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Freelance Content Writing

freelance contentWhen 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?


{ 10 comments… add one }
  • There is a difference between content and writing, although sometimes the distinction is clouded. Content can mean hiring bad writers to just produce as much as they can without worrying about grammar so a website can increase its web rankings. It can include what’s called content curation where people aren’t really writing everything that shows up on a site. It definitely includes most webpages, at least portions of those pages where the idea is to highlight the business and possibly the owner of the business, not to educate, inform or entertain (those are my 3 rules to blog writing by the way).

    Writing is something else; everything that content isn’t. 🙂
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted..Marketing Your Website Or BusinessMy Profile

    • I disagree Mitch… there’s bad writing and good writing and everything in between. The goals of a particular piece of writing is different than the goals of another piece of writing but they are all writing. Content is an unneeded term imo. In terms of goals poor writing designed to come to the top of search engines is actually aimed at making some sort of sale. It’s a new form of copywriting – apparently works well enough to warrant poor but not excellent pay. I think we’ll gradually see seo writing rates increase as the search engines get better at figuring out what writing really is.

  • It’s kewl, pronounced “KYEWWWWLL.” LOL yes you have to drag it out like that!

    Pooh on Harper’s. When writing for wiseGEEK, my content was indeed edited, both for errors and to conform to their writing guidelines. I didn’t have to rewrite anything, but I’m sure they would have asked me to if there were big problems with my articles.

    I don’t make any distinction. Writing for the web takes different forms, as does writing for anything that will end up on paper. I fail to see why a content job is not worth claiming as writing experience. It shows that you can conform to guidelines, can work with editors, and have experience with deadlines. I put mine on both my writing and my administrative resumes because there are loads of transferable skills there.
    Elizabeth West recently posted..Console Games are Kicking My ButtMy Profile

    • I agree, except when we’re talking about the content mills… even then, a short handful of articles there can be a jumping off place.

  • lisa morefield

    Our focus on content and speed is affecting academia as well. The trendiness and gadgetry of the computer and all its “cousins” has developed a whole social class of “pennystinkers” who see no reason to interact with anything but this short, superficial, casual text. This era’s group of pennystinkers, unlike the Renaissance sort, are the majority. In our time, we may see the death of Shakespeare, Dickens, Plato, and many others who shared their wisdom and encapsulated world within their bindings.

    • Indeed reading the classics seems to be, if not disappearing, becoming less important.

  • Content includes writing, but I think it is a much broader term, refering to all sorts of media (music, image, video, graphics, words, etc).
    Internet is great in that it is a very versatile vehicle for expression.
    Good content is always appreciated.
    WritersWritingWords (Eleni) recently posted..We Are Living HistoryMy Profile

    • Good thought Eleni – that content includes all that… I get tunnel vision.

  • Hmm, I’ve never really thought about it that way. I guess the answer would be to say when looking for a job is ‘content writer looking for work’ or something… that would sort out any confusion 😛

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