Writing online workshop: some warm-up exercises for next week


So, next Friday then.

The second course I’m running in a series of workshops offering my insider secrets to writing for the media. This time we’re talking specifically about writing online.

To help us get our thinking caps on, I’d like you to read this recent blog-style article from the Guardian by @davidhepworthCharlioe Hebdo: A twisted vote of confidence, and post your thoughts.

Read it carefully, not just for content but for style, structure, tone of language etc. Then post a comment below telling us what you think of it and why.

Did you enjoy the way the story was written? What aspects did you like/dislike?

When you post, please also include a brief introduction to yourself, so we can get to know each other a bit before the class next Friday and start a bit of a dialogue between us a a group.

I’ll do the same. And, over the week to come, I’ll post a couple more links to get the discussion flowing.

Looking forward to meeting everyone next Friday – aim for 9.15am at The Glynne Arms, 3 Glynne Way, Hawarden CH5 3NS.

Please call or email with any questions.


  1. Becky Sowray says:

    I’m Becky Sowray.

    I write fiction, short plays, music reviews and I manage a local band. My writing began with fiction. I’ve done loads of article writing/blog work for free, or very nearly free, and had an amazing time. But I read my content now and some of it is as good as some of the print-copy, writer-got-paid-for-it variety. And that makes me brave enough to want extend my reach.

    The Article

    The sentence structure in places is dreadful:

    Was there a single old hand in the world of magazines who didn’t read the stories about the demand for copies of the post-massacre edition of Charlie Hebdo, raise their eyebrows at the 5m-plus print run it took to eventually satisfy that demand and wonder at the people even in this country who were apparently going out of their way to make sure they got hold of a copy, without thinking to themselves, “that is a terrible price to pay for record sales figures”?

    That’s a very long sentence. And here’s another one that’s hard to assimilate:

    They were killed because they did what they did not in code which could be read by a machine

    That one needed breaking up too. And just for good measure, some unnecessary repetition:

    On paper. In black and white. The paper it is written on. There’s a finality about it. It’s not provisional. These are ideas we carry with us whether we like it or not.

    I am unsure of the identity of the ‘we’ in this (and in many commentary articles), it is almost as offensive and undemocratically inclusive as the second person.

    Yet I agree with much of what he has to say. Ultimately something that is well edited (and there is an assumption that print media is well edited) will have a stronger readership, a more loyal following and greater credibility than something half thought, badly finished.

    Are online sources as hard hitting? Has the prolification of media outlets achieved anything? I think it has given a voice to minority in many cases, but as to what kind of weight that carries I have no concrete view.

    See you Friday.

  2. Thanks Becky for kicking off.
    You make some good points here about structuring writing for online and about proliferation.
    Are we simply suffering from Too Much Stuff (TMS) syndrome? And, if so, how do we make our voices heard?
    We’ll look at some of the communication theory on Friday as part of the token science bit 🙂
    So, what do other people think? Over to you.

  3. Bill Webster says:

    Hi Becky, David, et al – I’m Bill Webster and I am a last-minute impulse attendee on Friday’s course. My day job is as a freelance IT project manager and I also have a long-standing interest in creative writing. I am therefore coming along to the course both for pointers as to how to promote my own business and interests online, and also to see whether writing for online media could provide a secondary income stream… or pension supplement in the fullness of time!

    What did I like about the Charlie Hebdo article? I quite liked the case the author made for there being something different about words and pictures on paper – something that elevated the subject matter above the same words and pictures conveyed on a blog or a twitter feed. I found this an interesting thesis, but in a world where anyone can publish any old nonsense via Createspace I’m not sure it actually stands up to much scrutiny.

    Anyhow, mildly interesting as it might have been, I doubt if I would have got that far. The title was cumbersome and off-putting. The sub-title was actually very good but lacked prominence. The picture was boring/morbid (take your pick) and the first paragraph was so poorly constructed it became just too much like hard work trying to decipher its meaning.

    (Or maybe I have acquired a digital attention span?)

    The reference to ‘old hands’ in the ‘world of magazines’ seems unnecessarily exclusive of the average reader.

    Having been forced by David to read it to the end, I am just left thinking “So what?” and cursing my stupidity for wasting my time reading such vacuous stuff.

    But I am sure there must have been several people somewhere who found it thought-provoking and really quite riveting. 🙂

    I am now hoping like hell that David Hepworth is not David Atkinson’s pen name; and am further hoping that this article was suggested as a warm-up so that we can see that writing does not have to be very good or very interesting in order to fill some digital column inches… meaning that there may be hope for all of us. 🙂

    See you on Friday….


    • Thanks Bill for posting and welcome along.
      Hepworth and I are definitely not related, nor connected, but it’s interesting that an established writer with a long and pretty glorious track record seems to be leaving readers cold with his online output.
      You raise an interesting point about digital attention spans and this is something we can talk about further on Friday.
      Meanwhile, what do the others think? Join the debate.

  4. Thanks for your comments so far.
    Given that David Hepworth had a cool reception for his blog post, let’s try this piece from today’s BBC News online by the established beat reporter @seanjcoughlan.
    Are we missing the real student loan story? [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31028467]
    Think about not what he says, but how he says it. What structure techniques does he use to reflect online medium.
    I’ll post one final link to consider on Thursday.
    Share your thoughts below.

