When I sat down to pen (with an actual pen, by the way), a writing assignment for my short fiction class at Notre Dame 8 short years ago, I didn't exactly know what I was getting myself into. I was given a writing prompt and, with it, I was to write a short story. At first, the prompt seemed impossible. I had no idea how to go about it. But, I sat down at my desk with my pen anyway and, suddenly, there he was - my protagonist!
At the time, I didn't know that this 5 page short story would slowly evolve into a complete, 50,000+ word novel. My protagonist and I have grown together throughout the process. We've been through thick and thin, we've dealt with periods of separation, and we've worked through countless struggles on the page and off. Now that I've finished fleshing out the story and I have put the black pen down in favor of the red, he and I don't seem as close as we once were. Editing is tedious and a bit dry. Through my editor's eyes, he is a particleboard cutout and I am sanding the edges. Through my writer's eyes, however, he was as real as any other human walking down the street.
The other night I found myself working through a problem in my head. I was frustrated, angry, and unable to make a decision. I looked at my weary face in the mirror and felt very alone. Just then, as suddenly as he entered my world for the first time, there he was once again, smiling, as if to say "Hello, my friend".
What would he do if he were in my shoes? I asked myself. If this were his problem and not mine, how would I, as an author, have him solve it?
Solutions, options, strategies became more clear to me. I was no longer angry and frustrated, but comforted, as if I really had been talking to a friend. I realized then the importance of the relationship between the author and the character. What makes a character compelling, complete, and intriguing to the reader? To me, I believe it is that very relationship. The fact that the author knows that character so very well that he or she can write them into existence, not just for themselves, but for the world.
I've been writing web content alongside my novel for the past five or so years. During that time, I've wrote, workshopped, and edited my novel while simultaneously cranking out articles and blog posts about everything from work boots to electric trains. As I continue to generate web content for modest amounts of pay, I've come to realize how much this venture has unexpectedly helped me with my fiction writing goals. So, here's my list of the top five ways writing web content has made me a better fiction writer:
1. It has forced me to think creatively and be a creative problem solver.
Sometimes I get an assignment that requires me to write about something I either a) know nothing about or b) am not interested in whatsoever. The reality is that I still have a deadline and, yes, I still have to complete the assignment. So, instead of whining about how tedious the task is, I try to find creative ways to flesh out the piece. I ask myself questions like, "how can I manipulate these keywords to write something that interests me?" or "how can I make this relatively dry topic something people would love to read about?" True creativity can really blossom when you're working with limitations. It's sort of like writing a sonnet or a sestina in poetry.
2. It makes me consider my audience.
When writing fiction it's so easy to get caught up in your own fantasy world that you've created. Sometimes, you become so immersed in this world that you forget about the real world, in other words, the world that your readers inhabit. Writing web content is all about creating content that real world people will want to read and share, so of course your audience is always on your mind while writing. When the end goal is to get published and sell your book, you would be wise to consider your readers while writing fiction, as well.
3. It taught me to be concise.
Web content needs to be written for the fast scroller, the multi-tasker, the reader with ten tabs open at once. For this reason, web content needs to get straight to the point or readers are going to drop off before getting to the final paragraph. This is important in fiction writing, too. When you start to get too long-winded, you put the audience to sleep...not good! This idea has helped me to clean up my longer than necessary descriptions and to cut out pointless dialogue.
4. It forces me to write every day.
Being a successful web content writer means working every day. There's always something to work on in the web content writing world and, the more you write, the more money you can earn. When no one's paying you, it's very very easy to take a day off, a week off, a month off, or even a year off of working on your fiction. What I've learned, however, is that these breaks do not serve me well. In fact, the more web content I write, the more efficient I get. It becomes second nature, I get inspired faster, I write faster and I write more quality content. My writing muscles get a workout so, as a writer, I get in shape. My mindset becomes this: I'm already writing every day for the web, so why not add a little fiction work to it? In other words, I'm already dressed for the workout, so why not run the extra mile?
5. It helps me to choose my words carefully.
Of course, I don't always get to choose the words. The keywords for SEO, anyway. But, that brings me to my point - the importance of individual words. Keywords are just that, key words. They are the words people search for, the words that catch a reader's attention and the words that come with the promise of information. In fiction, words can be just as powerful. They can convey a feeling, a smell, an image, etc. If a work of fiction is a castle, each individual word is a brick. I want to choose the strong ones, the attractive ones, the ones that are going to hold the most weight if I'm going to build a castle that is going to withstand the elements, and look good doing it.
So, maybe someday my fiction will take me somewhere. Until that happens, I'll be writing about skin creams, OSHA standards, and maybe even commercial kitchen equipment - and learning a ton in the process.
Rachel Boury Baxter
Writer: web content by day, fiction by night.