Is it Writing or is it Content?




In my not-so-distant past, I read an article by a writer, who posts things in a forum which I respect, pleading that we no longer call our writing Content. She ruminated deeply on this topic, outlining reason after reason why we should respect writing enough to ditch this term, (she called it a “catchall”) and give ourselves the respect that we deserve. She argued that there was, in fact, no way that a writer came up with the term “content” to describe what we put into phrases and paragraphs every day for a living.

I felt maligned. Insulted, even. My feelings were hurt partly because I am currently writing-voicepursuing a certification in Content Strategy. Yes, content. I rather enjoy thinking of my writing as “content.” While I agree that there may be more nuanced terms for some forms of writing – and we may be more specific: poetry, haiku, essay, short story, etc., in the world of technical communication, marketing and corporate communications, what we create is…wait for it…content. But I was more bent out of shape because when asked, I introduce myself as a writer. I rarely qualify this term unless I need to.

I am a writer.writer

The words, phrases, and paragraphs that I construct are inextricably linked to a perception of the company for which I work, its products and its mindset. What I write for them is not the great American novel, nor do I wish it to be. This writer argued that “to write is to find out what you think.” How very noble. I wish that I was finding out what I am thinking while I am creating dozens of web pages that instruct software users in the intricacies of an installation process that is many steps long and requires detailed diagrams to accompany my flowery prose. Alas, I am not. What I am doing is creating useful, tangible prose that goes out into the world and does real good. My writing takes root, grows, and from it blooms a garden of procedures. Those procedures help make sure that your debit card works every Monday morning. It’s a beautiful thing, but I won’t be nominated for a Pen Faulkner any time soon.

Because I create content.

She even maligns content as a marketing strategy, which I found specious. I generate literally dozens of tweets per month in order to forward the ideas and goals of my company. That is writing – and it’s hard writing. I have to be creative, pithy, sometimes funny, sometimes I do a lot of research – and all in a very tight space. It’s called brevity, and Mark Twain said that was the soul of wit. I’m with him. And it’s writing. It’s writing content. That content helps users get to my products and helps people understand my work. Plus it’s darn good writing. So there.

books4People consume my content, not the way they consume a classic novel or even a beach read. They do not recommend my work to their friends as the next great thing to read, and they do not say, “Hey, did you see that great process that Susan just created? Wow! Talk about incredibly lean doc!” That, my friends, is the dream of any software documentation writer, I assure you. But maybe, just maybe, what some of my friends say is, “Susan wrote an insightful blog about the value of Content Writing and how it is important, just like writing your memoir. After all, that technical document will show you how to set up your new laptop so that you can write your memoir. And then you can stick your nose in the air and claim that is real writing, not merely content.”


Picking up the #Slack

I recently read a post that another tech writer wrote about the great value he got out of attending a conference, and it got me to thinking about whether I missed the academic conferences I used to attend when I was in Higher Education, that conference-heavy publish-or-perish world that used to frame my professional life.

I do rather miss those conferences, but not because they helped in my professional conferencedevelopment at all. I miss them because they were rather fantastic social networking events where I got to visit nifty cities and see old friends, meet new friends and make some cool connections that would become Facebook pals I’d never see again anywhere other than social media. I’d occasionally hear a good lecture, but more often than not I would gain little professionally and more socially from those conferences. Even the ones where I was a presenter. Don’t get me wrong – there is assuredly professional gain. It is a boon to my resume that I gave a talk at The Rhetoric Society of America. That I delivered a conference paper at The Conference on College Composition and Communication when it was in New York City. It’s kind of a big deal. I did my share of networking, it’s true.

But it is also true that when I was at a conference for Professional and Technical Writing programs and a primary speaker was delivering a talk about women in the professions and helping each other through academic networking I sought her out afterward, only to email her and never hear from her again. Talk about deflating. I did, though, enjoy the venue and the cocktail hour and I made a friend there who is totally into mountain biking and lives in Colorado and we are Facebook pals and we swear one of these days we are going to get together and bike in Utah which we both love. We’ll do it, too, I just know it! The experience of making that Facebook friend is obviously the more valuable experience. Totally worth the money I spent on the conference.

In my professional life, I gain much, much more from networking threads like Slack and Google Plus or Google Docs because I get actual work done there. I collaborate on the daily with other professionals who do what I do, who think like I think, and they interact and respond in real time without the hotel bar chit chat and the façade of friendly. I’ve yet to have a Google hangout with my colleagues fail to result in real feedback, but I’ve definitely had conferences end with “sure, I’d love to look at that manuscript,” only to have neither party send a manuscript or even reach out with a professional email. At conferencing events, offers of reach-out are made, but they are sometimes disingenuous. With options like LinkedIn or Slack, the work is in front of you and the gift is made. It’s in print – albeit digital print. It is more difficult to retract if the ask is not made with a glass of pinot noir in one hand. The work is sincere and the response is real. We work hard in this business, or in any business, and time is short, days are long but wide. It is time to put shoulders to the grindstone if we want real results.

New-Orleans-for-desktopDigital is the new real, and though those professional conferences sure are delightful if they are in Vegas or New Orleans or New York, I’d rather get my work done from my Pittsburgh home office and go out to celebrate after the amazing writing hits the screen – like it just did!