  5. Becky Sowray says:

    I think that, in terms of online formatting there’s something very different here. His thinking, and the story development, is very linear. One thing leads to another, which makes it very easy to follow. There’s a nice use of white space too.

    But it’s harder to assimilate than the usual think piece, because the groupings of similar ideas aren’t so obvious, they’re more conversational. Interesting.

  6. Hi David, Becky and Bill – really looking forward to meeting you and the others on the workshop this Friday. I started blogging around 15 months ago with a website http://www.outdoorswithdad.org and interlinked Facebook and Twitter accounts.

    The blogging started as an experiment in learning how to use social media but has become something of a personal passion. I would love to be able to write to a wider audience on the theme of helping/inspiring parents to spend more time outdoors with their children from birth. A target audience currently might be fathers of children aged 0-5, namely because that’s based on my personal experience so far.

    Thoughts on David Hepworth’s Charlie Hebdo article:

    The title was a bit confusing but the standfirst made things a little clearer. However, the first paragraph was one really long sentence and I started losing interest. Ordinarily I would not have read any more. I suppose the lesson here is that you have to grab the audience early on and draw them in. I kept reading only because this was an assignment. I was glad I did because the rest of the article was very thought provoking. Overall, a great article, but the start lets it down.

    Thoughts on Sean Coughlan’s student loan article:

    An engaging article. The title and standfirst link well. He asks questions early on, which is an engaging style. It’s a very long article but the sub-titles kept me reading. He uses fact and stats well and brings in comments from others. Last but not least some readers have left comments which is evidence of an engaging article and there were 2,900 shares on social media (The Charlie Hebdo article had no comments and 77 shares).

    Both articles use hyperlinks but I am not convinced they are a good idea as they risk losing your readers before they have finished your article?

  7. Bill Webster says:

    What Becky said… plus the use of hooks and questions to lead the reader on. Nice short clear sentences. Very easy to follow and read. The white space comment is very relevant for online ease of reading.

  8. Phil Parry says:

    Hi All,
    I’m Phil and I run a local coaching and training company – Change Leadership Partners Ltd. We specialise in the provision of courses for organisational change (focused on the people side of change), leadership and management development and employee engagement.

    Finding new business is always a top priority for me. I have always found people buy from people they trust, especially when purchasing an intangible service. So building long-standing, trusted business relationships is of paramount importance. This is usually through face to face dialogue. But of course everyone is talking about the need to have a digital marketing presence as well. So I am intrigued, perhaps even being dragged screaming and kicking into the online world of websites, blogging, digital marketing and social media and how these can support the more traditional approaches to the purchasing relationship. Essentially, how can I write for an online audience to build confidence and trust?

    Forgive me, I have passed over the David Hepworth article fairly quickly. I was shocked to the core about the incident of course. But in regard to this article, like others I was left asking, what is he really trying to say?

    Now on the other hand, Sean’s article is engaging and forward thinking. He is addressing / raising a concern that most households face. The text is easy to read, and seems to lead you through all aspects of the issue from a range of perspectives. There was something in this for everyone, apart from the very wealthy.

    The contrast between these two articles highlights the difference between churning out material for the sake of it, and offering something of genuine interest and value. I hope to learn more of how to do the latter on Friday!

  9. Thanks for your comments so far. Good points here about reader interaction and clarity of style.
    There are still a couple of people we haven’t heard from, so please do join in.
    I’ll post a final article to consider on Thursday.

  10. Okay, one last link to consider before Friday:
    ‘Thousands of men will spend Xmas alone’ from Telegraph Men [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/relationships/fatherhood/11301135/Thousands-of-fathers-will-spend-Christmas-alone.html]
    Again, think structure more than content.
    And, yes, it’s one of mine but don’t hold back. I can take it 🙂

  11. I really enjoyed this heartfelt article so it is hard to take a step back and be objective but I will give it a try!

    As with Sean Coughlan’s article the title and stand-first link well with a great mix of facts, stats and comments from others. Having reviewed Sean’s structure I think your article could have benefitted from a few sub-titles.

    It’s probably outside your control but the photo was a bit cheesy given the quite poignant subject matter.

    I am not sure if its relevant to structure but I think when the author shares personal insights that really engages the readers. And the evidence is there with a very high number of comments relative the other Telegraph Men articles on equally topical issues.

  12. Bill Webster says:

    A strangely engaging little piece that treads a statistical trail through separation, divorce, caring services, suicide, and Christmas lunch. Again very conversational but peppered (littered?) with survey results, statistics, and quotes… but somehow it does all work and is an interesting and thought provoking read.

    Christmas was just a hook to hang lots of this stuff on, and it worked very well.

    The personalisation via “Richard” worked ok, although the third para made me smile inappropriately at the thought of a red wine-fueled Richard staggering up his ex’s path to collect the kids. And of course the personalisation took on a whole new meaning for readers who made it to the end.

    The only minor annoyance for me was the 5th para which I thought suffered from a surfeit of statistics and as a result became difficult to decipher.

    Overall I thought the article worked very well and held the reader from the beginning to the slightly surprising end.

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