Editor’s note: This article was first published on April 20, 2011 — the very first article published on The Copybot.
Who. Where. When. Why. What. The 5 W’s.
Originally used as a method of Bible study in the late 1880s, journalists eventually adopted the 5 W’s method to write newspaper leads.
By 1917, it was a staple of journalism — taught in high-school classes. In the 40s, it was considered old-fashioned.
Regardless if it’s old-fashioned or not, it’s still very useful. In fact, did you know you can apply the 5 W’s to almost any type of online writing medium?
For example, it’s especially helpful when I need to teach a new writer how to write an email, article, text ad or photo caption. The 5 W’s is a simple, concrete, credible and easy-to-remember idea.
Once I teach it to them, however, I don’t stop there. I then tell them why they should use it. Here’s what I usually say.
1. Don’t make people think.
Online people are ruthlessly stingy with their mental bandwidth. If you require too much, they’ll bail on you. The 5 W’s will help you reduce your visitor’s cognitive overhead.
2. Reward people with interesting information.
The 5 W’s will help you be ultra-specific, unique and useful. People will walk away from your photos feeling like they learned something — which gives them reason to come back.
3. Answer obvious questions.
Here’s a rule of thumb: your gallery of photo’s should stand alone from the rest of the website. Your photos may be the only thing anyone looks at.
However, each photo should stand on its on, too. Visitors may only read one caption, zipping through the rest. On that one caption, reward them with the who, why, where, when and what.
4. Approach each photo objectively.
You may skip the where and the when of a photo because its obvious to you, but for the outsider, it leaves them scratching their head (this is known as the curse of knowledge).
You’ll avoid this mistake when you use the 5 W’s.
5. Write clear, concise and compelling copy.
Here’s what I like best about this approach: The 5 W’s will force you to write short, plain but persuasive copy. You’ll avoid the clever and cute, while successfully creating the concrete and convincing.
Sometimes you may not be able to use all five W’s for one reason or another. Maybe you don’t have have all the information. Maybe you don’t have a convincing why (if that’s the case, then raise the stakes).
Whatever the case, use your best judgment. Which comes naturally by practice.
Your turn. How have you used the 5 W’s in your writing career? Do you have any other reasons why the 5 W’s work so well?
P.S. Want a daily, but small, dose of essential web writing advice? Then check out my new podcast Rough Draft.