Here’s the one thing you have to understand to be an internet writer

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I EDIT FOR A LOT OF ASPIRING internet travel writers, and I can usually tell which book it was that first made them think, “Hey… being a travel writer sounds amazing.” A writer who came to our humble profession through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road will send me submissions with long sentences that crackle with energy but fizzle when it comes to grammar. A writer who came to us through Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will swear a lot and write extensively about drugs and alcohol. A writer who came to us through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love will be very interested in self-discovery and will portray his or herself as a free spirit.

There’s nothing wrong with this — I myself came along the Hunter Thompson route — but it makes for difficult editing. In part, this is because aspiring writers haven’t gone through the years of practice and effort that Kerouac, Thompson, and Gilbert put in to find their voices and develop their craft. And this is fine — it’s easy to correct. But the biggest problem is this: Kerouac, Thompson, and Gilbert weren’t writing for the internet.

Internet writing is fundamentally different from novel, newspaper, or magazine writing.

Jack Kerouac came to writing through poetry and novels. Hunter Thompson arrived through journalism. And Elizabeth Gilbert was a magazine writer. These are three very different routes to success, and they unfortunately don’t translate terribly well into internet success. There’s a reason for this: packaging.

When you sell a novel, you’re selling the full thing. The title and the cover matter somewhat, but what matters more is that you have an excellent book — one that readers won’t feel they’ve wasted their time on — and critics or fans that are actively telling the public that your book is excellent.

When you’re writing for a newspaper, your article is sold in a bundle with a dozen or a hundred other articles. Your editor decides which articles to place on the front page (and “above the fold”), which is ultimately what sells the paper. Headlines are important, but it doesn’t ultimately matter if not many people read your article, because it was sold with the full paper.

When you’re writing for a magazine, the catchiness of your article matters even less — only a few of the articles are going to be featured on the cover, and the photo or illustration on the cover is going to have as great (if not more) of an impact on whether the magazine sells as the headlines that are featured on it.

But the important difference is this: once the decision has been made to purchase the novel, newspaper, or magazine, whether people read your article or not does not matter. The editors have done their job: they’ve sold the magazine. This is not the case with internet writing.

Internet writers have to package and sell every single article.

The great innovation of the internet is that it gave us the ability to pick and choose our articles. We no longer have to buy the entire National Geographic or New York Times in order to get at the one article that we want to read the most. But now, writers aren’t just competing with the other articles in the newspaper — they’re competing with every single article on the internet. Internet readers have so much to choose from — Cats! YouTube! Porn! — that getting their attention and holding it is a much more difficult task.

Websites make their money off of advertisements, and you can charge advertisers more if you can prove that not only does your site get a lot of clicks, but that people click on your articles and stay on them for a little bit. Novelists, journalists, and magazine writers never had access to this kind of information about their readers, and while they wanted to please their audiences, they never had to care quite to the extent that internet writers do.

But this means that internet writers can’t afford to spend as much of their time on pieces that aren’t crowd-pleasers. And it means that, unlike magazine or newspaper articles, that every single piece needs to be well-packaged.

The three things every internet article must do.

A well packaged article does three things:

  1. It has to garner clicks. This is entirely the work of the title, the featured photo, and the blurb that you post on Facebook. It has very little to do with the actual content of the piece.
  2. It has to hold the reader’s attention. This has to do with the content of the piece, but also has to do with formatting — the internet writer needs to break up big chunks of text with headers, photos, videos, and, in a pinch, numbered lists.
  3. It has to encourage sharing. Internet writers are limited in terms of the number of places we can post an article without being spammy, so we have to maximize sharing. While a good article will be shared regardless, we also have to make sure we’re putting “share this!” links wherever we can on our website, and we have to make sure we got step 1 right in the first place.

If you don’t do all three of these things, you can still have a great piece. But it’s not likely to be a successful piece.

This isn’t what we were raised on.

Every year, I buy the newest Best American Travel Writing anthology, and I’m always blown away with the quality of the writing. But for most of the pieces, I’m also thinking, “There’s no way in hell this would have gotten us any clicks at Matador.”

