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Help: Virtual Lancaster Writing Guide

Content
Consistency & Grammar
Legal
Reviews
 

Content

  • Local: Everything you write should be placed in a local context. Our news is directly relevant to our readers. We don’t duplicate national news / reviews unless it has a particular relevance to our catchment.
     
  • We deal in reporting facts, not gossip. Take care to differentiate between fact, opinion, supposition and inference.
     
  • Be conscious of your tone and platform and employ criticism sparingly, concisely and constructively.
     
  • Title and Intro. Your story title and sometimes (but not always) your 'teaser' or first sentence are all the reader sees in feeds and links / shares. They should sum up the central point of the story in an engaging and economical wordbite that tempts the reader with the promise of an interesting story if they follow the link.
    They should contain key search terms for the story. Which words would you type into Google to search for this story?

     
  • Paragraphs: Use paragraphs to structure your ideas. Leave a one-line space between each one.   It is easier for the reader’s eye to keep its place on the page if there are gaps of white rather than a uniform field of print. Don't use long, complex sentences. Break them up, one idea at a time. 
    Use hyphens and parentheses (brackets) sparingly. It may be easier for the reader to follow the story if you just break up the sentence into two sentences.
     
  • Order. For most items the information core to the piece should be summarised / indicated in the opening sentence / paragraph. Don't 'bury the lead'. The reader wants to see straight away that what they have come for is really here. You have to repay their interest from the outset.  In a news item, the content items should initially appear in their order of importance / interest. This is called The Inverted Pyramid of News. Look it up. 
     
  • Engaging Narrative. The average internet user has an attention span of just 0.7 of a second (a goldfish scores 0.8). So, no academic journals, incoherent rants or sulky whinging. If the tale is dull and the prose relentless most readers will give up and you will be left preaching to the converted. Tell a story rather than report the bare data. How would you recount this if it had happened to you or your next-door neighbour? Ask yourself: 'Who am I writing for?' 
     
  • Don’t ramble. Take your readers along a logical path as you present your report. Organise your elements linearly. Don't keep circling back to previous points unless you're in stand-up. Prune ruthlessly. If necessary, break your story up into two stories to make the elements more digestible.
     
  • In news articles, avoid the vague and passive voice – be clear who did what. 
    Feelings: Avoid using ‘I feel that..’, ‘People felt that…’. What happens if you leave it out? Use the word ‘feel’ when you aren’t sure, not in a news story. It’s ok if it’s a quote but unless used in relation to actual feelings it indicates doubt / subtlety. Compare:
    “The meeting felt the proposals were adequate” and
    “The meeting approved the proposals as adequate.”
    Does it change the story? What are the facts?
     
  • Don’t make assumptions about readers’ background knowledge. It may be their first visit to the site and the story.
    Remember to link to supporting evidence, background stories and relevant sites.
     

Consistency & Grammar

Where possible we express certain notions in the same formats throughout the site in every piece we post as it makes it easier for our readers to process and it makes the site look tidier and clearer, with its own ‘look’.

  • Dates. 2 January 2014, rather than the US January 2, 2014. ‘Runs from 2 – 4 January 2014’.
    When writing dates always include the year.  Use ‘the 17th century’ rather than ‘C17’. 

     
  • Times. 7.3Opm rather than 19:30 hrs. Open Mon – Sat: 4 – 6.30pm. 12am is midnight. 12pm is noon.
     
  • Places. Always specify a precise location – Moor Lane could be in Carnforth or Preston.
    With addresses and venues always include postcodes for location maps.
     
  • Names. ‘Cllr’, ‘Dr’, ‘Rev’, ‘Mrs’, etc do not need a full stop after them.
     
  • Abbreviations. Always give the full name first, followed by its abbreviation / acronym in brackets, before using these later in the piece, eg. ‘The Ethnic Diversity Task Group (EDTG) met on 23 May 2009. ... Summing up, the EDTG Chair thanked..’
     
  • Slashes. Using slashes to separate words, ie. ‘Jazz/funk/rockabilly’ creates long words that may be too long for your website layout to handle, especially for readers using zooming. To allow text to wrap, insert spaces, ie. ‘jazz / funk / rockabilly’. 
  • Similarly, don't use long URLs in text fields but add hyperlinks to the text instead, or convert them to shorter links at http://goo.gl/. If you are submitting your piece by email rather than directly posting on the site, add the original links in brackets for the editor’s convenience.
     
  • Money. When referring to amounts in other currencies, always provide the sterling equivalent.
     
  • Single / double speech marks. Always put direct speech quotations in double speech marks “.
    Quotes from plays or texts go in single speech marks ‘. If in doubt, use single.
    Quotes within quotes: For the outer quote use double, for the inner, single. 
     
  • Spelling. Use a spellchecker. Incorrect spelling is unacseptible.
    Beware of the differences between similar-looking and similar-sounding words such as complimentary and complementary, license and licence, there and their. Only use words you are sure of.
     
  • The apostrophe
    It's just the dog eating its bone. This oak tree’s leaves are green. All the trees’ leaves are green. Mrs Jones’ car is green too
    can’t, don’t, doesn’t, couldn’t, won’t, Ring O’Bells, John O’Gaunt, Hallowe’en, t'werking men's club
    1920s. '60s discos. Butcher's shop. Sainsbury's.

     
  • Use italics and bold sparingly. Avoid underlining as this is also used in many browsers to indicate links.
     
