truancy writing | kate davis jones

art, content, garbage

In my sphere, there’s been a lot of chatter about the WGA deal - obviously - but I’ve been surprised by the surge of discussion about the term “content”. In Variety, Emma Thompson disparaged the studios’ use of the term, sparking similar criticism in the NYT.

My first foray into blogging about writing was in 2016, when I was working full-time in a cafe after a white collar implosion (more about that here). I wrote a blog called Bad Content. I was in a negative headspace when I wrote it, hence the tagline “a negative blog”.

Here are the criteria I used to identify bad content:

Bad Content hinges on a publication breaking the reader’s trust. [...] Bad Content appears when a publisher sees BuzzFeed blowing the roof off traffic numbers and wants to see the same numbers in their ChartBeat dashboards. Then they publish hastily-written, shallow, and poorly-argued articles to boost numbers. Bad Content often contains:

  1. Personal essays with little insight (have no “big idea” anchoring them and making them accessible and valuable to a reader)
  2. Poorly thought-out ideological criticism
  3. Erasure of race, class, gender, and other life-defining identity markers
  4. Anything that makes me wonder what the point of reading anything even is
  5. Published with some sort of institutional backing. Bad Content surprises the reader with how bad it is.

Content, as I understood it in 2016-2019, was short nonfiction writing created to “drive clicks”. It was the kind of writing that can only exist online; it’s written quickly, it’s inflammatory, and it’s intended to keep the reader on the page for more ad views. Simpler times.

Now, “content” is a larger umbrella. Shows are content, social media is content - anything that is a part of ones’ entertainment diet can be classified as content regardless of scale, scope, and medium. But just as art can be monetized, content can be a Trojan horse of art. I agree that calling art content devalues art, and mediums should be described and named specifically.

Recently, I haven’t been writing much prose for work. The bulk of my recent projects have been outlines. It’s the first step in my book doctor process - I work with an author to turn their existing manuscript into an outline, and then revise the outline to make a road map to revision. I like this work. I like working with authors who are deeply invested in the writing process. It’s creative, it’s not content, but is it art?

The outline is a tool. My skills and sensibility permeate the outline, but the final product is dependent on the author themselves. In this way, it feels a little like screenwriting. In screenwriting, the script isn’t really the final product, it’s a living work to be interpreted by the larger creative team.

I like being a fixer. I feel kinship with writers who do uncredited rewrites, passes, and all the mostly-invisible work that goes into story creation. The WGA deal and push back against terms like “content” acknowledge the foundational importance of writers - even when the contribution is beneath the more visible arts.

Art vs. content is like writing vs. communication. In the age of text and email, most people can communicate, which can lead to a misunderstanding of what writing is. It’s easy to forget and then devalue the less visible parts of writing - the brainstorming, the outlining, and the structuring. I’d say this aspect of my work is art-adjacent, a middle part of the project, never audience-facing, only ever a tool for the author (artist).

As for content, I don’t disparage it entirely - it’s just not my realm. I consume plenty of Bad Content in the NYT opinion pages. Sometimes being a little incensed is pleasurable. I’m just glad we’re all getting paid.