HOW TO WRITE ONLINE, DISCOVER YOUR VOICE, AND SCORE WRITING GIGS


Probably not what you use to write online, but it’s cute anyway.

IMAGE SOURCE // The Sweet Light

Well, Monday night was just a delight for me. I spoke with my friend Omar Gallaga from Austin American-Statesman on “The Secrets to Online Writing” for ONA (Online News Association) Austin’s monthly meetup, and you know what?  People took killer notes!  I’m always the one on the panel who totally forgets about Twitter hashtags, so it’s a good thing my partner was a tech writer, because he  kindly reminded the audience what ours was and now we have this nice record of points from our presentation.

More than simply rehashing our presentation though, I think what would probably be more helpful to you, Reader, is to share with you the points that made the most impact on the audience, especially since Omar and I readily admit we’re not the final word on online writing. So here they are, the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Online Writers, according not to Stephen Covey, but to Omar, me, and our wonderfully engaged ONA attendees (some of whom made our points a lot more eloquently than we did over Twitter; looking in your direction Sarah Beckham and Jon Lebkowsky.)

(And, if you would in fact like to check out our whole presentation, it’s saved here.)

1. WRITE ABOUT WEIRD THINGS. Of all the points I made during the presentation, this was probably the most Tweeted: “If you have an interest that you think is too strange, write about that.  Write about weird things.”  This goes for both blogging and for pitching yourself for online stories. Why? Because as Omar put it, having a “freakishly complete recall of arcane knowledge in areas others don’t” makes you competitive. It makes you defy genre.

Sure, you can attempt to be the 75,000th style blogger out there — be my guest. But being the cutest girl on the block with the hippest clothes and best photography will not distinguish you from the pack, I’m sad to say. Too many other style bloggers are already doing it all RIGHT, so what will you do DIFFERENTLY? Keeping with that analogy, the most successful style bloggers I know are the ones who’ve tweaked the formula, like Kendi Everyday. Cute girl, cute clothes, hilarious writing. That’s what made her different.

Early in his career, Omar wrote 7,000-8,000 word (!) Smallville recaps for Television Without Pity. In last month’s Texas Parks & Wildlife (which, OK, is a magazine, but the same principle still applies to online writing), I wrote a feature on Texan children’s eco-musicians. How many Texan children’s eco-musicians have you ever heard of in your life?  Probably not many.

So the next time you think, “that would be fun to write about, if only it weren’t so niche and odd!” then that’s your brain telling you it’s probably an ideal thing to write about. Another way to state this whole point would be specialist > generalist. To discover writing you’re passionate about and get more gigs, go for the former. Examples of niche writerly/storytelling blogs that are completely original and beloved: My Milk Toof, The Fabulous Geezersisters, Res Obscura.

2. WRITE MORE VS. WRITE PERFECTLY. Omar said that the only way to disccover your online writing voice is to simply write a lot. Again, this can be blogging or having a steady weekly gig like Omar’s Smallville recaps, but to train your brain like a muscle, and get it to snap into action when you sit down in front of a blank screen, write a lot.  Make a schedule and stick to it.

What’s “a lot?” On this blog, I feel pretty good when I do 3-4 posts/week. For my day job (I’m a book publicist), I write every day. In addition, I have other little writing side gigs, like writing Austin reviews for Citysearch. Your situation is different than mine, but find an excuse to write regularly, frequently, each week for an audience. You’ll get to know your own voice, and then when it comes time to write a piece that is longer and more crafted, you won’t spend agonizing hours plodding forward slowly, one special sentence after another. The shape of the piece will be more instinctive.

Notice that I said writing for an audience. Writing for a private journal doesn’t count. Trust me — I LOVE journals. But our project here is different. There’s art, and then there’s therapy. I think we can all agree that journals usually fall in the latter camp. If you read my own journal, you wouldn’t even recognize me: You’d think a deranged psycho with anger management problems and a propensity for multiple exclamation points had taken over my body.

3. SPECIAL VS. POPULAR. A major shift in my attitude toward blogging happened when I met an incredibly popular blogger at SXSW this year. The kind that we, bloggers, usually hold up and worship: She got paid. From her blog. And she made so much that she paid other people. Livin’ the dream, folks!

But, that blogger also admitted to me that she wasn’t happy. That’s how she put it, too, just that simply. “Yeah. I’m not happy.”

I realized that having a very popular blog places demands on a person that they possibly aren’t prepared for. Having to sit in front of a computer ALL DAY?  Having to provide new content, probably pushed out several times daily, ALL THE TIME?  When do you get to vacation?  When do you get to relax?  When do you get to let your brain rest for a little while, so you can go get inspired again? How many emails and Twitter DM’s and Facebook messages must you attend to, every single hour?

