Powerbase:A Guide to Tone
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The tone with which an article is written makes a big difference to how it is received by the reader. Getting the tone wrong can put readers off and result in:
- Articles that are so subjective in tone that they hit the reader over the head with their ‘take’ on things. They are heavy on value judgments, but light on evidence.
- Articles that are so objective that they are just bare facts, with no hint given as to why this person or organization is even featured in Powerbase.
We need to strike a balance. There should be enough objective material – hard facts about what the person/organization said or did, quotes from the target person or from critics, etc. to enable readers to make their own reasoned judgment. But there should also be enough analysis to help persuade them!
As a Powerbase writer, you are like a barrister trying to persuade a jury of your case. Present the evidence – and then suggest the conclusion that readers can draw from it. The following guidelines are an important part of the process.
- 1 Focus on facts
- 2 Avoid abusive language
- 3 Show, don’t tell
- 4 Provide analysis
- 5 Use timeless language
- 6 Help the reader to understand
- 7 Unpack mystery acronyms
- 8 Explain further reading/resources
- 9 Notes
Focus on facts
Try to be as factual as possible. Do not use abusive language or language that is in any way racist, sexist or obscene or could be construed as such. Do not use swear words unless in quotations. Keep any rhetoric or personal comment to a minimum and avoid speculation, innuendo or libel. If comment is provided please be fair. Being fair does not mean not being critical or adding some kind of analysis, though. Just try and strike the correct balance. You want the article to basically contain factual information about the person you are writing about, not your views on the person you are writing about. There is a difference between a profile entry and a blog entry or an opinion piece.
Avoid generalizations and unsubstantiated sweeping statements.
If you are making accusations against a person or organization, you must support it with as much primary material as possible. Just because someone else has said it is true, does not mean it is true. Make sure your sources are up to date, and relate to present day situation or indicate that they are historical.
More details on the use of sources can be found at A Guide to Sourcing.
Avoid abusive language
Do not use abusive language or language that is in any way racist, sexist or obscene or could be construed as such. Do not use swear words unless in quotations.
Avoid broad, inflammatory, and derogatory labeling terms
Inflammatory, broad, and derogatory labeling terms such as “islamophobic”, “racist”, “sexist”, “anti-environmentalist”, etc. are best avoided unless you are prepared to define the term and lay out the case for why the person or organization fits the label. You are welcome to make the argument in your article that a person or organization is any of these things – this may even be the point of the article – but you need to present the evidence that justifies that label. Then, if you do introduce a labeling term, readers will already have come to that judgement of their own accord and it will not seem like emotive name-calling on your part.
A good test as to whether you are using a labeling term carefully is to ask yourself: would the article stand alone as evidence that this person is ... (islamophobic/racist, etc.) if I were to remove the labeling term? You need to get the article to the point where you can answer this question with a confident "yes".
Avoid sarcasm, ranting, and anger
It helps your case enormously if you sound like a reasonable person who is just showing the evidence and inviting the reader to form the (we hope) inevitable conclusion. Sarcasm, ranting, and anger are counterproductive because they alienate people and make them think that your information is not strong enough to speak for itself.
Another factor is that sarcasm often ‘translates’ poorly on the web: if you make a statement such as “Gordon Brown is well known for his ‘prudence’ in managing the economy,” meaning that he has made a hash of it, a surprising number of readers will take your words at face value and think that you believe Brown to be a great money manager.
Show, don’t tell
This is a general principle of good writing. There should not be any need to call anyone, say, a lying hypocrite, and it’s often counterproductive. The point is to cite facts/words/actions that show the person to be a lying hypocrite, and let the reader make his own judgement.
It’s fine to give the reader a gentle steer in that direction, but only when the facts have evidenced it -- and use temperate language. Then you are simply confirming what readers have already decided for themselves on the basis of the evidence you’ve provided, not telling them what to think.
Some Powerbase are baffling, in that you can read the string of bare facts laid out (“Joe Bloggs is a member of the Something Council and sits on the board of directors at Otherthing Co”) and wonder why this person or organization is in Powerbase at all.
