Why 'no dumping' is a good motto for writing on social networks

When I think of writers such as Stephanie Hayes of Poynter's St. Petersburg Times and Jay Rosen, who blogs at PressThink, I am reminded that they share, in spite of their many differences, one essential writing value.

Unlike other writers, they never seem to dump stuff online. I get the impression, reinforced by conversations with both of them, that they revise their writing online with the same rigor that they would bring to print.

Have you ever seen a “No Dumping” sign next to a field or wooded area? If you don’t have the guts to steal one, perhaps you can use a photo as one of your screensavers. “No Dumping” is not a bad motto for writing on Facebook and all other social networks.

I first encountered the concept of notes dumping from a reporter with high standards whose editor told him about the importance of being first on competitive news stories.

In a 24-hour news cycle, argued the editor, the reporter must overcome traditional inhibitions and get content on the paper’s website almost as soon as it has been gathered. Content, his editor said, can be corrected, updated, enhanced and revised in later versions. For now, “just dump your notes.”

In essence, the editor was asking the reporter to lower his standards, which is not a bad thing if you are trying to overcome writer’s block. The writer may also want to break from the usual norms in cases of emergency or when the writing is informal. Know when to wear your tuxedo; know when to wear your Hawaiian shirt.

Text messaging and instant messaging, for example, are well-known for their informality, filled as they are with the acronymic, emoticonic alphabet soup that characterizes the license-plate language coding of the Internet:

Mom:  Where u at?

Daughter: With Rob J nxt 2 bleachers

Mom: Rt after game. Be at 1st St. exit

Daughter: U drivin da tank?

Mom: Stealin’ dad’s Caddy!!!

In such a language environment, what should be the level of language for use on social networks? It depends, in part, on whether you use Facebook and Twitter for personal or professional reasons. It also depends on your purpose and your intended audience. To express congratulations, your tone can be playful. To express condolences, you’ll probably want to slip on that plain gray suit.

Rosen, a scholar and media critic, uses social networks to reach and expand the audience for his ideas on politics, culture, technology and news. His thousands of friends and followers have become familiar with his voice, which I would describe as assertively conversational. Here is one of his recent tweets:

"That the re-design is always hated by regular users led designers to the odd conclusion that there's no such thing as a hateful re-design."

And another:

"The three replies I get the most to my Twitter posts: 1) And this surprises you because...? 2) There's nothing new in that 3) "Not always."

To each of these, Rosen attaches a link where the reader can find the original source, a generous act unto itself, and one that the Internet was designed to perform. But I remain interested in Rosen’s own prose and the way, in spite of its brevity, it reveals a curious and governing intelligence. These sentences are not dumped, friends; they are crafted.

You will encounter a different voice in the work of Stephanie Hayes, a versatile young writer whose writing sounds hip and connected. She writes on Facebook:

"Will I ever get tired of Bridget Jones? Do I have some neural receptor blockage thing that makes it amazing every time?"

And another:

"I’m going cold turkey off diet Coke for a week starting tomorrow. In related news, cross me and I’ll cut you."

Hayes’s posts are brainy in their own way, but also youthful, playful and self-deprecating. No matter how personal and casual her posts may seem on a first read, they always, upon further review, show the effects of crafting, not dumping.

In conclusion: Craft, si! Dump, no!

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a five-part series on writing for Twitter and Facebook. You can read the first installment here.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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