Content Writer? Goodness No—I’m a Storyteller

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and ...

And then he came at me, but I hit him with my banjo and …

Grasshopper, it’s an interesting time to be a writer. Journalists have fled (or been dismissed from) newsrooms in droves, and many of them have morphed into “content writers,” a phrase that doesn’t have the panache of “investigative reporter,” or “columnist” or even “scribe.”

Fifteen years ago, or maybe even ten, if you told most people you were a content writer, they’d have probably given you the same squinch-eyed expression supplied if you’d told them you were a tangerine. But now in many quarters the term gets a sage nod. Content writer, yes. Enterprising fellow.

When I was an undergrad (some time before the spoon was invented), I was on the staff of the college newspaper, for all four years. I envisioned the reporter’s life to be one of glitz and grit, and I wanted to be a glitzy-gritty one. Then, lacking today’s “choose yourself” perspective, two successive years of rejected applications at Berkeley’s journalism grad school managed to chasten my quest. But I did end up becoming a corporate editor, then a copywriter, then an editor, then a copywriter and then some conglomerations of the two. But I always kept a hand in journalism, writing freelance pieces (profiles, features, reviews) for newspapers and magazines.

Don’t Call Me No Damn Marketer
Circles, being the roundish things they are, curve things back yet again: now it’s hip for marketers to dub themselves “storytellers.” Telling stories, once the province of liars and impoverished fiction writers (bet you can’t cleave those two without a claw hammer) now has business-writing currency. Use your journalism skills to tell good stories with your content marketing, and you’ll get engaged. Whoops, I meant, get engagement. From your customers—who are now your peeps. Or something like that.

Now that I’ve trod back and forth over these words without a discernible direction, I’ll circle back: it’s an interesting time to be a writer, because sometimes you can get hired by companies to write materials whose content seems quite a stretch from their direct business interests. Companies want copy (that stuff, “content”) on their sites that pulls in readers, who after the reading might just check out the company’s goods. Take this example: I recently wrote a piece for an IT integration company on how bitters can complement the booze in a good cocktail.

Here’s another one of mine, again planted in the tech domain, written for a Forbes partner. The piece profiles a photographer who’s been doing good work for 40 years. The company wanted articles that demonstrated deep expertise in a subject, complementing—perhaps—the deep expertise they have in IT issues.

What, You Didn’t Know About Blue’s Secret Power?
Right now I’m doing a series of articles for a global company that supplies eyeglass lenses. Here, the articles are all slanted to the vision field, but still, the subjects—like “The Secret Power of the Color Blue” and “Children Should Play Outside for Eye Health”—can seem tangential. But behold the power of content writing—the wizard of Oz, known as G. Oogle, might just direct 30,000 drooling aficionados of the color blue to the site, and maybe some need glasses, to more clearly ogle their blue walls.

It isn’t journalism, and to this fiction writer it doesn’t quite seem storytelling. Also, the words “content marketing” have as much charm as a two-thirds full spittoon. But it’s still working with words, trying to weave them into something that beckons the imagination. Being a hired gun firing commercial bullets seems a fair hike from my gossamer proto-reporter’s dreams of decades ago, but still, it ain’t bad.

Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing

Tom's Twain Tattoo

Yeah it’s real, and it’s on my bicep. Lucky that cigar isn’t lit.

I’ve discovered the secret of good writing: write about a famous writer, and use his actual words to build all the basic layers—and the frosting—of the essay cake. I don’t even have to attempt to be lamely clever if I can steal the cleverness of others.

There’s a reason why this guy’s face is tattooed on my arm.

Thus, my post at Marketing Profs today: Mark Twain’s 10-Sentence Course on Branding and Marketing.

How to Keep Your Tribe Alive Even When They’re Dead

Emotional connections, particularly ones along bloodlines or long timelines, make for the strongest loyalties. Even if Uncle Leroy is always nipping at the cooking sherry and his nose hairs now seem to be braided with jungle vines, you remember that he never forgot a birthday, and always had a kind word. And even if your old high school pals are too busy accompanying their kids to clarinet practice (so they can grab their children’s smartphones to see who they’ve been sexting), it’s still a joy to see them on their random free occasion, because these are your old buds, your original peeps—they liked the geek you were back then and cherish the geek you are today. Real connections, often tied by time, are timeless.

Emotional connection is the catalyst for that amazing Amanda Palmer Kickstarter story: If you read any of Palmer’s Kickstarter supporter updates on the band’s appearances, the progress of the recording, or the latest place where she appeared naked, you understood why her fans felt connected: she is personal, she is profane, she is real, and leaves it all out there for her people. People connect with the unsanitized, uncensored phenomenon that she is.

A (Third) Eye-Opening Archive Opening
Which leads me to the event I attended a few days ago, the inaugural opening of the Grateful Dead archives. The University of California at Santa Cruz is now the permanent repository of a boggling array of Dead memorabilia, artifacts and documentation: photographs, recordings, artwork, set lists, and truckloads of marvelous more. The band toured for 30 years, and fed a growing (and glowing) body of fervid fans with an eclectic mix of psychedelic rock, blues, country, jazz and experiential noodling that made every concert unique. Early on, they invited their fans to write to them, and write they did: the archive includes myriad wild missives of colorful (and skillful) illustration and expression. The Deadhead virus mutated, regenerated, spawned and colonized.

