Secrets of writing for the web

Here are ten tips for writing with a leisure audience in mind, ie a mass audience, particularly if you are a scholar.

  1. Leisure readers like being let into a secret: the secret life of bees, Britain’s hidden architecture, the secrets of my success. The suggestion of exposure can come through the title, but also in the body of the narrative.
  2. Tips and tricks. Leisure readers don’t usually expect to have their preconceptions overhauled, their paradigms shifted, but they are willing to be nudged. So lure readers in a way that suggests confirmation and improvement.*
  3. Leisure readers don’t necessarily get to the end of the article. So start with the main point rather than lead up to it. Newspaper articles do this. Sometimes editors cut the article off at some arbitrary sentence because of space restrictions.
  4. Relate what you want to say to topics that are current and for which the mass media has already created exposure. This is a case of delivering what you want to say via a topic for which the audience is already primed. In other words, it’s a way of showing very directly the relevance of what you want to say — if you want this. Think of the audience and your subject, but almost anything can be related to anything: Wikileaks and brain research; the London riots and the paintings of Caravaggio; Jane Austin and the Olympics?
  5. Consider layering your work so that the more specialised material is addressed through information boxes, footnotes, codas, specialist pages, and links to other material and scholarly articles.
  6. Audience building and media mashing. Link blogs and online articles to Facebook, Twitter and other social media in order to broadcast what you say and build up a readership. This can be automated.
  7. Schedule yourself. Articles in the press, whether online or paper-based do not just appear when the writers have completed their work, but get aggregated and released at scheduled times and dates. Blog authoring sites allow you to set a date when your blog post will go public. You can write articles in advance and schedule release dates for each. Potential readers are creatures of habit — potentially.
  8. Experts also like leisure reading. The people you are communicating with may be learned, but they may know nothing about your field. They probably don’t want to be confused or talked down to, and neither do you when you read their works intended for a mass audience.
  9. It is usually enough to establish, and then rest on, your authority. You don’t need to call on all your scholarly powers of analysis to say something worthwhile. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is called on to explain and predict, but not to deliver lectures on economic theory. Your credentials can be conveyed through your job title or a simple strap line.
  10. The web is still a new medium, with no rules or well-established practices. Experiment with new forms and new ways of saying things.

* This article is not setting out to challenge the reader, and is therefore banale in academic terms. What is leisure reading anyway? Why only 10 points?  Is this article an attempt at parody and/or to be taken seriously? What is the trickster function in writing? Further help may come from

  • Derrida, J., Limited Inc, trans. S. Weber, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1988.
  • Hyde, L., Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art, New York: North Point Press, 1998.
  • Veblen, T., The Theory of the Leisure Class, Amherst, New York: Promethius, 1998.

The architectural historian Indra McEwen presents a plausible explanation of why Vitriuvius chose to write ten books on architecture — rather than 7 or 14. Ten scrolls stack very nicely to form a pyramid with 4 at the base. 4×4 also makes the “supremely perfect number” 16 — the four cardinal directions multiplied by themselves. See

  • McEwen, I., Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.

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