Jacob Weisberg on Competition and Writing Online

This interview with Jacob Weisberg, former editor of Slate, rocked my socks in a huge way.

Weisberg nails it when talking about writing online, and the difference in audience expectation:

DIA: Do you feel people write differently for the web than they do for print?

Mr Weisberg: If they don’t, they don’t succeed online. Writing that’s native to the web is different in ways that are crucial but subtle enough that you can miss them if you conceive of your audience as reading a printed product. The tone of good web writing grows out of email. It’s more direct, personal, colloquial, urgent, witty, efficient. It doesn’t waste your time. It reflects that engagement, responsiveness and haste of web surfers, as opposed to the more general passivity of print readers. It integrates the use of links into the creative and intellectual process as opposed to tacking them on afterwards. And it uses multimedia in an organic rather than an ornamental way.

I think his comments are applicable to those writers who are told “You have to have a blog” as a marketing tool. You don’t. You absolutely do not have to have a blog. In fact, if you don’t want one, it’ll show. Writing for print and writing online are two very different things, and the difference can alienate the audience.

Weisberg also made me call for the smelling salts with this comment:

DIA: Who are Slate’s main competitors and what have you learned from them?

Weisberg: Competition on the internet is different—it’s win-win, because we all link to each other and people are spending more time online. We’re still at a stage where the web as a whole can all gain at the expense of other forms of media.

In other words: rising tides float all boats. Ahoy there, folks. That’s how it works on the internet. This was the point of my remarks at the very abbreviated by fire drill session at RWA on Digital Marketing:

Romance needs to get horizontal. Pun totally intended.

Vertical marketing online, wherein you detract from one person to elevate yourself, is not going to sustain itself as a model when everyone is hurting financially. The horizontal model of collaborative marketing works FAR better to raise interest from jaded readers (hi there!) and from people online who are accustomed to and that shared community of awareness, and not the hard sell technique.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    RfP says:

    I might have agreed on the stylistic differences between print and web a few years ago, when it was fresh and novel.  But at this point I’m thoroughly bored with clichés and folksiness and inanity online; it’s steadily driving me to winnow my RSS feeds.

    I also think much of this is dead backward:

    It’s more direct, personal, colloquial, urgent, witty, efficient. It doesn’t waste your time. It reflects that engagement, responsiveness and haste of web surfers, as opposed to the more general passivity of print readers.

    Oh, come on.  People reading online are often EAGER to have their time wasted.  And what greater time-waster is there than the corresponding online writing style that meanders around and is poorly constructed, poorly thought-through, and poorly researched?

    This pro-new-media proselytizing is just as silly as the anti-web “it’s killing print!!1!” brigade.

  2. 2
    Heidi says:

    I agree with the horizontal marketing concept.  I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way. I ‘m not business savvy, I just write and read the things that I like.  But truly, the books that I’ve read as of late were the results of other writers plugging them as good reads.

    As for the blogging, I’m wading into that territory with some trepidation.  I enjoy the honest, witty commentary that I find on most blogs today.  Making the writing more personalized perhaps makes up for the fact that it’s digital and not on a page in front of you.

  3. 3
    Gerd Duerner says:

    Mr Weisberg: The tone of good web writing grows out of email. It’s more direct, personal, colloquial, urgent, witty, efficient. It doesn’t waste your time.

    So, Mr. Weinberg thinks printed books to be wasting our time?
    You know, that sounds exactly like what I expect a online publisher to say: ‘Who needs quality, we want it fast!’

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    I don’t think Weisberg is saying that print wastes time, only that people who are reading online looking for information won’t want to wait to get to the meat of an article. Yes people roam around the web reading random stuff and do waste time, but I think his remarks were specific to information seeking online vs. in print. I think web writers and websites in general have a lot less time to grab someone’s attention before they click off to something else and therefore have to be more direct and engaging.

    I don’t think print succeeds at the expense of digital or vice versa. It’s not as if authors only succeed exclusively in one format, for example, and not in another if they are released in both digital and print.

    But at this point I’m thoroughly bored with clichés and folksiness and inanity online; it’s steadily driving me to winnow my RSS feeds.

    Funny you should mention that. I reduced by a LOT my blog reading across all subjects because many seemed so false and artificially folksy, and became more about showing off stuff instead of authentic content and communication. I agree with you: authenticity – in print or digital – still matters.

    ETA: Holy crap did I comment sans brain. Sorry about that – fixing errors/typos now. Jeebus.

  5. 5
    Nicole W. says:

    I’m a content developer as well as a writer, and I would completely agree with all of this.  The TL;DR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) crowd needs to get a brief idea of an article or post before committing to it.  There’s nothing wrong with long posts, as long as there’s a way to a) find out what it’s about in the first few paragraphs, and b) NOT read the whole post if you don’t want to (ie: cuts or the SB More…)

    The main thing about tone is authenticity, as Sarah said.  The faux folksyness doesn’t work because it’s not genuine to that person – and that’s really where you need to go when blogging or creating content that expresses yourself.  People know when they’re reading something not-quite-right.  Be honest, be open, be yourself and the tone will be right.

    That being said, not everyone is a blogger.  It’s okay to not be a blogger – it’s just one way to raise your profile and communicate.  There are others, so the best thing to do is find what works for you and how you relate to people online.

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