Some Hints for Writing Personal Narratives
Show, Don’t Tell
Try to engage your readers not by telling them what happened, but by recreating it for them. In particular, don’t tell readers how to feel – allow them to share in your feelings through your writing. The best way of engaging readers in a personal narrative is to get them to care about you and the contents of your narrative.
Convey your Senses
This point follows somewhat naturally from the first. Try to draw on your experience in terms of what you saw, heard, and felt rather than meraly describing ‘what was there’.
Although this goes for all kinds of writing, in a personal narrative you should try to avoid generalisations, focusing instead on the details of your experience to convey your story to the reader.
Be clear about what you are saying
Personal narrative does not support mystery or tension very well. Try to make it clear to the reader from the outset what the focus of the story is, even if it takes you a few paragraphs to get to the main point.
One way to draw your readers into your narrative is to use dialogue that enables the characters (including yourself) to have real personality and a particular ‘voice’.
Let the reader take something away
At the end of your narrative, the reader should have learned something about you or the topic you are writing about. They should be glad they have read you piece. As an exception to the tip above, this is one area where drawing out a generalisation from your experience is often a strong way to finish a narrative.
Of course, like all style guides, this is just advice.
The strength of personal narratives is the fact that they are personal. Find a style of writing that suits your voice and what you want to say, even if that means breaking all or any of the suggestions above.
Some Hints on Informative Online Writing
Unlike personal narratives, in informative and/or argumentative writing that is intended for broader public consumption there are more established guidelines in terms of what is effective or not. Listed below are a few tips that should help you to develop informative and engaging pieces of writing that work well within the context of the Web.
A blog post does not need to be lengthy to be informative. Tell your readers what you think they will be interested in and no more. Attention spans on the Web are short – you should bear this in mind in all your online writing.
Use Everyday Words
Blog posts are typically not academic essays. If you are going to engage your readers and have them be interested in what you are saying, don’t use a complex word when a familiar one will do. Of course, sometimes a complex one is necessary – just be sure.
Remember that informative writing is not a personal narrative. You are writing on this particular topic because it is something you know about. Try to avoid phrases such as “I think” or “I believe”.
Use Headlines and Subheadings
Readers on the Web will typically scan a page to see if they think the information it conatains is relevant to them. Whilst this information has been leveraged by many a savvy business web site designer, it is applicable to any form of information you want to convey via the Web. Headlines and subheadings enable your readers to quickly decide if this article is one they want to read.
Use Other Typographic Cues
Like headlines and subheadings, using formatting such as bolding or italicising in your text draws readers to the key points you are making. (Note: In the context of web writing, however, never underline anything as this indicates a link)
Use Links Effectively
Many people, when first approaching writing for the Web, are fearful of using links, After all, links take your reader away from your site – why would you want to do that? Well, firstly, as we have seen, the effective use of links adds significantly to your credibility. More importantly however, the fact is that users expect hyperlinks in Web-based writing – they have become accustomed to having the option to ‘jump out’ at any point and explore a topic in more detail.
Don’t Let Links Disrupt the Flow
When using links, try to indicate in the course of the text where readers will be going. At the same time, try to refrain from pointing explicitly to the destination – this disrupts the flow of your writing. For example:
“The results of a recent survey suggest that…”
is better than:
“In a recent survey (see here) it was found that…”
Use Imagery (Selectively)
Images are a great way of enhancing what you are saying, but should be used carefully. Place them at points in the text where they are directly relevant to the writing.
Publishing for the Attention Economy
In the vast majority of cases, the same guidelines that we have discussed for writing in more informal contexts such as for blogs etc. can be applied to writing for institutions (e.g.use of headings, succinct writing etc.). In the broader sense however, writers need to consider the role of the audience far more carefully than in the past.
Given that information has become increasingly free to everyone and is relatively abundant, we need to look beyond value being inherent in the information/media form itself. Following this, writer Kevin Kelly has suggested that those publishing in a new media environment need to consider intangible value that can be added to information. He terms these elements “generative value”:
“A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced. It is generated uniquely, in place, over time. In the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold.” (Kelly, 2009)
To summarise Kelly’s ideas, he suggests eight ways to add generative value to information in order that it becomes more viable as a commercial offering. Although not all of these ideas are appropriate for implementation in a text environment, as a Web publisher it is important that you broadly consider these individuating elements:
Although information is increasingly easy to access, it is often the case that timeliness can add significant value to your work. The first review of a highly-anticipated product will be far more popular than the 100th. One way of gaining relevance for your audience is to respond to developments in your area quickly.
The idea of personalisation is one that we have explored in the earlier weeks of this unit, if not explicitly. By focusing on a particular group with particular interests, it is possible to create content with specifically that audience in mind. Kelly extends this idea to all types of media and forms of distribution, suggesting that personalising content creates a two-way relationship that an audience is often reluctant to break.
Discussing interpretation, Kelly points to open source software models where the software itself is free but manual and support come at a price. The same idea can be applied to specialist writing. If you understand and can explain something in a way that simplifies it for your audience, you have created value.
In the age of infinite replicability, what does it mean to hold a copy of the real thing™ in your hands? By offering audiences and consumers a seal of authenticity that tells them this is an original work from the author, we can add a value to a product.
Although we have become accustomed to thinking of the Web as being located on our personal computers, the increasing rise in mobile Internet devices such as phones and PDAs, along with a growing reliance on these devices to serve up media means that consumers are less concerned about ‘owning’ media as they are in having easy and flexible access to it.
As much information and writing as there is on the Web, there is something attractive about the tactile nature of a book. A number of bloggers have turned their work into published books. Similarly, although digitally stored music and video are convenient, physical media remain popular.
Kelly has famously proposed the notion of “1,000 true fans”. As he points out, there are many examples of audiences paying for content voluntarily – particularly when they know that the creator will benefit directly. Given a convenient and direct opportunity, audiences are happy to pay artists and creators they truly want to support.
As Kelly points out, even a free text has no value if no-one can find it! You need to make sure that your work is made available to people who might be interested in it. Perhaps the most obvious way of doing this for an independent publisher/creator is to nurture links with other writers who are working within the same area and to make yourself visible to the niche audience you are catering to. This idea will be covered in more depth next week.