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.

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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?

The truth about true stories

People are too complex to have just one truth. Everyone’s truth is malleable depending on who’s telling it and why.

What does this mean for your integrity as a writer?

I believe a skilled writer, much like a skilled counselor, can work with sources to share their story in a way that is true to them and about them while at the same time nailing the particular communication purpose at hand.

This juggling act is an important skill for those of us on the softer news, public relations side of the communications business. There is power in what we say and how we say it, that should never be underestimated. And it should always be a part of strategy conversations.

If you aren’t sure you can believe that, you should watch this short video. “The Power of Words” is an amazing piece created to promote Andrea Gardner’s book Change your Words, Change your World. It illustrates the importance of framing someone’s truth to match the communication objective.

It’s worth the two minutes it will take you to see it.

I write a number of feature stories about successful people. When I do so, I have communication goals, but it is also imperative that the stories I write are truthful.

Typically, I offer the people I write about the opportunity to review the article before it gets published.

If that shocks anyone’s journalistic sensibilities, let me remind you that I’m not a reporter for the Washington Post or The Detroit Free Press or even a weekly tabloid. I write for Michigan State University. So my sources for success stories are our faculty, alumni, donors and friends, which means I am free, if not compelled, to involve them.

Does that mean my stories are any less true than those written by news reporters?

As a third grade child, I had to learn the difference between an autobiography and a biography. My third grade self was sure that the truest story would be an autobiography. How could someone else know a person better than they know themselves I innocently reasoned?

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In my idealistic youth years, I sided with the biographers and thought any autobiography was self-indulgent at best, probably a bore and certainly not the whole truth.

Turns out the truth—especially when set down in writing—is a bit trickier.

When I was fresh from J-school, the thought of allowing a source to review your story was something I thought of as a harsh reality in public relations. Though, I probably kept quiet most of the time and hoped my sources wouldn’t insist. Then, felt violated if they did but, shamefully, relieved if they spotted an inaccuracy.

Not surprisingly, most people want things that are written about them to mirror the story that they would tell about themselves. I can’t always do that depending on my objectives, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who wanted me to lie.

In fact, I could never really reflect anyone’s internal self even if I wanted to. No matter how much time I spend with someone, I can’t live in his or her head.

All this is less about preserving some idea about journalistic integrity and more about portraying someone authentically while at the same time crafting a message that helps your organization. That takes time, trust and finesse.

Telling my sources upfront that they can see what I write before it goes out into the world instills trust. It’s concrete evidence that they are not being used, that I actually care about them. It helps them talk more freely and makes them more willing to let down any walls. Which in turn, can open the door for telling a fuller version of their truth that is consistent with what and how I need to communicate with our audience.

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A couple of years ago, I interviewed a Hollywood producer. When I asked him if he wanted to see what I wrote before publication, he said: “No, whatever you write is what you saw in me, and I wouldn’t want to change that.”

Maybe that was merely a function of his busy life. Or, maybe I’d really won his trust. I’m pretty confident it was neither of those. I think he just understood that his story could be different for different people and he was okay with that.

Career advice blogger Penelope Trunk writes,

“every summary of any part of your life could be a totally different summary as well. And be equally true.”

She knows out that her resume could tell the story of her as a writer. But if she needed to get a job in operations, she could rewrite it to indicate that operations had been her focus for the last fifteen years…without lying. She’d just frame her truth from a different angle.

The man in “The Power of Words” had a message that was true enough but it didn’t work for what he needed. The writer reframed his message for him in way that had impact which is exactly my point.

It’s okay to share the truth that works best for the situation you find yourself in.

For the love of words…once you start writing that is

There’s busy. And then there’s my life for the past two weeks. I know that’s a weak excuse for being behind on this “weekly” blog. On the plus side, the insane work load I’ve been managing lately got me thinking about why I do what I do. Or, for that matter, why anyone would do this.

In short, it can only be for the love of noodling around with words. You have to find some joy in finding a new way of saying something. Otherwise, you certainly would not stay up way past your bedtime still tapping on the old keyboard, trying to fix your lead.

For me the hardest part of writing anything is getting started. Once I do, I’m totally hooked. Take this blog. I knew I should be writing something for it, but I had so many other things to do, it was too easy to put it off. Once I started though…

So the key to getting some writing done–at least for me–is starting. So, I’ve perfected a few tricks to force the issue:

  • If you interviewed a few people, starting pulling out all the best quotes—the ones you knew you’d use the minute you heard them. Once you see a few of those pulsing on the screen, how can you resist getting underway? If for no other reason than to share those perfect comments.
  • For a dryer piece, just put down some key facts you know will have to be in there. They’ll either sound so boring you can’t resist spicing it up, or one or two of the facts will pique your interest.
  • Type or retype your notes. It forces you to start thinking about it. You’ll end up editing and reorganizing the notes and soon you’ll be writing the piece outright.
  • Take the Swiss cheese approach. Tell yourself you’ll just write one paragraph you might be able to use. Come back to it and write just one or two more paragraphs; and etc. Until you’ve carved out enough holes either to get it done or to get it to the point where you no longer need a mental trick to polish the rest off.
  • Write an outline or just a list of what you’ll need to include. It doesn’t feel like writing so you can kid yourself. Once you’ve got the framework, the whole task won’t seem so heavy.
  • Write the end first. If you know where you want to end up, it is easier to start the journey.
  • If you are truly stuck, do a quick Google search on the topic you are writing about. Either you’ll find something great that inspires you, or you’ll see that everything out there is so dismal that you’ll want to contribute something more meaningful.

Spending time on your writing is certainly a good thing. Taking a thoughtful approach takes time. Deciding on the best way to order things takes time. Editing.  Takes even more time. That would be hell, if it weren’t so inexplicably enjoyable.

A cautionary word is in order. I’ve learned (yeah, the hard way) that a love of words can also get in your way. You can get too close to things.

Go over what you’ve written a few dozen too many times, and not only won’t you see the forest for the trees, you likely are blissfully staring up at the sky, having not even noticed there are trees! That is, until you smack into one.

That’s where other editors come in…but that’s a whole new subject.

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.

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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!