From texts to haiku

Web writing requires brevity, liveliness, links, personal voice

October 8, 2009

EAGAN, Minn.

Keeping word count down while maintaining a clear message is practice for writing for the Web. It’s a three-line poem with a five-seven-five syllable count. It’s haiku.

That’s what Joan Benson, a writing coach and consultant from Iowa City, Iowa, sometimes uses with writers because, as she said, it’s a “great exercise for getting to the heart of the matter.”

Benson led a “Writing for the Web” session here Sept. 3 during the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ communicators conference.

Whether writing a haiku, a 140-character Twitter update or a 160-character text message, the key is communicating clearly and concisely.

Benson took the day’s lectionary text on the downfall of Solomon taken from 1 Kings 11:1-13 and asked that everyone summarize the Bible passage in a 160-character text message.

Benson’s example, while it might not satisfy everyone, produced the long text in 157 characters: “Solomon loved many women & their gods. This made God mad. Solomon built altars to other gods. God told him not 2. Solomon did anyway. God smote his dynasty.”

Sample texts from the audience were much the same, concentrating on Solomon’s sin and God’s punishment.

But the text became even more compact when Benson forced it into a haiku:

Sol loved many wives
And their gods, so the Lord God
Scattered his children

In brief, online writing should be short, lively, hyperlinked and full of personal voice. Benson pointed out that information online is often scanned quickly and that readers’ attention is not as focused as it might be with a printed product. Adding hyperlinks — a link within a story that leads to another location on the Web — increases reader engagement.

As far as using personal voice, Benson said, “We now know the Web is a personal medium ... we don’t connect with information; we connect with people.”

She said the personal voice, including opinion, evaluation and position, can “add distinctness in the chaos” of the Web. She also said that an argument can be made that journalism has always included those elements of personal voice.

After her presentation she blogged from the conference: “We moved from t[e]xts to tweets, working on developing a voice, leaving behind the neutral reporter’s tone. We debated the social, theological, and political implications of leaving the world of objective reporting behind.”

For journalism purists, Benson said writers can “sidebar the facts,” and write the body in a personal voice. Benson challenged writers to “take on another character ... you can be obnoxious, cranky, impatient.”

“The Web is an ongoing event. That’s what happens in a room full of social people,” Benson said.

And she urged everyone to engage in the conversation.

“You need to be in that room,” she said. “You need to be comfortable in that room.”

And to be clear and brief, text messages, tweets and haiku are good places to start.

Duane Sweep is associate for communications for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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