Tag Archives: writing techniques

“10 Golden Rules of Social Media” apply to writers, too


Illustration courtesy of SXC.

Last week, Aliza Sherman authored a great post over at Web Worker Daily about the 10 Golden Rules of Social Media. Aliza’s been consulting with clients on Internet-issues since 1992, so she definitely knows whereof she speaks. It’s a good read for anyone wanting to understand the zeitgeist of social media at a deeper level.
I was thinking, however, as I read her post, that all of these “golden rules” were also pretty darn shiny for writers, regardless of medium. Here is my take on Aliza’s rules and how they apply to nonfiction writers.

The Golden Rules
1. Respect the Spirit of the ‘Net. Aliza tells readers, “The Internet was not meant for marketing and selling but for communication and connection to people and information.” And it’s true.

Writers can obey this rule by understanding how they fit into the “new media” landscape and where they can add value—namely, by producing stories that facilitate intelligent conversations and fuel connections to people and information. Accurate information, told in an entertaining, enlightening fashion, can cut through the gunk of e-spam and often is what gets passed from person to person via e-mail, Facebook postings, or Twitter “tweets.”

2. Listen. This rule should be second-nature to anyone trained as a journalist, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. Writers need exceptional conceptual skills to help tell a story, but for nonfiction writers, listening must be the foundation that helps them find out what the story actually is.

In her Web Workers Daily post, Aliza says, “In virtual spaces where there are no visual cues, good listening skills become a powerful asset.” Writers should listen for overarching themes, patterns in responses to content, and perhaps most importantly, should listen for what’s not being said, and follow up on that to find out why.

3. Add Value. Many writers struggle with this rule, but it really sums up many of the goals of nonfiction writing that we have been taught: to inform readers of current events, to share our impressions of an event for those not present, to expose conflicts between individual liberty and the common good, etc. Even our self-expressive writings may hold value for others, in terms of connecting with our emotions or our technique.

4. Respond. This rule may seem new for some writers. In the pre-Internet era, responses to one’s writing could be found in letters to the publication’s editor or in letters directed at us, but channeled through a book’s publisher. We didn’t necessarily have to come up with a response within 24 hours!

Aliza warns readers, “Don’t be a dam in a conversation flow,” but it’s important to remember that one’s first response to a reader doesn’t have to be one’s final response. The point is to realize that we are no longer (if indeed we ever were) the “one” reporter/editorial writer/pundit discussing issues and providing insight to the “many” — we are one very skilled voice in a long, simultaneous and ongoing “many-to-many” conversation.

5. Do Good Things. Of course, reporters have reported on things in need of reform for centuries. And there is a proud tradition of service journalism, which focuses on producing articles and story packages that give direct advice to readers on how to solve a pressing issue in their lives.
However, so much is going on in the areas of citizen journalism (aka user-generated content) and activism powered by communication via mobile devices that writers need to keep tabs on how these trends are impacting the way ordinary folks use the articles traditional journalists produce to advocate for change.

6. Share the Wealth. Aliza tells blog readers that she’s often told her Internet clients, “If you’ve got it, share it, spread it around.” She continues, “…I wasn’t only talking about money. I was talking about time, information and knowledge. In social media, sharing is the fuel of the conversation engine.”

As I noted earlier, the urge to determine and share what is of value is part of what makes good writers so important in the online world. Our ability to keep the conversation going, with vibrant anecdotes, context-rich interpretations of data, and perspective-altering interview quotes, expands our audience’s knowledge base in ways that enlarge their capacity to discuss meaningful things in a meaning-filled way.

7. Give Kudos. Aliza notes, “Social media works when you are generous. There is nothing wrong with self-promotion, but things really take off when you give others praise.” Journalism has often focused on problems, scandals and potential disasters (as well as disasters-in-progress). While this has filled a valuable niche in our society, it’s increasingly important for writers to also highlight concepts and projects that work, that better society and that can be an inspiration for others facing similar situations. It’s also a nice counter-balance to the jaded pessimism that can creep in when all one writes about is how messed up everything is.

8. Don’t Spam. Hopefully, your stories are well enough received by their audience not to be seen as spam. I think the take-away for writers in this rule is to not assume you know your audience’s needs—keep the lines of communication open and be willing to alter your research plan if “crowdsourcing” or other reader feedback sends you in a direction different than the original slant for your piece.

9. Be Real. This phrase should be tattooed over the heart of every nonfiction writer. Understand your unique voice, as well as what subjects you can write about with greater authenticity than anyone else.

