How Does Your Writing Stack Up to the Cheesecake Factory’s Menu?

So, I was cruising the web the other day, as I am apt to do, and I came across this gem from Neil Gaiman’s blog.  The TL;DR version goes something like this: he was asked to read the Cheesecake Factory’s menu for a highly publicized charity stunt.  And that got me thinking, scratching my long luxurious lady-beard, and I wondered to myself: How would I feel if what they had chosen to read was something I had authored, even if it was ghosted.  After all, I still hold a little piece of those word babies tight to my chest and feel responsible for them for their entire lives.

Then I thought “Well, Hell, that could be a blog topic!”  So here we are.  You are now officially caught up.  Thanks for sticking with me.

How Does Your Content Read to Others?

As you probably know by now, I work with young writers from time to time, giving them whatever weak bits of advice I can come up with and generally acting like I actually know something.  One of the most common roadblocks these young’ens have is a fear of not being good enough or of being out-written by the competition.  I’m sure you’ve had this fear yourself at some point in your journey, or maybe you feel that way right now.   I’d be a liar if I said I never felt that I wasn’t as good as other writers.

But you know what?  If someone is paying you for writing on a consistent basis, you’re doing better than most.  Even those keyword-driven content monkeys are doing a better job with the words than the vast majority of the public, else the Google would have blacklisted their sites long ago.  And that, my friends, should bring you some level of comfort.  However, resting on your laurels is what’ll get my big black boot right up your ass.

You can always be better.

What if Neil was reading YOUR infomercial, blog or product descriptions for charity?  How would you feel?  Would you shrink in shame because you phoned it the fuck in and didn’t bother to actually care?

Although I’m not exactly proud of all the work I’ve done, and I’ve worked for some clients that I felt were totally fucking awful slimeballs (ambulance chasers, for example), if Neil Gaiman were to read any of those pages, any of those pieces out loud, I’d take a front seat.  I’d be like, “Them’s my words, motherfuckers, and Neil bloody Gaiman is reading them!”  And then I’d pass out.

Improving Your Content, Improving Your Mindset

There are two kinds of writers in this world.  Those that write with confidence that they’re doing all they can to produce top notch content and those who bang out random words in hopes of getting paid.  You can easily tell the difference between the two.  Writer #1 is crippled with self-doubt and reads blogs like this.  Writer #2 has no fucks to give.

You’re reading this, so I assume you’re Writer #1.  And if you’re Writer #2, maybe you sorely want to be Writer #1, so I’m giving you a pass just this once.  Charity.  Don’t get used to it.

That writer that’s wracked with guilt, that wishes they could do more, be more, learn more, get better and better, they’re the ones to watch.  And there’s a reason for this.  Not only are they meticulously checking their work for places it could be improved, they’re also spending time reading and learning, which tends to trickle down into a wider vocabulary and even better ways to turn a phrase.  Tends to.  I mean, you can’t get away with reading cereal boxes and learn anything, but I digress.  This blog is built on generalization, after all.

If you’re already doing all that stuff — the reading and the learning — well, I mean, that’s about all there is out there.  There’s no magic to good writing.  You simply learn the words, you figure out how they fit together, while demystifying punctuation and developing a sense for how people read along.  Metre is important, it’s so vital, but it’s something you pick up as you go.

So, if you’re struggling, if you’re wondering if you’re enough, and you think you’d be mortified if Neil Gaiman were to read your blog, you’ve probably alright.  A lot of it comes with experience.  You’ll learn when to hold them (keep working on a piece) and when to fold them (stop touching it and turn the motherfucker in).  You’ll learn when to walk away, you’ll learn when to run (from bad clients?  This metaphor isn’t holding up).   Write, that’s the thing.  Keep writing and keep caring.

Writing Readable Content is the Goal

There are lots of tips out there for writing clean and perfect content (it’s a fucking unicorn, stop chasing it), but there’s only one you really need.  Read that shit out loud, motherfuckers. Read it to your cat, read it to your pet barracuda, read it to the stars, but read it.  There’s only so much you can extrapolate about the flow of a thing by simply staring the words down.  You need to hear them, bring them in through your earholes and savor each umlaut.

Listening to your content is the one and only way to ensure that others will read it as you intended it.  Clear your mind and read that shit out loud.  You can break the rules, you can put an m-dash where there should be a period, provided it all flows right in the reading.  Look, I don’t know what your mother told you, but English is a language that should flow easily from the tongue, even if you’re reading a automotive parts catalog or a Cheesecake Factory menu.

I did a piece a while ago about writing by beats, and I still believe in this.  I do this every single time I write.  Do I need to write something super peppy and salesy?  Crank the happy music.  Am I writing a somber report of sadness?  Slow and steady, man.  Writing by beats is a quickie cheat to getting your metre right.  I’m very pro-cheat, or “life hack,” as we now call this shit.

What I hope you take from this blog is that you are absolutely capable of writing better content than the marketers at the Cheesecake Factory.  Your content can fucking sing if you’ll let it.  Just keep writing, just keep writing, and don’t forget to crank the jams.

I’m counting on you.  Make me proud.

This Internet Life: How Are You Influencing Your Audience?

I’ve been an internet person for six years now, for better and for worse, and I often ask myself one simple question: “How am I influencing my audience?”  Are they getting something positive from my social media interaction?  Is my influence something they cherish and find important?  Am I the kind of person people SHOULD be influenced by?  (The answer to that last question is definitely “NO.”)  Think With Google actually did a short piece on the influence of YouTube stars versus traditional celebs back in July and although I just saw it, I think it’s worth the time to reflect a bit.

