Writing for the web: 10 things to love about it

Using the same kind of writing style for the web as you would for a traditional medium would be a lot like producing a radio program for the Big Screen. Or recreating a movie on an etch-a-sketch. Or painting a QR code on the back of a bus. Or setting up a Skype account for your cat.


Well, you get the idea.

Different mediums have different strengths. And the web is a medium where you can be more informal and have some fun. What’s not to love about that?

So here, in no particular order, are just 10 of the things web writers should appreciate:

  1. You can be funny, have a little verve, show a little leg. It may not be appropriate every time, but some personality can work wonders, especially with a dry subject.
  2. Not only can you use a conversational tone, you can switch into direct dialogue. Yeah, that means you can make smart little side comments like this. Brilliant, eh?
  3. Short works.
  4. As do numbered lists. Or bullets.
  5. And you aren’t limited to words and graphics. Got a podcast or a video? Want to ask a question? You can do it with multimedia. Like this:

  6. Your audience can talk back to you. They can share your stuff, “like” you, subscribe, flame you or use your comments section to try to sell soap. (Please, don’t do those last two though.) Whatever the case, you get some feedback. With a little testing that can mean better engagement with your audience.
  7. Make a mistake? Well, at least you can change it the minute you find out.
  8. You get instant metrics! You can know how many people looked at something, and for how long, whether they clicked through and etc. It really is a marketing paradise.
  9. Get a great new idea? You can add new content as it comes to light.
  10. All this and its free! Well, sort of. You’ve got to have a computer, electricity and a connection. Graphic content and a photography budget is nice. Of course you probably want to get paid. But a lot of the production costs may be already bought and paid for.

What did I miss? What do you love about writing for the web?


Imagination is Everything

I have a lot of magnets on my refrigerator. Most of them are from family vacations. A few predate the family vacation stage of my adult life–surviving a dorm room, several apartments and two houses. One of those is a quote illustrated by the graphic artist Mary Engelbreit.

One of my refrigerator’s most vintage magnets.

It reads: “To imagine is everything. To know is nothing at all.”

A faculty friend came to my house one time and was clearly offended by the sentiment. On the surface, she had a point. All educated people—and this friend has Ph.D. after her name afterall—certainly want knowledge to be everything. If it were, it would illuminate a clear path to success. Learn a bunch of stuff; achieve fame and fortune, right?

Would it help if I told you that the quote originated from Albert Einstein?

Clearly, knowledge is less powerful today than ever. Most of what you know is stagnant and based on the past. And knowledge can get in the way of being open to new ideas and reaching new heights, which was Einstein’s point I am sure.

Late last week I attended a workshop with the best workshop title I’ve ever heard: The Do it Yourself Lobotomy. Catchy, huh? I had a lot of work to do that day, but I just couldn’t miss out on it.

Tom Monahan presented the DIY Lobotomy. No, not the pizza guy; the creativity guru.

The lobotomy was all about learning techniques to separate your left brain from your right, and moreover to arrive at creative ideas by directing your brain to go in new directions. It was heady stuff, no pun intended.

He gave a simple and very useful definition for creativity.  If it surprises you, it’s creative. So, if you are trying to come up with something creative, knowledge is the devil.

New ideas are found in the unknown, not the known. The secret is not to know, so you begin to wonder. And break out of rigid thought patterns that lead you to predictable outcomes.

My favorite technique from the workshop was the “law of large numbers.” He demonstrated how forcing yourself to generate more and more ideas will use quantity to get to quality.

That doesn’t mean that bad ideas are good. It just means that you have to generate a lot of trash to get to the really good ideas. We tend to only let out ideas that we think might be good. But when you self-impose a ridiculous quantity requirement and add in some deadline pressure, the creativity-stealing censor inside you tends to shut down.

With dozens of teams working around the workshop room, it became obvious that the teams with the most ideas had some of the worst ones, but also all of the very best ones. Less wasn’t more. More was more!

All this, doesn’t mean knowledge is nothing. Because in the end, all new ideas are just old ideas put together in an unexpected way.

So when do you get your best ideas? Maybe the correct answer is: you never know!

Reading Really is Fundamental

If you want to improve your writing, you’ll need to read. A lot. It really is just about that simple.

Does it matter what you read? Well, certainly if you limit your reading to weak, poorly edited rubbish, your writing might suffer. Then again, if you only read things that are brilliant, you might back yourself into a major writers block trying to measure up.

The happy middle ground of mixing your reading of some ordinary work with some that is excellent should allow you to see the difference and begin to see how you could improve.

