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?

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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.

Are you the Next Twinkie? Creative Destruction for Writers

We are entering a period where the slow, the inflexible and the bureaucratic, will find themselves extinct in record numbers, according to Chris Zook in his Harvard Business Review blog.

Zook asks if it is just another example of Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction; an expected and profitable culling of businesses, enterprises—and people—that can’t keep pace.

Are we all that close to going the way of the Twinkie?

Image of a Package of Hostess Twinkies

It’s a little frightening to contemplate. Especially when it seems like your seasoning as a professional writer might be more comfortable camping out on the cozy little cottage side of the lake than the pull up the stakes and move out this afternoon, rustic tent sites.

It’s no secret that technology has dramatically changed the way people communicate, so when creative destruction talk surfaces, it is easy to assume that’s what it’s about.

Sometimes I feel like Drew Barrymore’s character in “He’s just not into you” who, while trying to decipher the success of a recent date, complained so heartrendingly: “And now you have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies. It’s exhausting!”

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Zook says that probably isn’t what is holding you back.

He believes organizations aren’t innovative due to slow cycles of decision and adaptation. In other words, it may not be a keeping up with technology thing so much as the general ability to adapt to rapid changes at all.

Nothing gums up moving forward more quickly than a bunch of unproductive complexity whether it’s in processes or decision-making.

Put simply, leaders need to find ways to focus and simplify their organizations.

What does this mean for communicators?

Focus your content.

Look for three or four things you can clearly articulate that your organization has that others don’t. Apple’s comeback in the late 90s began with the simplification of their product line down to just four products.

That’s no accident, Zook points out.

Apple’s comeback also was about a renewed focus on the user experience. They made industrial design a strategic tool and a marketing point, not only for the computer industry but also for everything! They modeled success by only making a few things, but making them really, really well.

Apply that lesson to your messages. Before you start worrying about how many tactics you can take on or which ones you should creatively destroy, make sure you’ve got messages that people want and can easily grasp.

Stress your organization’s strengths: the niches where you do things better than your competition.

And don’t try to push too many messages at once. Concentrate on the pillars of your brand.

There’s nothing slow, unresponsive or out of date about that.

Painstaking Craftsmanship

“…always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, sink your thumbs into his windpipe in the second and hold him against the wall until the tag line.”
— Paul O’Neil, former Time Inc. reporter

George P. Hunt, managing editor of Life Magazine, once penned an Editor’s Note about staff writer Paul O’Neil in which he noted that O’Neil “liked to think of himself as, among other things, Attila the Hun”; that “the excellence of Paul’s stories is the result of painstaking craftsmanship, a fine ear for phrase and a lot of experience.” He called the quote above: O’Neil’s Law.

That was in 1964, nearly fifty years ago. But it all has a lot of relevance today.

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People with a true passion for writing don’t write things and share them just because they are paid to do so. In 2013 you don’t have to be one of the chosen few writing for Life Magazine to start gaining that “lot of experience.”

But with so much content out there, readers have become overwhelmed…and more discerning.

While writers can publish more easily now than ever before, that also means you compete with CNN, youtube, your kid’s math teacher, illogical ranting political hacks, amateur movie reviewers, a guy who doesn’t like the toaster he bought last month, and someone with 9537 Facebook friends. Good writers have an incentive and an imperative to produce stuff not that grabs the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, but in fact does so in 140 characters or less.

As everyone, everywhere increasingly fights for our attention richer more relevant content is trumping quantity. The rush to chuck trash into the cavernous Web simply to fill it up as quickly as possible is over.

Quality is now much, much more important than quantity. And that’s precisely where painstaking craftsmanship comes in to play.

What does this mean for you?

Focus on quality—not quantity. Aim to create and produce only top-shelf content. Spend more time on less volume.

Pretend your writing will determine whether or not you get the career opportunity of a lifetime; that President Obama will see your next blog; that you’ll wake up to 12 million hits; that your worst elementary school nemesis, the one who snaked your prized Nike sneakers over a telephone line, will read your next published article and finally will be sorry. Whatever it takes to bring out the painstaking craftsman in you.

Work on developing that fine ear for phrase.

I’m no Paul O’Neil but I do know this. The best writers are the ones who can tell a good story. They know how to find the right details to make it human and interesting. And they know their way around a metaphor or two.

Developing that kind of skill takes practice; practice that will greatly increase your chances of grabbing the reader by the throat.

The First Wonder of Writing: Storytelling

I feel I should apologize for the hiatus I’ve taken from this blog. First, I was buried in work and something had to give. Actually a few things had to. But this blog was one of the ones I missed the most.

The work barrage lifted eventually, but then there was this terrible backlog of things that also needed doing—like laundry, preparing for the holidays, enjoying the half dozen yearend concerts and performances my kids were involved in, and going to the dentist.

By the time I felt caught up, I had a strong desire to curl up in front of the fire, crochet myself a snuggie and re-watch the first and second seasons of Downton Abbey and/or play mindless word games, for at least a month.

But now I am refreshed, reenergized and ready to blog like crazy.

So I decided to kick off with a positive spin. A trade publication I get recently ran a “Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing” series.

It’s fun to read and helpful but, the negativity got to me. Don’t we business and organization writers ever do anything right? Have we nothing to celebrate?

