Copy and writing style

Jo bailey
January 2014

Section summary

  • Tone of voice for LAWA needs to be approachable, reliable and trustworthy.
  • Balancing the voices of multiple contributors is a challenge; using a single voice across all sections risks removing nuance, and personal opinion (valid in the context of stories).
  • Two-way dialogue (the ability to contribute comments directly) was an Open Lab objective, but it was not possible due to resource limitations. The compromise solution was user-generated stories submitted through a site curator.
  • Social media has a role to play as a forum for discussion, but it needs to be done well.

… As for writing style, try to be clear, direct, and sincere.

(Fogg, 2002)

LAWA’s voice

Establishing a consistent voice for LAWA is a major challenge. With multiple contributors, and the need to explain complex scientific information, clear communication is vital. The tone needs to be approachable, reliable and trustworthy, with a certain authority (in fact, we conceptualised LAWA’s ideal voice as being Sir David Attenborough’s).

Credibility may not be best served by an austere academic tone. Edward Tufte (2006, p.142) says “passive verbs ... advance effects without causes, an immaculate conception”; using a reserved academic passive voice might ostensibly sound neutral, but it also sounds removed.

Whose story?

One of the major threads to come out of the user workshops at the start of the process was the need to know who LAWA is. Users specifically asked to know that it was objective, or “balanced across all sectors”. ‘Balance’ is difficult to achieve. Does it mean both sides of the story? Or with science does suggesting that there is ‘another side’ or interpretation in the face of consensus  – as with reporting on climate change – actually distort the issue more?

We asked the regional councils to provide their own information about their areas. This varied dramatically in style, especially with regards to the ‘neutrality’ of the information. Some councils sought to use the copy to highlight what they were doing as a means to qualify poor water quality results. Others kept their tone and content factual. If we now edit this for consistent voice, do we risk removing cues users could have picked up to detect bias? These issues are not fully resolved in LAWA’s current iteration.

Within the Get Involved section, stories from a range of contributors – like the opinion section in a newspaper – should have multiple voices, as they represent the thoughts of individual people (and should be clearly identifiable as such). Attempting to make LAWA completely homogenous by editing all stories for consistent tone would not be transparent and would likely reduce credibility. Demonstrating different sides to the discourse on a subject builds credibility.

Two-way dialogue

Open Lab had pushed for LAWA to be a two-way dialogue between users and the LAWA stakeholders. We wanted users to be able to share recollections of a river and contribute directly to the site profile pages in the Explore Data section. This was vetoed by the LAWA Steering Group, who thought there was inadequate resource to moderate comments. Ultimately, a compromise was negotiated whereby users could submit stories, events and photos via a form, for a LAWA administrator to curate.

The Steering Group felt that comments might be used by people with an axe to grind to criticise the councils. Clearly, there is a fine line between moderating for offensive comments and stifling debate. From a transparency perspective, can any moderation be justified? Recently the website Popular Science shut off comments on their articles because “a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story” (LaBarre, 2013). They claim:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

(LaBarre, 2013).

Popular Science have redirected discussion outside their website into social media channels, including explaining their policy decision via a Google Hangout discussion (Ward, 2013). The causes may have been increasingly uncivil behaviour and a growing body of research suggesting that people conflate what they read in the comments with the content of an article(Ward, 2013), but ultimately, their decision was also due in part to a lack of resource to moderate comments. In addition, Popular Science posit that moving the debate onto social media encourages people to “be themselves”, as they are operating under their own name, and this fosters better behaviour.

Social media

Social media integration is something Open Lab pushed for to further two-way dialogue, but the Steering Group remain undecided. Social media lends credibility by demonstrating that there are real people behind an organisation, but it needs to be done well and – as the Steering Group rightly raise – adequately resourced, or the risk to credibility (from an unanswered question or angry comment that is not responded to) is high. Social media (if well managed) builds trust, and can provide content for the site to make it more up to date (a WCP credibility guideline).


The purpose of factsheets, stories and events on LAWA is to add another dimension to the otherwise relatively dry science; ‘telling stories’ about the issues around freshwater. Framing the science with contextual and opinion-based information may help LAWA appear more balanced, and build social presence.

Within Making Good, I take the building of social presence further, by using self-disclosure (Lowenthal & Dunlap, 2010) as a tool. This is experimental in terms of building credibility, but I feel it is appropriate given the experimental nature of this exercise. 

Copy length

Ethical Considerations

All in moderation

Does preventing direct comments stifle legitimate debate? This is a delicate area to traverse. The LAWA partners were worried they’d get “a load of photos of cows in rivers” and part of me thinks, so be it. Time will tell if the compromise solution of inviting submissions works.