Sunday, April 8, 2012

Writing in a digital world

Carol Doane addresses Vancouver Writer's Mixer. Photo: Chris Martin.
Writing for a community website is different than writing for a national website, different than blogging, obviously different from fiction writing that many of my friends do, and different from writing for a print publication.

I came out of a print background. For two decades I sold and wrote advertising copy. The messages were short, targeted, timely and compelling. Very much like social media.

As I engaged in social media, I could see that the goal of a friend’s social media message wasn't to sell me something, but it had the same components as advertising – short, compelling, timely or targeted, but more entertainment oriented.

My Facebook friends shared what they observed and experienced – and made me laugh out loud.

Work is no laughing matter
I wasn’t laughing much in my day job. Our company struggled for survival; our subscription base was eroding as well as our advertising stream. We were deteriorating. The reorganization benefits of Chapter 11 offered the life raft to start the arduous task of digging the company out of bankruptcy – which ultimately we did.

Our incremental corporate moments of success brought cheers around the office, but relief came from online. People I knew told me about places I loved and their short, pithy messages made me laugh. It rekindled friendships and coffee dates soared. That brought more online discussion, and not just on Facebook, but spilled over into Twitter, blogging, Foursquare and many other social media sites. I could go online and be entertained and expand my friendship circle.

Social media became a place to meet local people, get them off the computer and bring them into real life.

Working for a community website is just the opposite – taking real life and putting it back on the computer, making it digital.

The Tabasco of work life.
To get a foothold in the digital marketplace – you can’t be bland.

If you want to write for a community website you have to find a way to have an edge, but because it’s local it can have consequences. A story I wrote elicited a letter to be boss asking me to apologize to our corner of the state – or be fired.

I’ve shared the story I wrote with other writers and they shake their heads. They don’t get it. If you aren’t vested in the subject matter it doesn’t engage your full emotions. If the story threatens your home, your fence line, future job potential it pulls hard on your emotions. You read emotions into a story you're emotional about.

Point of view, though, is what alternative news sources need to survive. It can’t be a boring read, it can’t be like reading the minutes of the last board meeting. It has to have content with an engaging delivery.

I find that print is more about properness – proper form, proper paragraphs, while online you might break a paragraph up because of how it looks visually on the screen or how it wraps around a photo.

It's less about being perfect. It's more about discovery
What I’ve discovered in the past year in a start-up is to take everything on. Be surprised. Be willing to discover you may not have been doing it right, but you're willing to morph and move as the mystery unfolds.

And above all, be willing to learn.