Write whatever you want (as long as it is what I want you to write)
As a web editor, I love bloggers. If they write good stuff regularly, I do not have to. I can develop and edit many more articles per month than I can write, so working with bloggers is a simple matter of editorial economics. And if I invest in the right authors, not only do I get a short term benefit, but I boost credibility for my websites and magazine, which pays long term dividends.
It is all about me
I love it when bloggers listen to my advice. I love it even more when they take my advice. I do not love when bloggers write about whatever they think is important and ignore the needs of my audience. I do not love when bloggers write articles telling half of the audience that they are wrong, dumb, or evil.
If you want to write for a newspaper, magazine, or website, then think about what the needs of the editor are. Understand how the magazine and websites work. Know what the editor is looking for, what types of holes they need to fill, and look for ways to help.
As a web editor, I do not want to tell authors what to write in blogs or other opinion-type articles (unless they need help fleshing out a topic — in which case I’m happy to help). I value their opinion, so I give them paper, ink, and a distribution system. I am usually happy with what they write because it is what I want them to write. As a print editor, all bets are off. I re-write your stuff to fit my needs. After we do ths a few times, you write what I want you to write. Web editors generally have less time and fewer resources to spend on articles than print folks do.
Your job as an author is to make my job as an editor easier. If you do this, you will continue to write for me. In a good economy, you will get a raise. In a downturn, you will be the last blogger/author to be laid off.
Your opinion can open minds or shut them — choose wisely
There are two kinds of writers in the world: those who make their case by excluding people and those who make their case by including people. Those who focus on problems, and those who focus on solutions. I prefer inclusive writing to exclusive writing because I prefer to reach a wider audience. Exclusive writers divide the audience and preach to the choir. Presenting well-researched and fairly represented facts will leave your whole audience satisfied. Their opinions may or may not change, but they will have read your article. And they may well read your next one, too.
Inclusive writing makes it easier to sleep at night
I was amazed at the reaction to a journalistic piece I wrote for Fine Homebuilding in 2004. It was an article about the new types of pressure treated wood. The EPA had just outlawed the old kind because they said that it was too toxic. The new kinds were less toxic, but much more corrosive to steel. This meant that there were some pretty significant structural implications involving nails and fastening brackets corroding prematurely.
In the course of my research, I talked to a number of engineers with different hardware companies who had run tests on the new wood; the corrosion rates were scary. I found corrosion rate charts on chemical company websites that were consistent with the hardware company numbers. When the charts disappeared one day, I knew I had a scoop. [I was able to retrieve the charts through a cached version of the website stored in The Google. I printed the charts.]
The article could have been a hype job — scaring builders and consumers about the structural disasters looming, or it could have bemoaned the EPA restricting our freedom. Instead, the article talked frankly about how corrosive the new stuff is and which fasteners, flashings, and hardware to use. It talked about the new chemical formulations, the marketing claims, and how to choose particular wood products to suit particular needs. It also explained that the old stuff was still legal for some uses.
When I attended the International Builder’s Show a few weeks after the article was published, I did not look forward to my meetings with the Southern Pine Council and the Treated Wood Council. To my surprise, they were thrilled with my article. They thought it was fair, accurate, and did a good job of dispelling fear about their new products. At least that is what they told me. I was relieved because I thought that I had punched holes in their marketing claims (it’s organic!), exposed some pretty clear flaws with the products (it rots your nails and joist hangers), listed a pile of expensive new products that builders would need to buy (stainless steel joist hangers, anyone?), and defended the EPA (making playsets out of poison is bad).
The lesson was pretty clear: if you do good research and speak truthfully, then both sides will support your writing.
Some recycled advice from an old cheat sheet
Below is some advice that I wrote up a while ago after launching GreenBuildingAdvisor.com. We were recruiting bloggers because we needed to keep the words flowing every day. I did not have the time to do deep edits of every article, so I put together a cheat sheet for authors to read.
“Stay within the boundaries of this cheat sheet, and you’ll be writing for GBA for a long time” was the basic message. Many writers in the green building field want to change the way houses are built, so I felt it was important to guide them towards inclusive writing.
“In order to change the way houses are built, it’s important that we’re inclusive. Every builder we exclude is a builder that’s not going to change. Every builder that changes the way they build will be an advocate. There’s no stronger advocate than a changed person. There are a few ways we can be inclusive.
Be positive rather than negative
Look at there two hypothetical sentences:
“Houses without exterior foam sheathing are practically a waste of time and materials.” “Exterior foam sheathing is a good way to boost energy performance, stop air leaks, and reduce interior moisture problems that can lead to mold.”
Here are two more:
If you’re not building green, you’re an idiot.” “If you’re not building green, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table (and excluding a lot of customers) because green homes are a better value and can be built at little or no extra cost.”
Speak to the right knowledge-level of readers
Just because I’m an expert framer doesn’t mean I’m very good at trim carpentry. Explaining what spring angle is will make me feel smarter and probably won’t upset trim carpenters—especially if the rest of the information teaches them something. Our interactive glossary can help us here, but it’s also important to think about how we phrase things. Strip away jargon when you find yourself writing it. This isn’t dumbing down; it’s making information accessible to a wider audience and having respect for the reader’s time. It’s not nice to make people look things up when you can just phrase things clearly. The Wall Street Journal does a good job of writing inclusively. Marketplace on NPR does a good job of it while adding a great conversational tone. All Things Considered, McNeil Lehrer Report, and National Geographic also do a good job of this.
Be teach-y not preach-y There are a lot of builders and architects out there designing and building high quality homes that are not necessarily green. These folks are smart people who are just un-enlightened. While we’re interested in your opinion, we’re not interested in alienating people.”
One more thing; a quote from a smart guy:
“Easy reading is damn hard writing” —Nathaniel Hawthorn Thanks for riding along on the InfoTruck.