“Why do writers write? Because it isn't there”. The Internet gives us the freedom to live the eloquent words of Thomas Berger. Anyone can publish their creations, within generous limits, and free of charge, for the entire world to browse. The liberty can be deceptive, for a vast majority of all that is available through the medium, may never be read by anyone other than the writer! Indeed, competition on the Internet is so heartless that it is easy to miss the warm security of a publisher from the world of print!
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Style, grammar, expression, and content all matter on the Internet, as they do to induce a reader to pick up a book and to read it. Yet the facility to flit from site to site, with capricious caresses of that scurrying device aptly called a mouse, sets writing for the World Wide Web apart. The very people, who spend quality time wishing that the most voluminous book would never end, are unreasonably impatient when they land at a particular page from the billions available on a computer screen.
The good news is that there is a method to navigate through the choppy and deep waters of the Internet, and to find an undiscovered island where one can drop anchor, set up shop, and have a ball serving customers who hunger and thirst for your unique expression. There is no quick fix that is widely known, though as always, some explorers are more fortunate than most. However, the medium always stands by everyone who abides with it, and rarely fails to grant yields proportionate to sustained and informed effort.
All things to all people
“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” It is unfortunate that Cyril Connolly passed away in 1974, some two decades before the Internet became widely available to the public everywhere (Blogger, 2005). Child pornography, terrorism, and drug abuse are some of the limited subjects that are fortunately restricted on the Internet. It takes only a few minutes to publish writing on any civilized and socially accepted subject. It is not only free, but lends itself to earn revenue through targeted advertisements. Browsers can access entire libraries, to say nothing of encyclopedias, newspapers, and magazines that cater to special interests. The Internet liberates us at least as much as printing technology. Billions of pages are available on the World Wide Web, and vast numbers are added by the minute. Electronic technology accommodates major languages and scripts, as well as video and audio transfers. Education and seminars with participants at physically distant locations, are now commonplace. Major enterprises and organizations have sites of their own; some even conduct their business through the medium.
The euphoria of discovering the Internet dissipates quickly after most writers publish their work. It is akin to fishing: browsers never seem to land on your page! Most people start web logs and websites, without the cynical eye of editors and publishers. ‘Vanity publishing’ is the pejorative but harshly truthful label for most writing on the Internet. Herein lies a core difference between writing for the Internet as compared to traditional print media. There are specific skills that writers can acquire to improve their chances of success. Insights about typical browsing behavior make a good foundation for such valuable skills.
“I take the view, and always have that if you cannot say what you are going to say in twenty minutes you ought to go away and write a book about it.” Lord Brabazon passed away in 1964. He would have been appalled at 21st century browsing impatience (Nielson, 1997). Writers must cultivate the skill of attracting attention, and subsequently, of holding a reader’s interest for as long as possible. Blaise Pascal wrote, “I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter” in the 17th century: it does not work three hundred years later! Format and choice of words often take more time than creative content and eloquent expression, when composing material for the Internet
A reader has to arrive at your page, even before you can think of attracting and holding attention! Customers can ask for help and information at a real bookstore, but the Internet asks them to type in a query about what they would like to browse. A writer has to know which expressions audiences use. This varies not just by subject, but by country as well (Google Adwords, 2005). There are words that people tend to spell differently in various parts of the world, and there can be variations of expression even within the borders of a single country. Writers need poetic licenses, to marry the rigors of grammar and dictionaries with colloquial habits of browsers. How can the quandary of such contradictory pressures be resolved?
“The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” Edwin Schlossberg’s epochal words ring true to this day. Marketing professionals speak of segmentation, customer relationships, and services marketing (Wedel and Wagner 145). Conventional writers for the print media may also have some ideas of their future audiences, but Internet writing requires comprehensive and sustained browser focus. Internet writers may have to put their own perceptions aside, as they strive to meet targeted customer requirements. Internet writing is a service in marketing jargon. Most successful writers in this digital medium select niches in which they specialize over time.
The United States is a clear leader in terms of geographical segments. It has the most computers, and people use the Internet for more reasons than anywhere else does. Travel, healthcare, and small business management are three of the largest segments for Internet writing in the United States. People have moved away from travel agents, and make airline and hotel reservations on-line. Travel writing is not just a lucrative business, but a most enjoyable way of earning a living as well! Famous names from the print world such as Frommers join hotel chains, restaurants, bars and other service providers, in sponsoring and buying interesting articles about popular destinations.
