Problems with content

March 12, 2018
Real writers write. They write words, sentences, and paragraphs, which they assemble into hopefully coherent compositions of various type. They do not say, as nonwriters nowadays so often do, that they create content.

Real writers write. They write words, sentences, and paragraphs, which they assemble into hopefully coherent compositions of various type. They do not say, as nonwriters nowadays so often do, that they create content.

Indeed, real writers cringe when nonwriters describe products of their labor as “content.”

They cringe because, if they’re any good, they relish precision. The word “content” is deliberately, fatally imprecise.

Useful to wizards

It emerged legitimately among digital-media technicians, those anonymous wizards who cause words, images, and videos to appear on electronic screens.

To those folks, “content” has useful meaning. It’s what they write code for. They have scant professional reason to distinguish one form of content from any other.

The same cannot be said for nearly everyone else in the media world. Yet people who should know better prattle incessantly about “content” as though the word enhances communication. Outside the code-writing community, it does nothing of the sort.

A year or so ago, for example, the word crept into one of those frothy programs movie theaters project, before previews of coming attractions, to advertise popcorn and soft drinks amid brief amusements about moviemaking. At the end, the perky narrator signed off with something like, “And come back soon for new content.”

Who wrote that? Can communication be any less motivating?

People don’t leave home early for the cinema solemnly resolved never to miss “new content.” People don’t do anything for “content,” new or otherwise.

They might anticipate with modest enthusiasm reports about movie stars off-screen, the filming of a spectacular action scene, or the work habits of some quirky director. Such fare might profitably be called “Hollywood insights” or “the world backstage.”

But “content?” Ugh. The word dissipates meaning with ludicrous generalization. Whatever is meaningless is uninspiring, often insultingly so.

Imagine this conversation between two people in a car passing through a restaurant district:

“I’m hungry.”

“Me, too. Let’s eat.”

“What are you hungry for?”

“Food.”

That answer would be taken as a discourteous joke. Amalgamating communication in all its forms into “content” is analogous and no less condescending. Generalization offers haven to lazy minds. Precise communication requires clarity of thought. Clear thinking requires intellectual work.

So does good writing—for a closely related reason. Good writing expresses clear thinking. It’s precise. That’s why it’s difficult.

Hipsters enamored of the word “content” might recognize good writing when the encounter it—if they read. But they probably don’t write well. Available evidence indicates they don’t think precisely enough.

By “content,” they approximately mean: “stuff to read, view, or hear that might or might not be advertising.”

To them, therefore, “content,” means whatever they want it to mean under unspecified future conditions. Words that can mean anything are handy. They’re also useless in communication and often dishonest.

From the content muddle naturally grows a related abomination now painfully common: the nauseating “piece of content.”

That concoction can mean anything from yesterday’s weather report to War and Peace.

Real writers know that what nonwriters call content can be prose or poetry, news or commentary, fact or fiction, text or video, with or without audio, long or short, exciting or dull, good or bad.

Editors at Oil & Gas Journal, for example, all of them writers, distinguish daily between news stories, general-interest features, technical articles, columns, and editorials.

These distinctions are important to the production of OGJ. They’re important to readers, too, who need not be conscious of them.

Useless ambiguity

Yet glib banter about “content,” often from fashion-conscious go-getters with too little of substance to do, smears crucial distinctions into self-glamorizing, useless ambiguity.

In dozens of years toiling with words, this editor never has heard a seasoned colleague complain that some “piece of content”—as opposed to, say, a news story or technical article—needed a stronger lead, livelier verbs, clearer transitions, or more coherence.

Writers fret about such matters. Content creators don’t know why they’re important.