Shameful Writing

Shameful Writing

Not long ago, a fellow writer shared the URL of a writers’ support forum with me. “There’s a great group of writers there,” she told me. “Really supportive, with lots of good ideas. Just please don’t tell them what I write. I’d never be able to hold my head up again.”

I understood immediately, because I write the same thing she does. Half the world doesn’t acknowledge that it exists. Those who do – especially other writers – are almost uniformly derisive of writers who choose to make their money writing it. Many sniff and declare that they ‘take their writing more seriously than that’. Others bemoan it as the death of intelligent writing. Do we write porn? Seditious pamphlets? Articles for the National Enquirer?

None of the above. My unnamed cohort and I write – brace yourselves – search engine optimized web content. For those who don’t quite understand what SEO content is, and why it draws such fire from both ‘real’ writers and Internet aficionados, a brief explanation might be in order.

SEO content writing is the art of creating short articles whose main purpose is to get a web site listed by one or more of the major search engines. One does this by fitting particular words and phrases into the body of an article to reach a particular density. The theory is that the software programs used by search engines will assign a higher page rank to a page that has a higher density of keywords. In other words, if you are looking for information about screen houses because you want to build one in your backyard, you type the words ‘backyard screen houses’ into Google. Google checks its index for all pages that have those words in them and returns a list of sites that use that keyword phrase in it. The more times the words are used on a page, the higher on the list of results that page is.

Are you with me so far? Good. Now, that being the case, one would think that a page that consists of ‘backyard screen houses’ over and over in a block of 500 words would rank right at the top of the listings. It doesn’t happen that way because the search engineers are a bit smarter than that. While the exact formulas are closely guarded secrets, every search engine has designed algorithms that look for certain configurations of text around the keywords. Those algorithms try to figure out whether the page actually gives people information – or just those words in a meaningless jumble. It’s taken a few years, but most webmasters have come to the realization that putting up actual articles on their pages is the best way to make the search engines believe that there are actual articles on their pages. Go figure.

With that realization came a whole new market for writers – SEO content writing. Search engine optimized copy for the web has been variously characterized as a cheap way to get a high page ranking, cheating and the death of the internet as we know it. It is, by and large, a low-paying market, despite the fact that its closest cousin, advertising copy, generally pays quite well. Writing web content is often regarded as being akin to prostitution – and lousy prostitution at that. We’re the $5 streetwalker of the writing world. Real writers, after all, don’t write 500 word articles about the history of Windsor chairs for $5 a pop. That, goes the general belief, is hack writing at its worst – commercialization of the written word to make money for someone else. Add to that the fact that, for the most part, webmasters are often working on tight budgets and have found a ready cadre of overseas English speaking writers who are willing to write for less than a penny a word, and you have one of the most depressed freelance markets in the world.

That glut of foreign writers in the English web market has helped create the impression that writers of web content are, in general, poor writers. Their willingness to accept $2 for a 400-500 word article keeps the going price for web content very low. Add in the fact that those purchasing web content often insist on full ownership of the work, including full copyright, and it’s understandable that many writers would look down on those willing to accept those conditions in order to get paid for their work.

But there is the key – I get paid for my writing, which is the work that I most enjoy doing. I exploit my own skills for researching and presentation to make a living – and I do make a living. There is not a month since I started selling web content that I have made less than $1200 from freelance writing – and many months where I made more than $2000. I work with regular buyers who value my writing skill highly enough to pay me premium prices for a steady stream of articles that bring people to their web sites, and more and more of them recommend me to their business contacts. Even more importantly, I’ve done it with writing that is genuinely entertaining and informative, especially because it is targeted to those people who are looking for information about a particular subject. I’ve learned a great deal about things I would never have considered researching on my own – Windsor chairs, backyard screen houses, garden gnomes and the fluctuations of the world interest rates to name just a few. In less than a year since my first paying gig, I am financially solvent and able to name my own articles and prices in many markets.

The derision of “real writers” used to grate on me until I realized this: there is an art and a skill to reusing the same words repeatedly in a short passage without making it noticeable and intrusive. It is no less than the skill required to make effortless rhymes and rhythm in poetry, or in choosing just the right words to bring a fictional character to life in the mind’s eye of the reader. There are certainly poets who force rhyme and rhythm badly enough to make readers cringe, and authors of fiction who are clumsy with description. Writing keyword content is no different. It’s a puzzle in which the fitting of pieces into the right places results in a keyword enhanced article that is indistinguishable from one written with no intent other than to inform the reader. It is a skill at which I excel, and which is earning me a living that is growing month by month. What freelance writer could ask for more?

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