your most useful basic format is the F-shape. That is, your most important information and text up top and along the left side. Chunking between your text blocks’ levels of importance also helps. Keep the right side for ancillary info, sidebars and photos.
  4. Short active-voice sentences are most effective for disseminating info.

In other words, content over style. Leave your quick wit and Joycean stylings at home when you venture into online writing. Now, this seems almost anathema to the near infinite space you have available to you to write in on the web. But think: When you look something up on Wikipedia, you usually find what you’re looking for in the first couple of graphs and then you go back to your work, quite happily, uncaring about who wrote the piece or how it tails out.

This toploading format is essentially the old inverted-pyramid style, as illustrated by this dandy illustration:

Like several other journalistic basics, this style got its start in the American Civil War, when reporters at the front would sent their reports to their editors via telegraph. Naturally, strategic, often propagandized, information was not in the military interest of one side or the other, so destroying the flow of information was important. Telegraph poles were disabled wherever they were encountered. Thus, a journalist had to get the most important information out first as he had no idea when his transmission was about to be disabled. So the motto was to get the important stuff in first —the Five Ws — and deal with the lesser important info on a diminishing scale as the piece continued. This style was also adopted by newspaper editors so that if a piece was too long to fit in its allotted space, they could just cut from the end without losing the jist of the piece.

The good, old, inverted-pyramid style is enjoying a bit of a rebirth as it synchronizes extremely well with web writing. Plus, it has always been the go-to style for PR and press releases. Editors assessing a release for assigning a story will look at the opening paragraph and then either put it in the Possibles pile or back into the slush pile. I know, I’ve done it a thousand times.

I remember early on when I was writing PR, I submitted a piece with an anecdotal lede, as I thought the headline said it all. The contemporary, hip, up-to-the-minute, young client executives were swift to react. “You’ve got to get to the news first,” they told me. The first part of my initial draft is reproduced below. It was at this point that I realized my reputation as a stylist was about become a liability. Here it is:

First Nations Artist Arthur Vickers Receives Order of B.C. and Opens Shipyard Gallery to an Enthusiastic Public

Victoria, BC, May 27, 2008 - Listening to the waves against the boat, eyes wide with wonder, six-year-old Arthur Vickers travelled the B.C. coast with his grandfather. As they fished, the man told the boy of the traditions and legends of the Heiltsuk people. Fifty-four years on, Vickers is an internationally renowned artist and he still plumbs his experiences with his grandfather as inspiration for his art. His work in serigraphs, sketches, carvings, 23-karat gold powder and 24-karat gold leaf is appreciated worldwide. In recognition of his art, his charity work (CNIB, Camp Good Times for children with cancer) and his role in keeping alive First Nations heritage, Arthur Freeman Vickers will be awarded the Order of B.C. later this year. “It’s absolutely unbelievable,” says Vickers. “I find it really quite an overwhelming honour.” No stranger to accolades, Vickers has received the Order of St. John for service to humanity.

Another recent development in the artist’s life is the opening of the new Arthur Vickers Shipyard Gallery at 1719 Cowichan Bay Road in Cowichan Bay, just an hour’s drive north of Victoria, B.C.

No one appreciated the drama and majesty of my lede. They wanted to get to the stuff about the gallery opening first, because publicizing that was what generated their paycheques.

So it is with web writing. It is time to dust off that old inverted pyramid. It’s back in the game, again.

Naturally, for every action, there is a reaction and longform web writing is now coming into its own. A notable aggregator of longform stories is longform.org.

Now, when I write for the web, I try and do it the way my employer wants it. Though, I must admit, if a particularly stunning turn of phrase strikes me, I leave it in just to show the editor I’ve still got style — before he/she deletes it.

We would like to thank Zoomer Media for the funding for this workshop.