Over VoV’s short lifespan so far, I get a lot of emails, Tweets, comments, etc. asking how to write, how they can write like me, how to get a career in writing, etc.. People ask me how I got started, how they can get started and if I know of a place that’s hiring, etc.. These become more frequent as I begin to write longer columns/editorials found in the Instant Classics section of the site. I recently received a FormSpring question asking the same thing, and until now, I’ve never really addressed the topic outside of a small blurb.
I’m going to start off by saying that I’m a journalist. I’ve been published in newspapers, and I’ve interviewed some small-name people in the sports/wrestling field. I’ve had training for English classes, as well as for online, radio, newspaper and magazine journalism, as well as having written a thesis (sports related, who’d have thunk it!?). I graduated from university with a degree and diploma (one in Media Studies, one in Journalism). That said, I’m not a professional. I’m going to outline what’s worked for me, as well as some general techniques that I’ve been taught and/or have worked for other people.
This is going to make me sound bad, but here it goes: not everybody can write well. That’s just the way it is. Some people are trained and still can’t write well, others have no formal training and write brilliantly. It’s tough to explain. You kinda either have it or you don’t. The best analogy I can make for this is through playing a musical instrument–you can try rock out on the guitar or smash the drums, but without learning sheet music, notes, technique (ie finger positioning, etc.), it’s extremely difficult to play well. Writing is essentially the same–being able to string together a pair of sentences doesn’t make you a writer. There’s much more to it than that. A great writer is able to use various techniques in writing that hook the reader in, as well as create a flow to their piece.
Before I get into tips, I’m going to address some FAQs.
Why did you start writing about sports & wrestling?
Sports and wrestling have always been my two passions. I guess it was when I realized that I was never going to be WWE Champion, or a professional athlete, that writing/reporting about it would be the next best thing. I can remember from a very early age waking up early in the morning to watch the SportsCentre highlights over and over again until they’d take the cycle off the air and put something else on. The same goes with wrestling, I picked that up at a very young age. I’ve always been playing sports, playing sports/wrestling video games, buying sports jerseys and wrestling memorobilia, etc. and have just been hardcore about it since the beginning.
What was your writing timeline like?
Right around the beginning of high school was when I realized I wanted to get into writing. I always hated school, but enjoyed English class. This became more and more true as I had a new teacher every year. In high school, I got my act in gear and wrote for the high school newspaper, as well as working as a copy editor for the yearbook (sports section–betcha didn’t see that coming!), the latter of which was labelled as a journalism credit. I had to fast-track through high school a bit in order to get all the prerequisites needed to apply for a post-secondary English major. I took everything English-related that my school had to offer. My Writer’s Craft class probably helped me the most, and my professor for that class really helped me mold a style to my writing–I was like turning on the water with no one holding the hose prior to that class. I was told I was a good writer from the beginning, but I knew I wasn’t. I was a punk 17-year-old high school English student getting A’s in my English class every year, and nothing more. It was around then when I started to get cocky and arrogant, which later became my voice (or Voice…of Valeri). More on that later.
So I got into university for an English major, and finished with an Honour’s degree and diploma. Two of the most expensive pieces of paper to acquire. Ever. Through university, I was published in their newspaper and magazine, as well as filling the positions of writer, editor and producer for the university’s TV newscast (guess which section–sports!). Post-grad, I’ve just been trying to branch out as much as possible. I created VoV on Blogger, writing columns, reporting reliable rumours–basically, what you see here. I started writing for many other websites just to promote my name and website. I can remember just copying and pasting one article into a bunch of emails and sending them off. It works. Later, I got three placements into a major sports TV broadcasting station while in university to get my feet wet in the broadcast industry.
How did VoV start?
It started off as a Blogger blog, but then my friend purchased the URL and turned it into what it is now. In terms of traffic, the difference between the two sites are day and night.
Have you made any money writing online?
No, although I’d like to. I love writing, and I’d write for free (as I’m doing now), but I’d also love to get paid for my work and will definitely look into that for the future. That said, I’m doing alright financially without making a cent off VoV.
Enough of that. Let’s get to some tips.
If you want to write online, read a book on writing online – Duh. Reading isn’t fun when it’s not something you’re interested in, but trust me, it helps. There are big differences, especially stylistically, between writing for online, magazine, newspaper and radio that books like these can help illustrate for you. Go to a library/college texts store and check out the books they have on writing/online writing and follow what they tell you. The only way to get good is to write a lot. As they say, practice makes perfect.
Read. A lot. – Reading in general teaches you a lot about structure, diction, grammar, writing style, etc. especially if you find a good professional to model yourself after. Read as much as you can by as many different people as you can, with as many different styles as you can. Eventually, you’ll find what you like and create your own style, and from there, you can begin to find your voice. The best way to learn to write, and to learn what style best suits you is to read everything you can.