Healthcare and small business management need specialized expertise, apart from writing skills. Writers can team up with specialists including doctors and software engineers, to provide content for relevant web sites. Consumer magazines on the Internet are major customers for technical content related to medical conditions. Individual browsers, especially those who have family-owned enterprises, and those who work from home, are the ones most interested in advice related to small business development.
Writers are not limited to the common markets such as travel, healthcare, and small business in the United States. Bird watching, politics, astrology, and science fiction are just a few of the diverse fields in which people can seek to meet special information needs. Google’s Adsense program is egalitarian, allows everyone to publish and earn money through targeted advertisements. This channel threatens mainstream mass media as increasing numbers of brand numbers divert advertising budgets to search engines.
Web logs are the most popular form of Internet publishing. Amateurs can have sites of their own, but skilled writers manage some of the most informative and popular web logs. A forum is another common form of communication between large numbers of browsers, but it does not provide adequate space for professional writers. Most posts on the average forum do not exceed 50 words. Nevertheless, they can serve as reviews and other useful forms of feedback for writers on how their work is received. A forum may also cover reviews of books from the print world. Increasing numbers of manufacturers and service providers sponsor forums that customers use to describe their experiences with brands. Lead articles by accomplished writers often initiate animated discussions between customers.
The electronic book format suits writers best. It suits fiction as well as guides and texts on any subject. Writers can provide free samples of their work, and use software to release the entire material against payment. An interesting variant of the electronic book format relates to ‘on-demand’ publishing. Traditional print publishers will produce just a few or even one copy of selected work on demand, and physically ship a hard copy through a courier. However, writers can hope to earn only small royalties through such sales.
Most newspapers and magazines now have electronic editions. The unique skills of Internet writing imply that these publications need new and additional personnel to contribute appropriately formatted articles to build on-line audiences. Companies also use writers to enhance the tangible aspects of their products with service by way of information on use, benefits, and experiences. Pharmaceutical companies sponsor writing on cancer, asthma, obesity and other common conditions, in order to strengthen their strategic and most profitable brands.
The oceanic size of and varied opportunities of the Internet writing world does not dilute the imperative to compete through high quality standards. Pay for writing can vary as much as and in proportion to readership. Which specific steps can writers take to improve their chances of success when writing for the Internet?
Arthur C. Clarke was an astrophysicist who wrote science fiction. His fanciful saying “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” comes true on the Internet. Software checks spelling and grammar. You can even have entire pages translated through software programs. None of these advances substitutes human intelligence. Hence, disciplines such as careful proofreading continue to be important. There can be no denying that electronics takes writing abilities to new levels. Some of these advantages, such as word processing, are available for conventional media as well. However, the advantages of individuals being able to publish their thoughts immediately, and to receive continuous feedback, sets writing for the Internet apart.
Web analytics allow writers to know how many people have visited their pages, how long they spent there, and in which part of the world they live. This highlights the customer service of Internet writing, though people of artistic isolation are free to write and to publish without regard to how many people visit their sites.
Search engine rankings are accurate measures of the popularity of writing, though it can be frustrating for a writer to find his or her work at or near the bottom of the pile. Each search engine has its own algorithm to rank web pages, and some writers try to manipulate the software programs. Such ‘spamming’ is short-lived, as search engines revise their ranking criteria frequently, and penalize writers who try to manipulate the system. There are many paying offers on the Internet for writers to produce work with artificial repetitions of words and phrases that browsers are known to use. However, this kind of work is generally not sustainable. It is better for writers to produce content with high information and entertainment values, presented in attractive manner. Handsome rewards await writers who are able to learn the skills of writing for the Internet.
The transition of the 19th century in to the one that followed was a laid-back time for writers. Screenwriters were especially privileged, free of any serious weight of convention or law.
“Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research”. Wilson Mizner was able to get away with his memorable and telling statement, but woe betide the 21st century writer who entertains such thoughts!
Plagiarism is a whirlpool that can swallow an innocent writer without trace! There is software to check if a string of even a few sentences has been published on the Internet. Publishers and site owners will not show any mercy to a writer who may inadvertently write even a short piece very similar to previously published work. Yet most countries do not consider copyright violations to be criminal offences. Some even ignore such nefarious activity. The Internet enables people to write in disguise. It can be next to impossible to take action if you discover that your work has been copied. Many sites do not follow MLA, APA, or Chicago styles, and hence there is a plethora of work without proper citations and credits.
