31 July 2010

On Being a Hack

*

To
Roshni Dutt,
A long suffering woman
With the thickest epidermis ever:
My Editor.

*

Being a hack is at once embarrassingly traumatic and enriching. You hate the job and you hate yourself for doing it, yet you can’t but help be fascinated by it.

Really. There’re so many things to it. As a hack – or, let’s clear the air, a content writer – one gets exposed to a well nigh bewildering range of subjects and topics, many of which one would never even have though about in all one’s life. From budgeting to dating to child care to schooling to erotica to hardware to marketing to so on and so forth, the expanse of and demand for content writing today is nearly limitless and as such covers almost every imaginable aspect of human knowledge and expertise. To the amateur in content, then, this range can well be a matter of amazement.

Though, of course, it’s one of those obvious things which we all so often tend to miss: there’s so much matter on the internet, so many products and services and as many blurbs, reviews, appraisals, descriptions and so on. They didn’t just get there on their own nor were they generated by deviously crafty machines. Real people, people like you and me, wrote them because there is an ever increasing demand by – again – real people like you and me for information, advice and help. In striving to fulfil that demand, content not only enables that audience but also provides those who create it – managers, editors and writers – an enviable opportunity to enhance and enrich their knowledge and understanding of the world.

What then is my problem with content writing? Quite simple: it’s boring and fake.

Eminently so. There can be nothing as boring as writing about the advantages of a bamboo chopping board over a plastic one or enumerating the procedure for filing an insurance claim or exalting the virtues of a particular type of wood furniture. It’s marketing most of the time and thus involves all those clich├ęd tricks of selling something which few would want to buy – advertising, for instance, a particular language course or a certain tattoo outfit. Sound cheery, confident and on top of the world, as if the product you’re pitching is the best of its kind. Some of them are good, no doubt about that, but then the very charade of marketing and advertising – the pretence, the pitch, the discreet, round about clinch, all repeated over and over again ad infinitum – is enough to lull one to a weary stupor down to one’s very soul.

Plus, since it’s for Americans, it has to be kept abysmally simple and obvious. So naively obvious in fact that at times you want to pull your hair in despair – or clobber the silly sod who came up with the job in the first place. Imagine, for instance, my despair on the fourth go on a five hundred word article on budgeting for the average American: the same thing, the same features, the same silly, obvious advise – plan out expenditure, it’ll help you save money; don’t indulge excessively in impulsive shopping sprees, you’ll end up wasting money; don’t invest in risky propositions, the stock market’s volatile – all over again in different language. If it’s uninspiring and boring, it’s also absurd in the most stupefyingly existential way.

And of course, it’s also fake.

Fake not just in the sense of being hollow and uninspiring, but also as being unreliable. Given the demand for content and the profusion of start-ups in this part of the English writing world, almost anybody can be a content writer today, writing skills and grammar notwithstanding. This means that those who churn out content most of the time know almost nothing about what they’re told to write and as such have to rely on what’s available as public domain on the internet – which, more often than not, is yet more content, written previously by people just as ignorant. Yes, there is some degree of truth and veracity to all of it – after all, somebody back up in the chain must’ve done up reliable research in the beginning – but as it is, the twists and turns which inevitably accompany each new article and advisory put yet another colour onto knowledge and reduce with each successive effort its reliability. Of course, there’s no way for the lay reader – even, indeed, for the befuddled writer – to know just where a particular piece stands and so all appears, as it must, new and original.

Which brings me to the next problem with content: it’s simply not ethical.

Indeed, for content is naught but matter rehashed, plagiarism just on the right side of copyright laws. No matter how much firms advertise the originality of their content, a vast majority of it is copied and rewritten, either directly from one source or, if the writer’s slightly more industrious, from a few – and since there’re absolutely no incentives for quality work, the chances of that are pretty rare.

This last, as may be guessed, is because the whole industry’s organised on a pyramidal, trickle down model with writers – those involved most centrally to the job – at the bottom most rung with no perks or benefits. We may write on them for righteous fashion and organic food portals, but fair wage ideals hardly ever appeal to content writing firms, much less if, as a considerable majority are, are start-ups entrepreneured by enterprising and ambitious college students and under thirty graduates. Further, since much of the work that comes is outsourced matter, it holds, by virtue of passing many hands till it finally comes to a writer, little monetary value, amounting many a times to as little as ten paisa per word.

Not just that, though. Part of the problem is also integral to the nature of content writing as, as it were, an industry: as a thoroughly capitalist economic setup that caters to the insatiable demands of an increasingly consumerist world culture, content writing works on principles reminiscent best of the Dickensian workhouse, minus, of course, the physical grind and torture. Writers are expendable units, openly bought on the cyberspace – an employer on a leading job portal asked interested writers to “quote their price” – and freely expected to prostitute their skills to anything that’s demanded of them. The laws of free market demand and supply deem it so: explicitly instructed to a nameless anonymity, all they’re required to do is to create content in accordance with specific guidelines dictated by clients. All of this must be accomplished with the least questioning and inspection; writers – for that matter, particularly in case of solely rewrites, the firms more often than not – are not supposed to know to what ultimate end their work will be put to and interaction between writers and editors cum managers is restricted and formal to the core sans all but the least, ritualised pretension to recognition.

Now, it’d be fine if it was really just this. I mean, of course it’s boring and it’s unethical, but given our economic setup today, there’s almost no form of employment that isn’t exploitative or underhand in some way or the other: this one, where it is, is only in sense of ownership, of IPR and other modern statues, and that too of matter as sordid and uninspiring as content. In any case, these conceptions are on the whole alien to literary traditions the world over, traditions historically prone to inspired creations and imitations, all perfectly within the ambit of acceptability and canonicity.

Ironically though, the problem is just that: literature.

Not literature of course, not literature per se: oh no, not at all, not in the least. Literary training rather, more accurately the biases concomitant on such a training. Dependant not as much, or not as necessarily, on the accident of pedagogy as much as on the historical biases engendered by criticism and, perhaps more so, popular culture and accepted as such by a pseudo-conservative mind. On its own, content writing, for all its flaws, is enriching; besides I in any case spice up whatever I do, mixing post-modern feminist theory in advisories on dating and Shakespeare in tips on budgeting.

What then acts as a deterrent, what makes content writing an embarrassment – even, at one level, downright traumatic – are these biases, biases which deem writing as a fulfilling creative force at once exalted and humble. Notions, expectations, one’s own as well, in a vague way, societal: writers as creators, commentators with and in the know; literature-wallahs as academicians involved in fruitful criticism and dialogue. As both, and as aspiring to more fully be both, the openly mercantile nature of content writing stands in direct opposition to one’s ideal for oneself: to be, in whatever small way, a critic and a commentator and then to write content; to write thus, aspire and conceive, to create and then to be a hack, overwhelmed by the machinations of domestic economy, all for money…to be a hack, at once enriched and degraded, biases of training and tradition: a hack? A hack! A hack…

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