It’s hard, in internet writing, to write high-quality, nuanced pieces that are also shareable and clickable. And it’s easy for sites, in their hunger for clicks, to pander to the lowest common denominator. But it’s also hard to write a high-quality piece of journalism, or a truly great magazine article, or the Great American Novel. Good writing is hard regardless of the format.

But for those of us who are trying to make it in the internet writing world, it’s important to remember something: We weren’t raised on this. This is a new beast. And we can’t imitate our favorite writers without adapting ourselves to the new format. But this doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice quality: Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson, and Elizabeth Gilbert all thrived within the constraints that their chosen writing format offered them. We can do the same.

The idea of sitting down every single day and writing profound literary prose can be overwhelming. In reality, it’s much simpler to write every day. One of my writer friends works as an administrative assistant, and every day she writes for 15 minutes before work and for 15 minutes during her lunch break. You can talk about all of the great ideas you have for novels or screenplays all day long, but the number one way to be a writer is to sit down and actually write.

Even for non-writers, a journal is a great tool for self-development. It gives you a place to document your life, process your emotions, and work out important decisions. In addition, writers who journal always have a place to record any ideas that may come to them and a place to practice writing.

Ecommerce transactions should be legally straightforward. You get money up front for the sale, in return for delivery of a product as described within the timeframe specified. A standard set of terms and conditions should cover the vast majority of transactions.

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Your terms and conditions should outline that buyers are entering into a contract to when they purchase goods from your website. Outline the terms of delivery, shipping, refunds and payments, exclusions of liability and terms of use for your website. Finally, specify the choice of law and jurisdiction of wherever you’re based – this will shift the case to your own legal system, so you don’t find yourself negotiating some unknown foreign law interpreting your terms in the event of legal issues.

While most transactions will be fine, a not insignificant percentage of transactions will be fraudulent. Fraud occurs when a buyer uses false details or someone else’s payment information to make a purchase. By the time they are found out, they’ve already disappeared with your product, and you could be left footing the bill. Some fraudsters also order products, say they never arrived and demand a refund, or chargeback their credit cards once the receive the products they’ve bought.

This can be extremely damaging for your business, especially given the often slim operating margins. You can protect yourself from fraud to a certain extent, but you probably won’t be able to avoid being targeted if you reach any scale. Your best option is to keep a record of all transactions and refund behaviour and attempt to identify patterns that might give you a case against a particular customer. While expensive and uncertain legal routes are available, most ecommerce operators just take the hit and move on.

Choosing a reliable payment processor can help weed out the fringes of fraudulent activity, but you also need to remain vigilant and monitor what’s going on in your business if you want to stay one step ahead.

Ecommerce Shipping and Delivery Policy

A clear, defined delivery policy is a must-have, so that customers know when to expect their products and how their packages will be delivered. You will need to specify the expected delivery timeframes and costs, as well as detailed terms on any shipping promotions. A number of merchants use shipping discounts and promotions to encourage a higher average spend – for example, free shipping on orders over £200. Policies like this can help squeeze extra revenue into the bargain.

By making your shipping information clear on your product pages, and within your terms and conditions, you can prevent any problems from arising with disgruntled customers. This means customers are more likely to understand the shipping terms you offer, with the security of their agreement to your terms in the event of disputes.

Ecommerce Refunds Policy

Refunds are an important part of building trust with customers, and you will hamper conversions if you don’t recognise that refunds will sometimes be required. It is wise to be liberal in your refunds policy, and you must refund cancelled purchases within the statutory ‘cooling off’ period – 14 days. You can ask the customer to pay the cost of returns, and you are entitled to expect goods to be returned to you in a merchantable condition.

Accepting that refunds are a natural part of the business, and responding promptly in handling refund requests will help assure customers that you care, while ensuring you don’t end up shy of consumer selling regulation.

Include your refunds policy prominently on your website, and certainly within your terms and conditions so that buyers can see what they are getting into. By getting the customer to read agree to these terms and conditions before their purchase, you can be sure they understand and accept the terms of refunds beyond their statutory rights.

