What is the hallmark of great content?
When you start writing articles, you get advice from all sides. But there's advice you don't want to hear. It's advice that goes against the grain.
And yet, it's this advice that forms the hallmark of great writing. So how do you get from average to great? You take the road less-taken. It's harder and yet far more satisfying. Here's advice you probably don't want to hear.
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: The need for contrast
Part 2: Why when you pander you lose your soul
Part 3: The gap between style and ability
A friend wrote to me today and asked me what seemed like a pretty normal question.
She expected 5 lines, maybe 6.
Instead I ended up with 1800 words.
So what was her question? What traits do you consider to be hallmarks of quality in a piece of content?
The answer is something that most writers may not want to hear. It’s an answer that demands sacrifice, going against the grain and being persistent when things are going horribly wrong.
Well, here’s the question again: What traits do you consider to be hallmarks of quality in a piece of content?
2- lack of pandering
3- the gap between style and ability.
1) Let’s start with contrast
It’s the year 1986. John Heritage and David Greatbatch have an itch to scratch. They’re studying applause and what causes it. So they embark on what could be considered one of the most boring tasks in the world: they analyse politician’s speeches.
476 of them.
And what were these two poor souls looking for?
Applause, that’s what they were keen to find. Why was it that one speech received total silence, while other speeches got applause? But not just applause, but applause twice per minute!
Nineteen thousand sentences later they had a clue
It was contrast. The moment the audience encountered applause, the brain was no longer dormant. Contrast brought a smile to their faces, and cheering followed.
Contrast requires you and me to work so much harder
But contrast also puts you in a strange and precarious position. If everyone says: You should go this way and there’s a writer that says, “Nope, you’re headed into sheep land. This is the way to go”. Now that is going out on a limb. Contrast is scary. It’s much easier to say what everyone else is saying.
If you want to start with the hallmark of quality, contrast is where you start.
Let’s take an example of contrast
Let’s say you’re writing about a subject such as productivity, for example. Now productivity doesn’t bring to mind any sort of rest or sleep does it? Instead the enduring message of productivity has almost always been one of focus and concentration.
It’s always been one of working out astounding efficiencies to do more work than ever before. At this point in time, let’s say your article talks about sleep. It talks about taking the weekends off. It even goes on to suggest that you take several months off in a year.
You’ve shaken up the force a bit, haven’t you?
You’ve created a counter force that may at first seem impossible to defend. Yet, that’s what great writing is about. Conceptually, it stands out and picks a topic that’s contrarian. But not all topics need to be contrarian to have that hallmark, do they? You could write articles on topics that have none of this rebellious nature and still bring out the big guns.
This calls for a bit of a roller coaster in your writing
An article needs to have a flow so the reader can move forward, but just as important is a counterflow. So let’s say you’re writing about how to “grow a curry leaf tree”, you also need to bring in the counterflow as you’re writing.
That counterflow would be a possible glitch in the planting process. It could be a couple of mistakes you’re about to make. To be able to speed ahead, brake and go in a counterflow direction isn’t easy. Some writers do it while creating the material. Others create it later during an edit process.
Flow by itself is super boring
Try this paragraph for example: We went to the airport, there was no traffic on the highway. We got through check in and immigration in next to no time. And then we sat down to have a beer.
So what are you thinking at this point in time?
I’ll tell you what. You’re wondering if the story has any purpose. And yet, the moment counterflow comes into play, you’re alert again. Let’s go back to the story. You’ve had your beer, when a policeman walks up with a grim face.
That’s drama, that’s contrast. And the hallmark of a great article is the ability to insert contrast into various sections of your article. Case studies can have an up and down. The concept can start out being all in favour of something and then diverge without warning. Now you’ve created contrast and lifts the tempo of your words.
Counterflow needs to head back to flow, however
Too much counterflow and your reader is turned off. The grim policeman, the spilling of beer on your white shirt, the missing of the flight—and the article seems to be falling right out of the skies. Which is why contrast matters so much. Contrast is about a constantly evolving set of words that get you to slip slide through like—yes—a roller coaster. Up, down, up and down.
But contrast is only one hallmark of good writing. The second is a lack of pandering.
2) The second hallmark of great writing is a lack of pandering.
Clients often ask me if I write articles with keywords in mind.
The answer is no.
I never have. I’ve been told I can get ten times the traffic if I pandered to keywords, but frankly I don’t care.
The moment you pander, you’re not really writing for yourself
Most of the greatest writing is not done for another. Most outstanding writing is done to clear the cobwebs in your own mind. You know this feeling well if you’ve tried to do a bit of a project like writing a report, presentation, or a book. There are a million thoughts floating through your mind and none of them seem to sit well until you put them down on paper.
The reason why I wrote a book on the Secret Life of Testimonials wasn’t because a client asked me to do so.
I wrote because I had these floating ideas in my head. And when I started writing the book, I expected to complete between 20-30 pages. There was good reason for me to have this pagination estimate. I’d already written a book on testimonials earlier and the first edition stopped quite firmly at 30 pages. Imagine my surprise when I went past 30, onto 50, then over 75 and sailed past 100, before settling at 125 pages.
When you pander you lose your soul
You stuff keywords into your headlines, write less than interesting opening paragraphs and do things that just don’t resonate with being a writer. And we know this to be true with one simple test. Would you use those same words if you were writing the article back in 1995? Pandering means a compromise that’s not necessarily walking step by step with producing the best possible work.
