Rewriting vs. retweeting
I asked a dozen writers, journalists, social media pros, and Wikipedia editors – including Stephen King – what time-honored reporting, writing, and editing skills they bring to digital media.
A very famous person assaulted a wide public audience with misuse of the written English language, a critic warned. His writing could be “flat and insipid” and filled with “bombast.” Worse, his posts lacked truth, and were often “some ridiculous incoherent story.” This made the powerful person letting fly on a huge public platform “below the dullest writer of ours, or any precedent age.”
The criticism was written in 1668 by John Dryden, the platform being abused was the stage of the Globe Theater, and the worst writer of all time was William Shakespeare.
Dryden was also a Shakespeare fan, and at times praised him mightily. The problem was that the bard was cheapening the English language, and not adhering to classical rules. The problem wasn’t Shakespeare, Dryden said, it was how he abused the new platform of a popular stage.
Change, it seems, has always had a bastardizing effect on the written word. There is simply nothing we can do about it.
Social media is what we make it. I was recently accused by someone close to me of taking “45 minutes to write one tweet.” I’ll wear that proudly. As I recall the tweet required fact-checking, proofreading, revision, and checking with a reference source.
These skills – which I learned as a copy editing intern at Dow Jones in the 1980s and later practiced at The Wall Street Journal as a reporter – are not dead, just sadly under-employed. Let’s round them up! It seems only right to rally the language skills of “old media” today, March 4, for this is National Grammar Day.
Two quotation marks “walk into” a bar.
Good grammar is not an academic exercise. To the contrary it pays off. (To the agreeable it also pays off. See what I did there?) A 2013 analysis of 100 LinkedIn profiles by the firm Grammarly, found that:
Professionals with fewer grammatical errors in their LinkedIn profiles attained more promotions and reached higher positions. “This data set clearly supports the hypothesis that good grammar is a predictor of professional success,” wrote Brad Hoover, Grammarly chief executive (one does not need the word “officer” here, I was taught at the Wall Street Journal), in the Harvard Business Review. (Study cited and suggested by my friend Moriel Schottlender.)
Stephen King gives us his thoughts
I asked experts their thoughts for this piece — interviewing is a reporting skill I see too rarely on social media, where the writer’s opinion often supplants others’ actual expertise. I started with legendary author Stephen King, who to my surprise and delight provided these thoughts on the subject:
Those old school media skills are more important than ever, because the basic goal (and the basic problem) remains: getting an idea from YOUR head to MY head, pretty much intact.
For purposes of evaluation and analysis, I always take the grammar, word choice, and composition into account. Sloppy skills indicate a sloppy and ill-disciplined mind, and when I encounter such, I have a tendency to take what I’m reading with a grain of salt (or a whole shaker of it).
Trump’s personal tweets are a good example: bad grammar, iffy punctuation, sometimes bad spelling; word choice is poor and his vocabulary is starved. His writing suggests an ill-formed and ill informed mind.
“Tweeting requires the most disciplined writing of all, because it demands compression. A good tweet is gold.”
– Stephen King, kindly commenting for this piece
Other skills in the craft of writing that are remiss on social media
I asked friends on Facebook and members of the group Social Journalism what traditional media skills should be preserved on social media. Here are some of the good habits they urged.
Healthy ongoing relationships with collaborators. “Remembering you have to do this again tomorrow, and next month, and next year. Possibly with/about the same people.” – Asaf Bartov, senior program officer, emerging communities at Wikimedia Foundation
Understand your audience. “You’re ‘reaching’ almost everyone via social media, but who are you speaking to with your message? A dog bed company could promote the wonders of their products, but if they engage emotionally with a dog owner through a shared belief (they love their dogs and want them to be comfortable), they activate a deeper connection. – Matt Wadley, public relations and communications professional, Charlotte
“Just because social opens the window to the world, shouting out of it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it right.” — Matt Wadley
Provide contextual value. “On Twitter, rather than just basic retweeting, adding a one-line summary, capsule, insight, or quotable quote (as seen in a traditional deck or subhead) provides more to your audience.” – Andrew Lih, Wikipedia and Wikidata instructor at Wikimedia District of Columbia
Credit sources. “Giving credit where credit is due. A hat-tip is like making sure to recognize the first person or original source of the idea or story.” – Alexis Gordon, government relations officer and former television news producer
Call BS. “Not being afraid to call BS. Shocked how many people these days in PR, Social media and even news are afraid to speak out about obvious BS.” – Jennifer Moxley, national news freelancer and media consultant
Separate fact from opinion. “This is especially evident (and crucial!) in our current days of misleading articles, and article titles, and the tendency to make science political.” – Moriel Schottlender, software engineer, Wikimedia Foundation
Use data, and show how you do it. “Replicable social science aspects of legacy journalism, e.g. database analysis of publicly available datasets or photos/scans of original records with location cited, lend lots of credibility in a world that doesn’t know what is real. Just like Mrs. Brenda Charles taught me in 4th grade math: Show your work!” – Stuart Watson, documentary filmmaker and former television journalist
Stand behind your work. “Remembering every post or pitch has your name on it, and you will be remembered accordingly.” – Taylor Dunton, public relations professional, San Francisco Bay Area
Think like a copy editor. “In my role as a social media manager, I function more like the copy editors did during my newspaper years. I have several platforms to manage daily. Each platform is like a different page of the paper. Different audiences, different interests, unique layouts. I think about context constantly. I build out my stories on these platforms thinking about visuals, text and headlines.” – Tim Akimoff, social media manager, Salem, Ore.
Good grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Mentioned by many responders. Remember:
Every time you make a typo, the errorists win.
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute scholar and author
Can trained and disciplined writers and editors practice their craft on Twitter? They must, says my friend Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute journalism think tank, author of “Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” He told me writers must be able to bring their skills into different worlds. “The key virtue for writers in these fast times is versatility. I need someone who can write short or long, fast or slow, someone who can gather reports or craft stories. I need someone able to write in various genres, for various audiences, on a variety of media platforms. Someone who can gather a Twitter following, and who aspires to write books.”
New media needs old media, and vice versa.
All of which leads us to the laughable word shan’t.
Wiktionary, the crowdsourced dictionary project connected to Wikipedia, says shan’t is “in North America, rarely used, and may not be understood. In North America, like shall, it may also be considered formal or pompous, or used in a parody of British English speakers.”
Perhaps. But there are occasionally times when shan’t is not just acceptable, but needed.
“We will not picnic in the rain” is future tense with no sense of obligation.
“We should not picnic in the rain” is obligatory with no sense of possibility.
“We shall not picnic in the rain” is negative, specifically rejecting an emphasized possibility.
“We shan’t picnic in the rain” combines all three in a unique promise. We will not picnic in the rain because we should not picnic in the rain so we shall not picnic in the rain and so I vow to you that we shan’t picnic in the rain.
The etymology of the peculiar contrary obligatory promise of shan’t dates to 1668 (where have we seen that year before?) from the writings of…
The same year he dug in his heels against Shakespeare. If he could push back against the greatest writer in history to preserve the integrity of language, surely we can stand our ground against the age of Twitter.
Perhaps change is not a villain in the evolution of the written word. To the contrary, perhaps traditionalists, whether they push back against Shakespeare or Twitter, are heroically bringing their craft from the past perfect into the future tense. Dryden would have regretted letting Shakespeare’s literary revolution go unchecked. Will we just let Twitter roll by without copy editing protestations?