Published 130 years ago, George Gissing’s New Grub Street is set against the magazine boom of the late-Victorian era, a world dominated by the commoditisation of the written word. Gissing’s cast of writers must adapt to the middlebrow tastes of a mass reading public that is emerging as a commercial force for the first time.
The earnest Edward Reardon, who has aspirations to high art and reads the classics in his spare time, is crushed by penury and critical neglect, while the cynically opportunistic Jasper Milvain writes whatever he is paid to write, and spends his leisure hobnobbing with publishers and editors.
Itself written at a rate of 4,000 words a day, New Grub Street uniquely details the nuts and bolts of hackwork and the economics of the deadline. We live today in a new digital Grub Street, and if Milvain were alive and writing now, he would of course be a content strategist and CEO of a ‘brand storytelling’ consultancy.
Milvain is a hack for our times – the man for whom the word ‘content’ might have been coined. Like ‘art’ or the ‘S’ in S Club Seven, the term ‘content’ can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean. Everyone’s an author these days, and the act of publishing (so lamentably accessible now!) bestows a spurious gravitas: ‘If it’s just a cluster of words you have gathered to “engage” an unsuspecting reader with your brand or your persona, it’s almost certainly a piece of shit,’ writes Bob Hoffman in a notorious blog post. ‘But when you upload it to the web, it automatically gets promoted to content.’
I mean, I tend to agree with all this. Content is padding, filler, guff. But having been working at the commercial content coalface for the best part of 30 years, I feel an urge to find something good to say about it, or at least the people who create the stuff. (Though I may not go quite as far as Accenture, which once described content as ‘to business what water is to life: an essential element for health and growth’.)
The classic content piece is a form of contextualised retail – getting a business to provide some kind of information that aligns with its expertise.
Home insurance provider? Top 10 home security tips.
Retail bank? First-time mortgage guide.
HR consultancy? Stress management ebook.
IT supplier? White paper on migrating your business to the cloud.
So far, so sensible. But content exists primarily to feed the insatiable ravening demon that is SEO, or search engine optimisation. What this means exactly for content writers changes over time as Google tweaks its demands, but SEO is essentially a range of tactics to get your content to rank higher in search engine results than your competitors’. So a business might, for example, identify the words people are likely to search on related to what it does – like the phrase ‘sell used car’ – and then get a content person to craft some copy around them, which would go something like this: ‘if you woke up this morning with the words “sell used car” playing on your mind, you’ve come to just the right site!’
Peak SEO for the content-maker involved ‘keyword density’. I’ve often been asked to optimise articles to a density of 10% or 13%, meaning that the requisite phrase (‘mobile broadband’, say, or ‘small business start-up loans’, or ‘cheap flights to Reykjavik’) has to appear 13 times in every 100 words you write. Now say what you like about seo copywriters (and people do), that’s not a challenge Anthony Trollope ever had to face.
Such constraints make for all sorts of creative contortions. What if, for example, your client has asked you to optimise the copy for a phrase (‘cheap van insurance’) that’s directly at odds with what your client does (very pricey van cover) It’s simple: ‘Cheap van insurance: the pros and cons.’ Or: ‘Why cheap van insurance will cost you more in the long run.’
Another trick is to take old pieces of content that have performed well and refresh them (a process sometimes known as ‘historical optimisation’). Another one – not so very different, really – is to create a piece of ur-content and endlessly rehash it. These pieces have to be similar enough to minimise the resource cost of real knowledge or research, but not so samey as to commit the cardinal sin of duplication, which Google frowns on.
One project that kept a bunch of us occupied for many months involved researching and writing several hundred guides to beach resorts for a leisure brand. I found myself locked in a strange liminal dream-world in which pedalos and Blue Flags and kitesurfers and sunloungers danced round and round a giant whirling sandy maw with an insatiable appetite for new adjectives to describe that strip of land you get next to the sea at a holiday destination. These lists of epithets were regularly updated and circulated to writers, to help them avoid duplication and keep the ‘brand voice’ fresh. Here’s the sort of email I used to send out to the team:
‘Hi all, Please can we try and stop using the words ‘unspoilt’, ‘gently shelving’ and ‘golden’, which are creeping into rather too many of the beach guides. Here are some alternatives you might want to consider: silky-smooth, white, coral-white, volcanic, idyllic, public, private, crumbly, stony, pebbly, popular with locals, kid-friendly, narrow, long, wide, rocky, deserted, lonely, lovely, flat, secluded, hard to reach, accessible, nudist, gravelly, tropical, dreamy, bustling, lively, desolate, remote, sheltered, welcoming, shady, horseshoe-shaped, curvy, beguiling, sunny, secure, large, windy, wavy, romantic, breezy…’
Google is always tweaking its demands to keep ahead of the baddies who wish to game the system, and content creators are always struggling to keep up. One Google update demanded a new emphasis on editorial quality and originality, which led us into the high era of content marketing with its mantra of ‘brands as publishers’. It’s not enough now for a business just to write about stuff it knows about – now it has to entertain and inspire too. So we get Halloween japes from a boiler company. A fly’s eye VR view of your fridge from a dairy brand. News in brief from a hosiery supplier.
It is a strange, grunty world, where traditional editorial skills are deployed to some very postmodern ends. But at least I worked mostly for big brands and reputable agencies. At the sharp end are the content mills and bid sites, where hungry writers are paid brutally low rates to carry out often achingly wearisome copy tasks. The freelance interweb is full of horror stories like this:
‘I had to write 12 x 300-word blurbs on a variety of insects. That’s roughly 3600 words. This took me three excruciating days of researching and learning the differences between ordinary cockroaches and palmetto bugs, finding out about the adult life cycle of the termite, and other such facts. At the end of the job, I received… $10. $9 after PayPal fees.’
It often seems these days that the number of people looking for editorial work is inversely proportional to the amount of work available. With magazines and newspapers shedding jobs, content has offered a new horizon for redundant Fleet Street night editors and newbie media studies grads alike.
The humanities types flooding into marketing inevitably dust down their private passions and obscure thesis topics to turn into workshop decks and blog posts. References to ‘the Hero’s journey’ and the Poetics have become ten a penny, with liberal abuse of the ‘What X can teach us about Y’ template. As in: ‘Nine things Lady Gaga can teach us about community management’, ‘Five things The Godfather can teach us about affiliate marketing’ and my all-time fave: ‘What Sanskrit melodics can teach us about email marketing campaign cadence’.
I’m not sniggering; I’ve done loads of these myself, invoking everyone from Aristotle to Dickens to Paul Grice. As with the rent-a-sermons of Thought for the Day, anything can with a little ingenuity be made into a lesson about any other thing.
And this of course is what content itself does. It proliferates, it subdivides, it remakes itself. It is a supremely elastic substance, blithely aware of its own disposability, that can expand to fill any gap or sink (or rise) to any level. The people who work in this world – many of them fine writers and creatives – have supremely elastic skills too and vast reserves of knowing forbearance.
To you they might be hacks; to me they are a kind of hero.
Or, as Jasper Milvain says:
‘Honest journey-work! There are few men in London capable of such a feat. Many a fellow could write more in quantity, but they couldn’t command my market. It’s rubbish, but rubbish of a very special kind…’