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12 essentials for creating effective digital stories

There is no room for self-indulgence in digital writing. (Photo from the Wix library)


Global Business Journalism program co-director

Writing for digital platforms requires different writing styles than the legacy news platforms it is rapidly eclipsing.

Readers who consume news on their phones or laptops prefer writing that is briefer and livelier than traditional print articles. Yet they want greater depth and insight than contained in a traditional television news report.

Here are 12 essential elements that will help you succeed in the digital news world.

Rick Dunham has been the international co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University since 2013.

1. No wasted words

There is no room for self-indulgence in digital writing. Every word matters. People click away from stories if they get bored or annoyed. If you write something and no one reads it, you are not an effective journalist in the digital age.

2. Think short

Short sentences. Write like you speak to a friend, not the way you'd write a report for a government agency or for a thesis.

Short leads. Don't pack too many words into the first sentence. And don't write it like a routine wire story lead: "Something happened today in our city, officials said." Boring!

Short paragraphs. A screen containing one paragraph of dull, gray type is deadly. Vary paragraph lengths, but keep them to a maximum of three sentences.

One thought per paragraph. Don't try to say everything all at once. Flow naturally from idea to idea. Keep the structure simple.

“A general rule of thumb: Web content should have about half as many words as its printed equivalent," journalism trainer Tony Rogers has written.

3. Think visually

Don't just think of the words you will write. Think of how it will look on the screen. You want it to be attractive visually. That means white space (and not just text). It means attractive and easy-to-understand graphics. And it means engaging and, ideally, shareable images.

4. Know your audience

Your writing may differ in subtle or significant ways based on your audience's profile. Is it older? younger? more educated? more conservative? What is the audience's nationality (or nationalities)? Is it regional or national within a country? Is it global? Does it have a particular interest in certain subject matter (economics, commerce, the environment, diplomacy)? , may write differently

5. Focus most items around a single theme

Forget about the traditional "kitchen sink" round-up story that deals with a number of developments on a single topic. Pick an important or engaging development and write a narrowly focused, compelling piece. If two or three developments are newsworthy and interesting to your audience, you can write multiple posts. Many news outlets combine these single-topic articles under the banner "the latest news on" today's big story.

6. Be direct

Always use active sentence structure. Be conversational. Use strong verbs, precise nouns and as few adjectives and adverbs as possible. (Examples: Avoid wasted words like "very," "a few" or "unfortunately.") Never use stilted language or flowery prose. Get to the point. Always stay on point.

7. Be immediate

Make it clear quickly why someone would want to read your story now. Unless you are writing a long narrative that someone can bookmark and return to, you want to be immediate. Your target audience will either read it now – or never. Make it now!

8. Be more analytical

Try to add value, even in short stories. Provide analysis, context and even a bit of relevant history. Explain why something happened or what might happen next. Always consider what you might include that would make the reader leave you story thinking that they learned something interesting.

9. Use more lists and "bullet points"

Articles made up of lists, or structured to include a list of "bullet points" (the big dots that resemble bullets), are easier on the eye. They also save space by eliminating transition sentences from one thought to the next. Another plus: Younger audiences (age 35 and under) are particularly drawn to these so-called "listicles."

10. Liberally insert links

Your digital stories can be easier to find on search engines if you include embedded links in your story. Embedded links have an added advantage: They save space by allowing you to link to background material rather than describing it in your own story. In addition to embedded links, keep people on your app or website by linking to related stories or other articles by the author.

11. Consider embedding social media posts and videos in your stories

Digital stories don't have to be use a single storytelling medium. By embedding social media posts, short videos or even mini-documentaries in your post, you create a user-friendly multimedia melange.

12. Find your voice

Write like a person, not like a computer. Sound like you are someone the reader would like to know. It's OK to include some "personality" in the story, as long as the personality is inviting. But don't let that personality interfere with – or overwhelm – the main points of your article.


Rick Dunham is co-director of the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University and a visiting professor in the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication. He is the author of the textbook, “Multimedia Reporting,” published globally by Springer, and co-editor of Springer’s Tsinghua Global Business Journalism book series.

Mr. Dunham is a veteran Washington journalist, White House correspondent and former president of the National Press Club. He has covered every U.S. presidential election since 1980. Before joining the faculty at Tsinghua, where he teaches multimedia journalism, data journalism, advanced news writing and U.S. media culture, Mr. Dunham was Washington bureau chief of the Houston Chronicle and White House correspondent for Business Week magazine.

Since arriving in China in 2013, Mr. Dunham has offered news analysis for news outlets from countries including the United States, China, Finland, the Philippines, Denmark, Estonia and Russia. He has trained professional journalists, journalism students and journalism educators in locations including the United States, China, Finland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Lebanon and the Philippines.


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