When I studied journalism last year I learned that your ability to write is largely irrelevant when it comes to producing hard news stories (e.g. a young male driver was killed last night when he collided with a passenger bus… those kinds of stories). The words you use are just a vehicle for what’s really important: facts, which ones you include, which ones you leave out and how you present them. In many ways, the words you choose are expected to convey the facts of the matter without getting in their way.
A painting can’t exist without a canvas, but the viewer should, ideally, forget the canvas exists.
I want to suggest that writing on the web is much the same. The fast pace of web browsing and the vast amounts of writing available have created a medium unlike any other.
People don’t read online. Nor do they scan. They extract ideas, resonating with some and disregarding others. They do so at breakneck speed, only slowing down when a particular idea truly warrants it.
If you’ve ever fretted about not being a good enough writer, I hope I can convince you to allay your fears. Good writing, clever writing, beautiful writing — all of these things are unnecessary in the creation of great web content. In this medium, writing is just a vehicle for entertaining ideas, useful ideas, novel ideas and practical ideas. All great web writing must do is communicate great ideas without getting in their way.
Great headlines hint at the great ideas to follow.
Great opening sentences hint at the same.
Traditionally ‘good’ writing, clever turns of phrase, immaculate grammar, flawless spelling and crisp sentences are relatively insignificant. Clarity is the only necessary characteristic of good web writing. Humorous pieces and personal stories are the only exceptions: some degree of finesse matters for both, though the ideas behind the writing are still more important than any other factor. We read these more for the experience of ‘reading’, rather than what we can take away from them.
The ideas I’m speaking of don’t have to be new ideas — just ideas, notions, concepts: nuggets of information which affect you in some way, spike your interest, make you feel a certain emotion, start you thinking, persuade you or dissuade you, stoke your biases or challenge them.
Good ideas will shine through ‘bad’ or just ‘OK’ writing.
Good writing can’t save bad ideas (or a lack of ideas).
Traditionally ‘good’ writing can sometimes cloud good ideas. It’s why so many journalists make lackluster bloggers. They aren’t aware that their writing is no longer being read. It’s being mined.
I want to add one caveat, though: clear writing that is just ‘OK’ by traditional standards is enough, but bad writing can be a hindrance because it influences the perception of your ideas. In truth, though, truly bad writing is rare. The vast majority of bloggers fall into the ‘OK’ category. In fact, the vast majority of the world’s most successful bloggers fall into this category — their work wouldn’t pass muster in most mainstream publications, and yet they’re probably read by more people (and read more passionately) than all their staff journalists combined.
Average writing abilities are more than enough to write great web content. Average ideas are not. Your words aren’t your content — they’re just the vehicle for it.
Unless you’re a truly bad writer (and I highly doubt that you are), go easy on yourself. Shelf The Elements of Style. You don’t need it. Your readers aren’t looking for great writing — if they were, they’d look inside a broadsheet newspaper, a well-loved magazine or a Pulitzer Prize Winning novel. They want your best ideas. They want information that means something to them.
Is that what you’re giving your audience?
And another thing: social media is a rapid-fire trade in ideas. Writing doesn’t matter there, either. Different services reward different kinds of ideas. Which service is right for yours?