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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Discontent with Content

I began writing on my own when I was sixteen. I did not know what to write, I just knew that I wanted to write. I claim Robert Benchley as my first model as a writer.

If you do not know Benchley, he wrote charming humorous pieces for The New Yorker and similar magazines from the 20s to the 40s. I liked how he could take any modest, homely subject and create something fun to read.

His writing had three things that made it work, and that I envied:

  1. He had a voice. A Benchley persona existed that the reader knew and could relate to. He was an average guy (though not really), faced with average problems (though not really). He was not a faceless content producer.
  2. He had a subject. That Benchley persona could fuss about the travails of travel, or the silliness of opera, and it scaled perfectly. Again, readers could relate.
  3. He had an audience. He was a popular writer, yes. He won an Academy Award for a short feature that he acted in, derived from one of his pieces. Audience is not just a numbers game, however. It encompasses the idea in the writer’s head that someone could relate to what one writes. Benchley knew that he had something that would engage readers. He was distinct from his contemporaries James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and S. J. Perelman, all excellent in their own ways.

Nowadays, the stakes seem higher for writers. Production must be maximized. Writers must engage and entertain a highly distracted yet voracious readership. This leads to a problem.

A kind of blankness has entered the connotation for content.. Have you noticed? The term includes not just different types of writing—information, opinion, promotion, distraction—but different ways to present content. Content is pictures, videos, and writing: stuff. All carefully manipulated and delivered in tsunami-sized quantities.

I want to remain with the Benchley model.

Keywords, fan boys, and Top Ten Reasons have made content mechanical. I need information and want opinion, but the all too obvious noise of the machine overwhelms the message. Do you agree? Or should we just accept rushed, “crafted” writing pockmarked with keywords and typos?

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