In social media, patience is spelled with five W’s

The Five W'sIn a perfect world, our words shine like jewels the first time we write or say them.

The reality is, our words demand special consideration before displaying them in public.

For one thing, so many terms in English have multiple meanings; for another, so many readers own distinct perspectives and biases. Ask 10 people to read the same sentence, and they’re likely to offer 10 slightly different interpretations.

That’s why, in our electron-fast, social media age, extra seconds spent pondering our pedantry before tapping the Send button can prevent embarrassment and preserve credibility.

So, consider putting patience high on your list of obligations each time you write online. Armed with it, writers and editors are more likely to catch spelling errors, check or recheck facts, change tone, even adjust attitudes — particularly their own.

The trick, of course, is finding that patience. Hours spent banging out social media posts as fast as they come to mind can cultivate writing that’s reflexive, not reflective.

It may help to install social media speed bumps — a set of objectives that forces introspection. If you’re not sure where to start with that, employ journalism’s famous five W’s:

Who — Think first, “Who am I trying to reach?” Although social media networks permit users to put followers into groups, most users don’t do that. The result: their networks are a mishmash of friends, colleagues and acquaintances where one post intended for a particular group of followers insults or offends all the others. Craft posts with the broadest possible appeal, frame edgier posts with self-effacing humor or courtesy, and restrict the hardest commentary to direct messages.

What — Make sure the point of a post is clear and consistent with the facts. Go back through other people’s posts, check associated Web links and references to see whether those people are interpreting the information correctly. Make certain whether you’re eschewing or embracing conjecture. Only then can you safely answer the question, “What am I trying to say?”

When — Speed is a drug in social media; we assume that the faster we post, the more likely other people will think we’re reporting “news.” Blame this behavior in part on traditional media, which instilled the belief that “scoops” or “beats” were just as important as the information itself. In reality, no newspaper stopped printing and no TV station went dark from not having enough scoops. Today, the Web is rife with humor and shame over errors by news organizations that moved too fast to gather facts. Thus, the answer to “When should I post?” ought to be, “After I have all the facts.”

Where — The term “social media” is as broad as the horizon. It encompasses numerous networks, each having its own best practices and tolerances. Still, we believe Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and others have the same audiences, the same reach. But there’s a saying: Facebook is for people you already know, Twitter is for people you want to know, and LinkedIn is for people you need to know. Learn the point and purpose of each social network, then you’ll be able to answer “Where should I post?”

Why — I’d like to think everything I say via social media is important. We all do. Nevertheless, each of us encounters users who think otherwise. That constituency dwindles with solid answers to “Why should I post?” Whereas flippant or rhetorical commentary only attracts more of the same, social engagement founded on research and reportage is shared and re-shared more widely.

(A version of this blog post originally appeared in The Freelance Journalist, a blog managed by the Society of Professional Journalists.)

7 ways that writing and running are similar

Runner icon

For three decades, I ran to compete, to relax, and to exercise. I pounded the pavement, the sidewalks, the trails without a thought about consequences until my damaged feet and aching knees told me to stop. I did that 30 years to the day after I first slipped on a pair of running shoes.

At first, I felt relief. The time I spent not running went into options: rest, recovery, writing. I finished the book that I always promised myself I would write. Then I started on a second book. Exercise tumbled off my list of priorities.

Not long after it did, I acquired my first full-blown case of writer’s block. The words and ideas stopped coming. Sitting in front of a keyboard invited agony — I stared for hours at a blank screen hoping the look on my face was not just as blank.

It was during one of these stare-downs that I realized the problem. As with running, writing requires a “training” method. Just lacing up the shoes and hitting the road without preparation invites injury; it makes sense then that sitting down to write without preparation can cause aggravation, too.

So, before you start to write, have:

A plan — Blogs, books, tweets, and treatises require distinct writing styles. So, settle on a style to suit the need. Be true to your voice, but do the research; determine word counts and writing time. Knowing parameters helps keep a project, and your temper, under control.

Good equipment — In running, comfort is king. Good shoes and loose togs satisfy this royal priority. For writers, good equipment, and a dependably cozy, ergonomically suitable place to write do the same. The key is to minimize the distractions that interfere with creativity.