Do You Think About the Content You’re Putting Out On the Web?

I admit that I didn’t really give a second thought to most of the content I created in the early days of being a full time Internet denizen.  My years at Demand Media (now StudioD) aren’t years I’m particularly proud of, but they gave me time to learn how to work online and build a meager, but loyal, social media following.  I didn’t think about what I was putting out back then, which I kind of wonder about now… but there are no take backs in this world of digital publishing unless you’re the publisher — and I’m not.  Obviously.

So, since then I’ve tried to be more conscious of what I put out into the world.  And, as it turns out, that’s probably a good thing.  I mean, that is if you assume that social media mavens are ranked anywhere between YouTube stars and regular celebrities in influence.  Google found that 70 percent of teenagers related better to YouTube creators than regular celebs and that 40 percent of Millennials believe their favorite creators understand them better than their friends.

Let me stop there for a moment.  Forty percent of Millennials think that digital media creators understand them better than their friends, people that they have a close and personal relationship with, in theory.  That’s an incredible amount of power for you, as a digital creator, to be holding in your hands.  A dangerous amount of power, I’d argue.  You have the ability to affect change, to introduce some really great ideas, share your culture or be lazy and lob worn out material into the universe.  It’s up to you, really.  That’s the crazy part!

You have more power than traditional celebs, people we once revered and followed around like they were the center of the universe.  I can remember going to the super market and being surrounded by sensational headlines (the click bait of yesteryear) about the personal lives of celebrities young and old.  So and so was having a secret affair with so and so.  Such and such was having that guy’s baby.  *gasp*

Tabloid magazines had incredible influence in their day, too, and a lot of unfounded rumors started right there in the grocery queue.  The power of the media is too often well beyond what any individual member of the media estimates that I think we kind of snowball out of control before we realize.

Being a Responsible Content Creator

Yeah, yeah… I know, you’ve gone over this before, and other people cover this shit and this shit has been done.  Well fuck ya’ll, it’s never been done by me.  And unlike some of those other folks, like the guys at Inc. and Google and wherever else you might consider read-worthy, I’m a different sort of thing.  I’m beholden to no one.  I’m a free fucking agent.

And I still think you’re a bunch of assholes who need to get your acts together.  As it turns out, people share that shit you’re making, often without fact-checking it or even bothering to read beyond your sensational headlines.  Don’t believe me?  Do you believe the Washington Post and Columbia University?  What the researchers involved in this project found was that approximately 60 percent (59, to be exact) share news articles and other types of content without actually consuming it beyond the preview generated on social media.

So, if they’re not reading it, what’s the harm?  Oh, boy, the harm’s big and real.  Without reading your content start to finish, those readers aren’t giving themselves a chance to really flex their bullshit detecting muscles.  “Hmm.  I’m pretty sure water doesn’t cause cancer,”  they’d say to themselves if they read all the way to the end of your article.  But since they don’t, you’ve got the added responsibility of making sure you’re not a lying sack of shit.

Here are some tips for not being a lying sack of shit on accident.  I think you can guess how to not do it on purpose:

1. Fact check, you already know your readers won’t.  Before you state that a reader can heal their insulin-dependent Diabetes with Plexus (I know I’m going to make some enemies here, but you can go right on and fuck yourselves…), maybe you should look into what’s in Plexus and maybe ask a doctor for an opinion.  If the ingredients don’t include insulin and the doctor doesn’t say “Yes!  DO THAT!”  then there’s probably not a good reason to believe that’s gonna work.  More importantly, if you can’t find PRIMARY research with placebos and double-blind studies, then there’s a REALLY good chance the health claim you’re making is going to end up hurting someone.  Cut the shit.  I’m really tired of this offense in particular.

However, this also goes for political stuff — and it’s that time in the cycle in America.  Skew the facts all you want, but you better present them whole.  Oh, Hillary was a member of a cult when she was 19?  Great.  But she ended up converting it to a Fortune 500 peanut butter factory?  Fantastic.  The Donald breeds rare kittens just to skin and turn into toupees?  But he also donates extras to kids with cancer?  Give us the whole story.  Give us the accurate story.  Be honest.  Honesty is good, and you’ll feel good….

2. Tame your fucking headlines.  Do you have any idea how ineffective it is to write a thousand headlines that say “This One Amazing Trick…”,”Weirdest X You’ve Ever Seen!,” “X Things You’d Never Believe About Y!”?  I’m pretty sure everyone knows a fucking Click-bait headline when they see it by now.  No one is asking themselves “what is that one amazing trick?”  No one.  Do you know what headlines DO work?  Headlines that say something.  Let me give you an example.  Inc. just posted an article with a headline that reads: “Apple Unveils iPhone 7 With Improved Camera, Wireless Audio.”  It’s not “X Secrets of the New iPhone 7!”  This is how a headline works.  A good headline tells you something about what’s inside.

3. Add something to the conversation or shut the fuck up.  This is probably the hardest part of being a content creator.  The actual content you’re creating… it can’t simply be a repeat of the other content that’s out there.  You need to create something that’s different.  Something that’s special for your client or your brand.  No one wants to read 40 business blogs with the same advice.  They want to read about tricks and tips that worked for your company, with specifics.  Be detailed, be interesting, but most importantly, be fucking original.  I realize that you’ll repeat some of the same advice, that’s going to happen — but add something to the conversation or don’t bother, even if that thing is just a unique perspective and a heavy spattering of “fucks.”

If you read this far, congratulations — you bothered to listen to someone who’s been where you’re headed.  If you didn’t, well, you’ll never see this, but go eat a turd anyway.