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.)

You won’t believe what this journalist did using clickbait

Clickbait IconSee? I knew you’d click on the headline. Clickbait heads are useful that way.

Sure, clickbait promises more than it delivers. But in an age when mouse clicks can bring profit, clickbait heads are effective hooks for websites to attract business.

Clickbait is deceptive, misleading, and irresistible. That’s why headlines such as “Tricks Car Insurance Agents Don’t Want You to Know,” and “How iPads Are Selling for Under $40,” attract readers who should know better. These headlines promise content that reveals secrets, validates rumors, solves mysteries — and who doesn’t love that?

Well, journalists, for one. They insist clickbait content devalues news sites and demeans the journalism profession. A Google search with just “clickbait” and “journalism” in the search field turns up pages and pages of claims that the former is ruining the latter.

To some degree, this is true. Mislead any audience and you risk losing it.

What many journalists fail to remember however is that clickbait has been around much longer than the Internet — and they were the ones writing it.

Visit any library or newspaper database and scan the print headlines from 10, 20, 30 years ago. Headline writing was an art, a craft. News editors had limited space and time to explain a story no matter how complex, and it was a struggle almost every time. (Go ahead: Try explaining tax increment financing in six words or fewer, without using “tax,” or “increment,” or “financing.)

The goal was to make a big impression with small words.

That goal remains much the same online, but the audience is larger and there are many more news providers fighting for attention and survival. That’s why such sites as CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and my former employer, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — which is where I found the car insurance and iPad headlines mentioned above — resort to clickbait despite the criticism it brings.

Yes, clickbait is a necessary evil of doing business online. But if journalists believe clickbait is ruining their reputations, then journalists must take greater responsibility for solving a problem they helped create.

(A version of this post appears at

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.

Region 7 represents at Mark of Excellence Awards

SPJ's Mark of Excellence AwardsMissouri had three honorees and the states of Iowa and Nebraska had one each to represent Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri) in the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2013 national Mark of Excellence Awards, announced Tuesday.

Allison Pohle of the University of Missouri-Columbia, writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was a finalist in the feature-writing category among large schools for her work, “Kirkwood Father Tries to Find Meaning in Daughter’s Death;” the staff of at the Missouri School of Journalism was a finalist in the online feature reporting category for “Matters of Faith;” and Vox Magazine’s iPad app was chosen best digital-only student publication.

Suhaib Tawil of the Iowa State Daily at Iowa State University was a finalist in the general news photography category among large schools for “ROTC Training During Spring 2013.”

Jenna Jaynes of the Time-Warner Educational Access Channel and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was a finalist in television feature reporting for “Nebraska’s First Male Color Guard Member Lives His Dream.”

The national awards recognize exceptional collegiate journalism in all 12 of SPJ’s regions over the previous calendar year and are chosen from the first-place winners at the regional level. This time, instead of first-, second-, and third-place awards, SPJ named a winner and two finalists for each category.

Not all categories were mentioned, however. If the judges determined that no entries were excellent by SPJ’s standards, the category was left blank. All judges have at least three years’ worth of professional experience in their respective fields. They are not permitted to review entries from their own regions.

(Complete disclosure: I have been an MOE judge the past three years, first as president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro Chapter and now as Region 7 director.)

School divisions were based on cumulative undergraduate and graduate enrollment, with large schools having a minimum of 10,000 registered students. For some categories, school size was not a factor.

Winners in each category will be recognized during the Student Union event at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 conference in Nashville, Tennessee, Sept. 4-6. A full list of MOE Award recipients is available on SPJ’s website.

SPJ salutes its best student journalists with MOE awards

Society of Professional Journalists logoFor the third consecutive year, I served as a judge for the Society of Professional Journalists‘ annual Mark of Excellence awards — honors that recognize the best print, broadcast, and digital journalism at large and small colleges and universities around the country.

The honors are handed out regionally each spring. This past weekend, the awards for my region, Region 7, were handed out during the annual regional conference, hosted this year by Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas.

Region 7 comprises Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.

Little else inspires me as much as the students who win these awards and the faculty who nurture the students’ interests and endeavors. The collective display of drive and determination, and the quality of the work, assure me more than anything that journalism is far from dead, and in fact has a bright future.

This year, Kansas University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Baker University had the most MOE recipients. Kansas came away with a total of 14 awards and Nebraska-Lincoln received 11 among large schools submitting entries. Baker University, a private, Methodist-affiliated institution in northeast Kansas, led the small-school category with 14 awards. Certificates were given to the winners and finalists during a banquet at the conference.

The first-place finisher in each category qualifies for a national MOE competition that includes all 12 of SPJ regions. The national winners will be notified later this spring and receive recognition at SPJ’s 2014 Excellence in Journalism convention in Nashville, Tennessee, Sept. 4-6.

