I’ll be speaking today to Steve Klein‘s “Writing Across Media” class at George Mason University.
I’ve written lots about traditional writing in the style of newspaper stories and those styles and issues remain important. But digital tools and platforms present a broad range of challenges and opportunities for writers, which I will focus on here and in my presentation to the class. The best way to learn each of these writing techniques is to practice it. I will offer a few tips and link to some helps (I appreciate other links, if you can offer them in the comments). Some good places to learn about writing for different media are Mindy McAdams’ blog or Mark Briggs’ books. Some digital writing tools and types I will encourage the students to study and try:
Twitter. Twitter may be the best tool for journalists introduced during my career (along with the spreadsheet and the cell phone). Regardless of the content of your tweets and how well you engage with other tweeps or use it for breaking news, it’s a fabulous writing tool. When you have only 140 characters to make a point, you learn to economize with words and get to the point. I checked the three top stories on the Washington Post site Tuesday afternoon and two of them were way longer than a tweet (and desperately in need of streamlining). The lead on a story on the United Nations response to the Israeli flotilla attack was more than two tweets long and another Post story on the death of an Al Qaeda leader had a lead nearly two tweets long. On the other hand, the story on the Gores’ separation had a tweetworthy lead. Check the three and see which gets to the point clearer and sooner. Live tweeting an event also results in a compelling narrative, one concise point at a time. Follow Ron Sylvester of the Wichita Eagle as he covers a trial to see some strong live tweeting. Tweets are one of several forms of the update, a common social-media writing form used (not always with the 140-character limit) in other platforms, such as Facebook or LinkedIn updates and Foursquare tips or shouts.
Liveblogs. Writing as an event is unfolding is a completely different sort of writing. You aren’t trying to decide after the fact what your lead should be or what goes into the summary and what doesn’t. Instead, you are trying to capture the essence of the new event as it unfolds, not transcribing, but capturing the important quotes, action and moments of every few moments. You write an unfolding narrative. Liveblogs work for a variety of events, from sports to trials to government meetings to breaking stories. The liveblog works well in combination with a summary story for print, web or broadcast. The summary can tell the most important development of the day and just a quote or two, linking to a replay of the liveblog for readers who want more.
Conversation. A huge factor in digital writing is the conversational aspect of it. In blog and story comments, in Twitter replies, Facebook comments, live chats and virtually any form of digital writing, the writer invites conversation and needs to respond. One of the most common complaints about digital writing is the ugly, hostile tone that comments sometimes take. But when the writer engages in the discussion, it usually turns from rant to conversation.
Interactive databases. Databases can be important storytelling tools. Be the Answer, my report on databases for the American Press Institute’s Newspaper Next project, details a variety of ways news organizations can use databases as storytelling vehicles. StarTribune.com’s 13 Seconds in August provides an interactive database of videos and text stories of each of the vehicles involved in the 2007 collapes of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis. I also showed the class the Des Moines Register’s Parkersburg tornado map, a great storytelling compilation of writing, video, photos and map.
Aggregation and curation. Aggregation is not necessarily a form of writing. Sometimes it’s just a matter of collecting RSS feeds. But curation can become a writing challenge, as you select the most significant of the aggregated content and write brief summaries to accompany links.
Videos. I am no video veteran, but I learned a lot about video writing and gained respect for it as a writing form in writing a script for a video story (produced by Michael Barnes) when I was at The Gazette in 2008. Timing my words to match up with the images on the screen took several rewrites.
Multimedia. Digital media present excellent opportunities to combine writing with visual content. The Last Chance interactive story of Louisiana’s disappearing coastline (a 2007 story that feels timely today, with the coast under a new threat) is a powerful example of strong writing that ties together audio and an animated map.
Links. The digital writer doesn’t need to footnote the way an academic writer does and doesn’t need as much attribution or background as a newspaper writer does. Links help you provided depth, context and sourcing. News organizations were initially reluctant (and some still are) to link to external sites, fearing that if they send users away, they wouldn’t return. But, as I’ve blogged before, Google built the most successful business in the history of the Internet by linking to external content. Publish2 provides excellent linking tools.
SEO. Writing for search engines presents new challenges. A print headline can be intriguing, but an online headline needs to include keywords that are going to attract search engines (and attract clicks when they turn up in searches). You can still write clear, lively headlines that are search-engine optimized, but it requires work and new skills.
Blogs. For many journalists, a blog starts out as just an online column or a series of online stories or a place to empty the notebook of items that don’t fit in your print stories. But effective blogging evolves beyond that, becoming a place to use multiple types of elements. Sometimes just a sentence or paragraph (often with a link) can make an effective blog post. A conversational tone and interaction in the comments are common in effective blogging. Roxanne Hack of OCRegister.com gave this advice last year when I was seeking tips for bloggers: “Blogging is not a graduation speech, it’s a conversation with someone at the grad party.”
Writing as an artistic element. While the words you choose are important, you can also use the actual text as an artistic element. The Machine is Us/ing Us, Did You Know? and The surprising truth about what motivates us illustrate how a video using text as an art element can be a writing platform.
Have I missed some tools, techniques or platforms of digital writing? Or do you have some examples or advice in the areas above?