Wrestling with online tone and etiquette

Being sort-of-flamed in a forum a while ago was a wake-up call to getting the tone of online writing right. It’s something I’m still working on and something subs, copy editors and writers moving into online work would do well to learn.

Because unless you’re actively writing for the Web – blogging, contributing to forums, commenting and so on – then the Web’s more natural, conversational tone and transparency won’t come easily. In fact, your writing may end up sticking out like an academic essay delivered on the radio.

I’m learning that one of the best things you can do to make a successful transition to online work is to take part in the culture of the Web – just as your readers do.

Writing a blog, making comments, joining a forum or discussion – these are all ways to join in and develop your online voice.

The problem for print journalists is that we’re used to operating in a vacuum. We’re used to telling the reader what to think in a one-way distribution of information that is forgotten as soon as it goes to press.

And too often, the reader has felt like a nameless, faceless entity summed up by market research as an ABC1 type.

Not so on the Web. Expect them to talk back and respond directly to the content you upload. And be ready for them to click through to you from Bratisalava or Boston as much as from Birmingham or Bognor. Cock it up or come across as superior (even if you are!) and you can expect a flaming for you and/or your brand.

Dan Gillmor (author of We The Media) says journalism is in the process of evolving from ‘journalism as lecture to journalism as conversation’. Which means…

Online editors need to be ready to engage at a grassroots level. We can now write in the second-person, ask direct questions, start debates and reply to commentors, critics and detractors.

Btw, don’t think having a site which with comments disabled lets you off – anything you publish can be linked to, commented on, blogged about or discussed openly for anyone to read, ad infinitum.

But get the tone right and the readers are more likely to buy into what you’re saying.

(For a commercial rationale on this, check out why being likeable online is an important business strategy. Being controversial brings in traffic but if you’re selling something it’s likeability that makes people want to buy.)

And if you do cock up? Don’t respond in anger. Be humble, be honest, apologise for getting it wrong, ask what they suggest doing and avoid tit-for-tat responses. People will usually forgive you for being an arse. Once anyway.

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