Writing for the Web

Our family is praying for my Uncle Nat [Max’s father and my godfather] who will be having surgery tomorrow. Not many of us are church-goers or perhaps even religious, but at certain times, religious or not, we pray.

Max has gone down to New Jersey, and I’m holding down the fort. I’m very thankful for the competence of the staff at the GoNOMAD Cafe. They know how to make decisions and that means I can focus on the website, where I have to say, we are publishing some of the best stories I have ever seen. And we have always put up great stuff.

Wednesday I’ll fill in for Max in a class on writing for the web, and I’ve been batting around ideas. I’ve hosted writing groups for many years, worked with freshmen writing their first college papers, and, in my present post, edited travel stories from writers all over the world.

The advice you give has to be appropriate for the students’ level of development, so I think I’ll ask for a show of hands to see how many have written something they’re proud of, then a show of hands to see how many have written something that really surprised them.

Then I think I’ll touch on three points about writing in general. The first is: if you want to be a writer, write. Sounds simple, and it is. My senior year in college, two housemates and I took a course called Daily Themes. You could get a B by writing 300 words a day, and it could even be the same word over and over. We wrote a stupendous amount of crap, but all three of us produced something that really surprised us.

My own offering, Aboard the Mothership, was published in the Yale Literary Magazine, which, I’ll have you know, is not for blockheads.

Anyway, the second point is: if you want to be a better writer, read great writers. What you read has a tremendous impact on what you write. My advice to all writers has always been to read Lincoln. The Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural are quintessential Lincoln, but I try to read everything he ever wrote, even his terrible poetry.

And don’t forget to read Martin Luther King. Everyone knows the I Have a Dream Speech. Have you read his Letter From a Birmingham Jail? You can’t read it without becoming a better writer.

Thirdly, and this is obvious, too: write to the point. Don’t take off on tangents, however interesting they might seem. You have to focus. Prune your writing of excess, pretense or falsity. You might not have much left, but that’s the real stuff.

I’ll try to skip over these points fast if I get the sense that they get it and speak more specifically about writing for the web. Certain bits of information fit in a tweet. Others fit in a Facebook entry. Others fit in a blog entry. Others fit in a GoNOMAD story or an essay in the New York Times.

In all of these media, I believe you will find that it’s best to rely on the simple declarative sentence. Sentences are like donkeys — best not to overload them.

Then there’s the line that travel writers walk between telling us only about the destination, so we end up with a Wikipedia entry, or telling us too much about themselves, what we call oversharing. That’s usually people who fancy themselves the next Hunter Thompson and want to tell us all about what their Uncle Ernie always said.

Readers want to hear about your journey, but they don’t want to wait sixteen paragraphs to find out where you went.

Then we can talk about Search Engine Optimization, key word use in body text, and esoteric stuff like that. Gee, blogs are a great place to bat around ideas.