Content Writing Can Be Real Writing

Follow some of the discussions by writers about writing on LinkedIn or on some writing forums and you’ll soon realize that there’s a feeling among at least a few professional writers that creating content for the web is not real writing. Even Harper’s Magazine got into the act a while back promising their magazine would always be content free.

2841909138 4e2b93b93a 300x199 Content Writing Can Be Real Writing

The perception that web content writing is bad writing is grounded in some fact. The problem stems from the multitude of websites publishing all sorts of poorly written and often inaccurate information designed to drive search engine traffic and not much else. Freelance writers recognize the people who publish such writing as the ones who pay a dollar or two for a 500 word article. Small wonder that type of content writing is, with some exceptions, poor.

History of ‘Content’

Some history may help you understand how the word, content, came to be. The web wasn’t originally designed for writing, exactly. The internet was created to let scientists manage information and share it in an open way with each other. The first browsers were aimed at making academic writing easier to read and allow simple graphics.

I suspect the term developed because putting words so they’d show in browsers required some programming; it was programmers who first began developing websites. They saw the code as the important thing, not the writing. In fact, I remember great discussions about the quality of code behind web pages.

That code, of course, provides the framework to hold what we see on the web, but in the beginning no one worried much about what went on or inside a web page – it just got filled up. Hence the awful term “content.”

Although the web was designed with openness in mind, it didn’t occur to anyone at the time that the whole world would want to get in on the act and try to make a profit in the process.

But we did, and it happened in a hurry.

Of Search Engines and Content Farms

Then came search engines. Although there were several early attempts to create search engines with human editors, the sheer number of websites, most with multiple articles, made keeping up with human eyes impossible. That meant the chore needed to be handled by computers. Since computers can’t read. at least in the in the sense that humans do, the solution was to program them to look for key words and phrases that would allow them to find pages that matched the search term people were likely to use.

The content farms were developed to take advantage of the dumbness of computers. Articles were stuffed with key words and phrases. When Google offered Adsense to web publishers it was probably only moments before marketers realized if they could trick search engines into presenting their pages first they’d earn money just because the larger audience clicked on the ads, probably in hope of real information. What had been a trickle of bad “content” became a flood.

It’s the very openness of the web that allows the bad writing. If you want to write for Harper’s you’ve got to be good. Then your piece will go through rigorous editing and fact checking. All those checks and balances are missing from the web with few exceptions.

It’s worth noting that it was 2009 when Harper’s ran that ad and even then you could find much of their content online – today they’ve got archives available back to 1859 for subscribers. In fact most respected magazines and newspapers are online now.

Some of the worst kinds of freelance content writing got pushed pages lower in search engine rank when Google changed its algorithm in February of 2011 with their Panda update. They went after low quality sites stuffed with key words and inundated with advertising. Most legitimate publishers found themselves ranking higher and web users were glad to find it was easier to find what they were looking for.

We can only hope that this kind of improvement continues.

Anne Wayman photo Content Writing Can Be Real WritingAnne Wayman has been writing successfully for over 30 years. She blogs about freelance writing at About Freelance Writing.

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Comments

  1. Anne,

    Your article was most interesting. I find that many writers who vilify content writing and writers seem to spend most of their time on Blogs bragging about how much they get paid as they are “professional” writers. They have no concept that good content writing is an art form, far more than just using key words. It is weaving key words into an engaging well written, current piece that engages readers. It is persuasive writing that if done well we move the reader to take further action – click to a website, sign up for a newsletter or purchase something.

    I read many writing blogs as I take small breaks while I am working. Recently, one “real: writer” claimed that he got over $1,000 for writing a landing page. I asked him to share the link as I was curious to see what a $1,000 landing page looks like. It turns out it was his own page and he was selling a cure for cancer. The page was not well written (IMO) nor could he back any claims with data. It was horrible content that seemed to ripped be off from an early morning infomercial from TV.

    Successful content writers do get paid well for an engaging, factual and concise blog post or article. I am proud that I am a content writer, My work is factual,informative and I hope my readers enjoy it and it is seen by more folks in one day then the work (usually unpublished novels, article or self-promotional web pages) of those who look down their noses at content writers in a week.