Goals or routines — Set a goal and stick to it. As a writer, I aim for a minimum of 1,000 good words at a sitting, regardless of topic. Goals and routines help us measure distance and progress. Of course, nobody starts running 10 miles their first day; one works up to that. The same with writing: start small, then expand the goal as time and tolerance permit.

Accountability — Did you miss your goal for the day? Make a reminder. Did you exceed your goal? Reward yourself. The final arbiter stares at you in the mirror. Be able to stare back without regret.

Variety — For a while in my running routine, I chose the same route, but that only hindered improvement. Writing the same way every day can hinder as well. If prose is your passion, dabble in poetry. If long-form writing dominates your routine, break out with short stories once in a while. To help, keep a writing journal — a space to experiment with other styles.

Partnerships — Running, like writing, is a solitary pursuit. Having a partner, on the other hand, can spur you to work harder, especially if the other person is somewhat better than you. Partners discuss ideas and nudge each other through daunting projects. Partners offer perspectives that solitude does not permit.

Healthy habits — Runners and writers need fuel. Lacking that, runners hit a wall and writers hit a blank. But not just any fuel — junk food begets junk writing. The mind is more efficient with a healthy diet. Additionally, sedentary lifestyles diminish brain function. Exercise regularly; walk, run, bike, stretch, whatever. Writers will find the words come easier when they’re healthier.

Editor’s note: This piece is an updated version of a post I wrote for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Sharpen your pencils and your plot, NaNoWriMo has begun

National Novel Writing MonthYes, the name sounds like someone talking with their mouth full of food.

But NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, has evolved into an annual, global event, with amateur and accomplished writers chewing through reams of copy since 21 participants first put pen to paper and fingers to keyboards 14 years ago.

On the eve of this year’s writing free-for-all, the participant list neared 200,000.

NaNoWriMo’s stated goal is to get people writing that novel they always promise themselves to write but don’t because of ― whatever. The competition adds incentives: a deadline, a place to publish and the moral support of others who agree bang out 50,000 words of a new novel between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30, no matter the quality.

The word count falls short of typical for novels but exceeds the 40,000 of novellas. To reach the NaNoWriMo goal, participants should aim to produce 1,667 words daily during the contest.

Hanging over the whole event is the faint hope of literary success and wide recognition once the first, very rough draft is in hand.

“All I can think about when I’m starting a book are all the words I haven’t written yet,” said author Rainbow Rowell, in a pep talk posted this week on NaNoWriMo’s website. “I actually feel them hanging around my neck, tugging at me.”

Her third novel, Fangirl, began as a NaNoWriMo project two years ago.

“That’s why I eventually decided to try NaNoWriMo ― to fast-forward through that desperate, blank-page phase and get to the good stuff,” Rowell explained. “I told myself that it didn’t matter if my first draft was bad. All my books have required major revisions, anyway.”

NaNoWriMo’s website contains discussion forums, advice on writing strategy and technique, tips on writing tools and research, and suggestions on who to ask locally for guidance and support. It also delves into self-promotion with a small online store hawking T-shirts, coffee mugs and other items, because registration to the site it free.

And, of course, it offers courage.

NaNoWriMo “gets you started. It gives you the impetus to finally start, and/or finally finish,” wrote best-selling author Dave Eggers, in a pep talk in 2010. “Knowing there are thousands of others out there trying to do the same, who are using this ridiculous deadline as a cattle-prod and shame deterrent, means goddamnit, you better do it now because you know how to write, and you have fingers, and you have this one life, and during this one life, you should put your words down, and make your voice heard, and then let others hear your voice.

“And the only way any of that’s going to happen is if you actually do it,” Eggers continued. “People can’t read the thoughts in your head.”

For St. Louis-area folks seeking a nice, quiet place to be creative, the Writers’ Room offers its space during NaNoWriMo without charge from 2 to 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday. The Writers’ Room, at 2101 North Locust Street, has workstations, a big table, big leather chairs, the option for mood music, and free coffee. Call 314-669-1872 or email stlwritersroom@gmail.com for details.

Please, please, PLEASE, think before you tweet

Think before you tweet

context (n.) — the portions of written or spoken statements that influence meaning or effect.

Philadelphia TV reporter and former anchor Joyce Evans may finally appreciate the meaning of this word, thanks to social media.

