How to write clearly

I usually hate tips for writers – writing, to me, should be a natural thing. But having seen a lot of very bad writing, more concerned with showing off the writer’s linguistic skill or subject-matter expertise than enlightening the reader, this approach strikes me as vital to keep in mind at all times: Writing is a modern twist on an ancient, species-wide behaviour: drawing someone else’s attention to something visible. Imagine stopping during a hike to point out a distant church to your hiking companion: look, over there, in the gap between those trees – that patch of yellow stone? Now can you see the spire? “When you write,” Pinker says, “you should pretend that you, the writer, see something in the world that’s interesting, and that you’re directing the attention of your reader to that thing.” Perhaps this seems stupidly obvious. How else could anyone write? Yet much bad writing happens when people abandon this approach. Academics can be more concerned with showcasing their knowledge; bureaucrats can be more concerned with covering their backsides; journalists can be more concerned with breaking the news first, or making their readers angry. All interfere with “joint attention”, making writing less transparent. This isn’t a “rule for writers”; it’s a perspective shift. It’s also an answer to an old question: should you write for yourself or for an audience? The answer is “for an audience”. But not to impress them. The idea is to help them discern something you know they’d be able to see, if only they were looking in the right...

Understanding how people interact with your content: the code

Upworthy have released the code they use to track user engagement, with a nice bit of methodology explaining what they’re tracking and why they care: “In the age of ever-present social media, our collective attentions have never been spread thinner. According to Facebook, each user has the potential to be served 1,500 stories in their newsfeed each time. For a heavy user, that number could be as much as 15,000. In this climate, how do you get people to pay attention? And, more importantly, how do you know they’re actually engaged? “Clicks and pageviews, long the industry standards, are drastically ill-equipped for the job. Even the share isn’t a surefire measure that the user has spent any time engaging with the content itself. It’s in everyone’s interest — from publishers to readers to advertisers — to move to a metric that more fully measures attention spent consuming content. In other words, the best way to answer the question is to measure what happens between the click and the share. Enter Attention...

News as procrastination in the age of mobile first

“Know your enemy” – the first rule of everything competitive. But we’re mostly doing it wrong – speaking with my MSN hat on, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that our main competition is Yahoo, Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post, and base strategy on what they are/aren’t doing to get ahead of the competition. But if you’re in publishing, no matter what kind, your competition isn’t other publishers – it’s anything and everything that competes for your audience’s time and attention. And this is only getting more obvious for anyone in the online world now that mobile is one of the key entrypoints for news. What do we use mobile phones for? Communication, obviously. Information, naturally. But mostly? Proscrastination. Have a few minutes to kill waiting for a bus, for someone to turn up for a meeting, for the line and the checkout to run down, and what are we all doing? Pissing about on our phones. Some read ebooks, some play games, some do work, some watch videos, some learn a language, some catch up on the news and lastest gossip, look for lifestyle tips, browse recipes, check holiday destinations – all the other stuff that broad-catchment websites like the one I work on offer up to attract readers. Even news itself is as much about wasting time as it is about getting information – because, let’s face it, most news doesn’t directly affect most people. Even the most horrific news – terrorist attacks, mass shootings, kidnappings, wars and natural disasters – only directly affect the tiniest fraction of our audiences. They are...

The failure of the supermarket model of publishing

Fascinating, thought-provoking piece – another of those ones you come away from thinking “damn, that’s so obvious – why didn’t I make the connection before?” A few highlights: Quality doesn’t mean popularity: every single newspaper that I talk with. They are saying the same thing, which is that their journalistic work is top of the line and amazing. The problem is ‘only’ with the secondary thing of how it is presented to the reader. And we have been hearing this for the past five to ten years, and yet the problem still remains. There is a complete and total blind spot in the newspaper industry that, just maybe, part of the problem is also the journalism itself. Instead, they move the problem out of the editorial room, and into separate and isolated ‘innovation teams’… who are then charged with coming up with ideas for how to reformat their existing journalistic product in a digital way. But let me ask you this. If The NYT is ‘winning at journalism‘, why is its readership falling significantly? If their daily report is smart and engaging, why are they failing to get its journalism to its readers? If its product is ‘the world’s best journalism‘, why does it have a problem growing its audience? Newspapers (and all-in-one-place sites) are an outdated concept: No matter how hard they try, supermarkets with a mass-market/low-relevancy appeal will never appear on a list of the most ‘engaging brands’, or on list of brands that people love. And this is the essence of the trouble newspapers are facing today. It’s not that we now live in a digital...

Does internet advertising work?

This obsession with measurable outcomes from online advertising – something it’s impossible to do with TV or print or billboards – is idiotic. Advertising is about brand/product recognition and building familiarity/trust as much if not more than direct sales, and always has been. This is a solid overview of the issues. Maybe, one day, the industry will wake up to its idiocy. Yes, detailed data is useful – but just because some things are measurable doesn’t mean everything is. A sale may be a long time in...