October 28, 2013

Know Thyself Writer-Man

Digital disrupts all in its wake. Even our language is not safe.

Consider the word “content.” It’s a word I have adopted to clarify my professional specialty.

In April 2006, I was promoted from senior copywriter to content director at BFG Communications in Hilton Head. I was head of my own department, the content department, which set about filling vast digital spaces, a.k.a. our client’s websites, with content.

Given my history with and attachment to the word content, Tim Kreider’s opinion piece, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!” got my attention when he turned his argument to what words mean and how they build or destroy real market value.

The first time I ever heard the word “content” used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, “content providers” — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called “art” — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.

Most content, especially content made to sell, is in fact filler. Therefore, in the context of an advertising industry discussion, I am not grappling in the same way Kreider is with this problem. But he and I both agree that real writing must be called writing, not content. Same for real writers—they are writers not content producers or managers.

For me, this presents an important choose-your-words-wisely moment. Because content departments and content directors are not all that common, even today, so it’s not simple for me to easily convey my value to prospective buyers of David Burn-made content.

I was speaking to an old friend the other day. I thought how can my friend, or any friend help, me land new business when he or she doesn’t clearly understand what I do for a living?

“Hi, my name is David. I convey brand value.”

Sadly, especially for a writer, the above explanation and titles like copywriter or brand storyteller don’t do enough to communicate our market value. I am not sure there is much in the way of a workaround here.

I don’t want to over think this, but when you tell someone you are a writer, there’s an immediate suspicion (in gentler souls, a curiosity) about how you earn your way in the world. That’s likely why we come up with fancy words for what we do, or worse, long-winded explanations. It’s also why we work in fields like advertising and media.

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Advertising, Digital culture, Literature, Media