by Julie Hannouche
I never envisioned myself back in class, relearning how to write. And yet, here I am, in McGill’s CBUS 111: Content Creation. I first acquired my writing skills in the Stone Age, so it’s reasonable that they require updating. I belong to the generation inspired by Woodward and Bernstein; we flocked to journalism school because we cared about truth and honesty in government. In those days, we were advised to “Follow the money” in order to uncover the ‘hidden motive’ and the ‘real story’. Now many of us are following the money just to make sure some of it ends up in our own pockets.
CBUS 111 aims to update our skills, specifically to teach us how to write for the web. In the world of social media, it seems that what it means to write effective copy is new and different. I have noticed, for example, that accuracy doesn’t seem to be as important as it once was. In the past, mistakes, from minor grammatical ones to serious factual errors were not tolerated because they destroyed credibility. An editor stood above and, when necessary, behind you. Now, we self-publish, and, for all our connections, most of us write independently and alone. Judging from what I read online, accuracy is no longer important when writing for the web.
But we not here to talk about how things used to be better in the good old days. We are here in the interest of determining what is important in writing digital content, today. I think it will take me some time to shed my convictions of what makes good writing, though.
My ideals came to me from a newspaper editor who predated Woodward and Bernstein. A chain smoker and a functional alcoholic, he had a degree in Classics from Oxford. “There are two things you should always ask yourself”, he said. One: Cui bono ? (Latin for Who benefits?) He told me to listen behind the words to understand the hidden motive, often financial. This training in skepticism makes perfect sense for a journalist, but it works from the other side of the table, too. Consumers today are savvy and skeptical. Marketers must know exactly what they want to say. If their message is Hey, buy this because I said so, it’s not going to fly. If I had to commit to the two most important questions in considering writing digital content (and I do, for this assignment), What do I intend to accomplish? would be one of them.
Here’s the second bit of advice I got from my editor: “What are you offering your reader in return for his time and attention? Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want to read”. Our textbook, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works by Janice Redish offers similar advice: “To have successful conversations with your site visitors, you must understand them and what they need and want.” To know and respect your audience is nothing new and it is something I can understand.
How to measure success? If our writing helps us achieve our business goals, we have been successful. As for understanding our site visitors, we have done right if we have satisfied the questions they came to our site looking for.
We’ve only had one Content Creation class to date, but I am looking forward to learning how writing for the web is different from good old writing. I’m also looking forward to learning from my fellow students, all of whom are professionals currently working in the field.