Aliza tells her readers: “Authenticity is the secret ingredient behind any good and valuable social media marketing campaign.” It is also, I might add, what separates the writers who have almost magnetic abilities to attract followers from those who try to break into the top tier of their profession through technique alone.

10. Collaborate. This rule ties back to Aliza’s first rule—about respecting the spirit of the ‘Net. Writers who understand their work is not just theirs, but is a collaboration with their editor, their publisher, their readers and the community they serve, can find it much easier to tap into the flow of information they need to do their work. They are also much less likely to suffer from the narcissism that can come from perpetually focusing on projects that they believe are their handiwork alone.

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In Praise of Zero Drafts

Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve been told by freelance writers, when I describe to them my approach to writing, that I write like an editor. Perhaps I do.

One time I was comparing notes with one of my writers, and she told me that producing copy is never an issue for her—but she chokes on editing her own work, to the point that she hires an editor friend to polish her work before she submits it for publication. I, on the other hand, typically have to squeeze out my first draft. But once I have something out on paper, I can edit, rearrange and manipulate the content to my heart’s content—even with, or perhaps especially with my own writing, I feel that everything is negotiable once I have a draft to play with.

If you tend to choke on producing early drafts, learning how to write a “zero draft” may be a path out of writer’s block. A zero draft is what you write before you write the rough draft. It’s a no-structure, no-holds-barred, no-one-is-gonna-see-this brain-dump that lets you exorcise the demons (or angels) of this particular story, so you can see what you have and begin structuring your material. It’s the functional equivalent to dumping a box of Legos out on a table to see how many pieces (and what kind) you have before you begin building something.

In their amazing work, “Coaching Writers,” Roy Peter Clark and Don Fry recommend that newsroom editors working with writers who can’t figure out where to begin their stories to write a zero draft in the form of a short note to the editor, describing what information they gathered during their field reporting. The technique gets the focus off wrestling with the structure of the story, and pours it into a format that everyone understands—the personal letter.

For example, “Dear Liz, I went to report at the Democratic National Convention, but got stuck in a five-hour traffic jam. I stepped out of my car and talked to Denver commuters about how the convention is impacting their city. Some people loved it and the money it was bringing in, some people hated how it brought the traffic and city services to a screeching halt, but everyone had an opinion about what a mega-event like this one does to a city the size of Denver. By the time I got to the convention, I felt as if this was the story, and not what was going on at the convention center. Sincerely, A. Writer.”

In just a few sentences, our writer has identified a story line, key points of interest (perhaps useful in the lead or nut graph) and even a bit of a tentative structure (perhaps point-counterpoint, or issue-by-issue debates on the impact of the event?). If he or she had been trying to cook up a great first-person sight-and-sound lead, he/she might have lost track of the other details, or how they would support the flow of the story once their lead anecdote was over.

Another zero draft technique, as I alluded to earlier, is the brain-dump. This could be a list of anecdotes, facts, quotes, descriptions, etc., that you found gripping or which you can’t get out of your head in relation to your story. Do not try to write a lead, a nut graph or transitions that will survive into the rough draft. Just get what you know on paper.

Put your zero draft away long enough to do a load of laundry, mow the yard, drink a beer—whatever—then come back to it. You need time away to let your brain work on the structural part subconsciously. When you’re ready, review your draft, circling repeating patterns, good bits of description or exposition, information that naturally works as a transition, belongs in the lead, etc. You can use your notes on the zero draft to create an outline/mindmap/storyboard for the piece, or you can just refer to it as you do your first real draft—since now have now made your thinking visible, you can sculpt it to serve the needs of your assignment.

Another technique that can get you over the what-to-write hump is known as “scaffolding.” This is useful when you have a pretty good idea what to say but you’re not as sure where to jump into the story. Roy Peter Clark discussed how he used this technique recently to write an article about the late Tim Russert; it’s a great way to acknowledge that your story will change from draft to draft, and to write your way into the story.

Learn More about Zero Drafts

Speed Writing: How to Master the Zero Draft: a good introduction to zero drafting from PeakWriting.com.

Ask the Dissertation Diva: Zero Draft Writing: Another take on zero drafts, from the perspective of academic writing.

List Your Main Ideas in a Zero Draft: This brief article, posted at uliveandlearn.com, shows some ways you can use analog paper-based methods to repurpose your zero draft as a story map or visual outline of your work.

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