The good news relates to links. Writers and sites follow a convention of using software to link their work to that of others. Regulatory and international bodies have an advantage in this respect, as they attract large numbers of inward links to their sites. Most consumer healthcare sites for example, will inevitably link to sites of the Surgeon General of the United States, the World Health Organization, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Individual writers can select niche topics and write on all aspects of such matters. Inward links to their work builds up over time.
“Liberty has restraints but no frontiers”. Lloyd George’s timeless statement applies in full measure to the Internet. The medium welcomes almost everyone and all points of view. It defends individual privacy to a fault. People can participate in transactions with as many avatars as they like. Singapore and China try to control access, but largely, the Internet makes nonsense of domestic laws. There is software to prevent children from visiting adult sites, but child pornography has not been eliminated from the Internet. This applies to terrorism and all other kinds of anti-social and uncivilized behavior.
Writers cannot control who may access their writing and pages, but have to be circumspect about continuing communication with unknown or suspicious entities. Extreme views, advocating violence, foul language, and disturbing images are common warning signs to exclude inputs from potentially troublesome sources.
Writers may revel in the global reach that the Internet provides for their work, but they should never lose sight of the cross-cultural impact of their expression. Oriental, other ethnic and conservative groups tend to respond very differently from liberal peers from the West. There are important exceptions to this sweeping generalization as well. Some writers choose to limit access to their pages, but this is a disappointing choice for a medium for which reach is a primary rationale.
“No tyranny is as irksome as petty tyranny: the officious demands of policemen, government clerks, and electromechanical gadgets.” Edward Abbey’s pithy remark will strike chords in the hearts and minds of most writers! Most of us choose between concrete and abstract intelligence. We are either creative or mechanically minded, though nature gives us the possibility to excel at both kinds of human faculties.
The Internet and computers have mounds of exclusive jargon. Typewriter and fountain pen relics may baulk at the prospects of having to enter the digital world. Engineers and the young take vicarious pleasure in greeting pleas from the geriatric for help, with supercilious disdain and long sentences in English of very recent, even uncertain origin! However, bare survival in the digital world can be easy for those who are wise enough to stick to basics.
A computer with a 40 GB Hard Drive, a 512 KBPS in-built modem, with a 2 MHz processor, and a broadband or cable or Bluetooth Internet connection should suffice at least until the end of 2006. You should be rich enough by then to hire a nerd to steer further course through the never-ending maze of technological progress.
All writers should look forward to flexible ink, which has just begun to enter the market. This innovation will enable displays on traditional surfaces, rather than the flat and fixed plasma screens with which we are stuck today. Flexible ink works almost like paper, and could well signal the end of print media, as we have known it until now. It will certainly invite an explosion for the demand for Internet writing of all genres.
Althea Gibson is a tennis player, yet one of her sayings is most relevant for new writers daunted by the prospects and problems of the Internet: “I always wanted to be somebody. If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.”
The travails of Internet writing and its enormous rewards as well, are relatively easy to learn, by hanging out at sites of some of the most successful people of the medium (Allen, 2005). There are a number of sites where one can share experiences with other struggling writers, study success stories, and get leads by which one can make a start.
Sites run by and for writers offer courses, aids and information of assignments and contests. Most people can quickly come up to speed and participate in Internet writing transactions within weeks of visiting sites of writers. Most of them also offer critiques of writing that can be invaluable if a writer is able to take the feedback in a positive sense.
Editors and publishers, who are in charge in the print world, cannot prevent us from publishing on the Internet. Some may think it is futile to write without intellectual capital, but no one can dispute that writing on the Internet needs no significant financial assets. Entry barriers are virtually absent, and there are no limits of time and space. Digital aids can help us express ourselves, and correct some petty mistakes to boot. We need never lose valuable thoughts, for storage is well above all that mortals can ever produce. Browsing habits call for differences in approach and style as compared to traditional media, but even a casual attempt can suffice to learn the basics of such differences. The transition from print to Internet is a short commute with a host of convenient connections.
The channel of getting people to read what we write remains. The competition is actually fiercer in the chaotic situation world of the Internet, than it has ever been with books, newspapers and the like. Every computer screen can access all the material that kiosks, bookstores, and libraries have between them.
A few may publish on the Internet without a care for the fate of their labors. Most of us however, still need the skills and the fortune of celebrated writers through time. The core value of written communication remains unchanged. It is symbolic that Professor Irwin Cory, who penned the following words, was a vaudeville comedian in the dawn of Cinema and Television:
“If we don't change direction soon, we'll end up where we're going.”
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