Without the internet, I would have never become a writer.
That’s because growing up I thought I was terrible at writing. I got C’s for grades, and I found reading books and writing essays painstaking and tedious.
Then along came the internet. Blogging, social media and away messages for AOL instant messenger became my canvas, so I started writing all the time.
I actually remember one time in college when I spent an hour writing an elaborate poem for my AOL instant messenger away message. I was up late studying and I made my own version of Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet.
To sleep, or not to sleep, that is the question. Then I wrote something about whether it twas nobler to go to class unprepared and get a good night’s sleep or to stay up late and risk being tired. It was kind of brilliant, and I ended up even submitting it as a piece for my creative writing class.
Anyway, the point here is the internet has been a total blessing for me as a writer, but it has one major drawback versus traditional publishing.
There’s no one to edit your work.
There’s no one to tell you that you’re childish rant about toilet paper isn’t interesting or that you spend too much time talking about your ex-girlfriend. And yet, that’s also a blessing.
Some of my favorite writing on the internet would never make it to a major publication like the New York Times, because it’s wild, unhinged and doesn’t follow any of the rules of traditional article writing.
For example, lately I’ve been enjoying a blog called KatyKatiKate. Her writing style could be best described as emotional ranting after a few too many glasses of wine — but I love it! And I love it precisely because it breaks all the rules.
So here I am, about to assume the role of your internet writing teacher, which is totally presumptuous of me. However, if you’d indulge me for a few minutes, I’d like to share some things that I believe could make you a better writer.
1. Don’t overuse bold, italics or CAPS.
A writer who uses a lot of bold, italics or CAPS is essentially shouting at the reader. What that tells me is that the content of what you are saying isn’t engaging enough, so you need to shout to get people’s attention.
This is the same advice that you’ve probably heard with exclamation points. If you overuse them, they lose their meaning. Writers who are constantly highlighting their writing actually end up highlighting none of it.
But Dave, how do we get people to notice the important stuff in what we write?
Great question fake reader. The answer is you must embrace subtlety. As a side effect this also forces you to become a better writer. You might start to realize that a lot of what you’re writing isn’t actually worth publishing. Great writing doesn’t need to be highlighted, because it’s naturally engaging.
Also, when you don’t shout at your reader something else happens in the reader’s mind — they tune in to what you’re writing. They get the message that it’s their job to find the gems in your work — not yours — so they chew on what you’re saying more so than if you were highlighting every other sentence.
The opposite happens when we shout at the reader — they turn off that part of their brain, and just start skimming your content for the stuff that you highlight, which ends up ruining the whole reading experience.
2. Use Spacing, But Don’t Over-Do It
One of the things writing on the internet has introduced is a different relationship to paragraphs. Notice that in books we indent, but in internet-land, we just skip a line.
What that allows us to do is make certain lines stand out.
See what I did there? That line stands out because it’s all by itself, versus the paragraphs on either end of it, which are more than one line. Now — this is where we can get carried away, and we make the same mistake as before. We make every sentence stand out, which leaves nothing actually standing out.
To show you the difference, I re-wrote the first part of this post and over-used the spacing. It’s too big to put in this article, so click here to see the difference.
3. Feel the Rhythm
Fats Waller said this when asked by a reporter “what is rhythm?”
If you gotta ask, you ain’t got it.
So maybe this advice is hopeless, but let’s pretend like you have a sense of rhythm. Writing, much like speaking, keeps the audience engaged through rhythm. Why do robotic voices sound so boring? The voice isn’t varied, it’s the same thing over and over and over.
So maybe I write something like this.
And then like this.
And then like this.
And that produces a rhythm, you see?
But if I did this over and over.
It would lose it’s effectiveness.
Because it would be too repetitive.
And I’d start to feel like a robot.
And you wouldn’t like that.
I try to vary my writing. Long then short, short then long. Choppy then smooth, smooth then choppy. That kind of thing keeps people’s attention, and thanks to the formatting of writing on the internet we have more tools available than book writers.
For example, we can hit “enter” for a new paragraph, or “shift-enter” for a new line. Both can be useful in creating rhythm.
4. Don’t Forget the Em-Dash
There are a few ways to use the em-dash (which by-the-way is the longer dash that looks like this “—”) but I’ll let you read about them here.
My favorite way to use it is when I want an ellipsis (…) because often that’s how we speak. The em-dash is also a great way to add rhythm — within a sentence. It’s also one of my favorite things to use on the last line of an article because it adds that extra bit of emphasis — when you need it the most.
5. Don’t Get Caught Up In Rules
This is the internet after all, the place where weirdness gets rewarded and breaking the rules makes you stand out. Take what I’m saying as a suggestion, but experiment, get creative.
Or maybe you can get CA-RAY-ZAY and write like that! Maybe you use italics to highlight, but maybe you use them for dialogue. Maybe you use bold for no good reason, or use it for cryptic messaging.
The point here is to not follow the rules I’m suggesting, but also to follow them. Also never use emojis.
Make sense? Great.. Now get out there and make some great art 😉
Got something to say, punk? Wanna share your favorite writing advice? Here’s the Facebook thread for this post. Bring it on!