Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Online Writers, NYT Scribe Virginia Heffernan Thinks Most of You are Hacks and Robots

First, have a few sips of the writer-to-writer vitriol:
"As a verbal artifact, farmed content exhibits neither style nor substance."
"The insultingly vacuous and frankly bizarre prose of the content farms — it seems ripped from Wikipedia and translated from the Romanian — cheapens all online information."
"These prose-widgets are not hammered out by robots, surprisingly. But they are written by writers who work like robots."

All taken from the op-ed by columnist Virginia Heffernan that ran 26 June 2011 in The New York Times here.

Because The New York Times is apparently no longer accepting nonabusive comments that are within their character-counting limits on this story, or moving so slowly on moderation so as to stifle dissent, I would like to offer my open letter to Ms. Heffernan here.

I invite other writers--moms, dads, single folks just starting out in writing, or seasoned professionals working in the business they love--to share their experiences with me here, on Twitter (@1WomanWordsmith), and with the NYT to counter this patently false idea, and one often proven incorrect when you bother to do actual speaking with sources, as Ms. Heffernan did not do, that everyone who's ever written for a much-maligned "content farm" is a hack, a cheat, and scarcely worthy of licking Ms. Hah-vahd PhD's Manolos.

Said another way and more succinctly: I know I can't be the only person who puts a lot of work into every online post, even for "content farms." Anybody else out there among the writing hoi polloi (in Heffernan's book, anyway) doing the same thing and being flogged for it?

Ms. Heffernan:
Although your opinion-editorial has some valid criticisms of so-called content farms, I believe that you do a disservice to some--and probably many--talented writers and copyeditors who perform the work to the specifications offered by their superiors, including the length, format, tone, and overall style of the article, for said content mills.

As the adage by way of Aristophanes goes, you should not decide until you have heard what both have to say. And so, I would like to offer the other side and be as brief as I can.

The Gold Standard of Online "Content Farm" Writing: Evergreen & Actionable
First, I believe that you misunderstand or misinterpret the purpose of many Demand and eHow articles, or others in that vein. But I will speak to these two models, if you will, because I have some experience with them. Assessing political, sports, deep investigative, entertainment, or breaking-news articles is outside the scope of this commentary. My understanding of the impetus of most "content mill" pieces is that the articles are meant to be evergreen, not frozen in time or serving as a cross-section of an issue as it unfolds in a discrete period of time as an investigative or "hard news" or breaking news journalism piece aims to be. Again diverging from a journalism piece in a newspaper, magazine, or online, an eHow, About.com, or LIVESTRONG article, for instance, should offer actionable, yet timely, content to the user/reader.

Here are a few articles I found that, I believe, deliver this freight quite effectively (with them keeping in mind that "brevity is the soul of wit"):
1. "Clean and Care for a Butcher Block," (transcript & video) by Chef John Mitzewich: http://video.about.com/americanfood/Clean-a-Butcher-Block.htm
2. "Homemade Baby Food: Cereal" (transcript & video) by Rachel Edelman: http://video.about.com/homecooking/baby-food-cereal.htm
3. "How to Write a Good Teen Novel," by Matt Waldram: http://www.ehow.com/how_7870831_write-good-teen-novel.html
4. "What Causes Kidney Failure in Children?," by Dr. Tina Andrews: http://www.livestrong.com/article/134640-what-causes-kidney-failure-children/

Naturally, all looks infected that the infected spy, so it is easy to argue that you have not looked hard enough to find the quality writing, to separate the wheat from the chaff, at Demand, Patch, Examiner, eHow, or the other "farms."

Not Every "Content Farm" Writer Falls into the Black Hole of Vacuity
This is where personal mores, if you will, intrude. I personally claim only the articles with which I have direct experience--be it education, work, or avocation experience. Perhaps other writers like the Mr. Miller mentioned in your op-ed labor at full tilt as writer "jacks of all trades and masters of none," so I can't speak to their modi operandi, though I suspect economics override ethics for some writers. I don't write full time for content farms, nor would I if I could devote my entire time to it, because I have two small children for whom I am the sole daytime caregiver, so I'm not at liberty to pound the pavement like a journalist would in the old days or even to make professional telephone calls for interviews unless those can include the background din of children screaming and laughing, toy drums pounding, or feet slapping.

Another personal rule that I follow is that I spend at minimum of 1 hour on my article, including research, writing, self-editing, and formatting my references and resources. Is that cost-effective? Of course not, especially given that most of the articles pay only $10-$20. (Plato might have said it best: "Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.") For this set-up, I fault greedy, personhood-claiming corporations, but that is a discussion for another day. As a journalist for The New York Times and other such media who has grown from a cub to a grizzly perhaps, you might still be expected to champion the "little guy," or gal, writer earnestly attempting to make it; by the same token, considering that one of your clients, the NYT, has just begun charging for online subscriptions, thereby shutting out low- and moderate-income persons, you are hardly in a defensible position to cast aspersions about bare-bones economic issues like paying the kids' medical bills or buying food versus paying for online content. (Or hadn't you noticed that healthier meats like turkey are usually well over $3/pound these days? Or that farmers are necessarily passing along escalating gas and operation prices to their customers? That's okay; your colleagues reporting on the G-20 summit are doing that important work.)

Fault the Greedy Content-Farm Owner, Not the Hard-Working Writer
And speaking of all things agrarian--yes, it would be beyond wunderbar if online mega-farms like Gather.com, Demand Media, eHow, Examiner, Patch, Seed, and others you and additional commenters might have mentioned paid their stable of writers for quality of writing rather than quantity. Trust me, it's an internal battle that I have fought with many a channel manager and editor, losing every time but still I will buoy that argument, naive as it may be. In their defense, these managers and editors were mostly little guys and gals, too, beholden to the leviathan that is their company, where eyeballs (not knowledge) are equivalent to power. They were in no position to purge the Augean stables of make-a-buck-quick, quantity-over-quality, keyword-density and SEO maestros. Again, as a columnist whose publications sell ad copy, run advertorials, charge for services to the eyeballs, undoubtedly harvest some user information in stealthy grabs, and serve as businesses whose bottom line is dollars, you are not a person that I see, for what my 2 cents are worth, in an ivory-tower position, though you might make it seem so. I would wish that you would foresee some concrete actions to take that you might help, not disparage, hard-working and talented writers stuck, in some sense, working for content mills. Have you petitioned content mills on behalf of copyeditors or championed writers' rights, as it were, through writers' guilds or union membership? For myself, I am hoping by pouring time and research into my articles--most of which actually take me 3-6 hours to research, write, source, and self-edit--I serve as an example of quality-over-quantity writing. I also don't kid myself that I'm the only content mill writer in this, or a very similar, seaworthy vessel, where both style AND substance pilot the ship. And, thus, I hope I might effect change from within. Again, I'm only one person and a bit business-naive perhaps, but that's my mantra and I'm sticking with it.

Write a Mile in Someone Else's Shoes, or, All Names are Writ in Water
Do we always succeed in this endeavor that is writing? Of course not. Likewise, can you say that you always succeed with every piece you write, Ms. Heffernan?

Is one of my latest articles on how to find legitimate writing contests a ground-shaking or Gaia-quaking entry into the annals of writing, or does it serve as a vignette toward my writing of the GAN? Sadly, no. Does it advance human rights, safeguard the environment, champion workers' or children's or women's rights, embolden people to wield freedom of speech, cure a disease, or inoculate against illness? In general, no. However, it does provide salient sourced material (my articles all contain a minimum of 3-4 resources or references I've discovered in the books, magazines, and journals I have on hand or the newspapers and trustworthy sources I find online) to the discerning reader and, I hope, helps inoculate her against ignorance; the writing I do also serves the ancillary functions of providing me with a livelihood I enjoy, padding the pockets of my family with a wee bit of the green that our society unfortunately still requires to regulate itself smoothly, and functions well as one conduit for the use of my master's degree in English. In a way, not only am I serving the reader and my family through writing, but I hope I am seen as an advocate of language and the words themselves, though the thoughts may at times be battered by purply prose. As T.S. Eliot wrote, it's about the wrestle with words and meanings--and that, too, keeps me writing (and "momming," for that matter).

So, in sum, I hope you will consider the economic realities for those of us--perhaps we're the exception to your excoriation of content mill writers or maybe we're more common than you might have surmised in your ill-researched diatribe--who don't write full time but who nonetheless screw our writing courage to the sticking place on a regular basis, helping readers rather than flogging them with vapidity as you suggest. If you overlook us because of your overreliance on mobile apps and fly over we hoi polloi writing "hacks" on the "open Internet, " you might miss more than you'll ever know. The main problem with hitching your literary wagon to a star is that you miss the land's still-pleasing patchwork of trees, mounts, oceans, and the majority of your fellow human beings. In the end, Ms. Heffernan, even your highly self-esteemed name, like mine and those of every other "hack content writer," is writ in water.

Please stay tuned for my next regular post on Thursday, 30 June 2011.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! Nice, I am looking forward to the next post.