My son’s 9th grade English teacher recently assigned a reading log to accompany reading some classic literature. I majored in English and communications in college and I never once was assigned a reading log. But, I think it is great idea.

A reading log can simply consist of three or four things you want to watch out for while reading. Say, good examples of emotions being engaged, recurring elements, great word play, voice, or anything that is currently troubling you in your own writing. I may not have ever had a reading log assignment, but I do know that just jotting down outstanding examples will better allow your reading to inform your writing.

When I read, especially a good Anne Tyler novel, I tend to lose myself. Relating to the characters, captivated by the plot, intrigued by the tension, compelled to read more, completely entertained and wondering how three hours just slipped by. Reading with awareness about the author’s craft doesn’t ruin the joy of reading for me—but it does make me think more critically about what exactly makes the writing so good.

I hear a lot about how little the American public reads these days. I am not convinced that is the whole story. I know the magazine industry is flourishing (yes, print is not dead—but more on that in a future blog). And digital resources have multiplied what is available exponentially.

Today, I read an article about a researcher who placed study participants in an MRI machine to monitor their brain flow while they read the works of Jane Austin. Her subject’s minds were engaged far beyond what would be expected—including parts of the brain normally used for physical activity. That puts a whole new spin on the value of reading the classics!

The article really stuck with me for another reason. The researcher is writing a book on the history of distraction. She believes that today’s complaints about inattention and diverted minds are far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, she says 18th Century thinkers were very concerned about short attention spans. Sound familiar?

I believe there are still a lot of avid readers, and perhaps even more avid readers in waiting. I admit I fluctuate between the two depending on how busy I am on any particular day. But I always enjoy reading and I do know my writing improves whenever I read.

So, what are you reading? And how do you think it helps your writing?

Plan A Head

No, that is not a typo. In this 52-week learning quest toward better writing, this week’s installment is on that most important finishing touch: writing a decent headline. Or subject line, heading, report title—whatever caps your communication of the moment.

No matter how brilliant your content, if you put a ho-hum, boring—dare I say old school journalistic—title on it, you may as well have typed out your weekly grocery list.

Handwritten Grocery List

Sure the occasional devoted reader might still wade in to your copy. But let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of potential readers of anything are scanners at best. Without an element of intrigue they can’t miss, you’re wasting a whole lot of communication real estate.

Back in the day (since I am officially middle aged, I’m entitled to say that at least once a week) I distinctly remember an editor from the Lansing State Journal speaking in one of my J-school classes about her job. She was—and this was hard to believe it was someone’s full time job even in those days—the headline editor.

Later that week at the Peanut Barrel—then, the go-to place for J-school graduate students—several of my classmates commented on how much they’d love to have that woman’s job. For me, it was one of those moments where you try to look inconspicuous and hope no one notices you’re the only one not nodding in agreement. My thoughts were more along the lines of “No way would I ever want to be in that pressure cooker!”

In short, when it comes to headlines…A Natural Me Not. So, I’ve found ways to cope. I really wish I had a Top Ten List of great ways to solve the headline dilemma. But I’ve only got four. (I’m open to ideas here…)

Here they are, in no particular order.

1) Borrow from other publications and adapt it for your unique purpose

There’s no harm in finding inspiration from others, right? That is, as long as you don’t cross the plagiarism line of course. When I get stuck, I like to browse through examples of excellence.

Inspiration Next Exit Sign

One of my favorite sites for that is longform.com. It’s a brilliantly curated collection of new and classic articles, culled from a myriad of excellent sources on the web. As the name implies, these are substantial pieces and nearly always have interesting titles. You won’t find a “So-and-so Wins Award” in the bunch.

Here’s a sampling of some recent offerings and how you could repurpose the headline concept:

“THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A SHOOTER” –An essay on why people play violent video games by Tom Bissel in Grantland
This concept could be repurposed for anything you’ve got that lends itself to a list, especially when the list is an unexpected number. And, the topic is equally unexpected: “Eleven Ways of Looking at Robo Hamsters”, and etc.

“WE’RE GETTING WILDLY DIFFERING ASSESSMENTS” –Covering the chaotic nine minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its health care ruling by Tom Goldstein in Scoutusblog
If you are lucky enough to have any kind of short, pithy quote in your piece, why not put it up front?

“WILL YOU STILL MEDAL IN THE MORNING?” –A feature on sex in the Olympic Village by Sam Alipour, ESPN
Admittedly a tie to sex isn’t appropriate for a business report but I like the idea of using a question. Not to mention, bending a well-known phrase, which leads me to my next idea.

2) Flip that tired old adage; pun intended!

