Many people might scoff at that thought but it’s true. Yes, sloppy ‘text speak’ has infiltrated a few too many posts on Twitter and Facebook but it’s too lazy to simply blame social media for our grammatical ills. There are actually plenty of ways we can actually sharpen our skills through social media.
Let’s start at the beginning. The very first sentence is often the hardest to write in any piece of writing. That’s especially the case with a news article when you need to sum up your whole story and set the tone for what’s to come in a short, sharp way.
Many people have their own theory on the perfect length of a standard news intro but it’s clear to me that the ideal starting sentence would fit within the 140-character limitations of a tweet. I’ve often told young reporters and students to bear this in mind when learning how to write news intros. It’s a useful guide to avoiding waffle and encourages us to edit and revisit what we write.
Content writers shouldn’t shy away from this either. Your first sentence is important in setting the tone and grabbing the attention of the reader. If it helps, open up Twitter and see if yours fits 140 characters. See the limit as a challenge to make your writing more succinct.
By the same token, Twitter can also help to focus your mind when thinking of eye-catching headlines for content.
Imagine your headline as a tweet (in fact many pieces are tweeted using the headline alone). Would someone want to click on it, share it or respond to it? Does it sum up what you’ve written and bear further inspection? If the answer is no then your headline isn’t good enough.
Tweets that stand out from the crowd are those that use persuasive, eye-catching language to entertain and inform. Taking that into your headlines will make them more attractive.
Ever done something really silly in public? Walked around with the zip of your trousers down, fallen over or dropped food down yourself? Then you’ll know how it feels to make a mistake on social media.
Embarrassing typos, poorly conceived hashtags and inaccurate stats can all be screen grabbed, saved and used against you forever more. It matters not that the people who wield these to use against you have little regard for spelling or grammar themselves; two wrongs don’t make your mistake right.
There’s a lesson in that for us writers. It’s vital to proof and correct everything before it’s cast out into the big bad world. If you don’t want to make a fool of yourself then be accurate.
There’s nothing worse for a writer than spending a long time carefully crafting an article only for it to end up being unread and unloved, gathering digital dust in a dark corner of the world wide web.
Social media can be the key to getting content out to the widest possible audience. You can reach people far beyond your geographical area and word of mouth – shares, retweets and links – can help your content to go into new avenues that you’d never have traditionally been able to reach.
Writers can grasp this opportunity to earn a bigger readership, building their own reputation in the process.
Understanding social media can help you to understand your audience better – and how to tailor content so that it addresses a particular readership.
I always think of Twitter as being like a pub and Facebook as being like someone’s living room.
Take the pub analogy. You might be standing around a television screen discussing a football match on the screen with those around you or just end up joining in with whatever you happen to hear being mulled over at the bar. The Twitter equivalent comes by using a football team’s hashtag to bemoan their performance mid match, or throwing your two penneth worth into a trending topic that’s catching the imagination.
This is you, out in public, among random strangers. It’s useful to bear that in mind when composing tweets. Ask yourself: “Would I say this out loud in a pub?”
But it’s not just the tweets themselves that can be shaped by this question. Writers looking to come up with blogs or articles that might be popular on social media should think what sort of things people might discuss in real life situations.
Facebook, meanwhile, is much more personal. The people who see your personal posts are your friends (albeit perhaps in a loose sense of the word for some of them!). They have invited you into their virtual living room and your discussions are more akin to a natter over a cup of tea. You’re invited to leaf through someone’s photo albums and share news of their holidays, relationships and family.
This distinction offers another opportunity for content writers. On Facebook you’re talking more directly to your readers. Content that is shared on Facebook can be accompanied by longer, chattier posts that invite the reader to engage in discussion and debate. Brands that share material on Facebook have been welcomed into the home by a person who has ‘liked’ them. It’s very easy to lose that relationship and be thrown out of the home so the tone needs to be right.
The ability to understand your readers thoroughly and be able to address them properly with your content is an underrated writing skill. Recognising the different strengths of social media and using them to your advantage can help with that. When it comes to journalists too, this is the chance to really reach a younger, digital-savvy audience that would not have consumed the print product.
One of the best ways to understand your audience is by talking to them. Both Twitter and Facebook offer the chance for an easy interaction with readers.
Twitter is great for short sharp comments, while Facebook, in keeping with its strengths, is good for a longer response and full debate.
Content writers should look at these comments – and those at the bottom of articles – to get a gauge on what works and use this to inform future writing. That doesn’t mean pandering to the most rabid loonies who lurk in the lower reaches of the internet, but it does mean taking on board reasoned, informed comment.
Writers can easily forget the virtues of a good photo. Social media has shown us that we must value pictures. Try putting out a Facebook post with no image – it is unlikely to grab as much attention. Equally an eye-catching image leaps out amid a long Twitter timeline.
Proper photographs amplify good writing to make the most effective content.
A smart writer should always bear this in mind – and thinking about how to grab the attention on social media can keep that at the top of your mind.
Writers are in constant need of good case studies to illuminate their work. Social media offers the perfect place to cast your net far and wide for people to speak to.
Twitter, in particular, is a haphazard directory of people just waiting to be found, interviewed and put into your features. Finding and interacting with people on social media can widen your horizons and take you off in new interesting directions. Put it this way, people are out there waiting to be contacted, you’d be daft not to try to reach out to them.
So, what has social media ever done for us then? Apart from helping us to write the perfect intro and headline, guard against errors, connect with our audience, share and discuss our work and find people to interview… not a lot. If you think it’s not helping you as a writer then, frankly, you are using it wrongly.
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