Tips for text

Submitted by Janine on 6 April, 2008 - 12:24

Want to know how to write effective text for trade union and workplace newsletters? Below is a long-ish set of guidelines; attached is a shorter version of these notes on one page of A4 (PDF).

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TIPS FOR TEXT

Be concerned about how your newsletter reads before you worry about how it looks. Relevant and well-written content should be able to stand on its own, even as plain text. Prepare, discuss and edit your text before you lay it out into your design template.

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ATTENTION GRABBERS

Headlines should attract workers to read your article. Make them descriptive and/or catchy. For main articles it is a good idea to for a headline to be is a complete sentence containing a verb; to tell readers what the article is about and why it should interest them. Bad headline: This year’s pay claim. Better headline: Union demands £2,000 pay rise and shorter working hours. Shorter pieces can have shorter, snappier headlines.

If you want to label a feature, perhaps a regular column – ‘know your rights’, ‘health & safety news’, ‘next branch meeting agenda’ – then use this as a label, subsidiary to the actual headline. Eg. Workers force management to close building while asbestos removed [health & safety news]

In longer articles, use subheadings: they add visual interest; make articles easier to read by breaking long text into manageable chunks; and provide ‘entry points’ into your article. Keep in mind that subheads are subordinate to the primary information in the headline. Don’t misuse subheads by using a boring headline, then hiding the important information in the subheads!

Consider whether a photo with a caption might do a better job than a longer article. For instance, a photo of a picket line with up to five lines of caption summarising the issues behind the strike and the success of the action may have more impact than a longer piece with a verbal description of the picket.

Consider running an article – or even a whole leaflet / newsletter issue – in a ‘question & answer’ format. Base it on actual questions that workers have asked you.

With longer articles, consider using a box with the article, containing a quote; a key sentence extracted from the text; a summary of your main points; or a few relevant facts and figures.

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BODY TEXT

Write a strong lead sentence, especially on your main article. Information most important to the reader should come first. Say you were writing an article for the union branch newsletter reporting on the recent annual general meeting. Poor lead sentence: The annual general meeting of our union branch was held on February 10th at the Cantina Bar in Mos Eisley. Most readers probably don’t care exactly where or when the meeting was held. They want to know what important information or decisions came out of the meeting. A better lead would be: Union members have voted to demand that management cut staff’s workload. The report could then continue ... At the recent annual meeting of your union branch, Jo Patel, who works in the packing department, said that: “Our workload is unbearable and getting worse. The union must take this up with the company.”

Make your articles lively and interesting. Have a sense of humour.

Always refer to workers in the first person - we/us, not they/them.

Always use the active not the passive – Managers are bullying workers, rather than Workers are being bullied by managers.

Use short paragraphs (about six lines maximum).

Emphasise particularly important facts, words or arguments by using bold, italic or underlining. But don’t overdo it.

Be clear about the point each piece is trying to make. Are you encouraging readers to take some action? Vote a particular way in a ballot or election? Better understand management’s attacks? Support a particular strategy? Realise that a particular union official is going to sell them out? Understand how Marxism can explain the problems they face at work? Remember what you identified at the outset as the purpose of your publication.

Remember who your readers are. As you write an article, ask yourself how much your readers will already know about the issue, what type of language or jargon they use (or don’t use), what they really care about, how best to persuade them of your argument, how you can relate your issue or point to what concerns them. You could even picture one particular person in your mind and write the article to him/her.

Your newsletter shouldn’t read like a sales brochure. Workers know when they are being sold PR; readers prefer information and argument.

Sometimes, it is appropriate to write an article like a newspaper article, written as though you are a third party, with political opinions included as quotes from named people. At other times, an article should be partisan, putting forward a particular case clearly. In both cases, the article should be based on factual information, and should seek to persuade rather than browbeat or dazzle readers. Write to express, not to impress.

Avoid clichés. If you have often seen a particular phrase in print, don’t use it; think of another phrase or imagery that will make the same point in a more fresh way.

Will readers know what acronyms mean? Maybe everyone knows what CCTV is, but do they know what a DVA machine is?! If in doubt, list the acronym out the first time you use it eg. DVA (digital voice announcer). Similarly, will readers be familiar with union jargon, or with Marxist terminology or left-speak?

Avoid all that horrible union bureaucrat-speak eg. Further to my previous circular ... Your Executive has referred this matter to a sub-committee for examination and report ...

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EDIT AND PROOFREAD

Once your text is written, edit and proofread it to improve the writing, ensure that it makes sense, and is free of typos and grammatical errors. Edit for clarity, conciseness, jargon, length, accuracy. This might sound tedious, but it is very important.

Many newsletters are too wordy, with the result that fewer people read them all the way through. Cut out lots of words without cutting out any substance. It’s a skill you’ll develop with time - learn to be harsh with the ‘delete’ key.

  • Get rid of unnecessary words and repetition.
  • If you notice that you have included a sentence that says the same as a previous sentence but in different words, delete it.
  • Replace long words and multi-word phrases with smaller words where possible. Don’t write crucially important; crucial means the same thing and is shorter.
  • Cut out unnecessary phrases like It is a fact that, The truth is that, ...
  • When you finish going through your newsletter cutting out text, go back and do it all over again. You will find more words you can cut out.

Once you have edited and proofread your own articles, ask someone else to look over them and suggest any further corrections, changes and cuts.

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