Kansas University journalism professor David Guth might as well, for the same reason.

Both have entered a pantheon of infamy wrought by ill-advised actions on Twitter, considered the fastest vehicle for embarrassment apart from reality TV. They are poster children for the importance of cramming context into the small space Twitter allows, no matter how tight the fit.

The question now is whether anyone who witnessed what they went through garners a shred of wisdom from the circumstances.

Evans ran headlong into a wave of unwanted attention this week after merging pop culture and breaking news into one cumbersome, 89-character blurt on Twitter for her employer, Fox affiliate WTXF-TV.

Evans' Tweet

Evans’ intent was clear; she wanted to surf the wave of attention spawned by broad public interest in “Breaking Bad,” the black-comedy crime drama on AMC that bowed out Sept. 29 after 62 episodes and a history of far-reaching social engagement.

But in channeling “Bad” the way she did, Evans trampled the distinction between reality and fantasy, and suggested she was deaf to the tone of each. Audiences tried to enlighten her.

Evans Criticism

An apology for her overstatement seemed in order. Instead, Evans compounded the problem by pushing off responsibility onto her Twitter followers.

Evans' Response

The subsequent fusillade stretched well beyond WTXF’s viewing area, silenced Evans’ usually busy Twitter feed as well as her Facebook page, and cost her the weekend anchor job she held since 1996.

Guth’s own Twitter reality check in mid-September, on the other hand, was purposeful and potentially more costly. The associate professor at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Communications exploded against conservative commentary on the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16. Thirteen people died, including the assailant.

In response to perceived invective on Twitter by alleged supporters of the National Rifle Association, Guth posted:

Guth's Tweet

The reaction was predictable. Even Republican state lawmakers vowed retaliation, and the president of the Kansas State Rifle Association promised that her NRA chapter would campaign to have Guth fired.

KU at first distanced itself from Guth’s comments, then from Guth. The university hustled him off on a research sabbatical that was not scheduled to start until next year. His Twitter feed also came down.

Guth remains unapologetic. He said on TV after the tweet that he was “deliberately provocative,” and in an email responding to my request for comment, he wrote, “It’s unfortunate that my comments have been deliberately distorted. I know what I meant. Unfortunately, this is a topic that generates more heat than light.”

He said he expects to be back at KU at the conclusion of his sabbatical but declines to say anything more about what happened. The university is similarly silent.

As for what the rest of us expect, especially from professional journalists and educators, it’s something more than selfishness, something more than a middle finger pointed at our sensibilities.

When Evans hyper-extended her comparison, she made what many of us might consider an honest mistake. The lure of social media is in part due to its speed and the excitement that speed generates. In turn, we react without full awareness of what we’re saying and remain ignorant until the excitement subsides.

A 2009 study by the University of Southern California seems to confirm this, explaining that social media moves too fast for our “moral compass” to catch up with what we’re thinking.

“If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a researcher for the study, told CNN. “For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.”

Sree Sreenivasan agrees. He’s a popular tech evangelist and one of the foremost advocates for sensible use of social media. At the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in Fort Lauderdale last year, he advised journalists against posting before thinking.

The owner of more than 50,000 Twitter followers, Sreenivasan waits three to six minutes between tapping a tweet and posting it because he knows that first words usually are not the best words, in any medium.

“Anything you share can and will be used against you,” he said.

This is sound and potentially career-saving advice for people such as Joyce Evans and David Guth who put hubris before introspection. In both instances, the Twitterers omitted context, either by accident or by design, then denied that their choice of words muddled their messages.

You are the best protector against your own embarrassment and ridicule. We need to remember that in this social-media inflected age, often our only guide to responsible behavior is staring back at us in the mirror.

Maybe Evans would still be a TV anchor and Guth still teaching if not for their unartful language. Unfortunately for all of us, their fame is based on what they said, not what they meant.

(Update: Guth will be allowed to teach again at Kansas next fall, the Lawrence Journal-World reports.)

Résumé advice, from someone who knows

Looking for a job

Résumés became a stock in my trade after leaving my 15-year place of employment last summer. A round of layoffs had nudged me toward the door, but upon being invited back I said no. The future in the same role looked bleak; institutional changes diminished its importance and no path to advance out of it was obvious. I decided then to take a chance and forge ahead on my own.

