Writing Guide

Writing Guidelines for the Johns Hopkins Environmental News Blog


I. First, Pitch Us

A. E-mail your pitch to Dan Zachary d.s.zachary@jhu.edu. Include a proposed headline or title, and one paragraph describing your topic and why it’s relevant to put in this blog at this time. Briefly including the “who, what, when, where, why” can be useful to organize your ideas. Please include your e-mail address!

B. What we’re seeking: We prefer timely, relevant posts that fit into one of our blog categories. Generally, environmental news, energy news, GIS innovations, JHU AAP program news and features.

C. We prefer to receive posts 1 to 3 weeks after we approve the pitch. Please include in your pitch the target date you’d send us the post.

II. General Writing Guidelines

A. Headlines: Put your main keyword(s) in the headline. If your post is about the Keystone XL pipeline project in general and covers many aspects of it, be sure to put “Keystone XL” in the headline. If you focus on how it will affect wildlife, specifically Sandhill cranes, try to include ” Keystone XL” and “Sandhill cranes” in the headline. This is the simplest way to get search engines to notice your post and serve it up when someone searches for those keywords.

B. Structure: All posts should have the first component; most should have all three.

1. Catchy first paragraph: Write a first sentence or paragraph that piques the reader’s interest, because it will serve as a “teaser” on the blog home page. Readers will have to click to read the rest of the post, so “sell” your topic — make ’em want to click.
2. Body: This is where you say what you want to say, explain the context of the issue, etc. Include hyperlinks to any articles or studies you cite. If you’re writing from personal experience, let your personality come through.
3. End with a question(s): When possible, finish with a question or questions, asking the readers what they think, whether they’ve had a similar experience, etc. Prompt them to leave a comment. (This may not always work, however. For example, if you’re writing a Q&A with a professor, then you can leave out the prompt for comments.)

C. Length: Short is sweet, although not mandatory. You can say a lot in under 400 words; a post that length with a photo only makes the reader scroll down about one full screen. Posts can be longer, but if there’s a lot of text it is best to include more images to break it up. Also include sub-headlines if the post is fairly long, so when the reader scrolls he/she doesn’t see a big sea of gray.
– General length guideline: Aim for 300-500 words.

Length Examples:

D. Sources and Citations: Use news articles, interviews and original studies, and hyperlink to them. We won’t accept unsourced submissions and we reserve the right to decline any submission that doesn’t meet our standards.

E. Photos: Provide a minimum of one image with your post, along with credit info. This can be a link to an image on Flickr (must be licensed as Creative Commons; search for them here http://www.flickr.com/search/advanced/, and check the “Creative Commons” box) or something in the public domain, like a federal government site. Or it can be your own image. Images should be 640 x 420 pixels at 72 dpi.

F. Byline: Please provide your name, JHU program, and year you expect to graduate.

III. Guidelines for Different Types of Posts

A. News: Say why the news item is important. What are the implications of this news? Does it raise new questions? Cite a trusted news source or scientific journal, and try to supplement the news link with a link to a piece of insightful commentary or background. Include your opinion — what’s your take? And ask readers to leave their thoughts in the comments.
B. Professor Q&A: Try to keep it to 5 questions or less, and less than 1,000 words. (For instance, this example is a bit long.)

C. Q&A to Explain an Issue: One example is Grist’s section called “The Basics,” a set of explainers on issues like fracking and industrial meat production. They present the basic pieces of an issue as separate Q&As, interspersed with photos. Kind of nice. (See “Confined Dining: A Primer on Factory Farms“)

D. Lists/How-Tos
Oddly enough, odd-numbered lists get higher clickthrough (more Web traffic). So go for 5, 7, 9 items, etc. — although top 10 lists are always good, too.

Example: 5 Steps to Safe Electronics Recycling


IV. Editing

All posts will be edited for grammar and substance by the Environmental Communications class, and we reserve the right to not publish submissions.


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