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
The Shift Key
I SAID IT’S FUNNY PEOPLE
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.