Category Archives: Lectures

Tips for creative writing in radio

Before Easter some of the University of Lincoln’s journalism students were treated to a talk from Harry Youtt, who teaches creative writing at UCLA, about how to write creatively for radio. Here’s my notes from the talk.

To get an idea of what works on the radio it’s good to listen to other examples of fascinating radio. Harry Youtt is based in Los Angeles and he says as an outsider the US is jealous of the BBC. There’s such a variety and scope of documentaries and programmes on BBC radio that are interesting listens.

The only equivalent in the US, Harry Youtt says, is This American Life presented by Ira Glass. The hour-long show covers a variety of topics and each week’s show has a theme but predominantly the show explores human nature.

A good way to approach creative writing for radio is to think about the perfect listener. They are already interested in your programme topic — do you think they will enjoy it all and continue listening? Is your story worth telling?

Think about your top lines — this is how you draw your listener in so start somewhere that matters and shape the rest of your piece around that. Also consider centring your topic on an individual because people identify with other people’s difficulties and challenges easily.

Let others do the hard work for you. Characters speak for themselves so let your interviewees speak and not you speak on their behalf. It will mean more coming from them and leave the presenter to narrate the story.

It’s a cliche but Harry Youtt says “Actions speak louder than words” and radio gives you the perfect opportunity to be creative with this statement. You could just talk to someone about an event, or you could go to the event and get involved remembering to record interesting sounds as you go along. Then it’s not just a chat but actually getting the listener involved.

Interview techniques are also key to good radio. When it comes to programme making this means going beyond just what questions you are going to ask because you want to be able to use all parts of the conversation. Interviewees need to feel comfortable and you can take the time to get good answers.

For news bulletins in radio you need to act quickly so you can ask the difficult and daunting questions first and these questions are likely to be asked to people who are being held to account, so they expect it. If you are making a programme then you are more likely to be chatting to someone who has a story to tell which will take time to get out of them. It doesn’t mean you have to use those first easy questions and you can change the order of the answers to suit how you tell the story.

Harry Youtt has some good techniques to help with interviews including remember to look at people’s faces when you are interviewing them, as it helps to get more of idea of how they are feeling. Also research is always a good idea and sometimes it pays off to do extra research to help you out.

Essentially the best pieces of radio you will create are about topics that you are emotionally interested in. Make a list of the stories you want to tell and rank them in order, now you know what you want to report on.

Writing for online

Earlier this year I presented a lecture about ‘Writing for online’ at the University of Lincoln. This is the next step on from ‘Tips for blogging and tweeting’ and looks more specifically at how websites for newspapers and magazines work.

Design is important to consider for newspaper and magazine layout, and the same applies to their websites. It’s a useful tool to attract readers, demonstrate that you are a trustworthy source of information and get people picking up your publication or visiting your title again.


Print publications have a front page whereas online you have a homepage. They both act as a welcome page to your publication and should encourage people to read on as well as demonstrating the main points of your brand. All that means is when people look at it they should understand who you are writing for and what you are writing about.


Online homepages used to be the first page people would visit, but more readers are now coming in through the side door. This means more people are discovering articles through Google searches or social media. As a result every page now has to act as a homepage to attract readers and keep them interested.

Homepages are also important for advertising as it gives them something polished to show what your title is about, even if the rest of the website isn’t as organised. One good example of this is The Huffington Post. They use a tactic called ‘the mullet strategy‘ which means they are an established name because they cover serious stories but most people visit them for their lighter, viral stories. It’s called ‘the mullet strategy’ because they are “business upfront, party in the back”.

What makes a good website?

A good website needs to be easy to read and use. This means you need to figure out what you want to showcase to readers and what you think is important for them to see. Then consider the best way to show that to them. Also consider ways to share content as that can help get your articles and website read by more people.

It also helps to understand the technical side of running a website. If your website is appearing broken then you will know how to fix it rather than wait for someone else to fix it and lose visitors. It also means you can be prepared, as your intention is to get more people looking at your website then you will know how you to cope when there is a large amount of traffic visiting your site.

A site for sore eyes

It is hard to keep people’s attention online as there is so much to compete with. There will be some people who will read articles properly from beginning to end and others who will just scan read pieces. So think of ways to make your site appeal to a variety of people with some simple design and journalism skills.

The easiest way is to make sure your content is interesting is to write good articles. Write well, get good interviews and make sure you tell it in the best way.

There are a few other tips as well including using sub headings breaks up long articles into simple chunks. It will also allow people to scan your article and find the bit that they want to read. Think about using pictures, video, audio and depending on your audience maybe gifs or structure the story as a list.

However, don’t feel pressured to use them all at once think which skills help to tell your story best and concentrate on them. Just because people have clicked on your story doesn’t mean they will watch a video too, unless you give them a reason.

There’s also plenty of room for experimentation online. Snowfall by the New York Times was one of the first interactive features which told the story of a US avalanche with lots of different visuals, videos and text and all the reader had to do was scroll down the website. The piece won a a Pullitzer prize but some see the New York Times’ work as a bit over the top so it depends what you are wanting to tell people.

There’s also the option to be quite simple online, as demonstrated by Trinity Mirror’s UsVsTh3m. It’s an interesting site and idea anyway but they wanted to focus on visual rather than articles. So when the Mars Rover accidentally drew a penis shape on the planet UsVsTh3m could just post a picture when other news sources were writing 200 words about the event and padding it out with irrelevant details.