No one is saying you have to be this crazy, independent soul forever
All of us end up pandering in some shape of form. The great artist and sculptor, Leonardo da Vinci was known to be a lover of nature and hated war. Yet he created some of the most destructive weapons.
And his patron, Cesare Borgia was one of the most hated men in all of Italy. Pandering at some level is almost inevitable, yet Leonardo didn’t stay in pander-land forever. He moved on creating work that was enduring and mostly for him. He didn’t want or expect you to see La Gioconda, better known as the Mona Lisa. He did that for himself, to make himself happy.
Galileo stopped pandering.
The father of geology, a Scot named James Hutton, refused to pander.
Charles Darwin wrote 400 pages of stuff that rocked our world forever.
The biggest exposés, the most interesting movies, they all refuse to buckle down and pander even when they know that pandering is profitable.
So where’s the happy medium between doing what you love vs. pandering?
It’s impossible to tell, but when you create a benchmark for yourself, you can decide whether you have time and the resources to create better work, or just work that’s good enough for the masses. At first you may have no option.
You’ve got a mortgage to pay, mouths to feed and life is about meeting those obligations. To go down in flames before starting is not a good strategy. But then as you get a little more comfortable, it’s time to go out on a limb.
At Psychotactics, we set a benchmark for ourselves: we wanted to work nine months a year and take three months off.
Our income has been almost identical since 2007. We don’t need to double our income, double our clients or do any of that stuff that others find so endearing. This allows us not to pander. We know we can reach our goals easily and still do only the projects that are exciting and rewarding.
Pandering is an obstacle we all have to learn to overcome.
It applies to life, just as it applies to your writing.
You can be enslaved by headlines like “7 Ways to attract clients”. You can stuff keywords into all your content to attract the search engines. But every time you do you’re running your soul on the pander-grater.
That’s the second hallmark of great work: the move away from pander-land. Which takes us to our third hallmark of great work “achieving style through cross pollination”.
3) Which takes us to the third element: The gap between style and ability
When you first start writing, getting an 800-word article on paper is enough to drive you to devour a tub of ice-cream. In time, however, your brain works out what needs to be done. A combination of writing, learning, resting and confidence bubble up to the point where writing is never exactly a joy, but no longer a frustration.
Yet, when you’re done with the writing it seems to have no soul
It reads pathetically like the work you see all over the Internet. Yet as Ira Glass, host of “This American Life” says: “The reason we get involved in something is because we have good taste. But there’s a gap. For the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good.
It has ambition to be good, but it’s not that great. But your taste—your taste is still “killer”. And your taste tells you that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people give up. A lot of people quit. And it’s only by going through a volume of work that you can close that gap.”
Ira Glass is referring to the gap in your brain
But what he doesn’t say in that video is what he and every other great writer or creator knows to be true. That style is about getting worse before you get better. Your work is bad but then turns crappy.
The reason why you give up is because you’ve pushed your boundaries and ended in crappy land. And you figure out: well, if I’m going to go from bad to worse, I must have no talent whatsoever.
And you’re right
Talent isn’t inborn. Talent has to be acquired. You have no talent whatsoever. And that seemingly stupid thing you just did when you pushed your boundaries—well, that just made the gap between your ability and taste so much greater.
There’s a reason, of course, why your work goes downhill
The brain is stepping outside its comfort zone. When the brain steps out into this frosty land it has to read a lot more. But not just a lot more in your own field. No, who told you that nonsense? Read about how continents were created, how birds took flight, why diamonds should logically never exist.
When you read, read many authors, copy many authors. But also push your reading and copying way beyond your immediate field of knowledge.
If you’re a designer, put your design books in a safe
If you’re an architect, go look for books on gravity.
If you’re going to really learn style you have to push up and wide at the same time. You’re going to have to learn your craft, yes, but you’re also going to have to get into other worlds. And there’s a good reason why. Style is an amalgamation of thoughts. You may consider your style to be unique, but every style is simply a melting pot, bubbling slowly and deliberately.
A lot of style seeps in when you’re reading, but there’s also a factor of copying
The greatest works of our times have involved copying (not plagiarism, but copying) to the point that you become a sort of style-clone. Then when you’ve had your fill of one, you copy someone else—and then a third, fourth and fifth.
One day you wake up and you have a style
You know this to be true because everyone around you says so. They comment on your unique style. They say it’s so different. And what they’re commenting on isn’t just a look.
It’s a culmination of your taste and your skill. A combination of the ideas of the masters that have gone before you. An amalgamation so deep that you feel the style is all your own but know deep down, that it’s come from that cavern of knowledge that’s too deep to go back into.
And then just as you’ve reached your pinnacle of taste, you realise you’re not the guru you aspired to be. You’ve climbed one mountain and there before you lie the Himalayas of taste. You have so many mountains more to climb. The gap continues to exist.
Let’s summarise, shall we?
Contrast is crucial. There must be flow, then counterflow and back to flow again. This is what makes for great content.
The lack of pandering is scary but that’s where originality springs forth. Pander if you must, but move away from the evil as quickly as you can.
The gap between style and ability is incredibly frustrating, but sooner or later you close that gap enough to be amazing, but never quite at the level you want to achieve. And that eternal gap is what keeps you interested in the game forever.
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