Writing for the web

Journalists will be familiar with the six Ws and the inverted pyramid of news. The six Ws are Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Rudyard Kipling called these the six honest serving-men in a poem he wrote for his daughter.

Rudyard Kipling. text reads: I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

Rudyard Kipling and his six honest serving-men

Full poem from the Kipling Society.

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Some people are taught the five Ws but I was taught it was six because even though How ends with a W rather than starts with a W that was accurate enough for journalists. How is often How much, or How many.

Online these six Ws are also the keywords that people might be searching for. Make sure they are your search engine optimisation (SEO) words.

Inverted pyramid

The inverted pyramid is a method of writing the most important thing first and setting out your facts in order of importance.

At the end you give background, additional information and, in newsprint, perhaps a pointer to more detailed coverage on other pages. On the web, the pointer could be links to other pages on your site,  sections within the same page or external links to source material and additional information.

This inverted pyramid was vital in the old days because you could cut a story from the bottom. It is even more important online because most people want information quickly.

They prefer not to scroll or they need to be convinced to scroll. That means you need to convince them in the first few words and sentences that this is a web page in which they should invest time and effort.

Who and what

In general, the most important points involve Who and What. The story might be Who is doing What Where, or Who is doing What When, or it might be How is Who doing What, or Why is Who doing What.

A financial story might be Who is doing What for How much or How is Who doing What for How much. And there can often be lots of Whos or Hows or Whys.

You might have a story asking Who is doing What to Who(m) and Why, or How much is Who(m) charging Who(m) for What?

Scrap the first paragraph

In newsprint, a story is often written with scant detail in the first, short sentence, and then repeated with more detail in the second:

An 80-year-old lady driver killed a teenage boy in town yesterday when a wasp flew through the window of her car.

Hilda Smith, 80, killed teenager Timothy Jones, 16, in Acacia Drive, Lewisham, at 3pm Tuesday when a wasp flew through the window of her Hillman Imp.

Online, the first sentence is redundant. The second sentence contains the likely search terms and would be more likely to get clicked if it appeared in a Google search:

  • Hilda Smith
  • 80
  • teenager
  • Timothy Jones
  • 16
  • Acacia Drive
  • Lewisham
  • wasp
  • Hillman Imp

Power of three

In addition to the first sentence, I recommend concentrating on your three main points. Three is used in rhetoric, story telling and famous phrases and sayings (three of a kind; good things come in threes; faith, hope and charity). Three pieces of information is about all most people can take in in one go.

Before tablets and mobiles, which are the main way we look at the internet now, you would see on your computer screen the first three paragraphs of a web page without having to scroll. Even now, people decide very quickly whether or not to continue swiping their finger up their mobile’s screen.

So concentrate on the first three things to get as much as possible of the story across in as few words as you can.

Godiva story

So we start with the six Ws in the famous story of Lady Godiva. If we answer those six questions we get Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry about 1035AD to cut taxes. That’s:

Lady Godiva (who) rode (what) naked (how) through Coventry (where) about 1035AD (when) to cut taxes (why)

But that does not tell us the whole story.

six Ws

Are these the only answers to the six Ws? (links to PDF)

What did she ride?

There are many more answers to the six Ws. Let’s start with: what did she ride? It wasn’t a bicycle or a motorbike or a scooter or a skateboard, it was a horse.

That is important for the story but also for search-engine optimisation because people are likely to type in the word horse when searching for this story. You can imagine a Google search for “naked horse ride” and we want our story to be found.

And thinking about search terms throws up another problem. Will people search for rode or ride? Does our key word need to be ride?

So we have ride and now horse under What.

When did she ride?

We also need to think about When. If she had ridden naked at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night it wouldn’t have been much of a story, given street lights were not invented and everyone would have been in bed since dusk.

It is important to the story that she rode naked at midday on market day – the busiest day of the week when the town would be crowded. So that’s another When.

Six Ws

A few more answers to the six Ws (links to PDF)

Why would a horse ride cut taxes?

Why did Godiva ride naked? Well, it was a dare from her husband, Leofric, who was the Earl of Mercia and the Lord of Coventry. That’s a What and a Who. He promised to stop collecting the tax if Godiva rode naked. That also means it would be more accurate to say “stop collecting the tax” rather than to cut tax.