    I am sure that you did not write this so the likes of me could vent, but these people really get me steamed!

  2. Ann,

    Thank you for writing this and explaining the nuances between good and bad content, the history behind the negative connotation associated with “content”, and content farms. So many people just don’t understand where all this comes from. I, for one, cut my teeth writing content for Neostead Internet Marketing. It’s a company owned by a dear friend who (to this day) still enjoys my freshman rate. It’s a legitimate business with some high profile clients. I wrote the landing page content for a good number of those clients. At the same time, I got mixed up with Demand Media. I don’t want to bash them because it was there that I met the most amazing editor (retired from a well-known newspaper) in the universe. His brutal honesty and patient teaching made me the successful writer I am today.

    I thought my pay from DM was grand at the time (perceptions, right?). That said, the pay I received — even for special projects — from DM does not even come CLOSE to what a full-on pro writer receives for his/her hard work. But, we’ve all got to start somewhere. As I gained more experience and learning in a didactic sense, I broke away from them and earned many of the clients that fomented my plunge into writing full time (c. Jan 2010).

    Here I am today — wiser and better for my (not always good, but not always bad) experience in the content mills.
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  3. I actually remember when all the “content” was starting to fill up the web. Believe it or not, some content sites (once upon a time) had really good editing and did reject articles. I also remember scam companies starting up and promoting the ability to “make it as a writer”. I guess this is when I found Demand Media. They didn’t look all that bad to a new writer back in 2007 and 2008. The pay was consistent, and the work was always there.

    Then came the economic bubble of 2009, and all hell broke loose. Right as content was gaining ground and people realized that there “might be gold in them there hills”, tons of people took to writing to save their collective soles. And that is where the dollar per 500 word phenomenon came from I do believe. Then came the cheaper labor from countries such as India and others who flooded the market more.

    Now content writing is, or should be, trying to regain some ground again. My whole take on content writing is similar to direct marketing. You’re trying to get the reader to read to the end, while sounding like an expert in presentation, and make a dime or two as well.
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  4. Great breakdown Ann. One aspect of the content farming I think survives is the keyword density most automated systems require. Though this may help ensure the writers doesn’t veer off topic, it’s funny it survives not just the panda update, but also the fact that it’s myth.

  5. Thank you for this. We have a content writer and he definitely sees his writing as trying to put something more useful on the web rather than just getting words out there onto the Internet without any real person (like some other content writers I have known). Thanks

  6. Michael Wong
    Twitter:
    says:

    Hi Anne,

    Thanks for the great post. I find I’m guilty of poor content too as half my time is spent writing for people and half spent writing for Google. I know it’s wrong to keyword stuff and do all sorts of artificial SEO type stuff, but I guess I’m insecure like that. I figure if I don’t do it, my competitors will get the jump on me and do it. The result is that I’ll be principled, but…poor. Fortunately, like I said, half of me is engaged in quality content because I really believe in what I write/sell. Thanks for inspiring me to keep up the quality.

  7. I’m FAR from being a writer and in fact on several occasions I had feedback on my grammar and spelling but because I personally write t help people and provide answers and solutions to specific problems – I find my readers, or rather they find me.

    I’m simply grateful that my, however grammatically screwed up it might be, content contribution provides people with what they need
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  8. Now content writing is, or should be, trying to regain some ground again. My whole take on content writing is similar to direct marketing. You’re trying to get the reader to read to the end, while sounding like an expert in presentation, and make a dime or two as well.

  9. Great article, Anne, and thanks to the previous commenters for their added dialog. My $.02 is that the phrase “content” has unfairly earned a negative connotation due to the junk that populates the blogosphere. The link farms, the aggregators, the post rewriters…it’s all junk content.

    But that doesn’t mean that content can’t be high quality. In fact, I believe that high quality content is what Google is trying to reward with the Panda updates. They are trying to stop people from just populating the Web with trash. The more Google penalizes junk content, the happier I will be. I strive to provide my audience with content that helps them learn and makes their lives just a little bit easier each day.

    Someday, I hope we get to the point that the Web is filled with THAT kind of content :)

    Cheers!

    –Sean
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