Writing for the Web or The Conundrum of Hierarchical Language

Alright, so you’ve decided to give this social thing a try… but where do you start? Honestly that’s up to you and where you feel most comfortable but one thing you’re going to need to figure out fairly quickly is how to write for the web.

Twitter of course is tricky. 140 characters isn’t a lot of space to write your thesis, provide supporting evidence and come to a well founded conclusion. But it is a great place to get the basics out to people about events, other quick info and links to other places where you might have some of these writing components (though hopefully not… we’ll get to that). For those of you that don’t know bit.ly is your friend when it comes to twitter. It’s a great site that not only shortens the big long url of your blog or link to something manageable but it also tracks the number of clicks your link has had…. And on twitter it also let’s you see how often your link has been reposted, just in case someone doesn’t include your information on their tweet. Make sure you register and sign in so you can track all your link clicks no matter what computer you,re on. Great stuff which will give you a feel for ROI without any work at all…. Just the kind of research I like… easy, quick and free!

Facebook can work for longer posts to fans of your page or members of your face book group but as mentioned in my earlier post about Haiti, not everyone on twitter is on Facebook, so linking directly to it from twitter may not be the best choice. That’s where a blog may come in.

Hopefully we all know that posting on a blog every month is simply not enough. If you’re a nonprofit and you post once a month or less your telling your audience that nothing important is going on at your organization, obviously, or you‘d be writing about it right? The only exception to this would be something like a Haiti disaster, where people understand that you’re obviously too busy to post. But likely that’s not you, so either blog or don’t. Don’t make the mistake of telling your audience that you’re boring or eventually you won’t have an audience. (I regularly purge blogs I’m following from my list if they don’t post for a long time).

But then how do you write a blog. Well, let’s start with how you don’t write a blog. Now note, if you’re writing a technical blog or something that’s not writing to everyday people this may differ but for most of us, most nonprofits this will be true: You don’t write as though you’re writing your college thesis or a grant proposal or any other stuffy nonsense. We didn’t like writing them back when we did write them and we certainly don’t want to read one from you now.

OK, so good… but what does that mean? It means writing like a normal human. It means talking to me like YOU are talking to me, not like your organization is talking to me… it can’t really talk on it’s own now can it? I don’t need or want stuffy writing. And more importantly, all that stuff does in general is alienate people and puff up the egos of people who want to feel better than others. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you a little story. It’s a true one.

Back in High School I had a very arrogant teacher. I had to write a paper for this class and I decided to have some fun with it, and his ego. I wrote my paper the way I normally would but then I did something different. I took out a thesaurus and a dictionary and changed all the little words to big works, cross checking to make sure the big words I didn’t know fit into the sentence. Then I turned it in, an OK paper, filled with huge words.

You probably guess what happened though it’s worse then you might have thought. When he returned papers he verbally graded each paper in front of the class and commented (because arrogant people aren’t all that concerned about people’s feelings or appropriate privacy) and when he got to mine he went on and on about how it was the BEST paper he’d ever read. It wasn’t of course, but those big words stroked his ego and made him feel smart. It was everything I could do not to laugh at this outright though I am still chuckling about it now. It worked and should you be talking to this person or someone similar please do whip out every big word you know. It will work like a charm.

If this is what you do with your writing then please stop. That paper didn’t get better by putting big words in it. And more importantly, these aren’t the people you’re writing for. Let me ask you this, are any of the people you serve just learning English? Are any of them struggling to read? Are any of them just normal people without a dictionary sitting beside them? Is there anything about your message that needs these words? Might it be best to figure out a way to say what you want to say without big words and long sentences? The smartest person in the room isn’t the one talking to a bunch of PhD’s about brain surgery in a way that only a PhD could understand, it’s the person in the corner, explaining brain surgery to a 10-year-old. That’s true intelligence.

Most importantly though, it’s these normal people who are going to do the most work for you, the ones most likely to spread the word about your organization. Big, important, arrogant people are far too busy being big, important and arrogant to help you.

So of course I have a great article I’d suggest you read on this topic so you have a better idea of how to write for the web. The short of it? Keep your content centered on your audience and what they want or need. Think of writing like a conversation between you and your reader and of course, keep your language plain. There’s nothing worse than hierarchical language to turn people off, and unless you’re my old teacher you just stopped reading at that obnoxious, long h word.


About Jessica Dally

A random blog about travel, personal transformation, riding motorcycles solo, social media and whatever else seems interesting at the moment. View all posts by Jessica Dally

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