Kate Harris taught American History and World Religions for ten years at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina. When she moved two years ago to Pittsburgh, PA , she became a consultant for the Smithsonian Institute, helping other teachers use the vast digital archives of the Smithsonian in their own classes. This job has her making short posts to the internet all the time, showcasing both the work of classroom teachers and items in the Smithsonian collection. But she’s also written longer pieces on teaching social controversies—Colin Kaepernick, Standing Rock, Charlie Hebdo—for the New York Times online. So I thought she’d be a good person to talk to about how to create a presence as a digital writer.
I began our conversation by asking Kate how she thought differently about writing for the screen than writing for the page.
Kate: Teachers looking for curriculum ideas online do a lot of scanning—as do many online readers in general. So while I don’t necessarily think posts need to be short, I do think they need to establish their relevance pretty quickly and be organized so that readers can find what they are looking for easily. This means that I use a lot of chunking and subtitles in a way that I might not do for other sorts of written work, and I make sure my introductions are as clear and as compelling as possible.
Do your editors have particular things they’re looking for?
Kate: When I write for the Smithsonian learning blog, the editor wants things very short (300-400 words) and very strategy driven. Her take, which is somewhat driven by web analytics data, is that their readers do not take the time to explore longer reads and want “take-aways” that they can easily find. (Here’s a typical Smithsonian post.) I actually prefer writing for the Times because they are less concerned about length and in fact encourage offering a range of possibilities for readers to explore.
Does writing for the web let you do things you couldn’t do in print?
Kate: There’s the pleasure of being able to easily illustrate and link in online writing. The Times blog wants to promote the paper’s own writing, and they actually have an editor go through and link to Times articles, where applicable, throughout. But I enjoy curating resources that I think would be helpful and relevant and inserting them. It’s also a way of dealing with the length issue. I can link to something that you might bookmark and explore further later, without taking the time to write out the full concept in my own article.
What about shorter pieces? You post a lot to Twitter.
Kate: Twitter is very popular among teachers and ed-tech folks, and that’s the primary reason I’ve begun posting there more often. What is nice about twitter is the ability to interact with a lot of people who you may not know personally, but informally network with. I think my more effective posts link up with others (those are certainly the ones that get the most reach—when you @ people with whom you work or whom you admire) or that quote other’s tweets. I think my tweets are more effective when I am “adding value” by quoting another’s tweet, but sometimes I’m lazy and just retweet!
Do you feel you reach people on Twitter you wouldn’t connect with otherwise?
Kate: Yes. Twitter works well when people connect over topics. For example, GLSEN posted about the need for a more inclusive history curriculum, and I was able to reply and share some curriculum about the gay rights movement that I had developed. That got my work out to a larger audience and contributed to a conversation they had started.
What are some strategies you developed for using Twitter effectively?
Kate: Familiarize yourself with Twitter shorthand—there are definitely ways to shorten spellings and phrases and it’s still all acceptable and professional. Twitter is also a useful way to rid yourself of bad habits in writing, like using vague adjectives (great! interesting! nice!) or being redundant. At the same time, don’t worry so much about your tweets. They will disappear quickly.
You use social media not only for your work, but also as a community member, mom, and friend. Do you feel you change your voice as a writer for these more personal posts?
Kate: Yes and no! I think it’s about where I am posting—for me, Twitter is more professional and somewhat political, although I tend to stick to politics that fits within the framework of my profession (pro-education funding or pro-NEH). Facebook is more about family and friends, and my writing is probably a little more sentimental there. But I also feel free to be more politically charged at times on Facebook, again because it is less associated with my professional life. Instagram is the social media I have the most fun with, and I hardly write at all in my captions. It feels the most personal. What I put there is less about sharing and more about capturing impressions.