What novelists can teach business content writers


It’s no secret to those who know me that I’ve struggled with finishing my novel Deemed Responsible. In the spring, I was lucky to come across help in the form of a writing guru named Jeff Lyons.

Lyons asked me to spend time considering whether the main character is grappling with some flaw that is hurting other people - without it, the work may be about a situation and a main character who has problems to be solved but not a moving story that needs to be told.

(According to Lyons, it’s nice when this exercise is done first instead of last. I couldn’t agree more and will do so next time.)

Lately, I’ve been tinkering with a commercial website I own, searching for a solution to its dwindling traffic and came across no less of a guru but in the area of business content. It struck me how there’s a link between the novelist's craft of telling a good story and writing good content for the web.


First, writers need to stop writing a moment and think, says Kristina Halverson who wrote the often quoted Content Strategy for the Web. She asks: “But who among us is asking the scary, important questions about content, such as “What’s the point?” or “Who cares?” Who’s talking about the time-intensive, complicated, messy content development process?” (See http://alistapart.com/article/thedisciplineofcontentstrategy)

Where content strategists call for taking time to look at a target audience and developing an editorial plan based on whatever path those customers are on, Lyons calls for taking time to reign in our writing by outlining our story based on the main character's growth arc.

Content strategist Halverson uses the term governance. Without it, Halverson asks: “Do you think it’s a coincidence, then, that web content is, for the most part, crap?”

Likewise, Lyons gives a nod to the writer's passion, that burning sensation that the idea I have could be a book, bit it needs to be funneled. According to Lyons, this passion “...is too 'charged' to be functional in its raw form. It needs to be down stepped either by a writer's natural talent for story, acting as that transformer, or through the use of a physical tool that can turn that power into usable information.”

The tool he suggests, one with a long history of use in various forms, is the premise line. Used correctly, the exercise keeps the writer's story on track.

Looked at it this way, the only difference between developing a great story for a book or one for a product or cause on the web is learning how to harness the writer's passion.

You can find more about Lyons and his tool box at jefflyonsbooks.com. For those wrestling with content development for commercial and non-profit websites, Halverson's organization hosts annual conferences, where content writers can learn to become better strategists - see ConFab Events for more.

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