Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

When Writing Becomes Content

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

When Writing Becomes Content

Article excerpt

To work with writing today means to work with writing as content. If, for example, you've composed in a content management system such as WordPress, you understand good writing practice to involve both crafting well-written posts and optimizing these posts as transportable, findable content, by applying categories, tags, and SEO (search engine optimization) metadata. If you teach in a writing studies program that graduates majors or master's-level students, some of your alumni are likely getting jobs as content strategists, content managers, or content writers. Though their rhetorical education prepares them well for such work, they 're likely creating document types you never assigned, such as content audits and editorial calendars. And if you read one of the many periodicals that have been remade in the last decade from print publications to cross-platform repositories of content, you may have encountered within its "pages" a lament on the shift from writing to content. In one such piece, published in the New York Times, the essayist and illustrator Tim Kreider seethes at the many "invitations" he has received to write online articles without pay, which Kreider links to a shift from writing understood as art to writing understood as content:

The first time I ever heard the word "content" used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I-henceforth, "content providers"-were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it's the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called "art"- writing, music, film, photography, illustration-to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads. (9)

Although content is both ubiquitous and contentious, writing studies writ large has said little directly on the subject. I argue in this essay that if our field takes seriously the claim implied in a number of professions, including marketing, journalism, publishing, and technical communication-that writing has become content-then we can open up propositions about digital-age writing for deeper inquiry, usher a wide set of very rhetorical content practices and professions into our sphere of concern, and confront a fast-moving phenomenon ripe for the sort of critical perspective that our field can provide.

In this essay, I first build a definition of content, one that respects the ground already laid by technical communication and the so-called content professions. I identify four characteristics of content: content is conditional, computable, networked, and commodified. New vocabulary benefits a field if it illuminates phenomena that current terms ignore or obscure; I argue that the word content highlights important aspects of composing in the digital age that existing and popular language-such as digital writing or multimodal-do not. After defining content through its key characteristics, I explore its dimensions as a metaphor, where metaphor is used to mean the bundles of associations that accompany a word. Content, I argue, is now a necessary metaphor to pair with our dominant field metaphor, writing. I then move to a discussion of the emerging content professions, exploring the fit between concepts in these professions and our field, including those sites within writ- ing studies curricula where content-related concepts might logically be taught. I end with a discussion of the critical perspective that writing studies might bring to content work.

I spoke above of the content metaphor, but there is also another key metaphor in this discussion: that of becoming. When writing becomes content is a phrase that can be read two ways. First, the phrase suggests growth, merging: the old thing, writing, is now also the new thing, content. The second implication is that of a change, a transformation: the old thing, writing, has now become a new thing, content. While, of course, the first sense is a more comfortable proposition for writing studies-and this is primarily how I address content-this essay asks readers to entertain both possibilities: the new opportunities and responsibilities that come with the addition of content into our professional purview, and also the values we must defend if content substitutes for writing in professional and other settings. …

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