The awards for each region are determined by a team of SPJ judges who each have at least three years’ worth of professional journalism experience. Directors are discouraged from judging their own regions.

Not all categories receive awards. If judges determine that none of the entries rose to the level of excellence, no award is given.

Large- and small-school divisions are based on total graduate and undergraduate enrollment. Each of the large schools has more than 10,000 students; each of the small schools has fewer. Some awards incorporated both divisions. Listed below are the Region 7 winners and finalists in each category. The spellings and titles reflect those that were submitted in the award-entry process.



Breaking News Reporting (Large)

Winner: “Explosions Shake Students” by Katelynn McCollough, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: “Police Arrest Suspect in U.S. Bank Robbery” by Emily Donovan, University Daily Kansan, The Daily Collegian, University of Kansas

Finalist: “University Distances Itself from Journalism Professor’s Controversial Tweet” by Emily Donovan, University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas


General News Reporting (Large)

Winner: “Mental Health Issues on the Rise Among College Students” by Jakki Thompson, The Collegian, Kansas State University

Finalist: “Health Insurance on Campus” by Leah Wankum, Muleskinner, University of Central Missouri

Finalist: “UNO Makes History as First U.S. University to Trend on Twitter in India” by Sean Robinson, The Gateway, University of Nebraska at Omaha


General News Reporting (Small)

Winner: “Domino Effect” by Kavahn Mansouri and Spencer Gleason, The Montage, St. Louis Community College-Meramec

Finalist: “CU CARES for Students” by Amanda Brandt, Creightonian, Creighton University

Finalist: “BU Enrollment” by Jenna Stanbrough, The Baker Orange, Baker University


In-Depth Reporting (Large)

Winner: “Human Trafficking Series” by Danielle Ferguson, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: “$1,163,237: Bookstore Director Admits to Stealing for 10 Years” by Megan Gates, The Standard, Missouri State University

Finalist: “Where Does the Student Activity Fee Go?” by Kristin Gallagher, Muleskinner, University of Central Missouri


Feature Writing (Large)

Winner: “Kirkwood Father Tries To Find Meaning in Daughter’s Death” by Allison Pohle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, University of Missouri-Columbia

Finalist: “Can My Boyfriend Rape Me?” by Bailey McGrath, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: “We’re the Working Poor” by Jourdyn Kaarre, Lincoln Journal Star, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Feature Writing (Small)

Winner: “Living the Life He’s Always Wanted” by Steffi Lee, The Simpsonian, Simpson College

Finalist: “Carrying the Weight” by Lauren Bechard, The Baker Orange, Baker University

Finalist: “Sarah Harris at the Boston Marathon” by Jenna Stanbrough, The Baker Orange, Baker University


Sports Writing (Large)

Winner: “Welcome to Woody’s World” by Alex Halsted, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: “Jeff Withey Finds New Friend in @FakeJeffWithey” by Blake Schuster, University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas

Finalist: “Ukulele-Strumming Faifili Plays Different Tune as KU LB” by Mike Vernon, Topeka Capital-Journal, University of Kansas


Sports Writing (Small)

Winner: “Former BU Punter Puts Best Foot Forward” by Lauren Bechard, The Baker Orange, Baker University

Finalist: “Purdum Reflects on Extension with Jets” by Chris Duderstadt, The Baker Orange, Baker University


Editorial Writing

Winner: Editorial Board, The Campus Ledger, Johnson County Community College

Finalist: Sarah Hayes and Devese Ursery, The Florissant Valley Forum, St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley

Finalist: Evan Holland, Creightonian, Creighton University


General Column Writing (Small)

Winner: Taylor Shuck, The Baker Orange, Baker University


Sports Column Writing

Winner: Mike Vernon, The University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas

Finalist: Josh Sellmeyer, The Journal, Webster University


Best All-Around Daily Student Newspaper

Winner: Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: The University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas


Best All-Around Non Daily Student Newspaper

Winner: Muleskinner, University of Central Missouri

Finalist: The Standard, Missouri State University

Finalist: The Montage, St. Louis Community College-Meramec



Non-Fiction Magazine Article

Winner: “Field Notes From Missouri” by the staff of Vox Magazine, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Finalist: “Dennis Dailey: A Decade Later” by Laken Rapier, Jayhawker Magazine, University of Kansas

Finalist: “When Liberty Goes Sour” by Abigail Eisenberg, Vox Magazine, University of Missouri School of Journalism


Best Student Magazine

Winner: DUH Magazine, Drake University

Finalist: Drake Magazine, Drake University

Finalist: OneWorld Magazine, St. Louis University



Breaking News Photography (Large)

Winner: “Coach Rhoads’ Reaction to Referee’s Call” by Kelby Wingert, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: “President Obama” by George Mullinix, University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas

Finalist: “Take Back the Night” by Suhaib Tawil, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University