  • Be unambiguous. Differentiate between the Lancaster Guardian (LG), and The Guardian (national). Use links.
    Be particularly careful about “LCC” - Lancashire County Council or Lancaster City Council? Nobody knows.
     
  • Proofreading. Check and spellcheck your work carefully and thoroughly before you submit it and again after it is published. Check it particularly for accuracy, tone and flow. This will raise the standard of your work and help to keep you on a sound footing.
     
  • Enter tags / labels where possible to help search engines find your items.
     

Legal

Take care to differentiate between fact, opinion, supposition and inference/innuendo.
Failure to do so could make you vulnerable to a libel suit.
 
  • Fact is what can be objectively proven to have taken place.
    A fact is only a fact if you can substantiate it with hard evidence. If you can't, then it is only your assumption or your opinion. (If you can show that a 'fact' has remained visibly published in an accessible part of the public domain for one year without a successful or ongoing legal challenge, then you can repeat it lawfully, if all relevant legislation is unchanged). Try not to exaggerate or make assumptions. It's easily done if you have taken a side on what you are reporting. If you want an audience wider than just your own mates, it helps to keep real. You must be able to substantiate the facts you write and, ideally, know the date, time, place and context in which they occurred.
    Where you see factual inaccuracy published in error in your work or another’s on VL, notify admin and take immediate steps to ensure it gets corrected asap. Keep a copy of the original version. If unsure, check with the site editors. 
     
  • Opinion is your personal judgement of what you witnessed.  
    You are entitled to express your own opinions or quote other people's - as opinions - but not to present them as fact. To stay on the right side of the law, particularly if the piece shows a person or persons in a negative light, you must indicate clearly what is fact and what is only personal opinion. 
     
  • Supposition is what you don't know and can't prove but are guessing / assuming.
    Be very careful how you attribute thoughts / emotions / motivations to people. You can only say how they appeared to you or a witness, unless they actually tell you. Can you describe the events and behaviour and let readers have the pleasure of drawing their own conclusions? 
    Don’t say that somebody was drunk / drugged, unless you have a certified blood test or can report it as a direct quote from a credible non-partisan eyewitness (ie, they saw how much was drunk, or what was taken).
     
  • Inference / innuendo is when you imply / hint at something without substantiating it.
    It's how tabloids make a living. They have very expensive lawyers and don't care how much damage they do. Unlike VL. 
     
  • Quotes must be exactly word-for-word what the person said. Being taken out of context can be very hurtful. Suggesting a meaning that was not actually intended by the speaker or writer is deceitful as well as a potential libel case.  
     
  • Evidence. Keep your originals of supporting evidence clearly filed and backed up. Do not edit them. Download or screengrab and save evidence on other websites (or it might disappear or be edited), preferably with a date showing on the screen. 
     
  • Opportunity to Comment. If you have a story that refers critically to an individual or organisation for something they haven't previously been publicly criticised for, you should notify them before publishing and offer them the opportunity to comment. You then quote their comment (or that they have declined to comment) in your story where relevant. Omission can have legal implications. If you have had to rush the story up as a matter of public interest then send them the link immediately and invite them to comment. When they do, republish the story with it.  
     
  • Sub judice and minors: If a legal case is awaiting or undergoing trial, it is 'sub judice'. You must not write anything that might influence a juror or potential juror's view of a defendant or witness if they happened to read it. If you have new information, you must share it, in the first instance, with the police. If a minor is involved, you cannot name them or publish their address or the name of their neighbourhood or school. There may also be restrictions on reporting the name/s of some or all of the other participants to prevent people being able to guess which minor is involved. 
     
  • If you find you have made a mistake, step up and apologise and correct it immediately. 
     
  • A good story may make bad people your enemies. At such times it helps to have backup and to be sure that your story is solid. Don’t use VL unilaterally to make enemies or get into battles. Check with the editorial team first. Get them to read over your copy and make it bulletproof.
    To contact them, email ed@virtual-lancaster.net. If you don't want to do that, you can always post your item in your own blog instead. 

     

Reviews

  • Supporting local arts is part of our mission.
     
  • Like everything else, a review should describe, inform and entertain / engage.
     
  • VL doesn't do spoilers. For drama, film and book etc, you mustn’t ever give away the ending and / or the surprises and twists.
     
  • Choose genres to review that match your interests.
    If you are turned off by classical music, your concert reviews aren’t likely to be either encouraging to performers or of great interest to enthusiasts. You don't have to be an expert but you do have to be willing and open. Pick things to review that interest and attract you. 

     
  • When reviewing, be chivalrousIf you really liked something or somebody, award them a good phrase they can quote.
    If you were utterly disappointed by an exhibition or play, offer constructive suggestions about how it could be improved. People can and will read between those lines but there’s no need to publicly shame or discourage amateurs who’ve dared to step up. Our community needs people who are willing to give things a try.
     
  • On the other hand you don’t have to recommend something that you think a waste of hard-earned money. If you really, really have to give something the thumbs down, be sure that you are accurate, constructive and get names and events right. Don't be sloppy.  Sleep on it before you post.  Be gentle with humour. Damning reviews can be hilarious to read. And to write! Careful with that cruel streak though. Save it for your own blog. We don’t want to scare people off from having a go. Use your powers for good.
     
  • Remember, things posted on the internet can stay around for years, dogging someone’s footsteps. And yours.

 

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