Why use these techniques?
Tabloid newspaper and internet readers share similar goals when they approach their respective texts. Research shows that website users scan pages and search for cues in order to locate the information they are looking for. Tabloid readers are offered a wide range of typographical cues to help them comprehend and organise the text. Here are a few newspaper techniques, with some notes on how they might be applied to web texts.
One of the great arts of (British) tabloid journalism is the well-turned headline. From the brutal, pub speak of ‘Gotcha!’ to the more witty ‘How do you solve a problem like Korea?’ and ‘Super Cally go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious’, the headline’s purpose is manifold: on one hand it attempts to make the reader take a closer look at the story, while on the other it makes him or her try and figure out what the story is about. Unfortunately, web headlines may serve a far more mundane purpose: web readers don’t have the time or inclination to figure out what they are about to read: a headline should simply summarise the text in as few words as possible.
Straplines run across the top of the page. They serve as a short (3-6 word) summary of the text and often employ an informal tone so as to entice the reader to continue with the text. Straplines are difficult to implement in web pages (although not impossible using absolute postioning), but may lose some of their meaning if the styling is stripped away from a page, which would cause an accessibility problem for readers using a screen reader.
A crosshead is a word or short phrase taken from a text and then used as a heading. Crossheads serve two purposes: they give a clue as to the succeeding content and entice the reader to explore the text in more detail. These examples give an idea as to their purpose: ‘plagued’, ‘begged’ ‘stabbed’. Used carefully, crossheads serve as an excellent method of summarising information, and they break up hard-to-read swathes of text; however, care should be taken that their meaning is closely related to that of the succeeding text. Readers won’t appreciate being hoodwinked into thinking that what they are about to read isn’t quite as dramatic as they were lead to believe.
Standfirsts are short (1 or 2 sentence) summaries of the complete text. Newspaper convention dictates that they are set in bold. Standfirsts are an excellent idea for web texts: they enable readers to decide whether the article is something they are interested in. Bolding them is a good idea, but they can be displayed in other creative ways. The WordPress equivalent is an excerpt, which can be displayed pretty much anywhere within a web text (for example, under a headline on a blog’s front page).
Pull quotes are literally quotes that are pulled from the main flow of a text. They are often set in a box and given a different font size and face from the body text; the CSS float property is particularly useful when adding them to web texts. Again, they serve to give a clue as to the text’s content and entice the reader to examine the text in more detail. They also help break a text up by providing variation in layout, size and font face. Unfortunately, they cause an accessibility problem: without CSS they are not distinguished from the rest of a text, which means they simply break up the logical sequence of the writing.
Tabloid newspapers generally limit paragraph length to a maximum of 3 sentences, often 1 or 2. This breaks up texts into easily comprehensible chunks, both semantically and visually. They provide an excellent convention for web texts.
As we can see, newspapers offer web writers a wide range of techniques to improve their writing. Not only do they help break texts up into comprehensible chunks, they also provide visual interest and variation. Concentrating on writing techniques as opposed to layouts will prove more productive to web authors.