You can keep refunds low by using better photos on your product pages, improving the accuracy of your descriptions, and making sure your products are well packages and promptly despatched. Try to make it easy for your customers to keep your product, by limiting the potential reasons they could request a refund.

Ultimately, refunds can hit your bottom line, and this can become a problem as you try to scale your shop if you don’t keep a grip on the reasons your customers are refunding. Track refund activity and the reasons for refund requests, so you can work on getting the percentage down.

Protecting Your Interests

Terms and conditions are essential for protecting your business, and possibly your personal, interests when selling online. In an ideal world, you would never encounter disputes or difficulties in ecommerce. In the real world, it’s an absolute guarantee with scale. By taking care over drafting your terms and conditions, and consulting a lawyer where the budget allows, you can clearly set out the terms of business, and secure agreement from your customers at the point the contract of sale is created.

Standard Ecommerce Terms and Conditions

There are a number of clauses that can be found in most terms and conditions, either by virtue of legal necessity or to protect the merchant in the selling process. The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the things you might want to include within your ecommerce terms and conditions:

  • Information Commensurate with latest Consumer Contract Regulations: The latest Consumer Contract Regulations stipulate information that must be made clear to consumers purchasing online via your terms and conditions. These include your contact details, including clarification of your business identity, the products you sell, and how you can be contacted by your customers. This is not optional, so it pays to do your homework on what must be included when drafting up your terms and conditions.
  • Liability Limitations: Limited liability is a standard practice across most contracts, in a bid to limit any future claims that may arise from the transaction. There are some claims to liability you can’t contract away from – such as those causing death or personal injury – but broad exclusions of other types of damages can be effective in reducing your future obligations (and keeping legal costs to an absolute minimum).
  • What Happens And Who Pays For Returns?: Returns are a fact of life in ecommerce, and it’s useful to be upfront about how your returns process works, and who bares the costs of return shipping. Specify this within your terms and conditions, even if you have an external refunds policy in place.
  • Jurisdiction/Choice of Law: Under which laws will the contract of sale be interpreted? This matters particularly in ecommerce, where you may end up resorting to the lottery of legal systems when selling across the EU, or indeed the world, if you don’t seize the initiative.
  • Delivery Terms: It’s also useful to take into account your delivery terms, or to directly reference your shipping policy if you have one in place. When your customers accept these terms, you can solve so many support issues or refund requests, simply by referring to the terms and processes laid down in your delivery terms. Provided they are fair and reasonable, as you must be at all times in drafting terms relating to consumers, you will likely cover your back for more situations.

Terms and conditions generators and templates are available, which model on some of the most common terms used in ecommerce contracts. Alternatively, for maximum protection, speak to a lawyer.

Ecommerce Data Protection

Data protection is an area of the law all website owners should be mindful of. If you intend to collect personal information about your website visitors, you will need to be registered under the Data Protection Act, and to handle your data in compliance with the law at all times.

You are not allowed to migrate information collected from your customers or website visitors outside of the EU, and you can only hold information relevant to the needs of your business. If a customer asks for their information to be removed from your records, or to be revealed to them, you are required by law to do so.

Failure to adhere to Data Protection laws can land you in hot water, with fines likely if you get taken to task. Be mindful of your responsibilities – it is helpful to keep up to date with legal goings-on relevant to the ecommerce sector, if you’re not engaging the services of a lawyer to manage this on your behalf. As with all matters legal and accounting, it’s best either way over time if you move to outsource.

When starting a small business ecommerce site, retail is one type business that many people lean toward. While it may seem that the requirements for conducting retail business online are easier than those for a brick-and-mortar store, it’s important to know you still have rules, regulations and standards to comply with.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the primary agency that regulates ecommerce activities. This includes regulations for a number of ecommerce activities such as commercial email, online advertising and consumer privacy. Another organization that ecommerce site owners should become familiar with is the PCI (Payment Card Industry) Security Standards Council. This organization provides security standards and regulations for handling and storing your customer’s financial data.