General News Photography (Large)

Winner: “ROTC Training During Spring 2013” by Suhaib Tawil, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

Finalist: “Bacon Fest” by Kelby Wingert, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University


General News Photography (Small)

Winner: “Intoxicated Olympics” by Chad Phillips, The Baker Orange, Baker University


Feature Photography (Large)

Winner: “Harrisburg Football Photo Essay” by Kevin Cook and Elizabeth Pierson, Vox Magazine, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Finalist: “Step Show Draws a Big Crowd” by Andrew Mather, Muleskinner, University of Central Missouri

Finalist: “Not Quite Ready” by Steph Anderson Chambers, The Standard, Missouri State University


Feature Photography (Small)

Winner: “Jazz Concert” by Chad Phillips, The Baker Orange, Baker University

Finalist: “Man With One Leg Rides Bicycle 150 Miles in Two Days” by Liz Spencer, The Chart, Missouri Southern State University

Finalist: “Downtown Farmers’ Market” by Liz Spencer, The Chart, Missouri Southern State University


Sports Photography (Large)

Winner: “My Ball!” by Steph Anderson Chambers, The Standard, Missouri State University

Finalist: “One Last Lap” by Steph Anderson Chambers, The Standard, Missouri State University

Finalist: “Pick Party” by Romain Polge, The Legacy, Lindenwood University


Sports Photography (Small)

Winner: “Women’s Soccer Playoff” by Tera Lyons, The Baker Orange, Baker University

Finalist: “Women’s Soccer” by Chad Phillips, The Baker Orange, Baker University

Finalist: “Winning a Point” by Chad Phillips, The Baker Orange, Baker University



Feature Reporting

Winner: “‘War of the Worlds’ in Context” by Kalen Stockton, KJHK 90.7 FM, University of Kansas

Finalist: “Max Brooks: Zombies, Vampires and Cultural Anxieties” by Chrissie Noriega, KJHK 90.7 FM, University of Kansas

Finalist: “A Little Help From My Friends” by Kassi Nelson, KRNU FM, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


In-Depth Reporting

Winner: “Backpacks: Tools, Fashion Accessories, Personal Statements” by Justin Wilson, KJHK 90.7 FM, University of Kansas

Finalist: “Vinyl Revival” by Scott Ross, KJHK 90.7 FM, University of Kansas



General News Reporting

Winner: “Unknown Circumstances Surround Lincoln Homeless Man’s Death” by Haley Herzog, NewsNetNebraska, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Finalist: “Charter Bus Problems for JCCC” by Heather Dace and Andrew Tady, JC3 Student Video, Johnson County Community College

Finalist: “Sex Trafficking in Nebraska” by Madalyn Gotschall, Time-Warner Educational Access Channel, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Feature Reporting

Winner: “Nebraska’s First Male Color Guard Member Lives His Dream” by Jenna Jaynes, Time-Warner Educational Access Channel, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Finalist: “Profile of Andreas Brandenberger” by Heather Dace and Nichole Schafer, JC3 Student Video, Johnson County Community College

Finalist: “Exotic Vet” by Aimee Durham, Mediacom Cable-22, Missouri State University


In-Depth Reporting

Winner: “Medical Marijuana in the Ozarks” by Riley Bean, Mediacom Cable-22, Missouri State University

Finalist: “Nebraska Law Enforcement Hit By Colorado’s Legalization of Marijuana” by Haley Herzog,, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Finalist: “A Closer Look at the Affordable Care Act” by Brittany Velasco, LUTV, Lindenwood University


Sports Reporting

Winner: “Henry Josey: Road to Recovery” by Mihir Bhagat, KOMU-TV, University of Missouri-Columbia

Finalist: “Helias Players Get Second Chance at State and Life” by Jack Wascher, KOMU-TV, University of Missouri-Columbia

Finalist: “Don’t Blame Andrew Baggett” by Mihir Bhagat, KOMU-TV, University of Missouri-Columbia


News and Feature Photography

Winner: “Owen/Cox Dance Group Project” by Zoe Allen, Bernie Verhaeghe and Nichole Schafer, JCAV TV, Johnson County Community College

Finalist: “100 Missouri Miles” by Erica Semsch, Mediacom Cable-22, Missouri State University

Finalist: “KC Trends” by Stephen Cook, JC3 Student Video, Johnson County Community College


Best All-Around Newscast

Winner: “LCTV News” by the staff of Loras College Television, Loras College

Finalist: “Ozarks News Journal No. 801” by the staff of the Ozarks News Journal and Mediacom Cable-22, Missouri State University

Finalist: “Star City News” by the staff of the Time-Warner Educational Access Channel, University of Nebraska-Lincoln



News Reporting

Winner: “Breaking the Cycle: Meth Addiction in Council Bluffs” by Katie Kuntz,, University of Iowa

