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Writing Tips for the Citizen Watchdog

The Citizen Watchdogs here at Watchdog Wire have impressive writing skills and amazing dedication to the mission of government transparency. However, sometimes even the best citizen journalists need to remember that “the way we present arguments is as important as the substance of the arguments themselves.” This can be especially problematic when our articles will be read by those who do not share our views. Here are some tips on how to improve your writing and better advocate for government transparency and accountability:

1)      Never Assume

Do not assume that your readers will have the same background knowledge or make the same connections that you do. Assumptions can easily lead to your argument being misunderstood or ignored. They can be especially problematic when you assume that your readers see an issue as a problem, but they don’t, which can completely undermine your entire argument. For instance, the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at my school ran into this problem when hosting an event about Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) abuses of civil liberties. We repeatedly found ourselves having to explain what the TSA was, rather than focusing on why it was a problem.

2)      Avoid Jargon like the Plague

Not only does jargon assume that your readers have some technical knowledge, it can also come across as pretentious and insincere. In the first case, jargon can confuse a general audience and undermine your argument through a lack of clarity. In the second case, it can cause your readers to dismiss the argument based on the tone of the piece. If jargon is unavoidable, make sure you explain the term used.

3)      Citation, Citation, Citation

Make sure you cite your sources, especially when dealing with anything that wouldn’t be common knowledge to a general audience. When publishing online, this is as simple as putting in a hyperlink to a reputable source. Citations help back up your argument and encourage your readers to take you more seriously. They show that you aren’t making things up out of thin air and that government transparency is a valid topic to write about.  They can also point your readers to other authors who may have made an argument in more detail than you can, or who may be more experienced.

4)      Spellcheck is Your Friend, but Not Your Only Friend

Though spellcheck is a great tool, it is not the only editing your piece needs before it is submitted. It catches some spelling and grammar errors, but often misses improperly used words or awkwardly structured sentences. One way to catch these is to set your piece aside, do something else, and then reread it later. Often times, this will allow you to catch errors that you may have missed in an initial read-through or spellcheck of your piece.

5)      Mind Your Manners

Keep your writing civil. While you can, and should, critique other ideas, make sure that you aren’t being needlessly aggressive or making personal attacks. This can be very off-putting to your readers, especially if they don’t necessarily agree with you. It may even backfire and encourage your readers to support your opponents.

6)      Keep It Concise

Get to your point quickly and keep your arguments concise. You aren’t writing a novel, you’re trying to make a point and back it up. This is especially important when publishing online. No one wants to read a manifesto, and the longer your piece, the less likely your readers are to actually finish it. Keeping your writing concise will help ensure that your entire argument is read and less likely that it will be misconstrued.

Hopefully this short list gives you a good place to start when writing about government accountability and transparency. I know that these tips have helped improve my own writing.

Ella Peterson

I'm the editor of Watchdog Wire - Colorado. Please contact me at Colorado@WatchdogWire.com for story ideas and ways to get involved with citizen journalism in Colorado.

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Categories: Must Read, Opinion, Quick Tips
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