Teaching College Students to Write “Content.”

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Many people are skeptical about the present era’s deluge of online news. 

I feel, however, that we are living in a golden age of commentary and information. The same forces which have devastated newspapers have led to a great flowering, in my opinion, of high quality, immediate, compelling online reading.

On one extreme, the massive scale, we see huge flows of attention passing through Facebook and Twitter everyday, leading to articles published by online publications of all kinds; on the other extreme, the personal, we also see bloggers sustained by their members, and a wealth of distinctive email newsletters.

(Yes, there is fake news. But there is also an incredible wealth of brilliant, informed writing — if one is willing to look for it.)

I am teaching a course this semester, at the University of Tennessee, to introduce students to that world, to get them reading and writing “web content.”

What do I mean by “content?” Short essays — think pieces, hot takes, rants, infographics, tweet storms, reviews, personal essays — meant to be discovered on social media, read quickly, and shared.

These pieces do not have to be short. Some are medium-length, like this brilliant take on Star Wars and its bizarre view of pregnancy; some are full-scale essays, like Andrew Sullivan’s I Used to Be Human. The field extends from the practical and functional (“How to Master ___ in Ten Easy Steps”) to the literary, shining an unexpected light on the brilliance of a single life.

I genuinely believe that this sort of writing is one of the great art forms of our time.

The class will begin with a discussion of online security and safety, then I’ll give an account of some of the history of this kind of writing (John Ruskin’s letter-based “blog,” Fors Clavigera, for instance), and then we will study theories of marketing and attention. We will write letters to editors, create Medium posts and email newsletters, design graphics and facebook ads, submit work / queries to publications like Slate, Salon, Bustle, Vox etc…

The students will track as a group the virality of their publications, and those with the most shares / followers / subscribers may get extra credit or bonuses of some kind.

Any suggestions for readings or best practices will be eagerly accepted!

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