Social saturation both good and bad for journalists

BY ADAM SULLIVAN | JULY 17, 2009 7:15 AM

Some columns write themselves.

Earlier this week, for instance, I sat down to write a piece about Republicans in the 2010 gubernatorial election. I sat down at the keyboard, and words just poured onto the screen.

Other columns drag on and on, words dribbling out at a sluggish pace.

As a journalist, I’m aided immensely by technology, namely the Internet. However, I suspect that same powerful tool is damming up my writing flow.

Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I love twitter. (Yes, this is going to be another social networking column. I know you’re tempted to turn the page or click the “back” button, but please stay tuned a bit longer. I promise I’ll try to be interesting).

Avidly using Twitter, I’ve trained myself to easily condense my thoughts into 140-character statements. A journalism student since my sophomore year of high school, I’ve been drilled on writing concisely, but Twitter boasts a whole new level of conciseness.

In journalism, you’re trained to cut the frivolous words and get to the point. However, on Twitter, you’re restricted to only including one or two absolutely vital bits of information.

That short, punchy style is great for communicating with masses of tech nerds on the web, but not so great for when I have to sit down and crank out a 600-word column.

Why, then, did the Republican politician column I mentioned write itself so smoothly? Because there was plenty of content to write about. The topic was better suited for column than for a Twitter post.

What we can learn from this analysis is that when the writing is painfully slow, it’s probably not something worth writing a column about. That’s why we have Tweets: to get the message across with messages that don’t require 600-word columns. In short, if the writing is hard and slow, find something else to write about.

Now to find another topic about which to write. And that’s where one of social networking’s greatest strengths come in. The night before this column was due, I posted this to my Facebook status: “I need to write a column in the next 20 hours. Ideas?”

And — through the magic of the Internet — I had almost a dozen fresh column ideas within a few hours from Facebook friends who had commented on my status. Here are a few of my favorites:

• “SpongeBob 10-year anniversary.”

• “You could do something on something … like swine flu.”

• “Based on the SpongeBob thing, you can write about how cartoons have gone downhill ever since.”
OK, so they’re not ideas that will spawn award-winning columns, but certainly social networking can act as a powerful tool for tuning into your audience.

But there’s even some who say the micro-blogging movement could be good for writers.

A widely aggregated blog post I stumbled upon last month argued that point. Jennifer Blanchard, a writer who blogs about writing, claims that in addition to forcing users to write more efficiently, it will help expand your vocabulary and edit more carefully.

On being concise, she wrote “You have to know exactly what you want to say.”

And, on vocabulary, she stated “ … you’re forced to dust off your dictionary and thesaurus and find new words to use — words that are shorter, words that are more descriptive, and words that get the job done.”

And, finally, in the way of editing, Blanchard wrote “I like to think of it as a brainteaser, forcing me to think hard and dig deep down into my vocabulary to find a way to shorten my message.”

All of what she says borders on the truth, but I would argue all of those positives are things that can be gained from any kind of frequent writing.

And, perhaps that’s social networking’s biggest strength: It coaxes us into writing, reading, and interacting.

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