Looking for Something?

Making Quality Writing Count in New Media

Author:

Paraphrasing a very wise SNL character: “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”

A decade ago, a pair of twenty-somethings at a party asked what I thought about the future of traditional journalism with online media and communication gaining speed, strength and reach.

“The Internet,” I said, as if I had half a clue, “is a double-edged sword. On one side you have this world-shaking, powerful technology that allows anyone to have a voice, to publish what they have to say, a privilege once reserved for those with power and money.”

And the other side of the sword, they asked.

“Not everyone has something to say.”

These days, there’s still a double edge, but it’s on a different sword. There are plenty of people who, through the power of online self-publishing have discovered that, yes, they do actually have something to say.

And the other side of the sword?

Most are not very good at saying it.

It sounds like an uber-snooty remark but, truthfully, there really is an Everest-size difference between saying something and telling a story, between a compelling narrative and a rehash of a diary, between informing and regurgitating, between writing and, well, just typing. There’s a similarly sized difference between getting readers to open your blog and getting them to come back.

Responding to a LinkedIn question I posted about the importance of quality writing in blogs, nearly every poster said yes, they prefer sites that are well written. While the reasons varied, the one that jumped out at me was painfully simple:

“Readers want to feel like they’re having a discussion with somebody smarter than they are. Poor writing, no matter how well informed, won’t get that done.”

Are we talking about Steinbeck? No. Solid writing has less to do with prose and fancy phrasing than it has to do with 3 steps: Having a point, knowing what that point is, and writing to that point. Sounds simple, but a quick cruise through the blogosphere (and, frankly, a lot of legacy media outlets) shows that the importance of a point is, at best, underestimated.

That said, it’s not difficult to, with a few basic tips, make writing significantly better. Really.

Are there bloggers who are wildly successful without great writing skills? Of course. They have to work harder or rely more on their other tools – photography, videography, research, self-promotion, SEO – to not just gain new readers, but to keep them.

Can you rely entirely on great writing to be wildly successful? No. You still have to have something to say.

“If it ain’t one thing …”

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to learn how to turn your writing into powerful storytelling, be sure to check out Spud Hilton‘s session at NMX in January, entitled “Road map to storytelling: Writing that turns visitors into loyal readers.”

 

Spud Hilton is the travel editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, where since 2000 he has written about and been hopelessly lost in destinations on six continents, and where his writing and editing have earned seven Lowell Thomas Awards. Spud founded the Bad Latitude travel blog at SFGate.com.


Feedback

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  • David H. Deans

    Spud, I see this phenomenon as a major problem within the B2B marketing arena — where either basic storytelling skills and/or substantive domain expertise are clearly lacking in the people that write both editorials and related commentary.

    Part of the problem stems from consistently bad hiring practices. It may seem inconceivable that people in Marcom, PR and Social Media roles don’t have to demonstrate their writing competency, but I see the ongoing problems created by these employees.

    That being said, the apparent “talent puddle” of skilled writers at B2B companies has created a windfall for content marketing consultants and other contractors — because many of the internal staff merely outsource the real editorial work to paid outsiders. This practice, however, further perpetuates the tolerance for a “low bar of expectation” for internal marketing staff.

    In the high-tech sector of B2B, it seems there aren’t enough qualified people to hire. So, the poor writing will likely continue into the foreseeable future — that’s also not an uber-snooty remark, it’s just a fact of life.

    • Spud Hilton

      Good points, David.
      My hope is that there is a learning curve and quality writing will swing back around as a priority.
      Cheers, Spud

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