That’s about when I decided that rather than having a popular blog, I just wanted a special one.  One where I could tell stories, film silly videos with a naked Matthew McConaughey puppet (see: yesterday), and collect pictures from this time in my life. It’s honestly taken me about four years to change my thinking on that, and of course I’m still not completely free of the ego-trap that is blog maintenance yet: I still squeal at comments, I still tap dance when my blog gets new Facebook likes, yada yada. But I still haven’t turned on my web traffic analytics for this blog’s new platform on WordPress, and I think I’m happier that way.

So if you have your own blog, here’s my advice. Looking at the Internet for popularity cues never works. I’ve watched so many popular bloggers experience hurtful Internet backlash, lose readers, lose traffic, get burnt out, or have their in-person relationships fall apart. On that of that, popularity is fleeting. So DON’T trust popularity. Trust the topics that make you passionate, and write about those things.

4. SNIFF OUT NEW OUTLETS. If you’re just starting out with online writing, and trying to find a writing home besides your blog, this is a strategy that’s worked well for both Omar and I. He got in on the ground floor of Television Without Pity; I wrote for Discovery Channel’s Planet Green not too long after they started bringing in outside bloggers.

A good trick here is to look at media companies that you like already — let’s take The Awl for example, one of my favorites — and keep an eye on their expansion. The Awl just recently started The Hairpin, their feminist / women’s issues arm.  Waaay back when, Gawker did this too when they expanded to Jezebel. Huffington Post has a sub-channel for absolutely everything these days. So notice when one of your favorite online writing homes opens up a new channel, then pitch its editor.

5. DEVELOP AN EDITOR RELATIONSHIP. That last point leads me to another popular point by Omar: The importance of developing an editor relationship.

Editors hold a special place in my heart, because they are not only smart, but altruistic. Guys, I’ve written some stuff before that I am now SO GLAD didn’t make it past my editor. When you write something, you usually get a little bit attached to it, so it’s difficult to evaluate it objectively, and judge whether it’s truly good work. (See: Any album review I’ve ever written.) The jokes — are they funny?  The thesis — is it clear?  Typos — do you have some?  This is where an editor comes in.

But, how do you cultivate an editor relationship if you’re just blogging? I’m not sure what the answer to this question is, actually. I guess this is the main reason I would encourage you on point #4 above, and pitch yourself for an online writing gig however small, so that you get the experience of having a second set of eyes on your work.

6. WRITE FOR FREE? Omar and I decided we have different opinions on this, but I’m not sure they’re opposed actually.  Rather, they fall on different points of the writing career spectrum.

Omar objects to writing for free, and as far as I can tell, he got paid to write starting at a VERY young (high school!) age. That’s because he’s a badass.  Now, the man has written for NPR, CNN, etc., and he’s getting paid from all of them.

I actually had to write, a lot, for free, starting out. Now, I don’t really write for free anymore. But when you’re brand spanking new at online writing, I think it’s OK to take on an unpaid assignment or two if you’re trying to build your portfolio. The difference is writing for free for quality outlets, and not succumbing to those empty, Craigslisty promises of “increased exposure!” at no-name outlets. You all know the Craigslist ads I’m talking about.

Omar made another excellent point about online writing: The more you do it, the more it weakens the earning power of all of us freelance writers. So do it selectively. And strategically.

7. SPEND TIME OFFLINE. This was a topic I wish we could have covered more in-depth, because it’s a topic I feel so strongly about: To become a better writer, go offline.

There’s a quote somewhere on The L-Word, right after Jenny Schecter has her first little lesbian encounter, when Jennifer Beals sagely explains to someone else, “writers crave experience.” How true is that? We do crave experience, don’t we?

I’ve said “yes” to some strange invitations before, just because I knew they’d make good stories. In 2005, about five months after I met Ross, he suggested I live in India with him for a summer. I didn’t really have the money. But I said yes, and now I can tell you what an elephant’s face looks like close-up.

(I can also tell you what it’s like to be seized with gurgly stomach poisoning in a moving auto-rickshaw, but you probably don’t want to hear about that.)

Spending time offline also gives you a break, however momentarily, from all the online validation we’re addicted to — Facebook likes, RT’s, comments, etc. That stuff is all nice when it happens, but it’s habit-forming. You know?  It trains you to write for the next Facebook like, rather than write for yourself, which in the longrun will nearly always yield better, longer-lasting material. The stuff on Buzzfeed is funny and sometimes really interesting, and gets tons of social shares, but it doesn’t impact me the same way a single Modern Love story does.

It’s like candy vs. vegetables, I suppose. I’m going to have candy sometimes, especially chocolate, and especially on my period. But vegetables are going to nourish me. I can’t describe to you in detail any one Dove chocolate square I’ve ever consumed. But I could sit you down, hold your hand, and tell you about every single magical sensation Paul Qui‘s lemon chili brussel sprouts have ever played on my tastebuds.

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So there you have it!  Online writing wisdom, gathered from a room on Monday of about 90 people. I hope it helps you in your online writing career, and if you have any questions / any other tips along these lines, please share them in the comments below. Good luck!