Some of the important regulations you will need to learn about before starting your online retail business include protecting consumer privacy, handling customer data, collecting taxes and complying with online advertising regulations. In this ecommerce regulations guide we discuss these four issues and provide details that every ecommerce site owner should know to comply with federal laws in the U.S.

Protecting Your Customer’s Privacy Online

Online privacy is a big issue as many ecommerce sites collect and retain personal information about customers. Some of the personal data you will likely obtain would include a customer’s name, address, email address, and possibly their credit card and other types of financial information. As the ecommerce site owner it is your responsibility to ensure this personally identifiable information is protected, and that when you collect such data you comply with federal and state privacy laws.

Ecommerce site owners should provide a privacy policy and post it on the ecommerce website. This policy should clearly identify what kinds of personal information you will collect from users visiting your website, who you will share the information you collect with, and how you will use and store that information.

Most small business ecommerce site owners approach a privacy policy like any business requirement. You could have a lawyer draft a privacy policy document for your business, or secure a trusted service provider to manage and host your privacy policy. Once you have privacy policy in place, be sure to remain in compliance with it — if not your business can face costly legal fees. For more tips on creating a privacy policy, see Ecommerce Content: Writing a Good Privacy Policy.

Online Advertising Compliance

Ecommerce site owners must know about the applicable laws for online advertising. Like traditional advertising for brick-and-mortar stores, online retailers must also comply with regulations when advertising online. The FTC regulations for advertising are designed to protect consumers and to prevent deceptive and unfair acts or practices.

One of the main forms of online advertising for a small business ecommerce owner is email. For this reason, ecommerce business owners need to become familiar with federal advertising laws to ensure the content of any emails is compliant, but also be familiar with the CAN-SPAM Act (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act) of 2003. This act establishes requirements that any business that engages in email marketing must follow.

Under the CAN-SPAM Act, hefty penalties can be levied against email marketers who violate the law — each email sent that violates the act is subject to penalties of up to $16,000. Additionally, any commercial email message you send must include notice that the message is an advertisement, and it must also include opt-out information and your business postal address. To comply with this law you must also honor opt-out requests promptly. The FTC website defines the laws you need to know about email marketing.

How to Collect Taxes Online

When you shop at a store you pay tax on the purchase, and the Internet does not change this — but there are differences.

Have you ever noticed that some ecommerce websites charge you tax when you make an online purchase, while others don’t? The reason is because if a business has a physical presence in a state (e.g. a store or office), then it is required by law to collect state and local sales tax from customers. However, if the business doesn’t have a “physical presence,” then collecting tax on purchases is not required.

This dates back to a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that said states cannot require mail-order businesses, and by extension, online retailers to collect sales tax unless they have a physical presence in the state.

For ecommerce site owners, the one thing you will have to research is how your state classifies a physical presence. In legal terms, this is called a “nexus,” and each state defines nexus differently.

Navigating sales tax laws can be difficult. To ensure you are in compliance with tax laws, it’s always best to contact your state’s revenue agency to ensure you have the correct information on taxation before starting your ecommerce venture.

How to Handle Customer Financial Data

PCI compliance is a term familiar to many people researching ecommerce regulations. As an ecommerce site owner, one of the standards you will need to know about is the PCI DSS standard, which is short for Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS). All organizations, including online retailers, must follow this standard when storing, processing and transmitting credit card data.

The PCI Security Standards Council is the organization — founded by a number of financial institutions including JCB International, MasterCard and Visa — that is responsible for the development and implementation of security standards for account data protection. Through its PCI Security Standards, the organization seeks to enhance payment account data security.

There are a number of security initiatives in this standard, such as using a firewall between a wireless network and the cardholder data environment, making use the latest security and authentication, and using a network intrusion detection system. The PCI DSS standard, as of September 2009 (DSS v 1.2), includes the following 12 requirements for best security practices:

To achieve PCI compliance, an online retailer must meet all PCI DSS requirements. The PCI DSS standard is broken down into six milestones with a number of requirements to be fulfilled at each stage. The PCI Security Standards Council website offers this PDF, which is designed to help merchants to better understand the requirements. It is probably the best resource online to begin to understand what compliance entails.