That meant introducing myself to a writing and editing marketplace virtually unaware I existed, and so I experimented with an assortment of tools and tactics to connect with potential clients. Social media, word-of-mouth advertising, personal correspondence and networking events are great for this; they help sell your personality.

When it comes to selling one’s skills, however, the best tool remains a clear, crisp résumé.

Résumés date back more than 500 years to Leonardo da Vinci, who is believed to have written the first one, but they were informal in style and substance until the 1950s. Today, there are three basic types: the functional résumé, listing work experience or skills categorized by skill area or job function; the reverse chronological résumé, listing work experience by date, starting with the most recent, and going back 10 to 15 years; and the hybrid résumé, which mixes the two types.

The typical résumé is short — two 8½-by-11 sheets of paper in length, at most — and direct, highlighting active verbs and essential keywords related to the job sought. Even video résumés are succinct, lasting no more than 60 seconds.

That’s because brevity is a courtesy in the current job market, as employers and potential freelance clients may receive dozens if not hundreds of applications for one position or task. Given this flood of applications, nothing guarantees that those résumés are read carefully.

But there are a few things I have learned through success and failure – mostly failure – that résumé writers can do to boost their chances:

Have a clear focus —Résumés are supposed to land an interview, not land a job. Think of writing one as tapping an employer on the shoulder for a quick introduction. Using that approach, the résumé will likely sound more precise than plodding.

For video résumés, have a prepared script and memorize it. Reading from a prepared script or cue cards makes the performer’s eyes shift, giving the impression that the job applicant is distracted or untrustworthy.

Use clean typography — Certain styles of type read better in print than online, and vice versa. Because employers often ask that résumés be emailed, then print out a hard copy for use in a face-to-face interview, it makes sense to employ a type style that works well in both formats. Ariel, Times and Verdana best fit this purpose. And don’t cram information onto the page; leave room for white space to assure a fresh, inviting look.

When making a video résumé, dress as you would for the interview and use a background that lends itself to the theme of the position sought. For example, regarding writing and editing jobs, backgrounds that include books, magazines or other scholarly items add a formal, cerebral touch. Avoid using a plain white or monochrome background, as this can flatten a person’s appearance on camera.

Use clear language, avoid pronouns — Precise, polite English conveys professionalism; jargon and slang do not. Keep a dictionary and grammar guide close by. Steer clear of writing “I” or “me” because they are redundant in a document lacking any other characters. Use “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or any preferred title, if it is known. Include this courtesy in cover letters and contract bids.

An applicant’s demeanor matters, too, almost as much as proper language. A résumé that’s negative in tone or critical of former employers leaves the reader with a negative feeling about the applicant.

Use descriptive titles — Simply saying “writer,” or “editor,” or “manager” to describe yourself is not enough, as these terms mean different things to different people. A detailed title — end-user documentation writer, acquisitions editor, product development manager — suggests what tasks were involved in the role and paints an image in the employer’s mind.

Use bullet points — Long, gray blocks of type are boring and hard to read. Breaking out main tasks and talents in bulleted lists provides something for the eye to latch on to without searching.

Include specifics — As with titles, specifics are important when describing work history and personal goals related to the job sought. Emphasize achievements for each past position, expectations and aspirations for the new one. Tell an employer what you hope to bring to the job and how you may be able to solve problems related to it. If there are statistics that suit this purpose, include them.

Of course, effective use of detail requires research. Investigate the history of the employer or client before starting to write, and find out more about the job itself through a Google search, and previous or current employees if possible.

Be honest – The urge to embellish a résumé is strong, and usually fatal. Digital record-keeping makes everyone’s life an open book and makes it much easier to find the lie sooner or later. Avoid the needless risk by being straightforward, honest. That’s not to say certain tacit skills valuable to a potential employer should remain obscure, but be certain to describe those skills within their proper context.

Edit with care — Nothing devalues résumés faster than poor spelling and poor grammar. Incorrect names and titles can land résumés into the trash, too. So, read through every word, every sentence, at least two or three times and check all facts, then find someone else to read over your work. Inaccuracies cut deep enough through an applicant’s professionalism to also mar one’s personal integrity. Leave prospective employers and clients thinking you’re invaluable, instead of indifferent.

