Content lessons from literary writers – 3

Rob Verschuren April 28, 2021
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‘A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.’
 Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore (1957) is an American writer of both short stories and novels. She has won several important literary awards, including the O. Henry Award. Her story ‘You’re Ugly, Too’ was included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

All your content is one story.

“Hey Bob, are you writing the piece this week?”

‘About what?’

“Something nice, you know. 400 words or so.”

That is how content marketing works in many cases. People who want to be discovered on the internet will seldom argue about the importance of content. However, for others, it is just about producing pieces. It becomes a kind of lingering obligation to regularly come up with a blog article, a Facebook post, a round of tweets, and sometimes, even a YouTube video.

Although that is all still considered thought-provoking and interesting content, it is not content marketing, they are blanks.

Content marketing does not ask the question: “What shall we talk about now?” Instead, “How do we build a story that is interesting for our target audience?”

Thinking in pieces is unproductive and tiring, and demotivating over time. Only when we see all our content as one continuous story can we speak of a content strategy.

To make a comparison with literature: content is a short story, content strategy is a novel. Let’s elaborate on this analogy to see if there is any inspiration here.

As the quote above this article suggests, a novel creates a deeper, more lasting bond with the reader than a short story. And isn’t that precisely what we want to achieve with our content?

How is a short story different from a novel? First of all, in the number of words, of course. But what’s more interesting for our exercise are the structural and affective differences.

Short story

According to the definition of American author Edgar Allen Poe (‘the father of the modern short story’), a short story can be read in one go and is intended to have a single effect on the reader. They usually focus on one topic and fall straight to the point. Just like a novel, a short story has a structure. Literary structure is often characterized by three consecutive phases: situation, conflict and solution. A good story meets the way our brains work: we are always unconsciously looking for solutions. When a story deviates from this process, for example, due to an illogical plot or an unlikely character, we immediately pick it up.

The criteria for a good blog article is the same as for an ideal short story: get the reader hooked right away and lead them credibly to the conclusion.

Novel

In a novel, the writer has more space to detail the skeleton of the situation: conflict, resolution, to deepen his themes, to evoke empathy. The characters can come to life and become believable. Instead of one conflict, there is a series of them, each of which requires a solution.

As a novelist, you have more resources at your disposal than as a short story writer. Perspective changes and subplots, for example, illuminate your themes in different ways and to add extra layers of meaning. A novel takes the main character and the reader on a journey. In the end, they are both changed.

How does this apply to content marketing? The main analogy can be found in the reader’s perception. Your favourite novel is a world that you enjoy wandering around in and one that you would like to return to — captivating, inspiring, rewarding. Maybe it’s a humorous world, or a profound or an exciting one, but it’s always a world where you feel at home. And whichever page you open the book on, the tone and theme are immediately familiar.

Creating and sustaining such a world is the goal of content marketing.

And that turns out to be not so easy when you see the many half-hearted attempts. A novel is long. You have to fill a lot of pages, and it all has to be connected. In advance, you have to know more or less where you are going and how you want to get there. Of course, there will always be times when you find yourself on the wrong track and have to turn things around.

On the other hand, while a short stories writer may have to restart their process multiple times, a novelist gradually gets a better grip on his subject matter.

Two examples of “novel-level” content:

Garagiste’s adventure novel

On the Copyblogger website, I came across the success story of John Rimmerman. This American journalist and wine enthusiast started selling wine by email in the 1990s.

From the beginning, he did everything consistently different from others. Rather than responding to the public’s tastes, he followed his preference for sober, authentic and sometimes bizarre wines from small producers. And his choice seems more determined by the story behind these wines than by their drinkability.

In an associative, meandering style, Rimmerman writes newsletter after newsletter full of a unique mix of travel impressions, adventures, culture, philosophy and whatever comes to mind. An episode adventure novel that has hundreds of thousands of loyal readers and also sells wine.

“I don’t see myself as a retailer or an importer,” says Rimmerman himself, “but as a writer and culture communicator. What I keep asking myself: would people like to taste this story from a bottle? “

A sentence to reflect on: “Would people like to taste this story from a bottle?”

One more thing Rimmerman does differently from the rest of the world: he has only had a website since 2010 (where there is also little to do: no e-commerce function, no blog). His content channel is and remains his newsletter, in which he deliberately leaves typos to give his writing an impression of directness.

Does it work? Apparently, yes. Garagiste is the largest email wine merchant globally, and Rimmerman has earned a reputation as one of America’s top wine experts.

Content as a source

Another elaboration of the “short story versus novel” theme can be found in the article Stop Thinking Content, Start Thinking Resources from Joe Pulizzi’s Content Marketing Institute.

The core of the article is that content should be useful. “We need to get rid of the idea of producing more content and thinking about how to build something that is useful and helps solve people’s problems,” writes author Carlton Hoyt.

Hoyt distinguishes between Content and Resource (perhaps best translated as a resource in this context) and says:

  • Content is information and, resources are solutions.
  • Content deals with a question or a topic, and resources address the problems of the target group.
  • Content can be superficial, while resources must include everything.
  • Content can be organized haphazardly, and resources require cohesion.
  • Content tells the audience, “I have something to say, come and listen.” Resource says, “We understand you have these problems or needs. Let us help solve them.”

To illustrate, the author compares the websites of two DIY chains: The Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Lowe’s How-Tos, Buying Guide Library is content, while The Home Depot’s DIY Projects and Ideas site is a resource, Hoyt said.

As a result of the urge to produce new content, the Lowe site offers numerous how-to articles on all possible DIY topics. But, the content is unorganized, and the (in-itself valuable) information is marred by little subtle links to the store.

Home Depot, on the other hand, has deliberately limited the amount of information. The how-to content is organized into categories divided into individual projects. For example, if you want to install a ceiling fan, you will be redirected to a project page where you can find all the information you need to get the job done from A to Z — a step-by-step guide, checklists, videos, and whatever else may be helpful.

Home Depot, says Hoyt, has built a resource most simply and effectively: by organizing content into separate, comprehensive units that effectively meet higher-order needs.

Many roads lead to Rome, and the question “What makes a good novel?” is unanswerable. Whatever definition you give, there is always a masterpiece that contradicts it. Perhaps another American writer, Henry James, a three-time Nobel Prize nominee, comes closest: ‘All we have to demand from a novel is that it be interesting.’

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