And thus came to be this first installment of what I’m calling the Seven Wonders of Writing. To me, there is something pretty inspiring, and yes even wonderful, about the opportunity to tell a story so I’m putting that as he first wonder I’ll write about, because it really is that important.

Bottom line, you want to be read. You want to write well. And moreover, you’ve got something to communicate. With any luck it is something important and meaningful.

But it’s a challenge since each and every one of us speaks our own personal language based on our age, stage, wage, gender, race, education, life experiences, id, ego, baggage, filters and favorite breakfast cereal.

If there’s one thing no one can resist, no matter whether he or she wakes up to fruit loops or oat bran, it is a good story.

Robert McKee, the award winning Hollywood screenwriter, in Story writes that stories are our most prolific art form. Just consider the daily stream of prose, films, shows, broadcasts, online legends, water cooler anecdotes, office sagas, bedtime children’s tales, barroom bragging, social media gossip, and more that we take in each and every day.

Why? McKee says we can’t get enough because stories are the most accessible way we have of trying to answer the ever elusive question of how we should lead our lives. In other words, stories give us insight or as McKee writes:

“(Stories are) but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence.”

In another life, I was a student teacher in high school English. Teens aren’t an easy audience. I learned quickly that the surest, fastest and most effective way to get every one of those adolescent eyes on me was to tell a true, personal story.

So what gets in the way of telling stories when we write?

Mainly, it takes time. Too much is written from behind a computer screen. To get a great story, you can’t do all the research and interviewing by Internet and phone. You can convey all the essential information very accurately, but you won’t get the story behind the story, the surprising tales that pop up when people relax and get to know one another.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece on a family who made a significant gift to further research on autism. It was great news. A nice story. The family lives in my state but on the far side of it, meaning more than an hour’s drive for me, one way. What’s more, the only time they had to talk to me was late on a Friday.

I already had a boatload of material. I could have phoned them for a few additional answers and followed-up with email. I’m glad I didn’t do that.

It wouldn’t have been much of a story. I wouldn’t have heard firsthand about their journey with a grandson with autism. When the grandfather recounted the day he heard his grandson say “Grandpa” for the first time in seven years, the storyteller within me said wow. I’ll never forget it. It’s the kind of detail I know that readers will remember to.

And It might just help someone sort out the anarchy of existence.

Yep, story telling can be pretty wonderful.

The Art of Interviewing

If you can chat over lunch, you can master an interview for writing a great personal story.

In the past few years, I’ve had some interesting interviews. I talked to a lady who, heartrendingly, broke down into tears while describing the very first time she saw the campus where I work. I also got a detailed personal tour of an insanely extensive, yet somehow charming, collection of duck decoys. Another time, I only got ten minutes to talk with a very generous donor while at the same time orchestrating having his picture taken with our basketball coach.

Whether you get ten minutes on a basketball court, the whole afternoon at the subject’s home, time via Skype or just over the phone, you can use the same process to write a story with impact.

I believe it boils down to about seven steps.

1) Before you do anything, define the purpose so you fully understand it. You should be able to state your purpose in one sentence. It will drive your research, interview and, eventually, the writing and editing.

2) Background research. Learn about your subject including defining potential themes that will allow you to riff on the spot once you are in the interview.

3) Request the interview.

  • Identify yourself confidently and without apology.
  • Share your purpose and what you will do with their story.
  • Establish a slightly flexible time limit, i.e. “I don’t expect this will take more than X minutes of your time.”
  • While you are talking, try to get a small sense for how the person might be. Will they be chatty? Are they mainly flattered or suspicious? Stoic or comfortable?

4) Prepare questions. Some writers resist this in order to “let the source lead the interview.” Personally, I don’t believe that having some prepared questions means you have to doggedly stick to a predetermined structure. You are always free to deviate.

  • As a good rule of thumb, aim for about one question for every three minutes you’ll have.
  • Make sure your questions are designed to draw them out and make them human. Don’t ask “what are your strengths?’ say “what would your colleagues (or rivals or family or friends or someone meeting you for the very first time) say are your strengths?”
  • Be ready to follow-up with questions that will get you the personal elements. Take me back to that day, what were you doing before ABC happened? Where were you living? What was your first thought when you realized XYZ?

5) Build rapport.

  • Smile, smile, smile! They’ll feel it even if it’s a phone interview.
  • Keep positive and patient no matter what; even if all you’ve heard so far is unusable platitudes.
  • The main thing is to keep things non-judgmental and don’t rush in to fill the void the second your source stops talking.
  • If your source rambles, gently steer them back on course. If need be, say, “I have a few more questions I need to ask and I want to respect your time.”
  • Keep at it to get a few hooks. Instead of “can you tell me something funny that happened?” ask “did anyone ever do XWZ?” If you’ve build a little rapport, most likely they will counter with “No, but…”

6) The bomb. If there is anything potentially embarrassing, awkward or tough put this near the end—after you’ve built rapport. Allow time for recovery to end things on a positive note.

7) Conclude. This can either be when you’ve gotten enough material or when you sense your source is tiring of you. I have a standard final question that goes something like this: “Is there anything important that we haven’t talked about?” End with a thank you.

And what is said in the interview is never enough. A great interview also includes description, context, a fresh way of saying something and nonverbal information about the subject.

That’s my process. I hope you can find something useful here for your next interview.