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The Death Knell of the Writing Profession

January 11th, 2012 by Bob Bly

It was while working as a technical writer for Westinghouse in 1979 that I first heard the term “word smith” applied to writing.

“He’s a pretty good word smith,” my internal client said, referring to an engineer I was supposed to interview for writing a brochure; the engineer felt a mere writer couldn’t understand the subject and it would be better if he wrote it himself.

Now a relatively new term — content — further degrades writers and the status of writing.

“Writing” sounds like a craft or skill. “Content” sounds like something you buy by the can or by the pound.

I am seeing an ad in a lot of places on the web for “Writer Access,” an organization that promises to help you “get your content written.” They match you with a writer from a pool of thousands, again commoditizing the practice of writing.

The only ways for writers to avoid being a commodity:  (1) write a best-seller (2) write in a specific niche in which you are perceived as an expert and (3) write direct response copy where results can be measured.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 at 11:30 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

29 responses about “The Death Knell of the Writing Profession”

  1. Mordechai (Morty) Schiller said:

    Bob,
    I beg to differ. I wear the label “wordsmith” with pride. To me it means a word maven–someone who loves and works with language. A craftsman who shapes words and sentences like a silversmith works with silver.
    I take the craft of writing seriously. I sweat over the choice of the right word–editing and polishing until it glistens.
    Mark Twain wrote “A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader’s way and makes it plain; a close approximation to it will answer, and much traveling is done in a well-enough fashion by its help, but we do not welcome it and applaud it and rejoice in it as we do when the right one blazes out on us. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt: it tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn-butter that creams the sumac-berry.”
    David Ogilvy was a wordsmith. William Safire was constantly referred to as “wordsmith,” as if it were his title. I like that company.
    As for “content,” to me it suggests writing that is informative, meaningful and important. It is the opposite of fluff.
    We’ve known each other a long time, Bob. And I rarely disagree with you. And the reason I keep reading your work bears the mark of a wordsmith who delivers content–real meat; no filler.
    All the best,
    Morty

  2. Joey Lowe said:

    Hi Bob,

    I agree with your assertion that content is less palatable than other terms used to describe what we do, but I disagree with your statement about the only way to avoid being a commodity is to write a best seller, provide expert commentary or focus on direct response.

    In my opinion, if you provide regular enjoyable articles, regardless of niche, folks will single you out.

    Unlike Morty, I don’t know you and I’m not familiar with your work, but thanks to Google Reader, I’ll be back!!

  3. Steve Kayser said:

    Hey Bob:

    Mostly agree. Content is a disagreeable word.

    Publish content. Content marketing. Content audits. Content strategies.

    I think it boils down to being able to share great ideas and stories that move people – to do something. I’m very familiar with your work and have great respect for you. For you I think it’s a science and an art. I love your “4 U’s” for titles. Urgent, Ultra-specific, Useful, Unique. That could almost be a template for all writing.
    Problem is today you have people/companies spewing out content — not stories or great ideas – average content – at a rate that is drowning the universe.and messing my SEO up. Not only that, it’s making readers have the attention span of a nano-knat. Myself included. You lose focus quickly and your senses get dulled trying to find great writing and writers. Focus is fragmented horribly – social media distribution adds to it.

    Question is do you write to the nano-knat attention span … or try fracking the focus fragmentation?

    I think I’m going Frack it.

  4. Bob Bly said:

    I call the churning out of content “content pollution.”

  5. Nigel the UK Copywriter said:

    I’ve been saying for over a year now that the copywriting profession is being destroyed and commoditised by content mills. And, more and more, I’m starting to see articles like this in blogs that concur. I honestly believe it’s driving down day rates and hour rates for the more skilled among us. I don’t know what the solution is, except maybe to put our rates up as a way of differentiating ourselves from ‘content writers’. In truth, it scares the bejesus out of me.

  6. Ron Moody said:

    Hey Bob-
    Thanks for the perspective. I see a strong market for quality writing BECAUSE OF not in spite of the dilution of “wordsmiths” that have entered the field, and I apply that term only to those distracted more by the sound of a title than by their respect for and training in the craft; but, that is a semantic triviality and I mean no disrespect to Morty or any other serious writer. I feel that monikers, as Morty points out, are best left to others. Written communication is in the strength of the writing, it will not be usurped by a fancy title or marketing ploys but will always be a sought after commodity.

  7. Bob Bly said:

    Ron: I wish I could be as sure as you.

  8. Tricia Geib said:

    Hi, Bob,
    This post is timely for me. I’m just coming back to copywriting after an absence, and I’ve been having a hard time trying to decide what–if anything–to specialize in. It’s so tempting to be a generalist, but I’m going to add your advice to the scales in favor of some sort of niche. I guess the ideal is to become an acknowledged expert in a niche where results can be measured…
    Thanks!

  9. April Kelsey said:

    Greetings, Mr. Bly,

    I’m currently working as a content writer, and while the bulk of content writing is shoddy, there are some clients (like mine) who are demanding high-quality long copy. Many of the articles I write are well over 500 words and end up on educational websites. I’m currently looking for ways to break out of the copy mill into a well-paying writing career, and I believe the work I am doing will serve me well as a portfolio. I someday hope to be one of those copywriters taking home $100,000+ a year. Love your blog!

  10. Jack said:

    I always liked the term wordsmith, makes it sound like the craft it is

  11. Wesley Copywriter from Manchester UK said:

    I’m more optimistic. I think the need for good copywriters is now stronger than ever, and as mentioned, putting up rates is a great way to weed out churn mill content writers from the more professional copywriters. A niche is certainly licence to command even more of a premium on our words.

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