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Here's the One Thing You Have to Understand to Be an Internet Writer

by Matt Hershberger Jul 4, 2016

I EDIT FOR A LOT OF ASPIRING internet travel writers, and I can usually tell which book it was that first made them think, “Hey… being a travel writer sounds amazing.” A writer who came to our humble profession through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road will send me submissions with long sentences that crackle with energy but fizzle when it comes to grammar. A writer who came to us through Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will swear a lot and write extensively about drugs and alcohol. A writer who came to us through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will be very interested in self-discovery and will portray his or herself as a free spirit.

There’s nothing wrong with this — I myself came along the Hunter Thompson route — but it makes for difficult editing. In part, this is because aspiring writers haven’t gone through the years of practice and effort that Kerouac, Thompson, and Gilbert put in to find their voices and develop their craft. And this is fine — it’s easy to correct. But the biggest problem is this: Kerouac, Thompson, and Gilbert weren’t writing for the internet.

Internet writing is fundamentally different from novel, newspaper, or magazine writing.

Jack Kerouac came to writing through poetry and novels. Hunter Thompson arrived through journalism. And Elizabeth Gilbert was a magazine writer. These are three very different routes to success, and they unfortunately don’t translate terribly well into internet success. There’s a reason for this: packaging.

When you sell a novel, you’re selling the full thing. The title and the cover matter somewhat, but what matters more is that you have an excellent book — one that readers won’t feel they’ve wasted their time on — and critics or fans that are actively telling the public that your book is excellent.

When you’re writing for a newspaper, your article is sold in a bundle with a dozen or a hundred other articles. Your editor decides which articles to place on the front page (and “above the fold”), which is ultimately what sells the paper. Headlines are important, but it doesn’t ultimately matter if not many people read your article, because it was sold with the full paper.

When you’re writing for a magazine, the catchiness of your article matters even less — only a few of the articles are going to be featured on the cover, and the photo or illustration on the cover is going to have as great (if not more) of an impact on whether the magazine sells as the headlines that are featured on it.

But the important difference is this: once the decision has been made to purchase the novel, newspaper, or magazine, whether people read your article or not does not matter. The editors have done their job: they’ve sold the magazine. This is not the case with internet writing.

Internet writers have to package and sell every single article.

The great innovation of the internet is that it gave us the ability to pick and choose our articles. We no longer have to buy the entire National Geographic or New York Times in order to get at the one article that we want to read the most. But now, writers aren’t just competing with the other articles in the newspaper — they’re competing with every single article on the internet. Internet readers have so much to choose from — Cats! YouTube! Porn! — that getting their attention and holding it is a much more difficult task.

Websites make their money off of advertisements, and you can charge advertisers more if you can prove that not only does your site get a lot of clicks, but that people click on your articles and stay on them for a little bit. Novelists, journalists, and magazine writers never had access to this kind of information about their readers, and while they wanted to please their audiences, they never had to care quite to the extent that internet writers do.

But this means that internet writers can’t afford to spend as much of their time on pieces that aren’t crowd-pleasers. And it means that, unlike magazine or newspaper articles, that every single piece needs to be well-packaged.

The three things every internet article must do.

A well packaged article does three things:

  1. It has to garner clicks. This is entirely the work of the title, the featured photo, and the blurb that you post on Facebook. It has very little to do with the actual content of the piece.
  2. It has to hold the reader’s attention. This has to do with the content of the piece, but also has to do with formatting — the internet writer needs to break up big chunks of text with headers, photos, videos, and, in a pinch, numbered lists.
  3. It has to encourage sharing. Internet writers are limited in terms of the number of places we can post an article without being spammy, so we have to maximize sharing. While a good article will be shared regardless, we also have to make sure we’re putting “share this!” links wherever we can on our website, and we have to make sure we got step 1 right in the first place.

If you don’t do all three of these things, you can still have a great piece. But it’s not likely to be a successful piece.

This isn’t what we were raised on.

Every year, I buy the newest Best American Travel Writing anthology, and I’m always blown away with the quality of the writing. But for most of the pieces, I’m also thinking, “There’s no way in hell this would have gotten us any clicks at Matador.”

It’s hard, in internet writing, to write high-quality, nuanced pieces that are also shareable and clickable. And it’s easy for sites, in their hunger for clicks, to pander to the lowest common denominator. But it’s also hard to write a high-quality piece of journalism, or a truly great magazine article, or the Great American Novel. Good writing is hard regardless of the format.

But for those of us who are trying to make it in the internet writing world, it’s important to remember something: We weren’t raised on this. This is a new beast. And we can’t imitate our favorite writers without adapting ourselves to the new format. But this doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice quality: Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Elizabeth Gilbert all thrived within the constraints that their chosen writing format offered them. We can do the same.

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