Finalist: “Lincoln’s Homeless Population Struggles with Cold Temperatures” by Casey Sill,, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Feature Reporting

Winner: “Matters of Faith” by the staff of, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Finalist: “Graffiti: The Art of Expressive Vandalism” by the staff of, University of Iowa

Finalist: “A Baker’s Dozen” by Katie Thurbon and Taylor Shuck, The Baker Orange, Baker University


In-Depth Reporting

Winner: “Matter of Seconds: Tougher Farm Safety Regulation Hard To Come By In Iowa” by Sarah Hadley,, University of Iowa

Finalist: “Former Student Attends Class with Pending Default on Student Debt” by Daniel Bauman, The Journal, Webster University


Sports Reporting

Winner: “For Amateur Mixed Martial Artist, a Long Road to Fight” by Maricia Guzman,, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Finalist: “Freshman Softball Star Rachel Franck Dedicates Season to Younger Brother” by Sam Masterson and Josh Sellmeyer, The Journal, Webster University

Finalist: “Six Former Wildcats Chase NFL Dreams” by Chris Duderstadt and Brad Barnes, The Baker Orange, Baker University


Best Use of Multimedia

Winner: “Little Known Secrets” by the staff of, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Finalist: The Road to the 29th Presidency” by Sara Bell, The Baker Orange, Baker University

Finalist: “Marquis Addison MSSU Basketball Feature” by Samantha Zoltanski and Sydney Marsellis, The Chart Online, Missouri Southern State University


Best Affiliated Website

Winner: by the staff of NewsNetNebraska, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Finalist: by the staff of the, University Daily Kansan, University of Kansas

Finalist: by Marc Schroeder, Sarah Brennan, Taylor Umbrell and the staff of KJHK 90.7 FM, University of Kansas


Best Digital-Only Student Publication

Winner: Vox iPad app by Breanna Dumbacher, Vox iPad, University of Missouri School of Journalism

Finalist: by the staff of the Urban Plains, Drake University

Finalist: by the staff of Think, Drake University


SPJ is an 8,000-member professional organization that promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press.

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 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.)

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.)

4 tips on freelancing for newspapers

Freelance Writing TipsThanks to the economy, the market for freelance writers and editors has ballooned.

That’s because America’s slow crawl back toward fiscal stability gives daily and weekly print publications hope for revitalization via digital alter egos that prefer original content to aggregation — the hand-me-down stories culled from outside sources. These publications are limited, however, because when media corporations’ stock prices fell, staffs were cut.

The result: too many news operations with too few people to gather news. One estimate puts newspaper journalism’s total staff losses in the United States since 2007 above 40,000.

Enter the freelancer, perhaps now more valuable than ever to news organizations.

Freelancers operate on a per-story or per-project basis; they possess distinct talents and knowledge a news operation may lack; and, best of all — in the news operation’s mind but not necessarily the freelancer’s — their contracts need not include health benefits and retirement plans, the two biggest costs attached to full-time staff apart from salary.

So, while looking around for new clients, freelancers might consider calling the local newspaper to ask if it’s willing to farm out one or two or more writing assignments. But before calling or writing an editor, freelancers should be aware of a few things:

Expect to start small — Any aspirations of uncovering another Watergate-size scandal should stay in a drawer; rarely do first-time newspaper contributors receive a big investigative project to start, regardless of experience. The early assignments will be small — low-level government meetings, high school sporting events, etc. — to help editors gauge a freelancer’s dependability, writing skill and ability to accept criticism. Not even seasoned journalists shine in all of these areas, so being amenable helps land more assignments.

Expect the pay to be small — Typical compensation ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces only after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Of course, the assignments may not be frequent enough to yield a steady income.

Know the value of deadlines — Newspaper and online journalism are fast-paced, get-it-done-now businesses that abhor lateness. If an editor says a story has to be completed and in hand by a certain time, freelancers should submit it well before that time, if possible. Otherwise, freelancers should be upfront with editors, ready to explain difficulties and ask for guidance; editors understand that plans can change and circumstances can be nettlesome. But missing a deadline — just one, even — without advance warning or rational cause undermines a freelancer’s credibility.

Read the newspaper — This may sound like a no-brainer, but in fact newspapers often hear from hopeful writers pitching ideas that lack a local angle, ideas that already were printed in some form, or ideas that amount to writers talking about themselves instead of talking to other people. Freelancers first must read either the print or online version of the newspaper (preferably both) and study several editions. Newspapers, like magazines, have writing styles and subjects of particular interest to their audiences; knowing these allows for intelligent conversations with assigning editors.

(Writer’s note: The post is a revised version of one I wrote in 2010 for The Independent Journalist, the freelancing blog of the Society of Professional Journalists, and for my former blog on Posterous.)