Colleges and universities are special places.
They bring students, educators, and researchers together. Alumni, parents, staff, and community members create deep relationships with these institutions. Relationships that can last a lifetime. It is no secret that places like these have an infinite number of stories to tell. The conflict exists due to the finite number of people who are able to tell them.
At many institutions, a handful of people are responsible for publishing stories. It has been two decades since the great blogging boom of the late 1990’s. That means we’ve had the tools to empower others to publish online for twenty years. Why then, do we hold on to the stance that publishing stories are the responsibility of a select few?
There are a few good reasons for this practice:
- First, not all staff members write well. All writers need some level of editing support. This includes a check on clarity and grammar
- Second, a level of oversight is necessary for institutional consistency. Writers need to follow certain standards to ensure the quality of their work
- Third, writing stories on the web requires a certain finesse. Web-writing is much different than traditional academic writing. Writers should understand how digital behaviours change how people read stories online
There are even more reasons to empower your staff to write for the web. Leaving stories untold is the sales equivalent of leaving money on the table. Not only are there simple publishing tools available, there are tools that address each of the other writing challenges.
Tools to help writers at your institution
The key to telling a good story on the web is clarity of thoughts and readability of language. The Hemingway Editor is my favourite web app for writing. The tool gives each piece of copy a readability score and suggests improvements. The UI highlights sentences that are hard to read, uses of passive voice, and where phrases have simpler alternatives. For even more editing support, I turn to Grammarly for a quick grammar check. This application integrates with many publishing tools to identify grammar mistakes. It will recommend fixes acting much like the spell-check tools we most familiar with.
The key to maintaining institutional consistency is a combination of governance and support. Establishing an agreed upon publishing workflow is the best way to govern storytelling. My team used GatherContent during a large-scale website migration. Much of our web content was new or needed to be re-written. We learned a clear publishing workflow works with a diverse population of stakeholders. Like any new content for the website, new stories can be approved with oversight using a tool like this. In addition, providing easy-to-reference style guides will go a long way to establish consistency. Coaching sessions given by staff writers will take this knowledge to the next level.
Keen to learn more?
Mastering the special finesse that makes web-writing effective can be taught. Looking for further reading? Check out Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. Chapter 4, Writing Basics, is available for free. In this chapter, the authors share simple guidelines for web-writing. Make your copy clear, useful, and friendly. These are principles that stretch far beyond storytelling. They will help your staff write better emails, instructions, and calls to action.
People across your campus have stories to tell. You need these stories to cultivate relationships with alumni, parents, and donors. The tools exist to scale up your storytelling ability. Now it’s up to you to get them in the right hands.