Why I Refuse To Use The Word ‘Content’ To Describe My Writing
It’s the end of another busy week writing and interacting with clients. Which means lots of writing, a few phone calls and …. lots of scrolling through my LinkedIn feed and hearing people’s feelings about writing ‘content’.
One of the great beauties of the internet is that it helps every curmudgeon like me to feel as if they are part of a large community — even when, in fact, our views are marginal in the broader scheme of things.
‘Content’ is up there with ‘freelance’ in terms of words that I vigorously resist using to describe what I do.
And lest you mistake me for a lone wolf, here are some other angry online people that feel similarly:
Don’t Call it Content
Please, for the love of all that’s holy, nuanced, and true, stop calling writing content.
Stop Calling Yourself a "Freelance Writer" - WriterAccess
No matter what your content writing rates might be, when you tell people you're a freelance writer, you get one of two…
For the purposes of posterity — and of encouraging other writers to keep up the good (but futile) fight — let me describe, in brief, why I feel this way.
‘Content’ Is Ridiculously Non-Specific
Almost everybody in technology has likely come across the abbreviation content management system (CMS).
Wordpress powers about 30% of the internet. Drupal and Joomla are major engines too.
CMSs were necessitated when websites went from being by and large static to resources to dynamic ones. The emergence of blogging and the transition of news media online also expedited their development. Managing a website with 1,000s of articles individually would be virtually impossible. People needed a way to manage the creation and delivery of content more efficiently. And one which was more user-friendly than typing HTML into a code editor.
CMSs typically consisted of themes which were build around templates. These used serverside languages such as PHP which allowed website designers to build a consistent outline for their websites and to store ‘content’ in a database that could be injected whenever they, say, needed to add a news article to a news website.
The footer, header, and sidebar elements could be designed once and then added to each page of the site with a simple PHP call. This greatly increased the efficiency of website design and made it easy for newspapers and other publications to create online replicas of their print editions.
For those old enough to remember a time when websites simply consisted of a few inter-linked HTML files (not so long ago — I am a member of that club!), this was a big step forwards.
A CMS like Wordpress would present end-users with a text editor, a few extras (like the ability to add images) and a publish button.
Once the online scribe was done penning his contribution and the ‘content’ was published it would be written to the database and the ‘content’ thus delivered into new web page ready for users to access through their web browsers.
I doubt much thought went into this or whoever decided upon the acronym CMS realized that he or she was foisting the word ‘content’ on writers for generations to come.
But it seemed like a fine term to use to describe the ‘stuff’ that went into a typical blog post: the words and images and later things like embedded audio and video.
But what makes sense in the nomenclature of managing technical systems — where shorthand always reigns supreme — doesn’t necessarily mean much in real life.
(Another reason, using writing as an example: from the standpoint of those that use the term both the verbiage at the back of a cereal box, and a white paper, would be ‘content’. In reality these are very different types of writing which call for different skill-sets on the part of those writing them, and that difference can be reflected by using alternative descriptions: like copywriting and white paper writing).
There’s Nothing Wrong With Calling Writing ‘Writing’
As a writer, my central issue with the word ‘content’ is that it has led to the insipid devaluation and commoditization of writing. This is a process which we are seeing continuing through this day with the gradual erosion of rates that writers have been fighting against for years.
In content’s non-specificity lies its potential to cause harm to our industry and the rates that creatives are able to command.
Because when we amalgamate writing, photography, audio, and video production under one non-specific rubric — and tell the world that that’s what we’re comfortable calling ourselves — we encourage others to see various forms of creative expression as one monolithic hub of ‘stuff’ between masthead and footer.
Because if we, as writers, are not going to be bothered to call our words ‘writing,’ then why should our clients make the effort to?
Despite my (strong) feelings about the word ‘content,’ I think that content marketing has been an overall positive trend.
Much excellent podcasting, video, and writing has been created by marketing teams to create relationships with listeners and readers through informing them and delivering value rather than by going on the hard sell.
This, in turn, has resulted in the outpouring of plenty of objectively worthwhile information into the world. Not all of it is compelling. Not all of it is well-produced. But enough of it is that its beneficial effect extends beyond the value it brings to its prospects. I like to think of inbound marketing as an information vortex. Sure, prospects get caught up in its spiral just as those creating it intended. But, as a positive collateral effect, so do not many non-buyers who are edified by its information without having to offer anything — even money — in return.
I humbly propose that calling this deluge of ‘stuff’ ‘information’ (as in ‘information marketing’) might have been a better way of describing the potpourri of writing, audio, and video that characterize many inbound marketing strategies.
Doing so would honor the skills and talents of the creatives that contribute to its creation and avoid denigrating any of its components by referring to it as a mere constituent of a nebulous and ill-defined heap of ‘stuff’ between websites’ headers and footers.
It would seem like overkill to write a whole second post just to rail against the word ‘freelancer’ so I’m choosing to tack it onto this one instead.
‘Freelancer’ is another word that I feel adds no value to the world.
In fact, I believe that it actually works against those that use the term by implying that they are somehow less professional than those working full-time for one employer in an office.
Here are some facts — at least those that I perceive to be factual:
- If you’re a full time freelancer than you are, in fact, a small business owner. You pay taxes, engage in sales and marketing (even if you don’t realize you’re doing it). The only difference between you and somebody who markets themselves as this, in fact, might be the word you are choosing to describe yourself.
- If you’re a part time freelancer then you still own a business. It’s just that it’s not at a very high level of scale. And it isn’t large enough to constitute your whole income yet.
How We Describe Ourselves Matters
I wage a constant battle between having to occasionally refer to myself as a ‘content writer’ (strictly for SEO purposes) and trying to actively resist the term. If there is a way that I can attract prospects without once describing myself as a ‘content writer,’ then I will continue to do so.
Whatever type of creative you are, I believe that referring to yourself as a ‘content creator’ is doing yourself a mild disservice.
My objection to the word ‘content’ is really that it is a needless catch-all.
If we can more accurately describe what we do as writing, photography, or podcasting (or a mixture of those things), then why do we need to imply to clients that we are part of some homogeneous community of creatives that together makes the ‘stuff’ that helps them sell their things online.
In writing — as in most creative fields — specialty is the key to earning better rates. The distinctions between various forms of creative expression continue to matter — just as they did before CMSs were invented and people put websites on the internet by uploading a slew of individual HTML files. Playing into a mode of thinking that undermines our own professionalism is not wise thinking. The language which we use to describe ourselves has a powerful impact on that. And the choice of words is ours to make.