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Do content writers go to hell?

Guest Post by Biorn Tjallen
Paraphrasing Thomas Kohnstamm and the great succèss de scandale of 2008 – Do Travel Writers Go To Hell – seemed an apt introduction to a few lines about the moral hazards and entertainment value of a job that ought to attract more travelling entrepreneurs: content writing.

Kohnstamm – who had worked for Lonely Planet – chronicled his gradual fall from the ethical standards most travel publishers claim to embrace. The result was hugely entertaining gonzo, and a treasure trove of broken professional taboos. My favorite is a picturesque example of Kohnstamm neglecting the travel writer’s first rule of integrity: never trade positive reviews for favors! Surveying restaurants for a guidebook update in Brazil, Kohnstamm is still at his post after closing hours and gets laid with a waitress on a table. The updated entry exudes full customer satisfaction, noting how “the table service is friendly”.

Kohnstamm emerges from the book a shady character, but he is also a talented journalist who exposed features of the travel publishing business that encourage writers to cut corners, such as the impossible deadlines and the insignificant pay for sometimes excruciating work performed in poor conditions. Nevertheless, when true to its own ideals, travel writing also has some redeeming features. It inspires people to get out and make unforgettable experiences and it provides information to help, once they are on the move. In other words, it is not certain that all travel writers go to hell.

Travel writing, then, can be a respectable activity. Nothing even remotely as nice can be said about the niche of content writing. As a content writer, I am part of the growing global workforce that supplies the tit-bits of text for the web. The health and beauty store, the print t-shirt vendor and the car dealer increasingly sell their products online. But they don’t have time to write all texts that come with this business. The product descriptions, the boasts about quality and service and the chirpy online reviews are by now as numerous as the stars, and counting. This is where the content writer steps in, usually contracted through an online agency, such as Elancer, Freelancer or oDesk.

Kohnstamm bragged about his professional debaucheries. But for the content writer, moral ambiguity is not an exciting walk on the wild side, but part of the daily routine. Kohnstamm may have laid more waitresses, but my workweek also has some highlights. On Monday, I extolled the superiority of a certain brand of diet pill (though I believe that the product is useless and that slimmers would do better with a pair of running shoes). On Wednesday, I wrote a how-to about buying, working and maintaining plates of Plexiglas (though I’m not sure that I would recognize this material in real life). Friday was nice. I was “Claire, 38”, telling “my story”, about the struggles to find a partner I could trust – a struggle that ended once I found the courage to register with a certain dating site and met “John, 40”, who makes me laugh every day (I really felt for Claire and was so happy for her success!).

Spending so much time being disingenuous, how do I sleep at night? Well, so far so good. In fact, if you have thought about applying yourself for writing, but felt hesitant about how to get started, I would recommend that you try this out. You get professional experience and develop essential writing skills. Just don’t tell me that I said you’d get rich in this business. That was “Carl, 47”.

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