Let’s be honest, most public service organizations (PSO) are bad at writing. Really bad. Our texts are too long, full of jargon or overly erudite words (point in case). We wrote badly for the web and now we write badly for social media. We write press release with 4 line titles that say next to nothing. You can see the terror in their eyes when you tell a public service employee they have to put something in 140 characters. They will usually reply that you can’t say anything in 140 words, then will go catatonic when you correct them: “No, that’s 140 CHARACTERS, spaces included”
Luckily, there is hope. There is one author that would have killed it on Twitter. Hem was a disciple of the KISS approach to writing (Keep It Simple Stupid). He would have put everyone to shame on social media with punchy, right to the point writing that made you beg for more. Imagine what a man who can write a whole story with only 27 characters (For sale: Baby shoes, never worn) could do with a whole 140!
Here are my top 4 tips for writing well the Heming Way (PS bad puns are not one of those!).
Who is your bell tolling for? Who are you writing for? Who is your audience? PSOs tend to think of their audience as “the public” and lob everyone into one broad category but the reality is that in social media, the name of the game if segmentation. Go for the long tail whenever you can, the niche market. Social media is great for targeting specific audiences so take advantage of it. Use language that speaks to a specific audience and they will thank you for it.
The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber
Keep it short. “Unvarnish” your writing. Hem would never use two words where one would suffice. That meant finding the right words to convey his intentions instead of using 5 useless word to “cover all the bases”. This is a tough one for public service employees. After 20 + years in the public service, I can tell you that I am able to write entire paragraphs that say absolutely nothing! I can also put enough buzz words in a paragraph to make you nauseous. And while this skill may have served me well within my PSO, it is toxic writing if my goal is to reach the general public. As a rule, you should kill the jargon, unless your piece is directed at a specific audience that uses that particular jargon.
Make your writing interesting, starting with your title and continuing right through your content. Make your titles catchy and punchy so that your audience actually wants to read the rest of the article or post. Make your writing active, not passive. (e.g. say Our agency has recently updated this policy, not This policy has recently been updated”. If you can use your writing to put your child to sleep at night, you are doing it wrong. Of course, we are not in the business of writing fiction but non-fiction can still be written in a way that grabs the reader’s attention and keeps it throughout. Hem could paint pictures in people’s minds – if you can come even close to that you are well on your way to great writing.
In his book “Death in the Afternoon,” Hemingway wrote of the importance of writing truly. This one is a bit more tricky I will admit. It is quite possible to write in such a way as the reader will be confused, even duped on the meaning of your content. This is often used in the political arena by people or organizations that do not wish to be pinned down to a statement. After all, if you make the writing vague enough it gives you a way out. If someone claims you said something, you can always say that that wasn’t what you meant. The problem is that the public in general is not fooled by this one bit. This kind of writing saps the credibility of your organization, damages your brand, and erodes the trust of the public. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Write truly in order to maintain your integrity and the trust of the public. Without this we have no purpose other than to waste the public’s hard earned money!
I will leave you with this piece of wisdom from Hemingway himself, wisdom that sums up well the attitude you should have towards writing for social media::
We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
– Ernest Hemingway
Alain Lemay is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.
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