Career Advice

Writing Mythbusters: Tactics that Don’t Really Work

By Bonnie Burton May 7th, 2012

The rules of freelance writing evolve and change quickly, which means that writers themselves must adapt. Once clever headlines and buried ledes ruled newspapers, now journalists have to consider search engines, mobile apps and shorter attention spans when writing for an audience with little time or patience for mistakes.

Here are a few major writing myths and how to avoid them from writers and editors who have successfully busted them.

1. Clever headlines attract readers

Reality: Writing a headlines using a play on words may interest readers who are already on your blog or website, but if readers use a search looking for something specific the article might as well have been written with invisible ink.

“With everything being put on the web for consumption, that you need to optimize your headlines for Search Engine Optimization (SEO),” Chicago Redeye writer Elliott Serrano explained.

2. Wikipedia is the only research tool needed

Reality: While many writers use Wikipedia as a starting point to find basic information on every subject imaginable, it should not be the only research tool used in an article.

“I rely on Wikipedia all the time for quick facts, but it’s best to go to a company web site or other source for facts that are really core to a story,” said CNET Car Tech Senior Editor Wayne Cunningham. “When finding statistics on Wikipedia, it is always a good idea to look at the link to the source of those statistics. If, as a writer, you get called out on an error, you are going to sound silly blaming it on Wikipedia.”

3. Burying a lede makes for a better read

Reality: There was a time in long-form journalism where lengthy paragraphs would set the scene of an interview or feature. Now with so many blogs, news websites and online magazines competing for eyeballs, it doesn’t make sense to make the reader work harder to discover the facts.

“The first paragraph should give the point of the article, it should not be used to demonstrate the author’s cleverness,” Cunningham said.

4. Editors will always catch mistakes

Reality: While editors are trained to look for mistakes in grammar and spelling, they play a larger role in making sure they get the best work possible from their writers. Editors, however, don’t want to waste time on errors that could have been prevented with a quick spellcheck.

“Proof read your work that one last time before you submit,” Zap2it Contributing Editor Jenna Busch said.

Whenever I write a piece, I read it out loud to myself. I listen to the rhythm of my words, and try to catch if I’m repeating myself,” Serrano added. “You’d be surprised at how much you can get from just reading it aloud.”

5. Numbered and rated list articles are amateurish

Reality: With reader attention spans growing shorter, numbered lists deliver facts quicker and easier to digest. Even more popular are rated list-style articles, which ignite interest and debate from readers who are eager to leave opinions in the comments section of an article.

“Numbered lists are something a lot of sites do because people are always curious as to who or what number one will be, and readers are itching to disagree, which can drive hits,” Associate Editor Jill Pantozzi explained.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Travis S.

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