Find your ‘voice’ –This is usually the toughest for people to do. As I said before, I started getting cocky and arrogant in high school. If you know me personally, I’m usually (jokingly/playfully) a dick to you. I’ll be an ass to you given me the slightest opportunity. I’ll throw a jab at you in public, especially when your friends have the chance to laugh at you as hard as I would. I’m extremely sarcastic and cynical. My nickname in high school was ‘Grapes’ after Don Cherry and his sometimes ‘controversial’ statements. Ultimately, I love being the ‘heel,’ so to speak. Being the ‘bad guy’ is awesome. Sometimes I say what’s on my mind truthfully, sometimes I say stuff I don’t believe in just to get a run out of people to piss them off and sometimes just to hear people criticize me for not knowing anything. It’s so much fun, at least for me. This also ties in with my love for wrestling, since I’m a huge fan of well-drawn heels. I can’t help it. It has not only transferred into my personality, but also into my writing. This is my voice for writing, which may not (and probably does not) work best for you. If you’re not a funny person, don’t try and add humour to your stuff–if it doesn’t come naturally, your readers will see it stick out like a sore thumb. If you are funny, use your wit to your advantage. If you’re writing a serious article, obviously don’t throw in wisecracks. Having a consistent tone is key. The worst thing you can do is have your readers starting an article not knowing what kind of spin you’re going to take on it. Every time they click on your page, they should know exactly what kind of piece you’re going to produce. Read any op-ed journalist in any newspaper over a five-day span and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I try to throw in something sarcastic every now and then, but I know that comedy is better suited for me in person with my peers, rather than on a screen where people may not interpret it the same way. In person,I use a lot of dry humour, and stuff like that will come off differently from reader to reader, so for the most part, I try to keep that stuff out.
Edit, Edit, Edit – The best thing you can do to better yourself as a writer is to write constantly. Keep writing and keep revising your work. Editing is a pain in the ass, but it’s so monumentally huge to your writing. After you’re done your piece, make sure you go over your work. Not just once, I’m talking like a dozen times. Until everything is perfect, and even then you’re probably lying to yourself. There’s almost always something you feel can be changed, tweaked or re-worded. If something doesn’t look right on paper, read it aloud. I sometimes don’t edit my news posts because of time constraints, being busy, etc. which isn’t good, but I always edit my columns. In fact, I usually get friends to edit it too in case I missed something. Come to thing of it, I usually ask them for their thoughts on the piece as a whole, too–sometimes you miss an angle or a potential lead/side-story because your brain is focusing on other stuff in your article, and it often takes another set of eyes for this to be brought out. Grammar and style are very important, too–if your writing is sloppy and loaded with spelling mistakes, grammatical errors etc., people will click that little ‘X’ on the top right corner. I know I will. Think of it like going to a restaurant for the first time, and the food sucks and the service is lousy. Are you going to go again? Hell no. The same goes for this. Something as simple as poor grammar may ultimately cause you to lose a reader.
Don’t write about your yourself, write about your subject – This one drives me up the wall. I don’t care what you had for breakfast today, what your cat is doing or what crappy picture your kids made you. If that’s what you want to talk about, get a personal blog or get a Twitter account. Just notify me so I don’t follow you. If you have a sports site, your readers want to read about your sports. Stay consistent, because pissing off your readers may mean they go searching elsewhere. VoV has become what it is entirely through word of mouth alone, so my entire means of traffic is through networking, links, spiders, sharing, social networks, etc. Oh, and don’t write about stuff you don’t know about. I don’t write about politics because, A) I don’t care about them, and B) I know zero about politics–not even enough to save my life. Write about what you know about.
Having a website doesn’t make you smarter than everyone else – Just because you have an outlet for your opinions, doesn’t mean you’re right about them. Except for me since I’m always right about everything. You guys are different. You could run the world’s greatest website, but if you sound like a tool when you express your opinion, everyone will call you out on it. Be passionate in the way you write, because generally speaking, your work and your argument is going to be better if you believe in what you’re writing. Even the stupidest of people can see through your work if you’re BS’ing it. That said, don’t take your writing too personally or else you’ll lose your passion for it. If you wrote something great and thought-provoking, be happy, but don’t get so stuck up and snobby that you become one of those smart car, environmentalist, like-the-smell-of-your-own-farts writers. One of the best pieces of advice I got from university was from a public speaking course, where my prof said, “opinions are like assholes–everyone has one, and they all stink.”
Less is more. – If you’re writing creatively, going into too many details can ruin your story. Or if you’re writing an op-ed, continuously ramming your opinion down your readers’ throat with the same lines can be kill you. You almost have to state your opinion without actually saying it–it has to be persuasive enough for the reader to know what stance you’re taking. Stats are another thing–they’re great to prove your point with factual data, but too many stats gets overbearing quickly, and sooner or later, your column becomes math class. In a lot of cases, less is more. Why use two words when you can use one? Always try and condense your piece without taking away key points–keep the meat, but trim the fat–only keep the essentials. The best way to do this is to take your finished piece and trim it in half. Then, trim it in half again, and from there, you’ve probably got the meat and bones of your piece. Make every word count, and don’t go on winding your readers. Every strike of the keyboard must serve a purpose.
Realize your target audience – You never really know who’s reading your stuff, even if your site generates a ton of traffic. My stuff could be read by a kid, an adult or an athlete. I know my site brings in decent page views on a daily basis, but even with a column as the top article on the page, only some people visiting it are actually going to read it. A URL to the column may be clicked on, the heading may not hook the reader, and they go and read other posts on the page. My target audience are sports and wrestling fanatics, but I still try and grasp as broad an audience as humanly possible.