Mobile websites

mobile websites and apps

A mobile website is a scaled down version of the normal website that works best on a smartphone. These type of sites are very important as a number of readers are getting their news first. In fact in the UK one in five read the news only on their mobile according to a survey from September 2013.

Some sites could have a mobile app as well, but they need to be different from the mobile site. Generally people would already be loyal readers of the website and decide to download the app as well. They include features you don’t get on the mobile website for example the BBC News app sends out alerts for breaking news and the Guardian app allows you to customise which categories you would prefer to read.


SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation and it helps more people to find your website. There are a lot of SEO techniques that are a lot of hard work and not particularly worth it. However, there are a few tips that you should pay attention to when writing online and will get you noticed:

  • Tagging
  • Strong headlines
  • Useful links
  • Good stories
  • Regularly update your site

News is different nowadays

You need to be able to write your story in a variety of ways. There’s the article but also consider tweets and Facebook updates. When it comes to social media you need to be able to tell your whole story in about a sentence. And how would you approach a video or just an audio interview? If you are going to do them think about how you would do them well.

There’s also more sources of information to compete with — social media accounts and communities, blogs, hyperlocal websites, radio stations and TV channels. They will all have a different approach but they will have a competing online profile.

This is a summary of the full lecture, if you would like to find out more all the slides are below.

Tips for blogging and tweeting

I recently delivered a lecture to first year journalism students at the University of Lincoln. Here’s a round-up of what I told the students.

Blogging recently celebrated it’s 20th birthday, and in the passing two decades it has become a huge part of the internet. In that time blogs have evolved from online diaries to also include journalism, fanclubs, pretty much anything you can think of. It’s easy to start too — just head to WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr and start finding out for yourself.

It isn’t helpful that blogging and social media are essentially platforms open to be used in any way and by anyone, it becomes a bit daunting. However, there are plenty of great parts about blogging it allows you to practice writing and playing with online tools without any pressure. The hard work you put into your blog can then be used to help you get some work experience or a job.

What should I blog about?

When it comes to writing a blog think about what interests you and how you would like to approach that topic. Avoid rewriting what other people have already reported and think about what you can add to a story that someone else has already told. This could include personal stories, people you can interview or looking at the story from a local perspective.

Don’t try to write about something which you know other people are already covering and are capable of doing it better than you. For instance if you are interested in football then BBC Sport and Sky Sports will already be covering the general news and have a lot more resources than a single blogger will have access to. This doesn’t mean you need to dismiss talking about this subject completely just think what you can bring to it. That might be looking at football on a local level or writing about a specific part of the sport.

A knowledge of law will help you too — mainly as a precaution. You might one day publish something that someone disagrees with so make sure you know about libel and defamation. If you would like to know more information McNae’s essential law for journalists is a really helpful guide. Copyright is an important issue too — make sure you don’t use someone else’s words or pictures without permission. If people are happy for their photographs to be used then they will be called creative commons.

Writing for online

In comparison to newspapers and magazine blogging gives you a great amount of freedom — you can write articles as long or as short as you like, use pictures, videos, audio and design a page to look however you like.

There are plenty of resources online to help, there are tools within blogging platforms that help to embed photos and videos. Other options consist of Flickr, embedding YouTube videos or SoundCloud uploads, or even embedding tweets and Facebook posts. You can also link to other websites to back up your research, and open up your blog to the rest of internet.

There are simple ways to design what your posts look like using different fonts or sub headings. There are some more technical ways to change the way your posts look and for those you would need to learn some code. There are plenty of tools to help you online, a good way to understand code and what it does is Code Academy.

Although you can use all these techniques think about which of these would be the best way to tell your story. You can write a blog which consists of thousands of words but other people might not be interested to read it all. Don’t distract from telling your story. Spelling is also really important, read some style guides if you are struggling.

Accuracy online

Working in a newsroom means you have more time and training to be able to fact check stories, in comparison blogs are usually run by one person but that doesn’t excuse you from writing accurately. People won’t want to read your blog if they know your reporting isn’t accurate or truthful, and it won’t help to showcase your writing skills either.

Reporters also aren’t helped by the fact that there’s lots of ways for people online to start false rumours with spoof Twitter accounts and photoshopped images. There’s some great examples of this on the blog Is Twitter Wrong?

A helpful guide is the Verification Handbook with contributions from BBC, ABC, Storyful and other verification experts and it details ways to make sure the information you find on social media is true.

The basics though are check if a Twitter account looks reliable, things to check include:

  • Do they tweet regularly?
  • Are they an expert in what they are tweeting about?
  • Is it a spoof account?

Also work on the idea that something is only true if you have two reliable sources.

What about Twitter?

Twitter is similar to blogging but you only have a 140 characters to say it. Twitter works by you following other people and creating your own newsfeed, and if other people enjoy what you tweet about others will follow you and also retweet you.

Some people have very strict rules about how to tweet (a regular one is don’t tweet about what you’ve had for lunch) but in general write about things you find interesting. You can share articles you like, write about your opinions on news or exciting things you are doing.

Twitter is a good resource to find out what’s happening by searching what other people are saying on the site. Hashtags are a good way to follow what’s happening and events or certain news stories will have their own.

For more information Twitter has a detailed section of their website explaining the basics and best practises.

Just start

The best way to understand blogs and Twitter is to just start doing it. Your first posts might not be perfect and it might take time to develop readers and followers on Twitter but take it as an opportunity to perfect and to experiment. And remember to enjoy it.