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WRITING

5 Things I’ve Learned From Harrison Mooney

Tips on writing for digital audiences

“So this is why they call it ‘Raincouver,’” I thought as I stepped out of the subway station and into the rain on my way to the Vancouver Public Library last night. I attended a workshop called “Writing For Digital Audiences” by former award-winning journalist and current VPL’s writer-in-residence Harrison Mooney.

Mooney’s advice was more focused on journalism — which is not really my thing — but I was able to fill a couple of pages in my notebook with relevant tips, so I thought I could share them with you in this article.

1. Keep it short

As you probably already know people’s attention span is a lot smaller nowadays. In Mooney’s experience, 800 words is the current default word count for newspapers while, for blogs, that number falls to 400 words.

Keeping it short also applies to paragraphs. According to Mooney, research has found that people usually skim the text, only reading the first and last sentence of each paragraph, which is why we’re currently seeing the average length of a paragraph move toward two sentences.

2. Post every day

I’ve read in other places about how consistency brings familiarity, which makes readers more prone to consuming your content, but Mooney nails it when he says we want our readers to create a habit of reading what we have to say.

If you can, always post at the same time of the day so that people know when to expect content from you, and if that time is between 11 AM and 2 PM, that’s even better.

This tip is harder to follow if you’re writing for an audience spread over multiple time zones, but he also suggests that we never post anything late at night. When we do, we’re basically posting it yesterday.

3. What happened and why does it matter?

Mooney shared this story which I think is very helpful when trying to write quickly and succinctly. He was a sports reporter at the time and his editor asked him to send him an article about the game 15 minutes after it was finished.

When Mooney asked how he would write the article in 15 minutes, the editor answered, “just tell me what happened and why it matters.” (Hopefully that’s what I’m doing right now.)

4. Find your voice

Mooney explained that, when writing, we want to marry our writing and speaking voices. We just want to talk to people and have a conversation with them.

When people tell him they can’t write and that it’s too difficult, he tells them, “Writing is like singing. To sing well, you don’t need to know a lot about singing. You just need to learn how to use your voice.”

5. Publish it and forget it

This one applies to journalism but I feel it also applies to blogging if you’re trying to keep a consistent schedule. You have to push that publish button and start thinking about your next story. Don’t dwell on it.

If you’ve made a small mistake, someone will let you know and you can fix it. If you’ve made a huge mistake, someone will definitely let you know — and probably be mean about it. But then you can apologize and be honest, fix the mistake, and move on. If no one says anything, keep going!

My writing leans more toward fiction and personal essays, but I’ve had a great time hearing from Harrison Mooney, who has recently published a memoir called Invisible Boy: A Memoir of Self-Discovery. I’m instantly applying his advice here, and I hope this article will be as helpful to you as the workshop was to me.

I’m tagging Zane Dickens and Grandmaster Jann Christoph von der Pütten so that they can tell “their friend”, as per this Twitter thread.

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