(An adaptation of this post also appears in The Independent Journalist, a freelancing blog published by the Society of Professional Journalists.)

Zhopped offers free online photo editing, for fun only

ZhoppedDespite the abundant tools available for digital photo editing, none include the skills to use them.

Enter Zhopped.com, a Las Vegas-based website that offers to edit photos by request, whether that request is a simple crop or complex art. All the work is performed by a community of editors and artists who are off-site and use their own tools and time for free.

In time, Zhopped hopes to become a marketplace where the community’s members bid for services.

“Zhopped was created to be an easy, fun and visual way for people looking for photo or image editing help,” the site blog says. “It’s also for creative individuals of talents to show off their skills by helping others.”

Subscribers simply post a photo, write an open request for changes to the photo, and an editor steps in to do them. Comment fields under each photo let users issue instructions and criticism. Users and editors are allowed to register with alter egos.

The range of requests to date is broad. In one, for example, a subscriber requests a tighter crop on a house photo. But in several, the editors are asked to switch out backgrounds to put photo subjects in new locations.

So, what prevents photos like that from turning up in professional publications? Zhopped doesn’t say. The site’s usage policy stipulates opposition to the use of copyrighted work, as well as pornography, and its terms of service prohibits making something commercial out of something personal.

Zhopped will cancel any account found in violation of these rules. Beyond that though, the site accepts no responsibility for artwork once it leaves Zhopped’s platform.

Zhopped went public May 1, but stumbled recently due to a hacking issue.

“We lost about five weeks’ worth of data through a hacking exploit that compromised the server host, which also corrupted some of our backup data,” another blog post explains. “Sadly, some users may need to recreate their usernames.”

A request for comment from Zhopped’s operators has not been answered.

5 steps to S.M.A.R.T. social media use

S.M.A.R.T. iconTo most people, social media is mere fun and games ― a means of killing time and staying in constant contact whether they need that contact or not.

But social media is serious stuff in the workplace. Saying the wrong thing online, even one word, can harm your reputation and bruise your employer’s image.

That’s why employers are busy creating policy to protect themselves and their workers from assorted threats and intimidation. But policy is useless in thwarting ignorance.

People misuse social media mainly because they misunderstand it. They think social media is just technology. In fact, it’s a window others reach through to influence you, just as you influence others.

That’s because social media “sees” you. It does this by drawing a picture based on your willingness to tell everyone where you are, what you’re doing and what you’re thinking.

Thus, the more you interact with social media, the more it knows about you. And the more everyone else knows about you.

So, keep in mind, responsible social behavior isn’t a matter of policy. It’s a matter of maturity. The more mature you are, the less likely you will get yourself, and your employer, into trouble.

Think of it this way, because it’s true: The best guide to good social media policy stares at you in the mirror every morning.

Be S.M.A.R.T about social media by observing these 5 guidelines:

S= Separation ― Try to keep your professional media use separate from your personal media use. For example, connect to friends and family with your default Facebook page, but create a business page for work-related posts.

If the content calls for it, you can embed links between the two. But try to maintain a distinction, and try to maintain distinct Twitter, Pinterest profiles, too.

M= Meaning ― Make sure you say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t type and send right away. Type and stop, and wait for a total of 2 minutes. Re-read what you’ve written, think about how it’s written and whether it says what you want.

Remember, you are your own best editor.

A= Attitude ― Measure your mood because it will come through your writing. Don’t use social media when you’re:

  • Angry
  • Sleepy
  • Hungry
  • Drunk

These are the four behaviors when you’re most vulnerable.

R= Responsiveness ― Answer promptly, or don’t answer at all. If you can answer within a minute or an hour, great. Being prompt is a measure of respect and politeness. After 24 hours, however, others perceive the long delay as an insult, no matter your excuse.

T= Timing ― Be aware of what’s going on around you. Pay attention to office politics, current events, anything that shapes a public conversation. Then, be ready to respond ― or not respond ― to what’s happening in the proper context. Say the right thing at the right time.

Another “T” related to Timing is:

T= Taste ― Context is king; taste is queen. Minding the former helps assure the latter. And timing is crucial to both.

(Editor’s note: This was the central theme of a presentation I gave to the Community Service Public Relations Council of St. Louis on July 9.)