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How Facebook saved a writing assignment from failure

Many office settings consider Facebook a “distraction” that destroys productivity. But in one instance, it helped save a writing assignment from flopping.

Recently, the editor of Eastern Michigan University’s alumni magazine assigned me with a feature-length story about alumna Meta Hellwig, whose estate gift has funded hundreds of scholarships for EMU Biology students.

I knew that after graduating college in 1913, Meta moved to Santa Ana, California to teach biology in a public school. She loved nature and frequently hiked at national parks. After retiring, Meta moved north to the San Jose area. She and her husband Harold lived for many years on 45 rustic acres in the nearby Los Gatos foothills. Funds from the sale of their property funded the gift to Eastern.

These were bare-bones facts. But to write a full feature, I needed to know more about Meta personally.

Bear in mind, Meta had died 30 years earlier in California and had no children or living relatives. Who could tell me about her as a person?

I began scouring ancestry and newspaper websites and found a dozen or so contemporary newspaper clippings with snippets about Meta. Then, I contacted the current owners of Meta’s Los Gatos property.

The couple had found some of Meta’s belongings that were left behind, including her personal letters. Unfortunately, those had been lost over time. Although a few locals had told the couple stories about Meta, they had never met her. Without the letters, I had no quotes from Meta to use in my story.

I looked elsewhere, hoping to find someone who actually knew Meta. The local Sierra Club chapter had no info. The San Jose Historical Museum only had a few brief newspaper clips. The Los Gatos Historical Archive had nothing.

It seemed I had struck out. Without further information, I’d have to scale the story back radically. What could have been a cool multi-page feature would end up as a short item sustained by anecdotes pulled from brittle newspaper clips.

Then, a volunteer at the Los Gatos archive told me she posted my inquiry on a Los Gatos group page on Facebook. A former resident responded to the post, saying she grew up across the road from Meta and knew her well. Jackpot!

I joined the Facebook group and sent a friend request to this woman. Thankfully, she accepted my request. We exchanged some messages, which led me to the woman’s older sister—an even more knowledgeable source. Soon afterwards, I called her for a fascinating interview.

It was clear Meta meant the world this woman, now age 72. The personal stories and insight brought Meta to life. All the nuances of her character became clear. It was as if Meta had emerged from the murky shadows into full-blown Technicolor.

Without that Facebook connection, the story would have been “okay,” but not nearly as engaging. The research took some time and extra steps, but the effort invested in a social media platform—something I hadn’t considered for serious research—helped tremendously.

Completing a writing assignment successfully takes more than finding the right words and checking grammar. Oftentimes, the work invested before putting pen to paper makes the difference between success and failure.

The story appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of Eastern Magazine (the story begins on page five of the PDF). It even made the cover!

Has Facebook, Twitter or another social media platform ever helped you complete a writing assignment? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Please share your story in the comments section below.

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