So it was interesting to go to the archive event, where a capable jam band, Moonalice, played in the bright sunshine outside the university library, and where pony-tailed gentlemen swayed and long-haired lassies twirled to the music, just like the old days. The fact that much of that hair was thinning, with more than a touch of gray, is part of the point: even though Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the lines of connections from time past kept the Dead’s unique electricity alive. Having gone to many a Dead concert myself, dating back to the early 70s, I sensed the feeling of the crowd. I knew these people. I nodded and smiled to them and they nodded and smiled to me. We shared an emotional connection.

Feed Your Tribe
It’s clear that feeding a tribe, developing a base of enthusiasts for your work can make for so much more than profit and loss. No matter if you push punctuation around for a living or make bacon-flavored popsicles, if your fans feel your actual pulse, if the hand you reach out to them is warm and alive, the product is secondary. As E. M. Forster said, “Only connect.” The rest will follow.

As for the Dead themselves, various incarnations of the band still play on a regular basis, all over the country. And those 30 years of touring didn’t merely produce many a memorable show: the recordings from the thousands of concerts are regularly mined and released as special collections, often as complete concert events. The Dead Net forums are very much alive, with concert-experience conversations—”Dude, the Dark Star they played in the Meadowlands in ’73 was the signature statement”—peppering the boards. And you can still buy tie-dyed t-shirts, though, in a concession to time, now you can buy Skull and Roses-embossed diaper bags. (I hope that doesn’t mean for adult diapers.)

Play on. And on.

Polished Heads Mean Cleaner Writing

Colleen Wainwright

C. Wainwright, Sans Locks but w/Lots of Love

Quick updates: I’d posted here earlier about Colleen Wainwright’s leadership in trying to raise 50K for WriteGirl, the L.A. program that instructs high school girls in the love and practice of good writing. Colleen set out from nuttin’ to raise the dough, and promised that she would shave her industrious head if her project made her milestone. Yes, with 10K to spare. Thus you see her beaming, polished pate in the photo above.

Check out Colleen’s video on all things head-shaving here, and about the post-fundraising sort-outs. Huge round of applause and appreciation for Colleen demonstrating that a single person (with the help of many) can drive an idea home against strong odds. She believed in her project, and shared its strengths in a way that others could connect with. Well done!

Literary Agents Liberated—We Have a Winner
In another fascinating recap (hey, slow news week), the stirring contest to see who would come away with the free copy of the 2012 Guide to Literary Agents is over, and Laura Stanfill came away with the prize. Laura is a writer, of all the damnable things, and is giving away books on her blog as well, so check it out. (I am going to start giving away talking eggplants—this book giveaway stuff is too conventional.)

In the Bread and Circuses Vein
I can’t provide any writing advice in this episode other than letting you know that writing badly over and over again is painful, but less so than childbirth or living near a Brussel sprouts farm. But writing badly on a regular basis can lead to writing better. Now that we’re finished with those sententious pronouncements, here’s an opinion poll: which means of having your cocktail mixed would produce the most palatable beverage:

Charles Dickens’s Five Rules of Compelling Copywriting

Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...

Image via Wikipedia

Famed adman Charles Dickens (Oglivy stole everything from Charlie) started out as a struggling copywriter in London, at one point so desperate for work he scribbled his business address—he was also the first graffiti artist—on the legs of local trollops working the district.

But then Dickens had a revelation: he did a little fiction writing on the side, and wondered whether his attempts to sell buyers on the chewy goodness of hardtack biscuits would work if he tossed in some storytelling. Stories might deliver the needed ROB (Return on Bamboozling).


So he formulated his Five Rules of Compelling Copywriting, which sleazy scribes have cribbed from for more than a century. To wit:

Hit ‘Em with Headlines
Charlie dug that the headline is the hook. He landed big ones with whoppers like these:
A Whale of a Deal!
Call me (but call me Ishmael)

Finagle Your First Lines
Dickens doctored all the first lines of his marketing pieces with winning words:
For fresh fruit: “These were the best of limes, these were the worst of limes.”
For sandwiches: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero sandwich of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Never Short Your Sales Letters
You knew that Charlie pioneered the use of yellow highlighting in his sales letters, but you probably didn’t know that he perfected the use of the interminable sentence:

There once lived, in a sequestered part of the country of Devonshire, one Mr. Godfrey Nickleby: a worthy gentleman, who, taking it into his head rather late in life that he must get married, and not being young enough or rich enough to aspire to the hand of a lady of fortune, had wedded an old flame out of mere attachment, who in her turn had taken him for the same reason.

Charlie highlighted it all, of course.

Use Tongue-Torquing Character Names
For every vanilla “Bob” you’ve got selling your sparks, Dickens will give you a Wopsle, a Wackford Squeers or a Pumblechook.

Calls to Action that Crackle
Use tactics like pathetic, big-eyed urchins whimpering things like “Please sir, I want some more.” Dickens really knew how to yank hankies. (Hankies are always followed by wallets.)

And don’t forget his exemplary use of Random Capitalization and Emotional Outrage. They don’t call the guy “Mr. Gutbucket Sales” for nothing.

Next week, we’ll examine how Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People started out as a how-to book on trimming hedges.