Leofric was collecting the tax to fund King Canute’s bodyguard – there’s another Who and a Why (and Canute is sometimes spelt Cnut so we need both spellings, at least as extra SEO terms). Canute is famous for telling the tide to go back and failing to stop the waves (this was actually to prove he was not as powerful as his courtiers claimed) – that’s a What, if a bit irrelevant.

In fact, the tax had a name – it was the Heregeld, a specific type of Danegeld brought in by the Danish invaders. That’s another What.

Six Ws

Those six Ws keep on growing (links to PDF)

Why naked?

Leofric dared his wife to ride naked on the promise that he would cut taxes. The dare involved being naked because Greek and Roman art revered nudes and Lady Godiva was a patron and sponsor of the local arts. That’s another Why.

Leofric thought Godiva would never ride through Coventry, naked, at midday on market day, so she surprised him when she did, which is another What.

six Ws

Are there still more answers to the six Ws (links to PDF)

Look away

Her long hair is said to have covered much of her body (it’s a biblical reference: Corinthians) – which is a What.

Despite this, Godiva asked the people of Coventry not to look. So Coventry’s residents are another Who – and, because they suffered from the collection of the tax, stood to benefit from a tax cut and were asked to stay indoors, not looking is a What.

But one man, a tailor, later called Peeping Tom, did look. That’s two Whats and a Who. As a result, Peeping Tom was blinded by God, which is another What.

And this caused Leofric to convert to Christianity, which is a What again.

six Ws

Even more answers to the six Wx (links to PDF)

True or false?

So do we know if any of this story is true? Well the story first appeared in Roger of Wendover’s Flores Historiarum, published in 1235. It was popularised by his protégé Matthew Paris, in his Chronica Majora (1250). Paris changed the detail of the protest from the general relief of the poor to specify the cutting of tax – because he personally disliked taxation. So that’s some Whos,  Whats,  Whens and Whys.

The original story did not mention Lady Godiva asking people not to look. That was added to attract religious tourists in the 14th century, which is another Who and a When.

Peeping Tom was added in the 17th century by the Puritans, rewriting history to show that prior to the Reformation people had no morals and would have gawped at a naked lady instead of averting their eyes like the Puritans would. That’s at least a Who and a When.

six Ws

The more answers to the six Ws the better (links to PDF)

Public records

We know about Godiva from the Domesday Book (another What) and that her estates were worth £160 (a How much).

We know that in 1043 she and Leofric founded a Benedictine house of 24 monks on the site of St Osburg’s Nunnery, which had earlier been destroyed by the invading Danes – Lady Godiva is said to have had her jewellery melted down to make crosses. This became Coventry’s first cathedral and its remains can be seen in Priory Row.

And we know she died in 1067. So that’s a lot of Whens and Wheres.

Out of interest there is a sculpture of Peeping Tom in Cathedral Lanes shopping centre. So we have quite a lot more Whos, Whats, Wheres, Whens, Whys and Hows.

six Ws

Nearly answered all the six Ws (links to PDF)

The taxman cometh

Let’s think differently. Imagine we were working on a tax or accountancy website. Have we answered all the questions?

We’d want to know how much the tax was. The tax was based on a hide of land and a hide was enough to feed a family. The Abbey of Coventry (which had 24 Monks) had three hides, for example.

There are records of how much was collected in total for Canute at various times. This is all in the How section as a How much.

Ideally we want to put that in terms we understand today, which is harder as the amount of tax per hide, and how the land owner extracted money from his serf tenants, varied. But it left people hungry and without food and was hugely unpopular. So let’s call it a month’s pay. That’s another How much.

Did Godiva convince Leofric to stop collecting the tax?

Your tax watcher would also want to know if the tax protest worked. Well Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon of about 1257 confirmed that Leofric stopped collecting all taxes except those on horses.

This was such an amazing fact that it was later reinvestigated and confirmed under an inquiry ordered by Edward I. His reign was 1272-1307. That’s two Whos and Whens.

six Ws

Taxing questions answered in the six Ws (links to PDF)

From the horse’s mouth

Let’s start again and imagine we are writing for a website aimed at 10- to 14-year-old girls who go horse riding. Have we answered all the questions?

No, we need to know more about the horse. Godiva’s horse was called Aethenot. Aethenot is a male name so let’s guess it was stallion. It is often portrayed as grey, or milky white. So that’s a Who and two Whats.

