AÂ citizen journalist whoÂ asked to remain anonymous wrote in toÂ say:
“My writing seems perfectly clear to me at the time I’m writing it; but when others read it, or if I read it months later, it’s clear as mud. When impecunious minimedia journalists need an editor, what recourse do they have?”
AsÂ a citizen journalist youÂ haveÂ the privilege of doing pretty much everything yourself,Â be it writing, editing, web design, ad sales or anything else. You can’t pay yourself much less hire help. And let me say, if you are so lucky as to have friends, don’t spoil those relationships by asking them to edit you pro bono. It just won’t work. In time you may get readers to help but till then you’ll have to rely on your own judgment.
So bone up on the basics. Surely you haveÂ a copy of Strunk & White’sÂ The Elements of Style, whichÂ preaches the virtue ofÂ usingÂ hard-working nouns and verbs instead of flashy but fecklessÂ adjectives and adverbs.
But even a used copy ofÂ that 1918 classicÂ willÂ set a blogger back aÂ few bucks, so suject to the oldÂ “You get what you pay for” caveat, here areÂ three freeÂ tipsÂ for thoseÂ doubly doomed to write and edit their own words.Â
Know what you’re talking about: This isÂ not aÂ put down. It’s a recognition of the fact that good writing starts with good reporting. Each time I sit down to write –Â and I write for public consumption nearly every dayÂ — IÂ find that I’m notÂ certain about some important point.Â I’ve learned to have the means to reach sources after hours,Â and otherwise findsÂ ways toÂ fact-check (how did we work before search engines?). When all else fails IÂ follow the rule: when in doubt leave it out. We are not writing theÂ absolute, drop-deadÂ final word on whatever it is. Just be accurate in what you do say;Â try to really grasp the entire story and then figure outÂ how to get across the main themes; be fair to those with whom you disagree or you’ll end up being marginalized; and if at all possible, write the piece and let it cool overnight. You’ll be surprised how much easier it will be to edit yourself when you come backÂ with a fresh eye.
The lessÂ you say, theÂ more they’ll remember: As ShakespeareÂ wrote in 1603: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”Â What was true way back then, just decades afterÂ Gutenberg, is all the more true in an era ofÂ citizen media.Â Words are cheap. What is scarce is the time to read them. That is the kernel of a brilliant meme calledÂ the Attention Economy. In this competition forÂ attention your jobÂ is toÂ make the complex simple in as few words asÂ possible. Make yourself useful and readers will return. Of course no one said this would beÂ easy. But that’sÂ why you get the big bucks.Â Oh, wait, you’re a citizenÂ journalist. You don’t get any bucks! Oh, well, at least you’re buildingÂ character.Â
Â Give yourself a break; readers do: That’s not my say-so. Web guru David Weinberger made such a remark inÂ his keynote speech at a conference that I attended last week in Las Vegas. He said blog readers understand that you’reÂ doing it all yourself. They don’t hold you to the same standard as paid journalists who get nasty comments when they screw upÂ just asÂ professionalÂ ballplayers get booed for making errors. (“Readers want revenge,” Weinberger said speaking of their feelings toward mainstream media, and as aÂ newspaper reporter I say amen;Â click here, hit “control F” and search for “parallel universe” to see how aÂ reader lampoonedÂ one of myÂ recent boo-boos.) But the reader ethic may be changing. Online media, which invite participation, turn their errors to advantage. They say: thank youÂ eagle-eyed reader for yourÂ assist. Slate magazineÂ described one reader from Palo Alto as its unpaid, fact-checking department.Â So relax. You’re allowed to goof occasionally. That, says Weinberger, is what gives your blog its human voice in contrast to slick but deadÂ corporate messages or polished but lifeless mainstream media stories.Â And by all means don’tÂ fretÂ that you now seeÂ defects in your past work. That’s calledÂ improving and it’s a good thing!