Don’t be frustrated by lack of feedback – This one is a killer. If your passion is writing, and you don’t get a lot of feedback, comments, criticism, etc. and it looks like your work is going unnoticed, do not give up. Rome wasn’t built in one day. If you write about sports, think about how many thousands of people there are writing about the same thing as you are. On the internet, you’re almost always a small fish in a big pond. It’s just the way it is. The key here is networking and marketing. More on that later. If you’re set on developing as a writer, though, you’ll need to get feedback from people who are credible and respected in that field. You need to build from the foundation-up, so you may need to be torn down a few times in order to be built up properly. It happened for me. Take a look back at my earliest posts, and then look at some of my later columns–the contrast is day and night. Constructive criticism is essential if you want to become a better writer.
Always cite your work! – Very important, even though a lot of people don’t do it or don’t do it properly. There’s nothing worse than plagiarizing someone else’s hard work. If you like something someone else has written, ask them for permission to cite a part from their piece if it helps you develop your argument. If you can’t get ahold of them, put it in and cite your sources in full. If I’m writing a paper, I use MLA format because it gives the most information and the most credit to the third party. You’ll need to do this properly if you’re writing a paper or a dissertation/thesis–failure to do so can get you kicked out of your post-secondary institute. It can even stop you from getting a job if you’re using your site as a portfolio. Or, make you look like an asshole on the internet. On my news posts, if it comes from a reputable place, you’ll always see a source, and usually a name, when I report rumours or breaking news. If I didn’t hear the news directly, I can’t take credit for reporting it initially.
Timing is everything – There are a lot of tools writers can use to add some muscle to your piece. Things like ellipses, paragraphs, m-dashes, etc. can all be great role-players if used properly. Use pauses when you make a point so that the reader has an extra second to absorb your point. If you’re writing an opinion piece, your objective is to persuade your reader to side with whatever you’re arguing about, so you need to write as if you’re telling them your article in person.
Have fun! – By far the most important thing on this list. If you’re writing and you’re miserable, you’re doing it wrong. Even if you suck at writing, or you lack a style, can’t punctuate your work, etc., you’re in the clear if you’re enjoying your outlet. Writing needs to be fun, and if it’s not, then it’s a chore. And who wants to do chores? Chores suck.
Marketing Your Work
The best things in life are free – It’s always nice getting paid for your work, but giving stuff away for free is good too. Especially if you’re just getting your feet wet in the industry, freelancing online allows you to find an audience without having to lose money by sending out feelers. Also, you’ll be getting a ton of visitors who can see your stuff without having to purchase/subscribe to anything, so it works on both sides of the spectrum. Who would buy something without trying it first? It’s like Baskin Robbins–no one gets a new flavour without having tried it first. That’s why they give those little spoon taste tests! Some of the best things on the net are free–Google, YouTube, iMDB, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter. The list goes on. Giving your work away for free doesn’t mean you’ve burned a bridge in making money off it for the future. Keeping a portfolio of your free stuff, on a website for example, makes it a lot easier for people to visit you and see your work, and developing this means readers can check back in with anything new you’ve posted instantly.
Networking – In this day and age with the internet becoming the primary form of media, being able to send your work around the world is absolutely free. This holds many advantages over hard copies of work–for example, your content can easily be shared with lots of other people through things like social networking, which promotes your content for you free of charge. How you do this will depend on the content you produce. For example, my work is easily accessible though every web browser, mobile browser, RSS feeds and many social networking sites. Use it to your advantage.
Promote – You can’t sit back and expect to just garner hits from nowhere. Submit your URL to sites like Google, Yahoo! and other link directories. Add your URL to your email/forum signature and other places where it’ll be seen. The more, the better–but, do not SPAM. You can pay to get artificial hits, or you can pay to get a professional ad agency for your site. Me? I haven’t spent a dime on this site, but I still get a ton of hits per month. Everything I do for this site is completely and totally free. Use social networking to you advantage, but don’t overdo it to the point where you’re copying and pasting updates to each one. Each social networking tool you use should have 100% effort in it. See if you can post your stuff onto other websites with a small plug for your site at the bottom. Any way to garner an audience helps.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know – Often times, you’ll meet people who can help you. Whether it’s promoting something, a push in your career or whatever the case may be., you need to keep your eye open for them Make sure you try and help them back too–it is, after all, a two-way street. Many people in the broadcast industry have become famous/gotten their starting jobs because of people they know higher-up, as they’ve been springboarded past people who are better qualified for the position.
Engage your audience – Ask them something they’ll think about. Offer a question or poll and get them active in your piece. The more your audience feels they can be apart of what you’re doing, the bigger the crowd you’ll get.
This entire post means nothing unless you have content that people like – Everything on this list works, and it’s all stuff that I use. All of it is 100% true. But the best thing to do is give the audience something they’ll want to read. There really isn’t a shortcut of any kind–writing takes passion, hard work, determination and creativity.