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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Content, narrative journalism, making fact interesting...With two Rocky analogies...

When it comes to online writing, what do we usually call an individual piece of "straight content" writing?

An article.

We rarely use the word "story" to describe the work. Stories go beyond factual recitation. They have characters, a voice and follow a narrative structure that may not resemble journalism's inverted pyramid.

Hemingway wrote stories. Content writers write articles.

Maybe it's time for some of us to change that.

Articles are relatively easy to write in structural terms. They don't require as much creativity as a story. A good article writer will give you WWWW&H with perfect grammar. A good story writer will bring it to life.

I've mentioned my appreciation for Hunter S. Thompson here a few times. He was part of the "new journalism" movement (which may not have really been all that new, but the name stuck). Instead of giving us the WWWW&H of a cycle rally in Nevada, he gave us "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."

I'd wager that no other writer who covered the 1971 Mint 400 motocross race filed an article that became the meat of a "perennial classic."

The new journalism (I prefer "narrative journalism") kicked traditional concepts of objectivity to the curb, making the reporter part of the story. No longer a mere observer, the writer's voice, attitudes, perspective and storytelling skills wriggled free of the conventional limitations imposed by the j-school inverted pyramid.

So, am I arguing that SEO content should go gonzo? Yeah, I think so. Maybe not in all cases. Probably not to the extreme of Thompson's rambling excess. But at least a little bit. When we're writing articles, we should also be writing stories. Stories people want to read. Stories with life and not just reshuffled Wikipedia fact lists.

You can make a strong argument to the contrary.

You can tell me that people who hit the search engines in seek of info don't want to think, to meet and relate with characters, etc. They just want the facts--streamlined, dull, black and white facts. They might not mind a little entertainment, but we can manage that with a cute headline and a couple of inoffensive jokes somewhere in the third and fifth paragraphs.

In my estimation, what people want and what they think they want don't always match up. The article-turned-story that grabs them by the neck and demands their attention might just be the kind of experience they want deep down inside. That search for "sock monkey patterns" may be satisfied with "Three Sock Monkey Patterns for Everyone," but the expectation might be exceeded by "The Sock Monkey Pattern that Saved Her Life."

The trick, of course, is to get around to the part of narrative journalism that the good doctor Thompson sometimes forgot--the key facts of the story. I don't think F&L ever tells us who won the Mint 400. Great literature? I think so. Great journalism? Not necessarily.

It is, however, possible to weave the facts into the narrative. To provide the information along with the story.

We know narrative structures are compelling. People started loving soap operas back when a remote control was telling your kid walk to the radio to fine-tune the reception. People would recognize Stephen King walking down the street even if he wasn't a little creepy looking. I was one of how many million people who watched Rocky duke it out yet again this week. We love stories. We remember them. We crave them. They connect with us.

Most of us would rather read _________ (insert name of favorite author here) than the dictionary tonight. When facts alone enter the ring with good storytelling, it isn't Balboa/Creed. It's more like Drago/Creed with _________ playing the Soviet heavyweight.

People want facts? Give them facts. Give them facts within a compelling, fast moving and interesting piece that offers them something else, too.

There are other objections to the idea. Article writing isn't rocket science and it's incredibly efficient. Building a more narrative type of content will be more time consuming and difficult.

That's true. No way around it. It takes more time. It requires more work. It requires more skill. If you write that way, you'll have to up your rates for it. If you want that kind of content, you'll have to pay more for it.

The real issue isn't the difficultly/pay difference. As is usually the case when it comes to writing for a living (or buying writing so that you can make a living), the bottom line has to come first. It's about ROI. Does a more narrative content produce results that make the additional time/$$$ investment worthwhile? Is there a high enough return on investment to justify the "better stuff?"

I don't have good evidence to make an argument either way. I suspect that a more creative form of web content could produce stellar results relative to the so-boring-I-am-going-to-dent-the-monitor-with-my-forehead kind of content that dominates the web. Probably not in all (or maybe even most) cases, however. Sometimes a straightforward "Ten Reasons Why a Tin Backsplash is Perfect for Your Kitchen" article will be just what the doctor (not Thompson) ordered.

Even if we fall short of going gonzo on the SEO content trail, we can at least appropriate some of the lessons taught by narrative journalism, etc. We can try to inject a soul, a voice and a life into "straight content" work when it make sense to do so. We can make it the kind of thing a person really wants to read instead of the kind of thing they feel compelled to read because it's the first thing they found on Google that didn't redirect them to a pop-up nightmare atop an unrelated sales page for an online dating site.

That kind of writing might actually pre-sell products. It might help create brand. It could increase the length and number of page views. It certainly couldn't hurt in terms of repeat visitation. It's the very definition of link-bait.