Always keep in mind why you wanted to write about this person or organization in the first place: what is their ‘sin’? Then make sure the readers know.
Use timeless language
No, this doesn’t mean you have to write like Shakespeare. It means that you need to assume that people will be reading your article well into the future and so words like “now” and “currently” should be avoided.
INCORRECT: “Joe Bloggs is now a director of Toxico.” “Madonna is married to the film director Guy Ritchie.”
CORRECT: “In 2007 Joe Bloggs was made a director of Toxico.” “As of February 2008 Madonna is married to the film director Guy Ritchie.”
Help the reader to understand
Don’t assume too much knowledge
If we assume too much knowledge on the part of our readers, we are at risk of creating cliquey information that only insiders can understand. Visitors to our website will soon give up in despair, thinking that it’s not for them.
We have to assume that our readers know little or nothing about our article topic. They need to be introduced to it and led through our argument step-by-step.
Here’s a cautionary tale from real life. A news magazine geared to high-school students of 13-18 years old pitched its articles in the assumption that its readers knew nothing about the topic. So the author of an article about, for example, the conflict in Northern Ireland was expected to give a brief explanation of English land ownership in the country, the partition of Ireland in 1921, etc.
A few years after the magazine started up, it did a survey of its readership. It found that while the magazine was indeed read in schools by students, about half its readership consisted of teachers and parents who were reading it for themselves, not just to help their students or children.
These adults said they preferred to get their news from the magazine rather than the conventional news sources because it did not assume prior knowledge of the topics covered. “When I watch the news and hear about some problem somewhere in the world,” said one, “it’s like a soap opera where I’ve missed the first few episodes and can never catch up.”
In Powerbase articles, it’s not practical to go into the background of every person and organization that you mention, and the in-text links system should enable people to follow up. But often it’s helpful to give a brief explanation of the relevance of people or organizations that you mention.
For example, if you are talking about a person or company being unethical, it’s not enough to justify that by saying that they worked for a company that you yourself know to be unethical. Give a brief hint as to why that company has a poor ethical record.
For example, UNHELPFUL: “Bloggs PR Company’s claims to represent ‘the ethical side of PR’ are dubious because it has done work for Smith Industries.”
This assumes that everyone knows what Smith Industries does and agrees that it is A Bad Thing.
HELPFUL: “Bloggs PR Company’s claims to represent ‘the ethical side of PR’ are dubious in the light of its work for Smith Industries, an aluminium mining company that has come under attack for polluting large stretches of the Amazon river in Brazil. Bloggs PR conducted a major PR campaign that glossed over Smith’s pollution record and focused on its donation of computers to local schools.” (then give ref)
ALSO HELPFUL (SHORT VERSION): “Bloggs PR Company’s claims to represent ‘the ethical side of PR’ are dubious in the light of its work for the mining company Smith Industries (which stands accused of polluting the Amazon river) and its campaign for tobacco giant Philip Morris.”
Make sure that any article that you are linking to provides evidence for your assertions OR put in a ref to support them). But a company that’s obscure may need a short explanation of why it’s bad in the text itself.
This also applies to organizations that are not well known outside certain circles – often because their members don’t want them to be – for example, the Council on Foreign Relations. Ask yourself if you can improve your article’s clarity and accessibility by briefly letting the reader know the significance of such organizations.
For example, in an article on Joe Bloggs, you might say something like, “Joe Bloggs played a prominent role in the inception of the Project for the New American Century, which openly advocates total US military dominance.”
It also helps to give a brief description of a person’s position, even if they are well known in your own country. Readers in Britain will know who Gordon Brown is, but readers in other countries will appreciate a brief description, such as “Gordon Brown, who became UK prime minister in 2007, …” Even “UK prime minister Gordon Brown”, although it will quickly become inaccurate if Brown is ousted and the article is not updated, is better than nothing.
Don’t write above people’s heads
It's a surprising fact that the so-called ‘quality’ newspapers pitch their articles to a reading age of 11-13 years. The tabloids aim for 10 years or less.
