I'm Still Learning After All These Years

I've had to learn how to defy my training and write in a less formal way.


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Ever since I was in school and well beyond, I’ve always viewed myself as a student. Life, work, family, friends, travel and even pets have provided seemingly endless sources of new and interesting things that have helped me continue my education up to this very minute. 

The cool thing is that the process appears to be never ending as long as I am open to the various inputs available and still have sense to process the information. This old dog enjoys learning new tricks.

Currently I’m challenged to get my mind around social media. As a baby boomer, my career spans the transition from an analog world to the digital world we all now inhabit. I started writing on a manual Remington typewriter, which explains why I tend to mash the keys on my computer to the annoyance of my colleagues within earshot.

Now I am learning to type on my iPhone, and it’s really hard—fat fingers and auto-correct make me crazy. I sit in amazement watching young people crank out texts, tweets and posts on these things at speeds I could never hope to get close to.

However, I am trying. Recently, two of my millennial colleagues held a fundamentals class on Twitter for those of us non-tweeters. It was actually very revealing.

To me, this medium seems unorganized, and as an editor, 140 characters seems restrictive. However, I waded in, setting up an account and posting my first tweet. I am satisfied to say I am now a tweeter, although I don’t necessarily understand the value, especially for business communication. Regardless, I’m giving it a whirl often to the amazement of my younger and fellow aged coworkers.  

So far, I’m being followed by family and business colleagues, but as time goes by I hope this expands. My learning curve and proficiency should grow as well. 

One of my dilemmas with trying to create for social media is in choosing material appropriate for the various digital channels available at my fingertips. Back in the day, we would write fairly comprehensive articles in our trade magazines because there was no Google-like search engines.

In the “old days,” good trade magazine articles were one of the few sources for technical manufacturing information and trend analysis. Because of that, they had to be comprehensive and therefore long. When I started writing trade magazine articles, a typical feature article might run 10 pages in the magazine to properly cover the topic.

In the digital age, articles have transformed into shorter, almost executive summaries that are written to introduce new products, processes and applications, then direct interested readers to links that can provide more details. We are still a source for presenting information to readers that they might not have been aware of, but the internet serves us well as a repository of deeper information. Now these shorter articles actually have an advantage to the reader by allowing us to cover more diverse topics than we could with much longer stories.

Voice is another challenge presented by the emergence of social media in our digital age. In my early career, we used what is called the editorial voice. The writing was in a neutral, third-party voice with personal pronouns not used.  Even today, we occasionally get contributed material from various sources, some who should know better, that are written in first or second person, and we rewrite into our editorial voice.

However, one of the new skills that a grizzled old editor like myself has had to learn is how to defy my training and write in a much less formal way for social media. While it’s doable, it is something that I must constantly be aware of. It’s so easy to slip back into old habits.

I really enjoy learning from this new crop of millennials and others, all younger than me, because it’s really a two-way street. I know much about the technology we are charged with presenting to our readers and much less about the social media channels available for me to disseminate it. The “kids” know the media, and by building a relationship between us, they teach me and I teach them. It’s all good.