Style guide and tips for online sub-editors
This page is intended to be a collaborative style guide for online sub-editors, including useful tips. To edit or add items on this page, please click here or email your suggestions or questions to john at journalism.co.uk. Wherever possible when adding or editing items please include links to relevant sites.
To contribute, you will need to use some simple wiki syntax explained here (please note: your changes may take up to two hours before they appear live on this page).
Credits for substantial edits: Fiona Cullinan
Also check out our popular one-day training course in online sub-editing.
Accessibility Websites are legally bound to make their content accessible to readers with disabilities. This includes design points such as using the right contrast for legibility but also sub's additions of image alt text on pictures that will be read out the visually impaired or dyslexic, for example. Find the W3C checklist here: http://www.w3.org/TR/WAI-WEBCONTENT/full-checklist.html
Ask 500 People A useful crowdsourcing tool for global surveys.
Attributions Needed more than ever in the fast-moving pace of online where information may be tracked from a wide variety of sources. Newsrooms are also moving towards a publish-then-filter model for some content, as well as including running accounts of some stories, so the many layers of checking that existed previously are being stripped away. Verification is not always possible, especially for breaking news, so attribute where possible for transparency. Readers can then weigh up the value of the information without the story being delayed. Not sure how this works for images. Creative Commons licences are increasingly common,though.
Audience Online metrics and social networking services such as Twitter now make it even easier to research and define your audience. Build up an audience profile for your site and those of your competitors, it will help you to serve your audience better. Also, be prepared to engage and communicate with your users, journalism should not be one way traffic. Listening to what your users will have to say will help you to build a community around your content.
Bombay This recently switched to Mumbai as the favoured search term in the UK. Globally, Mumbai is the better-known word.
Checks Here's an online starter kit for subs needing to check spellings, facts and stats, and includes links to online dictionaries and conversion sites.
Chunk A unit of copy that links to another, related piece of copy. Also, copy that has been broken up into shorter pieces, for example, under a series of subheads. Useful for breaking up and re-purposing print copy.
Comment At the end of any article, the reader should be left with the option of taking some form of action, whether it be leaving their opinion in a comments box, responding to a poll or following a link for further information.
Content Differentiate between print and online by offering content that will not be available in print media. Encourage participation by offering readers the chance to provide feedback.
Content Management System (CMS) The platform used to upload and lay out content for a website. Common systems, such as Wordpress and Squarespace dispense with the need to have extensive knowledge of HTML.
Corrections Be aware that just overwriting an error is not enough to erase it. RSS feeds pick up newly published content and distribute it in an instant so errors are public and can cause long-lasting damage (eg, stock values have collapsed on the back of misleading information). Updated amends are not resent by RSS feeds. Associated Press has a useful take on news values, ethics and web corrections.
Crowdsourcing Kind of an 'Ask the audience' tool, more usually used for reporting. But you can also use the wisdom of crowds in checking - useful when it is not easy to track down a name. Try Googling different spelling options and the numbers will often tell you which is correct, for example 22 million for McDonald's, 2 million for MacDonald's. Use with care. Also, if you have a social network built up on the likes of Twitter or Rypple, you can throw out the occasional crowdsourcing request for help with a headline, ideas for approaching content or posting a link and asking for feedback. Further reading: A journalist's guide to crowdsourcing.
Dates Content is archived on the internet so think of content as being always available rather than something that will be replaced by next month's issue. News sites will generally date their stories and any corrections. But for feature content, it may be better to avoid relative dates in copy. Ask: will this content still work in six month's time?
Dictionary Try online Dictionary.com.
Global Readers can arrive from anywhere not just the UK. Watch for idioms, UK slang and think about including international alternatives when uploading more universal content. For example, sub-editors are known as copy editors in the US, laptops may be called notebooks, and let's not get started on mobile phones.
Google Trends A useful tool for checking the popularity of your keywords.
Headlines Online headlines and page titles inform search engines, which then reward you with search traffic. Search engine bots do not rank for wit and wordplay so, until then, the SEO style is to be straightforward, factual and short. Include keywords, specific names or product models, full names, and concrete wording rather than abstract wordplay, then repeat them in the copy. Also, keeping the characters to 40 characters or less makes RSS feeds, especially on mobile web devices, easier to read. Some sites include a more 'human' headline on opening pages then an SEO headline deeper in. For more on online headlines:
Notice the search-friendly keywords of 'how to', 'headlines' and a superlative selling 'em in the first two links but the more human title of the NY Times story. The first three promise a tutorial, the last one an analysis - so you know what you are going to get just from the header.
House style Consistency and clarity is no less important online than in print, and editorial standards should be just as high. Familiarise yourself with your organisation's style guide and make sure it is applied. There are certain practices which apply only online, such as when and how you use outbound links and whether these links open in a new window or the same window. Make sure to know these rules off by heart and be as consistent in applying them as you would with normal style rules.
Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) The programming code at the heart of most website pages. As a sub using a CMS platform, you probably won't need to know much about it. Most likely to be encountered when forced to create links manually.
Keywords Simply the words that people would search for when looking for your content. Find out which are the most popular by inputting several options into Google Trends. The breakdown shows you which terms people are searching for, and where the terms are popular. Try inputting 'lose weight' and 'diet' - and you will see quite a difference. Get them into headlines and page titles to boost your search engine ranking and to make your content more visible online. Search superlatives, such as best, funniest, greatest, latest, etc, are popular search keywords. As is 'review' for when people want product information. Also, don't just think keywords but key phrases too, as described in this blog post Do keywords in post titles really matter? Repeat specific names or products in full rather than referring to 'it' or 'the [generic noun]'.
Links Linking out is sometimes frowned upon as sending traffic away but statistics suggest that there is a strong relationship between external links and receiving a boost to your incoming links. Publish only internal links and risk readers seeing your site as a dead end. Read some more thoughts on linking out. Be consistent in your linking policy and be sure to check where your outbound links go. Even if web pages that you link to look fine, the site they are part of may contain inappropriate or libellous material which could offend your audience or be illegal.
Navigation Check that the reader's journey through the content makes sense - sometimes sites are designed without much thought for the content. Check the links work. And that slow downloads aren't frustrating the reader.
Page titles Check the page title or URL is optimised for search engines - headlines often form part of the URL. Ask the site manager to adapt your CMS for this, advises Patrick Beeson.
Plagiarism Is on the increase thanks to the copy and paste button and the ease of finding information online. Lazywebs! If you suspect a writer has plagiarised copy, just post a suspect line into Google - and all will be revealed.
Repurposing Unless online content is commissioned specifically, repurposing copy used in print is a common task, especially as print deadlines occur much earlier. The good news is the copy will probably have been checked. The bad news is it won't be web-friendly and will need styling for keywords and SEO, scan-reading and chunking, and possibly pointing out to the commissioning editor that it doesn't work and needs additional content. As of January 2009, this probably applies more to magazine or client subbing than news, which is increasingly being filed direct to web.
Rhymezone This site is great for rhymes, synonyms, similar sounding words, consonant matching words and so on – useful for triggering headline ideas.
SEO or search engine optimisation Writing copy that is easily found and indexed by search engines boosts content higher up the search engine pages. Keywords help with this. Sites that are built in HTML are also more SEO-friendly and accessible than Flash sites, which turn copy into images that search engine bots cannot read. But the Google algorithm, for example, also ranks content according to other factors; for example, it ranks sites with a large number of incoming links more highly, and also increasingly sites that link out. SEO is not an exact science and shifts as the search engine algorithms shift.
Spamglish Reuse of the same keyword in the hope of raising the Google ranking of a website page. This practice is not effective and considered to be bad web etiquette.
Tags Most CMS platforms provide an option to add tags to any story published on the system. Tags can aid users in browsing through your content by using words that link to an index of stories associated with the same word or category. Similar to keywords, but used as part of a site's internal reference system. Useful, if you have a large content archive that reader's might otherwise have to spend a lot of time searching for related or relevant information.
Technorati A blog indexing and search service. Useful for searching the blogosphere for interesting links. Can set up watch lists for your content area.
Thesaurus Try Thesaurus.com.
Threads A 'thread' is the specific conversation that follows from an initial topic, question or discussion starter being posted on a discussion board or other online multi-user forum. In most websites, a thread is displayed as a series of replies to the original posting, although more technologically sophisticated discussion platforms and content management systems like Drupal (and blog commenting systems like Disqus and coComment) also allow specific replies-within-the-replies, which gives the discussion a more understandable human shape in the online setting. In a thread with many contributors, it's an improvement to be able to reply to subsequent contributors, rather then just the original post.
Tone The web is generally more conversational in tone so it can be difficult to escape print styles when first moving over to online feature content. Sentences are shorter, paragraphs too. The second person narrative is common, addressing readers directly. Think about rewriting for tone when repurposing content for web. Further reading: Re-styling print copy into web conversation.
Web style Read a cheat sheet for web style by online journalist/educator Mindy McAdams.
Web usability Website design is almost (if not equally) as important as the quality of website content. Site visitors need to be able to read and use content effectively after it has been written. A definition of Web Usability is provided here.
Wikipedia A free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. A useful first port of call for information but the editable nature of a wiki means that its pages are open to spammers and vandals. Check back to the source - there is usually a reference section at the bottom of the page that will lead to more trustworthy sites for verifying. That said, some outlets are attributing quoted sources to Wikipedia so readers can understand where the informations has come from. Paul Bradshaw of the Online Journalism Blog suggests Googling 'mistake + name of person' as a sub's check.
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