Horse riders would want to know how big Aethenot was. From statues, let’s say it was 16 hands high (horses are measured in hands and anything less than 14.3 hands is a pony). They would also want to know how Godiva rode, so let’s go with sidesaddle to protect the dignity of a naked lady. There are reports she rode at a gallop. Those are Hows.

six Ws

The six Ws are different from a horse rider’s perspective (links to PDF)

Most important

As you can see, when you ask those six questions, you often get a lot of answers. Let’s decide what the most important of those answers are. We have six already: Lady Godiva, ride, naked, Coventry, 1035AD, to cut taxes.

We also decided we needed horse in there for SEO. Actually, unless we know Godiva rode at midday on market day the story makes little sense, so let’s add that When. We need to say it was her husband collecting the tax. We could throw in Peeping Tom, who looked, and add that it was King Canute’s Heregeld tax.

So now we try to join those keywords with as few additional words as possible

That gives us:

Lady Godiva’s naked Coventry horse ride at midday on market day 1035AD – watched by Peeping Tom – stopped her husband Leofric collecting King Canute’s Heregeld tax. (that’s 25 words)

What comes next?

Let’s explain the tax, the dare and that Leofric did indeed cut the tax. That means we need Leofric and Godiva again from Who – repetition is better than variation when it comes to search terms.

We need dare, and we need that it was because of the art containing nudes and Godiva’s connection with the arts and we need the evidence that all tax collection did stop. So, that gives us:

Leofric dared Godiva to ride naked because the Greek and Roman paintings Godiva loved included nudes. Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (1257) – and an inquiry under Edward I (1272 to 1307) – found that Leofric stopped collecting taxes except for those on horses.

And finally

Lastly we ought to cover the Peeping Tom story. Again that means Godiva, but also Coventry’s residents and Peeping Tom from Who.

From What we need that Tom was a tailor, that Godiva asked the people not to look, but that one did and that he was blinded by God. We can probably add that Leofric from Who converted to Christianity. Join those together and we get:

Godiva asked Coventry’s residents not to look. One man, a tailor called Peeping Tom, looked. He was blinded by God, leading Leofric to convert to Christianity.

That is the story in a nutshell in fewer than 100 words. There’s plenty left over to either continue, or break into chunks, with sections on the main players, or on the tax, or on horses, or on religion.

Horse website

If you worked on that horse website we talked about earlier, you would do the same thing but make different choices about the most important keywords.

You would probably still have Lady Godiva, Leofric, ride, horse, Coventry and naked but you’d also have Lady Godiva’s horse Aethenot, grey stallion, sidesaddle, gallop and 16 hands high. That would give you:

Naked horse rider Lady Godiva galloped her 16-hands grey stallion Aethenot sidesaddle when she rode through Coventry after a dare from her husband Leofric.

You would adjust your second and third paragraphs accordingly.

Tax matters

If your website were about tax you would concentrate on the tax points and perhaps begin:

Lady Godiva’s naked horse ride stopped her husband Leofric collecting the Heregeld tax for King Canute, according to Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon (1257) and an inquiry by Edward I.

Divine intervention

And if you were a religious writer you might look for the religious points and begin:

Religious Puritans claimed that Lady Godiva’s husband Leofric converted to Christianity because God blinded Peeping Tom for looking at the naked Godiva riding her horse through Coventry.

Sentence length

Only one of those intro sentences is 30 words long. I’d say 30 words is the max for the intro paragraph and all sentences after this should be shorter.

But if people read only your intro sentence they should know more than before they read it – and, crucially, they should know that this is a web page that has the information they were looking for.

They should be prepared to scroll.

Read more.. or Continue reading..

Some websites will initially only display the first sentence or two and then have an option to click to read more. This was common, especially for subscription sites where you needed to pay to access the following content.

If that is the case you need to make the first sentence attractive enough to make people click to read more, or add a sentence that makes that clear, such as “But that’s not all…” or “You’ll never guess what happened next”.


Whealie is the trademarked nickname of award-winning freelance journalist Chris Wheal. Follow @whealie on Twitter twitter.com/whealie Wheal's Business website is whealassociates.com He sometimes blogs at chriswheal.com He's on Facebook: www.facebook.com/chris.wheal And LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/chriswheal Flickr: flickr.com/photos/whealie Instagram: instagram.com/whealie/ YouTube: youtube.com/user/sonofwhealie Vimeo: vimeo.com/whealie

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