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No One Can Write Like Me

Publishers are under endless pressure for "quality content" to feed search engine results. Yet in practice, the system of determination for what is good and bad lacks context and resembles a crude egg sorting operation.

by  Rob Corbidge
15:22, 02 March 2023

Prepared as we all are for humanity to fall under the command of predictive text in the shape of AI content bots, it's worth taking a moment under the looming shadow to think what is meant by the phrase "quality content".

Diving into the Big G's gnomic literature on quality content, you tend to come away a little the wiser. I'm certain that the newly reinvigorated Bing has much of the same.

Google tells us that valuable "content demonstrates aspects of experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness, or what we call E-E-A-T".

Even the word "authoritativeness" sounds like it was agreed upon by a kind of more-heat-than-light student sub-committee - yet they're telling us what quality is? 

And it's a bad acronym. Happily, bad acronyms rarely enjoy a long shelf life.

If you've been a professional journalist, you will have internalised the 17th-century words of French mathematician Blaise Pascal, even if you don't know them. In his Provincial Letters, he explained the following: "The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter."

This is the simplest and earliest recognition of a particular skill most content creators must possess in one form or another: brevity. 

A large part of my journalistic experience has been with what is typically referred to as the broadsheet sector of newspapers. By which it is usually meant as being more intellectual (maybe not much more), less sensational, with a writing style and importantly word count that allowed for some factual complexities to be expressed.

Allow me to bring another meaning to the phrase "word count" for a moment. In news writing, if you are working with a reduced word count then the words you do use must count more. A truer measure of "word count" if you will.

My tabloid colleagues had to tell the same stories as we did, yet they had fewer words to work with in two ways: a tabloid lead story word count was half the size of ours, and the vocabulary available to use was more limited.

So I ask, what is the more challenging discipline: writing an engaging and accurate 600 words about a politician being caught with their hands in someone else's biscuit tin, or do the same thing in 300 words? Trust me, it's the latter. 

Concealing complexity behind simplicity is a skill. This is true of software development too.

A distillation of this skill in journalism exists in the following sentence: "Wantaway Celtic star Giorgos Giakoumakis failed to secure an exit before the transfer deadline."

"Wantaway". I remember the first time I came across this word when it was freshly minted. I stood in solemn broadsheet awe. The single word attached to any footballer player's name by a tabloid sports writer tells you that that football player no longer wants to play football for the people he currently plays football for. One word. Carrying the whole team. Tabloid sports writers are the shock troops of the neologism.

Obviously we are writing the above in praise of those who create content, and how truly skilful necessity of format can make someone. You need clear rules to be good.

By Google's one-dimensional standards, such content isn't good. It uses more emotive words. Makes no allowance for nuance. It's not designed to be "helpful", whatever "helpful" means in the context of most content out there. A review of a potato scraper can be useful. A match report from a City vs United or Lakers vs Celtics game will never be helpful to at least half the probable audience.

Good content production is as much as about knowing when to stop, as it is having the motivation to start. 

As we approach an era in which Machine Learning systems can produce words at unimaginable volumes, we might wish to dwell on less being more for a while. 

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