The Fix-It Alert: Eight Keys to Better Online News Writing

Howard Rauch

Any Internet search for advice on “writing for the Web” will produce thousands of advisories.  All of them are useful, but to judge from my recently concluded study of 50 B2B Web sites, their advice is widely ignored by e-news writers and editors

How does the news writing on your B2B site measure up? Using a simple “fix-it alert” scoring system can help you answer that question.

For the study, I analyzed 446 articles on the basis of eight factors I’ve found to be essential to effective e-news writing:

  1. Impact. How important is the subject of the article to target readers? Is it of urgent interest, or is it just filler?
  2. Enterprise. How much digging does the story represent? Is the article just a warmed-over press release, or did the writer seek out fresh information?
  3. Direct quotes. Does the article include original, direct quotes from key news sources?
  4. Fast-paced lead. How many words does it take to get to the key point of the story? Better leads get there in fewer words.
  5. Readability. To assess this factor, I recommend the Fog Index. A Fog Index grade level is derived via a calculation involving average sentence length and words of three or more syllables. To ensure readability, the Fog Index grade level should not exceed 12.
  6. Average sentence length. Although average sentence length is a component of the Fog Index, I’ve isolated it here because so many e-news writers thrive on endless sentences.
  7. Article word count. In general, successful e-news stories are short, though the ideal length will vary from one Web site to another. My study is based on a preferred maximum length of 750 words.
  8. Embedded links. Hyperlinks are what the Internet is all about. If your writer doesn’t work at least one link into the text of the story, it’s not a true e-news article.

These factors are fairly obvious and should not be subject to argument.  But for some reason, these editorial basics—particularly readability and average sentence length—seem to be a foreign language for the low-scoring sites I reviewed.

Calculating Fix-It Alert Scores

To highlight news-writing problems in the e-news reviews I do for publishing clients, I use what I call a “fix-it-alert” (FIA) calculation. Here’s an example of how you can use the FIA system to assess the quality of your news articles:

Let’s assume that you post ten e-news items per week. You would make up a chart, like the one in this article, rating each of the eight factors as follows:

  • Impact: High, Medium, or Low.
  • Enterprise: High, Medium, Low, or No. (Note: In my recently-completed study, two-thirds of the articles reviewed earned a “No.”)
  • Quotes: The number of direct quotes obtained from sources.
  • Lead: The number of words wasted before a key story point is reached.  For example, a lead value of -5 means it took five words to reach the take-away angle.
  • Readability: The Fog Index grade level.
  • Average Sentence Length (ASL). The average number of words per sentence in the article.
  • Word Count: The total number of words in the article.
  • Links: The number of embedded links in the article.

As you enter the ratings, boldface all entries that you consider to be unacceptable. There is no absolute measure of acceptability; it’s really up to you. In the chart I’ve included here, for example, I’ve chosen to boldface factors where the impact is low, the lead value is −15 or worse, the Fog Index is 13.0 or higher, and the average sentence is 25 words or longer.

Your last step is to calculate the FIA score: the percentage of boldfaced—that is, unacceptable—factors. In our example, we have a total of 80 ratings (10 articles multiplied by 8 factors). If you boldfaced 35 of those ratings, your overall FIA score is 35 divided by 80, or 43.7%. The lower the FIA score, the better.

A Fix-It Alert Example

The accompanying chart reflects actual results for a Web site e-news package of ten articles. Out of the 50 sites I reviewed, the resulting FIA score of 56.25% placed this one in 49th place.

Article Impact Enterprise Quotes Lead Readability ASL Word Count Links
A MED NO 2 -4 15.8 30.3 394 0
B MED NO 0 -15 16.9 34.0 170 0
C MED NO 1 -8 13.1 25.2 403 0
D MED NO 1 -10 15.9 30.4 274 0
E HIGH NO 1 -10 11.2 19.0 247 0
F MED NO 1 -20 16.8 32.9 230 0
G MED NO 0 -2 18.5 38.9 428 0
H LOW NO 1 -28 14.9 26.2 367 0
I LOW NO 1 -5 16.2 26.5 212 0
J MED NO 1 -7 18.4 27.3 164 0
FIX-IT ALERT = 45/80 = 56.25%

As part of your evaluation process, establish yardsticks based on your existing editorial policy.  Usually, the first time you run this exercise, the resulting FIA score becomes a benchmark for establishing higher goals where warranted.

Obviously, it would be terrific if FIA for all factors could drop to 0%. But to start, you really want to address any factor where the average FIA exceeds 50%

In my experience, the weakest performance is likely to be in readability and average sentence length. In the accompanying chart, the FIA for both was 90%.  High FIA scores for these two categories–maybe not 90%, but still above 50%–were the rule for half of the 50 sites I reviewed.

(Why such long-windedness? Two key hurdles are apparently to blame: 1. Opening sentences using source-first, lead-second sequence.  2. Endless puffy quotes. In both cases, e-news writers clearly are allowing ponderous content from PR announcements to sneak into their articles unscathed.)

What FIA score should you shoot for? The answer will vary widely from one Web site to another. But in a follow-up e-news study just launched, I’ve found typical scores of 30% to 40%.  In the original study, the lowest FIA was 25.0%. Only five sites managed FIA scores below 30.0%. If your score is over 40%, it may be time to take action and start fixing it.

Howard Rauch is president of Editorial Solutions Inc., an editorial consulting practice specializing in B2B, and the 2002 recipient of ASBPE’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  Before launching Editorial Solutions in 1989, Rauch was VP/editorial director for B2B publisher Gralla Publications. He can be reached at howard@editsol.com.

2 thoughts on “The Fix-It Alert: Eight Keys to Better Online News Writing

  1. Pingback: Three Common Failures in Online News: Are You At Fault? | B2B Memes

  2. Thank you for this piece. I’m putting together a primer for an e-news copy writer who will be working with our firm and this article is going into the mix. Best to you!

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