Guide to publishing in 2013: the basics of content creation

There are several challenges when publishing and creating content. The most important is the ability to create a storyline that you can gradually reveal over the 300 to 1,000 words a story usually holds. This can be in writing, but in the digital age it can just as well be an audio recording with you telling the story, or a videocast doing the same.

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On the Web not being prepared and just throwing together something is often taken for spontaneity, but it isn’t the best publishing practice. If you want to get the attention of an audience including people you don’t know, you’ll need to prepare. If you prepare yourself you can be spontaneous without looking sloppy.

TECH TIP: To ‘mine’ Twitter data, use Twitter’s Search. It has operators to filter the right topics you’re after. There’s also an Advanced Search page.

If you want to publish content that’s valuable, you’ll need to manage information (re-)sources and double-check your data for correctness and accuracy. That’s a journalistic rule, and unless your goal is to publish “tittle-tattle” you’ll need to apply this rule to your own publishing workflow. True, it will slow you down, although you can — up to a point — avoid slow downs by managing your source information with a software tool that allows you to search for cross-references and more. Double-checking ensures you won’t tell something that’s not been verified.

TECH TIP: Use DEVONthink Pro and DEVONagent in tandem to manage RSS feeds, Twitter streams, Facebook pages, etc.

Don’t take double-checking to mean that you visit multiple web sites and consider your story to be verified when a number of them say the same. That’s not double-checking, because this way you can’t tell who was the first to launch the news item. Go to the original source first and then see if you can find a source who/that can confirm the item independently. For example, if you find out there’s an explosion in the neighbourhood of a chemical plant, then try to get confirmation (or better yet: quotes) from the representatives of the plant (and that means someone high enough in the hierarchy) and an expert eye-witness such as a lieutenant of the fire brigade.

In most cases, it’s not as complicated as this, and a call or email confirmation from a company PR person will suffice.

The art of writing

Spelling and grammar are very important in any publishing environment, and online or digital publishing is no exception. The same goes for articulation and correct usage of language when podcasting. Editing your own material is difficult, especially when you’re on a deadline or want to generate as much copy in as short a period as you possibly can. However, spelling and grammar mistakes make you look stupid, even with people whose native language may be different from yours.

When you write a piece that is more than just a personal opinion targeting friends or family members, use a style guide. There are two commonly used style guides: AP style and Chicago style. The latter is better suited for scientific articles and books, while the first is more aimed at journalistic pieces. It’s your choice, but once you’ve made one, use the style consistently throughout all your stories.

Talking in a language that is difficult to follow is tedious at best. For both writing and talking some technology exists that can help you, but if you’re aiming at perfection, you’ll still need an editor who manually checks your content and removes/edits the most annoying flaws.

Hire an editor

Editing is essential. The ideal is to have an editor check your stories. Easier said than done? If you can’t pay an editor, then at least write a first draft, and let the piece rest for a day so that you can read it as if it’s fresh. You will find mistakes, sentences that you can rewrite with fewer words, etc. Often you can’t even do that. In that case, just make sure your spelling and grammar are correct. One thing you should remember at all times: if you can say it in 300 words rather than the 400 you’ve written, do it. Rewrite your text, or better yet write in such a way that the most important information is at the top and the rest is background.

TECH TIP: Use a text editor, not a word processor or a layout app like InDesign. Text editors are no frills, and some of them come with special full screen features like typewriter style writing, etc. Scrivener is not exactly a text editor — it’s much more, but it’s brilliant. It’s a real writing environment. WriteFlow is a bare editor, entirely aimed at writing, nothing else.

That way you can cut away extraneous material from the bottom upwards. Write with the journalistic rule in mind: first the four “Ws”: what, who, where, when. I might add the “why” as well. Don’t write major pieces of less than 300 words: they won’t be indexed by search engines. Less than 300 words stories can be news snippets that you don’t care about much.

If you publish interviews, preparation will often mean that you, the interviewer, are prepared, not the interviewee. But if the interviewer is well prepared, the hesitations of the interviewee will give the story its spontaneity, which is what you want.

When dictating, it’s better to write down with a pen or a pencil the structure of what it is you want to write and then dictate. In my experience, that saves time. Also, always double-check for dictation errors.

TECH TIP: When using dictation software such as Nuance’s Dragon Dictate v3, be sure to train the program well. That will save you a lot of time. For example, train it with documents that contain the jargon you’re using on a regular basis. Also, make sure your microphone is always positioned as it was when you first created the voice profile. I found out that many errors can be avoided by ensuring the microphone is well positioned.

Tone of voice

You’ll find people who seem to think that because you visit their site or download their publication, you know them and how they feel about things. Often will they start a sentence with: “As you know…” Actually, no, I don’t know. I don’t know you, I don’t know what you think of specific subjects, and if this is my first visit to your site, I even don’t know what you think of the subject you’re writing or talking about.

Familiarity in writing, addressing the visitor/reader as if he/she knows you well, may not work well unless you are certain your audience never changes — they’re always the same people coming back. I doubt if many online/digital publications would like that to happen, so expect new visitors and keep this tone of voice for forum discussions and Facebook chatter. Don’t use it for a publication — not even a blog — when you should assume your visitor/reader doesn’t know you all that well.

A personal tone of voice is one in which you address the reader or the visitor. Essentially, this means you can address them with “you”, but you shouldn’t assume they know you well. In more formal times (five to ten years ago), the use of “you” in an article was bad style. Not anymore. People want it, so use it.

Your content will need to be unique in every sense of the word as well. There are too many websites offering “unique” content that you can find all over the place — in perfect English or whatever language you prefer.

Unique content is taken to mean you can’t find it anywhere else. However, my definition of unique content goes a step further. It should be worthwhile reading for your visitors too. I can easily create stories that are unique in the first sense, but which nobody will want to read. They should be uniquely interesting too. That part is a lot harder!