There’s no question that meeting PCI compliance is a challenge for small business ecommerce site owners — and being certified as PCI-compliant is a time-consuming process. One way that a small business can meet standards is to outsource PCI to a third party that has the experience and payment system to ensure your business meets PCI regulations.

For the Web Developer

Web developers know the inner workings of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and how browsers handle those languages. There are some important technical items that a web developer is best suited for when it’s time to go live. Here are a few.

8. Live URLs

Often, sites are built at a URL (uniform resource locator) that isn’t the website’s final destination. When a site goes live, the URLs are transferred from a staging area to production. All the URLs change at this time, and they need to be tested.

On small sites without any tools, you can navigate to each page to make sure they all work. On a site with fewer than 500 URLs, you can use Screaming Frog SEO Spider Tool for free to find bad URLs. For larger sites, there is a modest annual fee.

9. Validation

W3C-valid code is the one thing you can do prior to launch to have some confidence around a search engine spider being able to crawl your site. It’s pretty simple to know if a page is valid. You just paste the URL in question here, and you’ll get a report almost instantly.

With that report, you can attack the issues and get the page into compliance. To help even more, here are 10 common fixes.

10. Minify

This is a technique that combines and compresses website code into smaller chunks to speed up your site. You can read more about it at Google. Then, look at the website pre-launch to see if the site is using minify where it can.

11. 404 pages

When a 404 (“page not found”) error occurs, make sure you have a custom page to help your visitor find something else of use, even if it wasn’t what they were looking for. Do you have an HTML sitemap there? Does the 404 page include a site search?

12. Favicon

Favicons are those little iconic images that show up in the address bar and tabs of your browser. How does it help? It’s a small branding opportunity that lends credibility to your site. It’s nice to have one when you launch.

You are a human being and we need fun, unproductive, and lazy time. If you spend 10 to 20 minutes in the morning doing your favorite unproductive activity, you will settle down “the instant gratification monkey” everyone has inside. [2]

Once you’re done with it, you will clear it from your mind and carry on. Some people watch YouTube, some play Minesweeper or BubbleSpinner, but you can do whatever you like. That’s why it’s your favorite unproductive activity and why it should have a small place on your daily checklist.

The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You've Never Imagined

Five years ago, journalist Nicholas Carr wrote in his book The Shallows: How The Internet Is Changing Our Brains about the way technology seemed to be eroding his ability to concentrate.

"Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words," he wrote. "Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

In the book, which became a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize finalist, Carr explored the many ways that technology might be affecting our brains. Carr became particularly concerned about how the Internet seemed to be impairing our ability to think deeply and to focus on one subject for extended periods.

Today, social media and digital devices have an arguably greater place in our lives and hold on our attention spans than they did in 2011.

So what has changed since Carr wrote his seminal work five years ago? We chatted with the journalist and author about how our increasing interactions with mobile technology might be affecting the most important organ in our bodies.

Since you wrote this book, the Internet has only taken on a bigger role in our lives. What are some of the main changes you've observed in the way we interact with technology?

When I wrote the book, the iPhone was still very new and the iPad had just come out. Social media wasn't as big as it is today. So when I wrote the book, I was thinking about laptops and computers but not so much about smartphones. Of course, now the main way that people interact with the Internet is through mobile devices.

In the book, I argued that what we created with computers and the Internet was a system of distraction. We got the great rewards of having basically unlimited information at our fingertips, but the cost of that was we created a system that kept us in a state of perpetual distraction and constant disruption.

What psychologists and brain scientists tell us about interruptions is that they have a fairly profound effect on the way we think. It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.

To me, all the things I worried about have become much worse now that we carry around this permanently connected device that we're constantly pawing at. Things are very different in a way that makes the things I worried about worse.

Research has found that millennials are even more forgetful than seniors. What do we know about how technology is impacting our memory?

