Listicles. They're everywhere you look. It seems like every time I read a blog post it is either a listicle in its entirety or it contains a list somewhere in the post. Facebook friends are sharing them left and right and they've even descended upon Medium.
Listicles are attention grabbing, they're quick and easy to read, and they are the "Readers Digest Condensed Version" of anything you'd ever want to know. As a web content writer, the listicle is a great tool to have in my kit. If I'm ever stuck for an idea for a blog post or online article, the listicle is my go-to format. Whatever the subject is, I know I can pop one of those bad boys out in about 20 minutes. When I'm done, I feel pretty efficient and that's a great feeling. I also know that since the general public is addicted to them, my work will be read. And that's why I love them.
The truth is listicles are a dime a dozen, anyone can easily read them just as almost anyone can easily write them. They don't dive too deep into anything so you don't have to even have to know what you're talking about to write them. This is why, as a fiction writer, I hate them.
I hate them because writing them does not take me out of my comfort zone. They don't require any extra creativity or research. They don't push the envelope. They are safe.
While this may be ok for web content writing, a field that values efficiency, it does not foster the right attitude for fiction writing. It's easy to fall into habits with our fiction writing. When we find a "formula" that works, it's very easy to use it over and over again to save time and to guarantee an acceptable outcome. However, the best fiction challenges us, it confuses us and surprises us. In order to be a writer of that kind of fiction, we must dare to be experimental and bend the rules.
The listicle approach to fiction writing may work to a degree, but abandoning it can stretch our creativity in ways we never thought possible. Great fiction has no "one size fits all" formula the way web content tends to, which makes it a challenge to work on both simultaneously. It can be done, however, when we put away our "listicle lens" when working on our fiction in favor of a kaleidoscope.
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.
When Luke, the 19-year old counselor at Camp Sunny Acres began playing Für Elise on the old piano in the mess hall, a crowd immediately formed around him.
“Do you take piano lessons?” 9-year-old Isabella asked, wide-eyed.
Luke smiled and let out a tiny laugh.
“I did,” he said as he continued playing the familiar piece.
The children with their skinned knees and tie-dyed shirts were quieter than they had been all day when Luke gently tapped at the keys of the piano that was so out of tune it sounded like a honky-tonk. They didn’t care and neither did he.
As he meandered through the theme, which was easy, and the subsequent sections, which were also easy, he wondered when the last time he’d even played piano was. He wondered how his fingers could even remember this piece. He thought about all of the hours he’d spent as a little boy memorizing lengthy pieces and wondered where those memories went. He thought about Rondo Alla Turca and Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C and how he couldn’t even conjure up the opening measures.
Consumed by the music, he remembered that weepy Moonlight Sonata and how playing it could make him feel uncontrollably melancholy despite anything that was happening in the world around him. Now, the real sadness lurked in the fact that he had utilized so little from his musical childhood.
When did the music lose its value? Thought Luke.
He supposed it was when he began filling out those college applications. Once the acceptance letters rolled in, thoughts of where to attend and what to study began to crowd his once fancy-free brain. It got worse from there. He somehow had to decide what he wanted his career to be. Would he study medicine or business? Law or economics? Looking at it this way, all of those commonplace options seemed more promising than becoming a musician.
Sure, he could have tried to become a concert pianist or even a pop musician, but he knew for certain there was no room in those fields for musicians who were simply good. No, he would have had to have been spectacular. And, truth be told, he wasn’t.
So, what did that leave?
Struggling for coffee house gigs and playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D at someone else’s wedding? Working this summer job was distracting and irrelevant enough. Unable to get a real internship, he settled on earning some cash at Camp Sunny Acres. At least it was kind of fun most days and the forest was beautiful.
As Luke approached the final bittersweet note, the crowd of campers had already began to dissipate. The smell of hot dogs and baked beans drew them to the serving line. The fade-out of Für Elise gave in to the clamoring of dishes and trays and the usual sound of laughter and voice in the mess hall.
When Luke looked up from the keyboard, he saw that little Isabella remained by his side.
“I wish I could play the piano,” she said.
He smiled warmly and, in his best counselor voice, he told her, “Maybe someday you will.”
But, inside, the voice of the future accountant or lawyer or director of marketing only sighed and said, “I wish I could, too.”
This story can also be found on Medium
Rachel Boury Baxter
Writer: web content by day, fiction by night.