When did writing become content? What does content actually mean when we’re talking about freelance writing?
If you look up the word, content, in most dictionaries you’ll still find definitions having to do with happiness and satisfaction. You’ll also find references to things in something, like the contents of a box. Of course, words, articles, poetry, stories and the like also make up the contents of of a book, which is where we got the term, table of contents.
My hunch is content became the term of art shortly after the first browser for the web was developed in 1993 It was called Mosaic and it put a graphical face on the ‘net. It was developed by a team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), led by Marc Andreessen. I have this mental picture of Andreessen and his cohorts thought of web pages as containers of information hence to be filled with content.
Now web content can be anything displayed through a browser, that’s true, but in spite of the push to everything video, most of what’s out there is words. Or, as you and I think of it, writing.
Writing, no matter what you call it, requires writers. And that’s where we freelance writers come in. The people who put websites and blogs together often need writers to fill their online pages. The title of this article could have been Freelance Writing for the World Wide Web, or Freelance Writing for the ‘Net.
The term, content, however is seen as, well cool – or if you’ve been online a long time, perhaps kwel.
There has been some push-back to call writing content. In 2010 I wrote about an ad in Harper’s Magazine where it claimed to be “100% Content Free.” The thrust of the ad was that content tends to be less than wonderful writing while writing in print is edited and, as a result, likely to be, well, better. While I love the writing in Harper’s I reject the idea they have a lock on good writing because it shows up on paper after an editing process.
So is there a difference between content and writing?
I think so, although as Marshall McLuhan hinted, it’s more because of the medium than the message.
The writing on the ‘net appears on computer screens. With the possible exception of the E Ink found on Kindle and some other ebook readers, screens are hard on the eyes. Even the wonderful full color display on my iPad makes a poor reading companion because of the glare.
When readers read print on paper they can and often do spend more time with the words and sentenced. On screen, they scan because screens are uncomfortable on the eyes. No one has suggested we look up, away from books every 20 minutes; it’s almost a must with monitors.
That scanning works better when there’s lots of white space. Hence short paragraphs online, many even a single sentence.
Those short paragraphs mean a different type of writing. Falkner’s or Joyce’s thousand word sentences probably wouldn’t have happened if either had been using a computer to write with.
There’s also casualness in most of the writing on the web. Part of that too comes from the need for lots of white space. It also comes from the sense of urgency computers have brought to our lives. Everything seems faster and the need for faster writing and reading follows suit.
You have only to text with a teenager to see this change in language taking place.
Each one of these can be seen as part of your writing voice.
What does all this mean for freelance writers who want to write content for the web?
I think the take-away is really that content=writing and, on the web, writing=content. While we need to understand the context of writing for the web, it is, after all, writing, even if many call it content.
What distinction do you make between writing and content?