This is not because newspaper editors think their readers are stupid, but because research has shown that most people are tired, stressed, and busy, and will only read simple prose that flows easily from the page into their heads.
Added to this is the fact that many people don't have a college education and are not used to reading long and complex articles. Even those who do have a college education are unlikely to seek out the experience of reading difficult material in their spare time.
A useful principle to bear in mind is to imagine that you are reading your article to an averagely intelligent 11-13-year-old relative. Would they understand it?
A good exercise for all writing is to read it aloud to yourself or someone else. If you start to stumble or lose your way, or if your listener’s eyes glaze over, you know you need to simplify.
The following features of an article increase its difficulty level, known as the ‘boggle factor’ or 'fog factor':
- Long and complex sentences: Don’t cram too much information into one sentence. One point of information per sentence is usually enough.
- Over-long paragraphs or large bodies of unbroken text
- Over-long quotations: Extract the relevant part of the quotation and tell the reader how it backs up the point you are making. If you use a long quotation that makes a lot of points, ‘unpick’ the quotation for readers, splitting it into bite-sized pieces of information and leading into each section with a pointer to help readers see the point of the quote.
- No lead-in or conclusion to quotations: It’s useful to ‘lead in’ to a quotation in order to prime readers so that they know what they are supposed to get from it. For example:
- NO USEFUL LEAD-IN:
- President Bush said: “[Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism, and practices terror against its own people.”
- USEFUL LEAD-IN:
- Justifying his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, US President George W. Bush claimed that the country posed a threat to the United States. In a 2002 speech, Bush said, “[Iraq] possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism, and practices terror against its own people.”
- It’s also helpful to provide a mini-conclusion to a quotation. In the case of the above quote, your conclusion might be that Bush was fabricating many of these claims. Give references to back up your points.
- Many long, abstract, Latinate, or ancient Greek-derived words: There’s a reason why newspapers prefer words like “slam” to “criticize”. They will write, “Frankenfoods cancer risk – study” rather than what the study actually said, which may be something like, “the genetic modification transformation process is imprecise and can create unpredictable effects, including proliferative changes in the lower intestine suggestive of pre-cancerous states.” We should not copy tabloid style in Powerbase. But if there is a short and concrete word than can be used in place of a long and abstract one, with no loss to an article’s accuracy, please favour it.
- Unexplained allusions: For example, don’t mention ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair’s stance on the Iraq War without explaining briefly what it was.
The boggle factor of an article can be measured on a points system, based on how many of the above factors appear in an article. Every long, Latinate word, every unexplained allusion, and every over-complex sentence will push up the boggle factor. For every one point that the boggle factor goes up, the article loses a substantial proportion of readers.
The following features of an article decrease boggle factor:
- Short, simple sentences and paragraphs
- Short (one- or two-syllable) words
- Concrete rather than abstract words: Often, these are Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin- or Greek-derived, e.g. “people don’t want to eat genetically modified foods” is more accessible than “consumers object to genetically modified ingredients”, etc.
- Brief explanations of any allusions
- Text broken up by headers that give a clue as to what follows.
Unpack mystery acronyms
There are a lot of mysterious acronyms in Powerbase articles. Our readers shouldn't have to google repeatedly in order to find out which organisations these refer to (anyone who isn’t being paid to do it won’t bother). Please spell out the full meaning of acronyms the first time you mention the organization. The first or second time you mention the full name, insert a bracket after it with the acronym. Thereafter you are fine with just the acronym. Thus for example:
- The Biotechnology Research Association (BRA) is the major UK grant-making agency for scientific research. The BRA approved the grant given to Dr John Smith for his research on GM tomatoes.
Explain further reading/resources
If you put a Further Reading or Resources section into an article, give a 1-2 sentence summary of why each selected work is relevant to your article – what it can offer the reader who wants to know more. Otherwise readers have to guess why you are including these pieces.
- President George W. Bush, "President Bush Outlines Iraqi Threat", 7 October 2002, The White House website, accessed November 2008