Technology definitely has an effect on our memory. What happens is that to move information from your conscious mind (what's known as the working memory) into your long-term memory requires a process of memory consolidation that hinges on attentiveness. You think about the information or rehearse it in your mind in order to form a strong memory of it, and in order to connect it to other things that you remember.

If you're constantly distracted and taking in new information, you're essentially pushing information into and out of your conscious mind. You're not attending to it in a way that is necessary for the rich consolidation of memory.

Since I wrote The Shallows, there have been some very interesting studies which show that we seem to be less able to form long-term memories than we used to, thanks to technology. One study out of Columbia University showed that when people know that they'll be able to find information online easily, they're less likely to form a memory of it.

Are you also concerned about this lack of depth, or shallowness, in our social interactions?

That isn't something that I've studied much, but I think there are some indications that this kind of culture of constant distraction and interruption undermines not only the attentiveness that leads to deep thoughts, but also the attentiveness that leads to deep connections with other people.

One study I mentioned in the book seemed to show that the more distracted you are -- the more your train of thought is interrupted -- the less able you are to experience empathy. So distractions could make it more difficult for us to experience deep emotions.

In the book you talk about the "dark side" of brain plasticity. What does that mean?

Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is plastic, meaning that it's very malleable or adaptable. Our brains are constantly adapting at a physical level to our environment. You can imagine that what's really changed our environment in the past 10 or 20 years is the Internet and social media.

A lot of people will assume that if our brains can adapt, then our brains will adapt to the flow of information and all will be well. But what you have to understand about neuroplasticity is that the process of adaptation doesn't necessarily leave you a better thinker. It may leave you a more shallow thinker.

Our brains adapt, but the process of adaptation is value-neutral -- we might get smarter or we might get dumber, we're just adapting to the environment.

Are you optimistic about any of the ways we currently seem to be adapting?

No. It's the ease with which we adapt that makes me most nervous. It doesn't take long for someone to get used to glancing at their smartphone 200 times a day. We're creatures of habit mentally and physically.

When you develop that habit of distraction, it becomes harder and harder to back away and engage our minds in deeper modes of thinking.

Is there anything we can do to keep our mental faculties intact, or is it pretty much hopeless at this point?

Well, you can use the technology less and set aside your phone and spend a good part of your day trying to maintain your focus and not be interrupted. The good thing about that -- because of the plasticity of our brains -- is that if you change your habits, your brain is happy to go along with whatever you do.

What makes me more pessimistic is that we're kind of building our personalities and our entire societies around this new set of norms and expectations that says you need to be constantly connected. As long as we continue going down that path it's going to be ever harder for us to buck the status quo.

There's a ton of research being done on technology and the brain. What sort of findings are you most troubled by?

There are studies suggesting a loss of cognitive control -- not only a loss of attention, but a loss of our ability to control our mind and determine what we think about. One researcher from Stanford pointed out that the more you acclimate yourself to the technology and the constant flow of information that comes through it, it seems that you become less able to figure out what's important to focus on. Instead, your mind gets attracted just to what's new rather than what's important.

We can see signs of that in the compulsiveness with which people become attached to the streams of information that swirl by your eyes.

What do you say to people who argue that at every stage of history, we've been up in arms about new technologies that ultimately proved benign -- and that the Internet is no different?

We've never had a technology like a smartphone before -- a technology that you carry around with you all day long and are pretty much constantly interacting with. Even television was traditionally segregated into different parts of the day -- it wasn't like people carried around a TV in their pocket.

This is a very different kind of technology that we've created for ourselves that does interfere with our thoughts. We've never had a media technology that so shapes the way our mind works.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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  1. Aethelweard

    Sorry, but this doesn't quite work for me. Who else can suggest?

  2. Jarod

    Yes thanks

  3. Thormond

    remarkably, the very funny phrase

  4. Hadwin

    these are the pictures it would be high time !!!!

  5. Nefertum

    What charming topic

  6. Lidio

    We must have a look !!!

  7. Zolojas

    It should be said - rough mistake.

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