I have figured out that readers online are not relaxed in a hammock on the beach. They are probably hunched over a desk or handling an unwieldy tablet or smartphone with one hand, whilst hoping like hell that you (the writer) are going to tell them something they don’t already know and that you’ll be quick about it. It took me several years to learn this. I guess I’m not the sharpest pencil in the box.
I started writing online in 1997. I used words like ‘burgeoning’ – words I was proud to use in print – until the day someone wrote to me and said (politely) that he needed a dictionary to read my pieces. At first, I preened. His P.S. read, “I fear you might read that as a compliment.” Deflated, I felt like a balloon hanging from the fan, two days after the birthday party. I realised that I had used my vocabulary against my readers, not for them. How many I had alienated with my posturing? Briskly, I replaced my didactic (I did that on purpose) with simple, declarative sentences and reached for my inner Hemingway. In time, I have picked up a few tricks on how to write for online audiences. Here are some suggestions based on my experiences; good for writers, editors, publishers and those who manage the content managers.
Learn how to sing and dance: Respect those who have given you two minutes of their time. Entertain them as if Simon (Cowell, one of the judges for ‘The X Factor’) has given you a second chance on ‘The X Factor’. You have been squeezed in between the most-watched on YouTube and a variety of more salacious content. So, entertain everyone. Don’t be arrogant enough to think people will like you for merely being you.
Be a literary sniper: Anyone can fire scattershots from a machine gun. Real marksmen often have to make one bullet count. Words are your ammo. Your reader is a fast-moving target. Take aim. Gauge the wind direction.
Your first sentence is your only sentence: Opening sentences have defined many of the best novels in literary history. Can you top “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…”? Here’s a better idea – tell your whole story in the first sentence. If your reader does not hit the Back button, he’ll read your next sentence. And then another. Instead, if you place your zingers in the middle of the piece, your reader will leave you. And if he does, it means he’s not really into you, no matter how much your mom loves you. Plunge into the story from the first word. No one gives a hoot for your build-up.
Put a price tag to what you’re saying: If you had to charge someone to read your piece, what would they pay for it? What are you worth? In the editorial meetings at any of Explocity’s magazines, story ideas are measured by response to a simple question, “... and someone will pay you Rs 100 to read that because...?” Stay accountable.
Learn adverbs, adjectives, isms and never use them: Know your grammar if only to avoid too much of it. Words are best left alone and not qualified by other words. Neither adverb nor adjective will improve your sentence. (In case you cannot tell one from the other, Google it.) The worst crutch is the exclamation point. It adds no drama to your sentence! You cannot fool your reader!! This is idiotic and amateurish, like shouting in an intellectual conversation!!!
Are you speaking ‘Ing-lish’?: In India, we are having this habit of putting everything in the present continuous when we are writing. If you are not spotting the irony in these two sentences... please be reading them again and correcting it because the present continuous is taxing for the reader.
If they don’t react, you’re not writing anything worth reading: A great musician on his worst day will still sound better than an average musician on his best day. The ability to communicate effectively comes from confidence. Confidence comes from having good chops. And good chops come from practice. Blog it. Check to see what people read and comment on. If you get the impression that your audience is tiring, do what Bollywood and ‘Glee’ do so well. Bust out the song and dance item. Make your reader applaud, or at least, hiss and boo. You don’t want a dead silent audience when you finish singing.
Writers are smart and adaptable, if we are anything. If we turn our caps backwards and hone our skills in a different direction, we won’t have to be like typewriter salesmen on the day they cut the cost of the PC. Even if, lately, vowels have been placed under ration and da eng litt hs bn prmntly truncatd tx cu l8r :).
(Ramjee Chandran, Chief Executive Officer and Editor-in-Chief, Explocity.)