February. No football, no baseball, my school’s basketball team is almost exactly average, my professional basketball team is led by a flat-earther with the heart of an amoeba, there’s not a must see movie on the horizon, the hockey season doesn’t really start until the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I’m heartily sick of running in shorts one glorious Thursday and cowering indoors the next when it’s zero in the sun.
So, February, when thoughts turn toward writing.
If you missed it – or never heard of it for that matter – I highly recommend HBO’s Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists. Even if you didn’t read Breslin’s Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game in junior high, or flip open Pete Hamill’s column on the train on the way to Con Law, it’ll hit home. If for nothing else than a history lesson on the origin of ‘fake news.’ (Hint: it wasn’t the guy planning a big July 4th). Anyway, it’s pretty much a primer on how to write – under pressure, while trying to find a hook because everyone else is writing about the exact same thing at the exact same time.
This is the place where you say, “Huh, not unlike every family law firm in my state writing about [your state’s statute number for custody goes here].
Jimmy Breslin was one of the hundreds and hundreds of reporters assigned to cover JFK’s funeral in 1963. How do you find something different to write about a funeral that everyone else is attending? Breslin left D.C. and trekked over to Arlington National Cemetery to interview the African-American man digging JFK’s grave. The result was, of course, one of the great pieces of American journalism.
About halfway through there’s also a great piece of writing advice. Tom Wolfe described how he joined the New York World Herald Tribune in the early and was given free rein to ‘write like Jimmy.’ A bit confused, and a lot intimidated, he went to his editor one day and asked, “Okay, so how long should my column be?”
The answer, “Well, of course, you write until it’s boring.”
I promise this has some relevance to the rest of the piece, though I won’t vouch for exactly how much. Way back in 1976, Dustin Hoffman prepared for his iconic “is it safe” scene in Marathon Man with Laurence Olivier by staying up for 72 hours. Apparently, Hoffman looked like hell on the set – unshaven, shaky, dozing off – so much so that Sir Laurence not only noticed, he felt compelled to ask Dustin what was up.
Hoffman explained his theory of method acting to one of the greatest actors who ever lived. Who listened politely, nodded, paused for a moment, and said, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
Which brings me to my topic.
So, this happened over the last ten days. I got an email from a client asking for some help with ‘new pages’ for her web site. The people running her site suddenly saw a desperate need to ‘optimize’ a separate page for each of her services. They sent along nine pages of SEO ‘gold’ to drive her to the top of the search rankings.
The only problem was that the content was unreadable. Seriously. It completely belied the intelligence, wit, and fun easily found across her social media. She knew it, asked me to edit the pages. I did, it wasn’t fun, it was like trying to breath life into a Cuisinart manual.
But, we got it done, returned it … and the web people tore it back down into some tidy, nonsensical key words with a few adjectives and un-associated verbs tossed here and there to give the appearance of recognizable speech. Or, so I’m told, I was spared the sight of it – my client fired the web people.
I barely had time to launch into my well practiced, “I get this SEO thing, I really do … but I also know that every lawyer’s web person is using the same SEO strategies … which really means using the same words, over and over again .. and even if you magically soar to the top of the charts, crappy writing inspires no one and …. (it gets worse)” rant when a client texted.
Actually, he texted about four times while I was finishing a run on the side of a text-free mountain. “Where are you, man?” was the last one. I was reading it when the phone rang. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘my first blogging emergency.’
It was no emergency, but it was urgent. A very well known reporter for the Washington Post had just left a message for him – turns out she had been following him on Facebook since February. She wanted to talk, he wanted to run a few things by me first.
We talked, I drove home, he called me back a hour later – long story short, she’d like to check in with him on stories, he can call her with things he thinks may be newsworthy. I told him, we’ll find something. Soon.
The thing is, my client’s Facebook page – with blog postings, of course, and quick videos – is a non-SEO glimpse into the soul of his firm. Really. Everything we post is a mini-story. Articles with captions that mean something. Put them all together over a few months and they tell a bigger story. That’s something that SEO can’t do.
So, to the SEO folks: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try writing?”
Which brings me to part two. The writing. People out there in Internet-land are using ‘readability’ scales to produce web content that will produce … well, whatever it is they think will happen through the magic of Google’s algorithms.
I briefly (very briefly) had a client last year who demanded that I conform to the Yoast (I think it was Yoast, I have tried to sear the experience from my mind) SEO Readability scale.
The readability scale is just what it sounds like – you type, it rates the content and, supposedly, tells you when it’s readable. It looks like this:
This is it evaluating Jack and Jill. As in ‘Jack and Jill go up the hill.’ Mother Goose doesn’t quite make it, she gets a yellow light. Which is somewhat frightening, if you think about it.
No matter what I did, no matter what style I adapted, no matter how much I dumbed down content, no matter how simple I wrote, I could not get a green light. Which the client insisted on.
I thought it was stupid and knew I couldn’t be anyway nearly as creative as I’m supposed to be while worrying about a readability and a SEO green light on a single post.
So, I gracefully resigned. But, the damned readability thing kept bothering me. I’m not only confident that I write well, I’m confident that I write well in a variety of styles. I’ve won a Bob Dylan songwriting contest (“Cut myself shaving last night, there wasn’t any toilet paper in sight, gave me quite a fright…..”); an ‘imitate Hemingway ‘competition (Yes. I know. It’s easy in all the right places); have nailed Raymond Chandler in a legal brief; can do stream of consciousness unconsciously.
But, I couldn’t pull down the coveted Yoast Readibilty Green Light.
Which got me thinking, ‘Who could?’
Who indeed? I went back to the damnable rating system and began to check out some of my favorite authors … of all time. Here’s how they did:
Our newest Nobel Laureate flunks. Bob Dylan has all kinds of problems.
Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises … not so great. Apparently.
Somehow Alice in Wonderland getting a red light fits, at least down the rabbit hole.
Charles Dickens, with one of the worst ratings. (Tale of Two Cities).
It breaks my heart that Huck Finn gets a yellow.
Is it me or does Stephen King’s red light seem redder than the others?
William Butler Yeats gets very close to scoring the terrible beauty of green.
Yoast treats Moby Dick the same way readers in the 1850’s did.
Whoa, a green light! Who scored it? Thomas Pynchon, the famously dense, complex novelist who frequently invents words. I used a couple of paragraphs from Gravity’s Rainbow. That is well-known as the book with the greatest opening line (A screaming comes across the sky) that no one has finished.
My spiel about optimizing content and programs rating the readability of pieces ends with the revelation that the writer Yoast thinks is the easiest to read is in fact the densest living writer in print.
I can only hope that the technology for self-driving cars is a whole lot better than this crap. ‘Cause that could get really messy.