Cool Tools: RSS feeds and your writing

Writing and reporting non-fiction has changed a lot in the last generation. When I was sending my first human-interest features off to market in the mid-1980s (fresh off the dot-matrix printer), I would carefully tuck a self-addressed stamped envelope in to receive the proverbial thumbs up or thumbs down in the mail. Today, our ideas can receive approval or rejection at light-speed, thanks to e-mail.

One of the best things to come along in the last few years for writers is the concept of Really Simple Syndication, or RSS. In a nutshell, writers who need to research websites that have content that is updated frequently can use RSS to bring the updates to them. Common Craft explains the concept far better than I, and they’ll make you laugh harder, too.

Oh! And RSS has its own Awareness Day on May 1, to help spread the word.

Although a lot of corporate and organizational websites are late in joining the RSS party, many sites do have RSS feeds. The key to enjoying all this customized info-to-go goodness is picking a reader or aggregator.

There are plenty of free readers online, such as My Yahoo, My MSN, Google Reader, etc. Or you can purchase an aggregator/reader that operates from your desktop. Each one lets you add new feeds to your interface, and then you can visit your ONE reader, and not 10-15 websites or blogs, each day to see what’s new.

For writing projects, this is heaven on earth. I use My Yahoo to track websites that I write about on my other blog, Creative Liberty.

I have a tab for each subject area I cover. Here’s a snapshot of the RSS feeds on my ‘Journalism 2.0’ page.

The only downside to readers, if there is one, is that at some point you can go into cognitive overload from seeing so many updates in one place. (But the intrepid author of the higher-ed-technology blog Edublogger even has suggestions to combat that.) Or the site owner can stop updating on a regular basis, and you have to decide whether to take the feed out of your reader, or leave some feed in there with items that say ‘updated 2 months ago’.

Overall, however, the RSS reader is a free or cheap, extremely easy way to keep up on your ‘beat’ or specialty writing areas. It might not make you a better writer, but it will definitely make your ‘required reading’ online more efficient.

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