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Thinking About Content…

writing work glassesYesterday my January 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine. There on page 17 is  a great big full-page ad in red, white and black saying in part:

WARNING

HARPERS MAGAZINE IS 100% CONTENT FREE!

It’s followed by a pitch for Harper’s excellent writing, reporting and commentary. The implication, of course, is that sites like where content is free are lacking – although they don’t say exactly what’s missing.

Although Harper’s is online, as are other publications and even stand-alone sites that have excellent writing, reporting and commentary, it seems to me the magazine is missing the point – comparing apples with oranges as it were.

I read and sometimes submit writing to magazines like Harper’s, The Atlantic and The New Yorker because of their often lengthy articles, packed with good writing and solid information.

I also read them because they come on paper which means I can curl up in bed with them or soak in the tub while reading or, when the weather is warmer, read them at the beach. Although Amazon’s Kindle and similar ebook readers show promise, they haven’t replaced paper yet. 

Web content is another animal and until it becomes pleasant to read text on a computer screen, the best of web writing will mostly stay generally shortish. Short writing is a different kind of writing. Ideally content is more like the first several paragraphs of good newspaper writing used to be, giving us the who, what, why, where and when in a few paragraphs.

Sure there are long leisurely pieces of excellent writing on the web but it’s well known that readers tend to scan a web page rather than read it as we do a book or article on paper.

Which is why I go to the web for information – it blows me away what I can find with google. And someone has written everything I find that way.

I think content is here to stay. Did you know there are at least 20 types of online writing jobs?

What do you want to share about content?

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • I woke up this morning and was thinking about this thread. I’m going to use travel writing as an example.

    When you go to a website like Lonely Planet or Trav Buddy or Nat Geo Traveler, you are given an overview of each destination. That overview is going to be between 300 and 500 words. That overview is simply that…an overview. It is a blurb “about” the destination in question. It tells you the name, the location, and the very “basic” details about the country/city/region/whatever.

    Now, if you truly wanted to know about the place you would go out and buy a book on the place. In the book you would learn the history, the culture, the religion, the visa regulations, the customs, the best places to go, the best hotels, the best restaurants, budget versus splurge, the best hiking routes, which buses to take, which taxis to avoid, which little hidden stores are down which alleys, and so on and so forth.

    To me, 500 words or less is nothing more than a blurb. It doesn’t matter how well written the blurb is…it is still a blurb. It is something that I can read in less than one minute of time. I’m sorry…nothing anyone can impart to me in one minute is going to be considered anything more than a blurb to me. Now, a good book that takes me a few days to read? That’s another story. But a 500 word article–regardless of the topic–is a blip on the map.
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..Knowledge is power =-.

  • “You cannot convey any truly in-depth details about anything in only 500 words.”

    So true, T.W. I remember at university having to write the occasional 800-word essay, which seemed simple enough before starting, but it’s so much harder to cover a topic or answer a question well in 800 words than in 3000. So I have a lot of respect for those who can write tightly enough to convey what they want to in few words. It’s something I need to work on, myself.

    Half the time, especially on the internet, all you need to know can be found in that 500 words. I want to know how to find the ant nest, what to put on it, and how to stop the little blighters from coming back. I don’t care about their social structure, how many species there are, how they’ve evolved. If I wanted to know all that, I’d get a book.

    And Kathryn, you made me LOL 🙂
    .-= Lucy Smith´s last blog ..Meeting up in the Big Smoke…or just Auckland =-.

    • Anne

      Okay, maybe you can’t get details, but you can do some solid worthwhile things in 500 words or less… consider ads and poetry.

  • Um, pardon my stupidity, but it their magazine is content free wouldn’t the pages be blank? Just another example of elitist thinking that is present in some institutions. Drives me nuts!
    .-= Kathryn Pless´s last blog ..Demand Studios-My POV =-.

    • Anne

      Harper’s is being snooty. The magazine is actually a great source of decent writing from a liberal or progressive point of view… has been around for ages… I mean like a long time.

  • I love this part, Lucy 🙂 “And just because a piece of ‘content’ is short and snappy, and doesn’t plunge the depths, doesn’t mean it’s not a well thought out and helpful piece of writing.”

    I whole-heartedly agree. In fact, in another comment somewhere (I think it was on this site), I likened content on the web to the “trimmed-down” version of what we used to read. It’s not that people don’t appreciate novel-length essays on subject matter, it’s simply that there is a huge market for short snippets “about” something, during which a brief overview is given. It’s perfect for the always-busy, always-on-the-go 21st century modern person who doesn’t always have 3-4 hours to delve into “how to get rid of ants”. They want a solution, and they want it now. Website content provides them with the answers in short, abbreviated form.

    I have long stated that 500 word articles are nothing more than blurbs. It is the back of a DVD cover. The synopsis of a novel. You cannot convey any truly in-depth details about anything in only 500 words. Many writers would have you believe that the reason it takes them 5 hours to craft a 500 word article is because they are making the most detailed, treasured, and explicit article in the history of mankind, but at the end of the day it’s still a 500 word blurb.

    Take, for example, the word dog. What can you tell me about a dog in 500 words? Or what about brain surgery? Or how about trains? Automobiles? Wine? The cheeseburger? Politics? The airspeed velocity of a laden swallow?

    500 words will never convey more than a snippet of relevant information about a topic. The 21st century person doesn’t always have time for dissertation-length essays on subjects, which is why web content is king at present.
    .-= T.W. Anderson´s last blog ..Knowledge is power =-.

  • I think you’re absolutely right. Of course people are going to scan web content. Usually when you pick up a magazine for an article, or a book to read, you’re committing yourself to finishing it at a leisurely pace, and know what you expect to get out of it. That’s not so with the internet.

    For instance, I’m having a horrible ant problem at the moment. So I Google ‘how to kill ants’. That returns 6,660,000 results, and on the first page I can see at least five articles that look like they might be helpful. I won’t really be reading those in depth, more just skimming them to get some ideas, and maybe some suggestions about where else to look. It’s just too much information to look too far below the surface. If I got a book from the library, I’d probably be looking at it in more depth.

    Both media serve different purposes. And just because a piece of ‘content’ is short and snappy, and doesn’t plunge the depths, doesn’t mean it’s not a well thought out and helpful piece of writing.
    .-= Lucy Smith´s last blog ..Meeting up in the Big Smoke…or just Auckland =-.

    • Anne

      Well, when it comes to ants I’ve looked at google and a book and have had to resort to impeccable housekeeping. Of course, it’s winter up here now which gives me a break… and yes, short can be helpful, even beautiful at times.

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