How-To: Write an Explainer

NOTE: With today’s WVU snow day, I won’t be able to go over this in class, so I’ve created a how-to for you. Make sure you don’t miss the accompanying assignment, which will be due next week!

Any topic area has certain subjects that are important but complicated. Maybe it’s why the polls didn’t predict Trump’s win, or how boys can keep up with girls in school, or how to carry a gun while running, or why Cardi B and Nicki Minaj have beef. A common name for this kind of post is an explainer (and there’s even an explainer about explainers).

Notice how with each of those questions, there’s a complex set of reasons and perspectives informing the answer. An explainer isn’t based on a question with a simple answer like “why does a cat purr?” but rather one that requires breaking down some complex details with a variety of sources and evidence.

Explainers are a common tool for online media – Vox has its own section for them – and when planning your own, it helps to look at what’s come before. Let’s go back to that Cardi B and Nicki Minaj post (oh the sacrifices I make for education) and look at its components:

Hed

The Complete History of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B’s Beef

Okay, it’s a bit of a label, but you definitely know what you’re getting. Good explainer heds typically start with words that imply a question such as “How” or “Why” or “Does”.

Lede

For more than a year, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B walked on eggshells while rumors of their alleged beef bubbled just below surface. Through shady interviews and sneak disses, the rappers waged a cold war. Then, during New York Fashion Week at Harper’s Bazaar Icon party, photos and video of a physical altercation between Cardi and Nicki’s parties circulated the web.

Since then, their public feud has intensified, with memorable Queen Radio rants and viral Instagram posts. But how exactly did we get here? Was it Nicki’s obsession with being the queen of rap? Is Cardi too sensitive? Below we revisit the history of Cardi B and Nicki’s long simmering feud and the events that led us here.

This answers the “Why NOW” question. It’s an ongoing story that dates back to June 2017, but the New York Fashion Week fight is what made it newsworthy for its Oct. 30, 2018 publication date.

Structure

This particular post takes the form of a timeline chronicling the various slights cast by B and Minaj. It’s marked by entries such as:

August 2017: Nicki denies subbing Cardi on “No Flags”

Notice how the post is broken up with subheadings that start with the date and detail what happened then. Even if you’re not doing a timeline, this bite-sized format helps make the complexity more approachable.

Support

This post in particular is so strong because it not only employs strong evidence for its explanation, it brings in a strong VARIETY of sources. Consider this passage:

Coincidentally, Nicki’s original verse on “MotorSport” leaked the same day as her interview, revealing she had referenced Cardi:

I’m with a couple bad bitches that’ll rip the party
If Cardi the QB, I’m Nick Lombardi
Pull up in the space coupe, I done linked with Marty
I can actually afford to get a pink Bugatti

The final version replaced Cardi’s name with Quavo, and it’s still unclear if it was meant to be shade or a shout out. Nicki later tweeted that she changed the verse per Atlantic’s request.

Here you’ve got a link to an article that leaked Minaj’s lyrics, followed by those lyrics themselves (which name Cardi B), then the detail that the final song changed “Cardi” to “Quavo,” and finally a tweet from Minaj claiming that Cardi B forced the change. That’s a pretty detailed documentation!

That’s typical of the article, too: throughout, it employs links, social media posts, screenshots and video to support every claim it makes. This isn’t just gossip, it’s a fully documented account.

Planning your explainer

Here’s a few steps, via Poynter, for creating an explainer post of your own:

  1. Figure out what to explain: What’s a subject your readers need/want to have broken down for them? Look for a question that “requires more than a fact to explain.”
  2. Report the explainer: Poynter recommends contacting multiple experts; for a blog post, that translates into multiple explanatory links and media. Keep your questions pretty basic – think elementary school level – and along the lines of “why does this happen?”
  3. Craft the explainer: Don’t start with history, start with why it matters now. This is similar to establishing a news peg for any story. Poynter provides a tremendous example here: After President Obama signed a bill restoring Secret Service protection to former presidents and their families, Slate asked the question “does that include presidential pets?” (you’ll have to click through for the answer)
  4. Consider voice and style: (This one’s from The Word Factory) An explainer typically deals with a complicated subject, so it’s particularly important to avoid technical jargon or lengthy, complex sentences. Often, a more casual or conversational tone will be used to lighten a heavy subject (that’s up to the individual publication though).

Remember: You have an assignment on this as well, so start thinking now about what your readers need explained!

2 Responses to How-To: Write an Explainer

  1. […] (included at the end of this assignment), so make sure you’re following directions. Using the posted guidelines, you’ll do the […]

  2. […] too journalistic, so now we’re going to progress toward making a simple on-the-rails explainer (remember those?) using […]

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