Swear A Bit

In 2006, I ‘ll be entering the fifth year of this blog. It’s my habit to spend some time each New Year scanning the previous years entries to see what the hell has been on my mind. I tackled a lot of different topics last year and that’s a great idea for another article.

As I reread this year’s articles, I’ve been thinking about what makes for successful content on the web. This is still a vigorously evolving medium. Every age group and every type of person is represented and they’re equally accessible which means whatever the bleeding edge is… it’s being pushed because everyone is stealing from everyone else. That rules.

For me, there are certain things I look for in successful content. You could translate that sentence into “what makes a successful weblogger”, but I think the observations I make below apply to anyone actively talking on the web. That includes all forms of weblogs, wikis, forums, and chat rooms.

Let’s first talk about the two basic sources of content on the web. First, there’s medium creators. These are the folks who aggregate other’s content and do something interesting to it. Think BoingBoing, MemePool, Del.icio.us, or Digg. Medium creators are doing their job when they organize other’s bits into interesting configurations. While this is an invaluable service, I want to talk about the folks who are actually creating original atomic content, message creators.

Message creators are the folks who take the time to construct a coherent chain of original thought. In my mind, there are two classes of message creators, the first which I’ll call journalers. These are the folks who’ve taken to spilling their personal thoughts onto the web. As writing exercises go, there’s nothing better than taking the time to translate the mess in your head into words. I’ve been spilling into various forms of journals for twenty years and while I’m sure it improved my writing ability, folks, there’s no way any of you are seeing that garbage.

Perhaps it’s generational thing and I’m dating myself, but journaling is personal therapy. Writing it down somehow makes whatever crap is going down in your life more bearable. That is it’s purpose. There are bazillions of folks out there write now who are journaling and if that’s making your life better, I’m a fan, but I want to talk about taking your writing to the next level and that involves our second class of writers, those who are creating a message.

There are two fundamental differences between journaling and creating a message. First, you’re writing for an audience, not yourself, and, second, you need to spend more time refining your idea.

Two important things to remember about your audience:

  • They are sitting at their desk, not their couch
  • They are likely to vanish at any moment because they have infinite choice

The key message here is that you don’t have their attention. You can get their attention, but it’s work and there are a thousand other temptations on a desktop and the moment they lose interest, they’re gone…

In order to keep their attention, you need to refine your idea. I’ve found I react stronger to writing which contains the following elements… styles… content. Your mileage may vary.

The Hook. I love when someone leads with a compelling short story as an introduction to what they’re going to write. It sets the context by pre-qualifying the story. If your reader scans your intro and immediately relates, they’re going to hang out. Also, I find that when you borrow a story from your life, the words just come out authentic which leads me to…

Be A Human. This is hard. I don’t think there is a class at your local university that teaches this. Personally, I attribute the tone I use in my writing to spending the past two decades of my life attempting to communicate via my keyboard. It started with BBSes and turned into the Web. It is a constant awareness that the people who are reading what you write are just like you. It’s a tone that reminds your readers that you are just another human being. You need to remind your readers this is YOU talking, it’s not your job or your company.

Swear a Bit. Probably a controversial piece of advice, but fuck it, I love swearing. This is likely a sub-point to sounding like a human, but it’s worth talking about. If you’re sitting at the bar with your friends, you swear. If you’re writing for the web, you’re writing for your extended friends… who cares if you know them? Keep it familiar.

Don’t Waste My Time. Remember, your audience will vanish at any point.. Their email is going to chime, their IM is going beg for attention, their phone is going to ring. Even if you hooked them, you can lose them if you don’t keep moving along. Remember, not only do I have infinite choice, I’m sitting upright staring at my monitor not lazily spread over my couch. The web is an active experience, not a sit down experience like TV. If you’re spending four paragraphs to get a point, I’m gone.

Give Me Something I Can Use. Great, you hooked me. We’re four paragraphs into your blurb and it’s now clear you have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re writing about some topic where you have no expertise and while it’s fun to wax poetic, I’m always on the search for the appearance of expertise. I’m not saying you’ve got to be a manager to write about management, but you do have to have some relevant experience in your topic in order to convey something of value.

Timing Matters. This is also hard. How do you time a joke when the pace of the tale is being is set by whoever is reading your stuff? Eloquence aside, you have precious few tools to craft timing that are available via your keyboard, but I have two favorites:

The Carriage Return


It’s funny.

The Shift Key


A Quick Fix

I’ve got NADD and what I’m looking for in your weblog entry is a quick fix. I want to invest two minutes in your stuff and I want to grow and the only way it happens is when I consume information. All you need to do is nail a single sentence that resonates with me and I’m sold. You’re bookmarked because once I know you’ve got the potential to feed my NADD, I’ll keep coming back.

Happy New Year.

6 Responses

  1. In my college years I wrote stuff out longhand as therapy of sorts. I’ve kept a lot of it, and some of it scares me now, but none of it is anything I’d ever consider posting to a wider audience because it was, you know, mine. I’m not entirely clear on the benefits of posting that sort of stuff to a wider audience; it draws people in, but then, so does a car crash.

  2. Lemme ask here if your advice really implies another distinction – people acquiring writing confidence and those who already have it. Since you’re offering advice to transition – perhaps in the insect sense rather than the transgender one – from journalers to real writers, I think that’s what you’re doing.

    I’m not sure I have any consistency at all in my approach to Weblog postings, save for the photographs.

    BTW, I think the entire concept and reality of LiveJournal is a total joke. My derision for them exceeds my former derision for AOLers. Another generational divide? I’ve been online forever; what have they got?

  3. Early drafts of this piece did more introspection on my writing confidence since day one of the weblog. That idea was edited out as I focused more of what I saw as advice for other writers who wanted some ideas they might want to throw into their work… obviously, a lot of those ideas come from staring at my stuff and trying to deduce what people liked in popular pieces.

    And, yeah, early versions also ripped on LiveJournal. I clearly am anti-post-journal-thoughts, but I can’t rip on LiveJournal because I’ve got some good friends who post good original content there. I also can’t rip on journaling in general because writing is always good. Lastly, it’s hard to argue with the LiveJournal (and MySpace) model as being anything other than successful — clearly, there’s a generation that is grooving on it.

  4. This post has been extremely helpful. I’ve recently started writing for the web (who hasn’t?) for the 5th time!

    The biggest challenging I’m experiencing right now is finding my voice, and keeping the quality high. In no way do I think I’m unique in these challenges.

    While I think many of your tips for writing for the web tend to be somewhat common sense – they’re not common-sensical enough for me to follow that advice all the time myself. Hearing it from someone else is helpful.

    In regards journaling: I’ve thrown many of my past journals directly into the trash, because I found my own writing embarrassing. Never would I publish that. It makes me dizzy.

  5. Richard Haven 18 years ago

    “The Hook. I love when someone leads with a compelling short story as an introduction to what their going to write. ”

    I love it when the blogger uses the wrong Homonyms on purpose just to generate corrections from pedants .

  6. Enjoy your posts since I’m in the tech business and like to see other types of posts, not just technology related. You have a nice mix of topics and interesting style of writing.

    I’ve just started putting my personal blog back online, again. Just thought I’d note that, I’m doing a “Hybrid” on my blog meaning it’s part journal and part informational read. It’s mostly for family and friends, but others can read as well. However, I’m trying to use it to perfect a writing style that’s mixed journal and some interested topics that others may find to their liking.

    Keep up the good work.