Some of the best headlines, take some familiar saying and swap out a word or two to give it new meaning. Done right, it comes off smart. Done wrong, it’s just painful.

Terrible Puns

One I wrote recently was for a web page about students painting an iconic rock on our campus in our school color: green. It was in honor of class gifts and really was undertaken to provide a photo for the contents page of our magazine. I titled the web page “Between a Rock and a Green Place.”

Maybe it was painful for fans of other places, but our fans seemed to think it fit our culture just right.

Joe-Ks.com is a great site for scanning for potential phrases to turn. You could also consider twisting up part of a well-known verse, song title or lyric; and etc.

3) With a preposition

I believe an element of surprise is key to a good header. For example, say a list of seemingly disparaging things. Prepositional phrases came to my rescue in that sort of regard twice this week.
I had a working headline I hated. And my boss hated it even more than I did. With the magic preposition “Making the Grass Greener and Lives Richer” (UGH) became “On Graduation Speeches, Gifts and Golf”.
The other one? “Science Olympians Go for Gold” (double UGH) became “Of Trebuchets, Bridges and Mousetraps.”

4) Throw in the weird

In an ideal world, the writer of the content would never come up with the title for that content. Instead, a fresh set of eyes would take over; such as someone with a knack for copy writing. But anyone can start to think like a copy writer by looking for unusual elements to highlight. And then stating them in an unusual way; such as in the form of a question.

If a photo or illustration will be featured with your piece, that is a great place to start. For example, in a piece on the academic impact of faculty chair endowments, our most excellent design team came up with putting a giant chair into an aerial photo of our campus. By giant, I mean its real world dimensions would have been about 200 stories high. So the headline became “What’s so BIG about a chair?”

Granted there is a place for a dry, factual headline. Media releases, white papers and grant proposals to name just a few. But, there is also a place for fun and drama.

Great examples and different techniques wanted here. Please post if you’ve got them.

Put Down the Duckie!

There’s a catchy little song the Muppets did back in the 80s. Through it, Ernie learns he needs to let go of something (hint: it’s rubber and it quacks)—to make music.

It reminds me of writing ruts I’ve been in.  And I don’t mean writer’s block.  I’m talking about the riskless, boring, formulaic writing that writers end up in because it’s safe, fast and, unfortunately, familiar.

It’s not like we don’t know better.  We know we are supposed to tell stories.  We are supposed to give our readers something they can relate to.  Engage emotions.  Connect.


Photo by Freedigitalphotos.net

But it seems like we are always standing at the intersection of Prudent and Bold.

Why do we end up there?  Well, it’s easy to point fingers.  “I’d be daring if it weren’t for the relentless vetting process my employer requires!”  “My audience is corporate.”  “My boss won’t like it.”

I’ve no doubt for some of us, there are very real restrictions.  But, how often is it just lethargy or fear?  A duckie, if you will.  And this one limits and it saps.

A trip too far down Prudent Lane leads to writing like this:

With over 50 affiliated faculty who are distinguished in a wide range of scientific disciplines, the center offers an innovative and highly integrative environment for research, teaching and graduate school education.

In case you are wondering, I think I wrote that in about 2006.  It was the kind of writing I was used to at that time and in that particular position.  There’s nothing wrong with it per se and it may have had its place.  But, it’s not exactly unexpected.

Somewhat more recently I wrote this:

You’ll join a community that shares a sense of purpose and a special bond.  Talented people from every conceivable background are inspired by capable leaders, instilled with a love for hard work and collegiality, unleashed by the massive resources of one of the top research universities in the world.

Better.  It too may have served its intended purpose: the recruiting of good job candidates.  But I’m much, much prouder of this:

“At times I feel the hugeness of the university and its way of life closes down on me and I wonder who I am and where I am going.”

A student contributed that pensive line to the 1969 Yearbook.  It could have been from the journal of NAME WITHHELD who as a sophomore that year, like many sophomores in any year, was floundering.  As the first in his family to attend college, paying for school through a combination of scholarships and work, and indeed, unsure of who he was or where he was going, he considered “packing it up and leaving.”

Then, as often happens, one person took an interest in him.

I think that’s the kind of writing that makes you want to keep reading.  (By the way, he graduated and became a research and development V.P. for a major corporation.  I am guessing you might actually want to know.)

Here’s the challenge. Put aside familiar routines and stretch outside what is expected.  Write something that makes an emotional connection with someone.  Be brave.  And—gasp!—maybe even make a mistake.  I’d love to see what you come up with!

I’ll wrap up with the immortal words of Mr. Hoots:  “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone!