In our latest installment of The Content Wrangler Interviews we chat with freelance writer Barbara Saunders about content strategy, content “screen shots”, and why she has some problems with the idea that content assets can be improved by better management. As usual, we’d love to know what you think. Give it a quick read, then share your views in the comments section.
TCW: Hey, Barbara. Thanks for spending some time with us today. Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living.
BS: I’m a creative writer with a commercial practice. I write, edit, and teach effective writing practices.
TCW: You’ve been working in marketing and PR communications. What got you interested in content strategy?
BS: I began my career as production editor at a software company. For many years, I cobbled together a work life including editorial positions, freelance journalism, and direct client service like coaching, fitness training, and youth development. I’m a typical creative-writer type, in that way – curious about different worlds. I ended up as an analyst at a company that used a natural language search tool to manage corporate records for litigation, compliance, and governance. There I was exposed to ontologies, taxonomies, tagging, and the basics of how search engines work. I was intrigued by the idea of applying these techniques to other editorial projects in businesses.
TCW: How did that change the way you approach your work and your career?
BS: Attending the Intelligent Content Conference in 2011 was my way to learn more about this new domain. The conference fired me up. I bought (and read) a textbook about XML. I started exploring technical writing gigs. I applied some of the “intelligence” frameworks I’d learned to my work in marketing communications. With my clients, I don’t have a say about tools; I send them text in Microsoft Word – or even email. What I was best able to transfer from the content strategy world was introducing the idea of a comprehensive planning to create, store, and organize modular chunks of content that will be used for different customers and through different delivery mechanisms.
TCW: Do you identify now as a content strategist?
BS: Yes, I do. Before I could take on the title, though, I had to work through a nagging dilemma. As I sat through the sessions at Intelligent Content Conference this past February (2012), I became more and more uncomfortable with the idea of content as foremost an asset that can be improved by better management. Before it has value as an asset, content has to be a functional vessel for the ideas it intends to communicate. Most of the poor content I encounter as a customer fails that basic test. No amount of organization after the fact can fix that. There still seems to be a gap between content strategy and how creating happens. I came to the conclusion that, most of those reasons have to do with expecting business people to stand in for professional writers and training writers to think like business managers. This stands in really stark contrast to the way businesses treat visual designers and engineers.
BS: Successful writers combine the visual artist’s ability to evoke sensory experience with the engineer’s ability to generate models. People with managerial talents and preferences (though they may also be good writers) tend to use verbal communication as an adjunct or extension to speaking and relating in real time. That’s why I think writers are being pushed to be more “conversational” and to integrate their verbal skills deeper into the workflow and collaboration processes. As a result, their social impulses are redirected from the reader to the work group – often to the detriment of both the content creation process and its product.
TCW: Can you give me some examples?
BS: Like technical writers everywhere, I get a lot of raw content that doesn’t follow “basic” rules. For example, when writing a manual or documenting an application procedure, I wondered, why do my content authors so consistently make the error of writing a single, ordinal list that mixes steps the customer must take with steps the company would take in response? What the reader needs to know is “what I need to do.” The authors write “a list the things that have to happen, in order.” The problem is not a failure to know the rules; it’s a misplaced orientation.
When we learn to write in school, we write to show the teacher that we’ve grasped the material. So we get into the habit of taking a “screen capture” of what’s in our heads and shoving it into a form. A lot of ineffective business writing reflects that. Jargon, unexplained acronyms, and industry or company insider talk accurately capture thought. Customers? Last week, my client’s customer wrote in an email string, “Please tell me what XYZ, ABC, and DEF stand for. Us cave folk no understand.” Not good!
Often, my greatest value in the process is precisely that I am removed enough from the corporate team that I have the same perspective as the reader.
TCW: How does the direction content strategy is taking fall short of addressing this problem?
BS: I keep hearing about creating content that can be read by people and machines. But content needs to be sensible as well as comprehensible. That usually takes more solitary work than is fashionable these days. The standard procedure is to start the “writing” process way too early in the thinking process. At a large software company where I worked, one manager stated that he expected white papers to go through twenty or thirty drafts. Dozens of people paid hundreds of dollars a day formatted charts that would later be cut, polished paragraphs that would later be deemed irrelevant to the core messages, or tinkered with templates that could not serve the logical structure of the document.
The company was attempting to craft an ambitious service to let customers get specific business problems in front of product designers. Team members on site with customers would record findings in a document; my deliverable was a polished version. I was surprised at the questions I couldn’t get answers to: how people would access the document, who the audience was, and how they would use it. Eventually I learned that the intention was to put together a “well-written” data dump from which customer representatives, field consultants, and internal engineers were supposed to extract both meaning and purpose. This approach violates the basic covenant of writing, though.
The way I see my job as a writer, the heavy lifting for making sense of the material is mine, not the readers’.
TCW: That’s a great point. It is our responsibility. Far too many times we forget this. Well, although I could talk with you about these topics for hours, it looks like we’re out of time. Thanks for sharing a little bit about yourself with our readers. I really appreciate it.
BS: Thank you for inviting me.
Editor’s Note: If you’re looking to learn more about content strategy, consider attending The Content Strategy Workshop, brought to you by The Content Wrangler and Intentional Design, October 9-10, 2012 in Portland, Oregon. The event features two days of practical learning from some of the best content strategists around. Register today! Class size is limited to ensure successful learning experiences.