Post to the Host

Host Garrison Keillor answers your questions about life, love, writing, authors, and of course, A Prairie Home Companion.

Send GK Your Question »

Content and its Discontents

September 8, 2009 | 25 Comments

Hi Mr. Keillor,
I work as a content editor for websites. That is similar to editing manuscripts but your eyesight goes south a bit faster. I love to write but I am so busy, that I cannot find the time.
What time of day do you find is the best to get your writing done?

Bracha B.


I sure wish we could get rid of that word "content" to refer to writing, photography, drawing, and design online, Bracha. The very word breathes indifference — why would one bother about the quality of work when it's referred to as "content"? I'm sorry to respond to your good question with a cranky diatribe, but this word has crept from New Media over to Radio Broadcasting where I live in my little cave and now my Show has become Content and is sent around to stations in a nice digital package that squashes the sound. Public radio, which holds itself up as a believer in quality, is cutting corners on all sides and I see this perfidious word "content" as part of the downward slide. I loathe the word. It's like referring to Omaha as a development.

Okay, enough of that.

You're working hard at editing and if you want to do some writing, you probably have to do that before you go to your other job. Simple as that. You don't need to be fresh and lively to edit websites — your intuition and acquired skills will carry you through — but you have to come to writing with a big head of steam, and I suggest you do that for at least an hour, preferably two, before you go to your job. If you work 9 to 5, that means setting the alarm for 5 a.m. so you can shower and dress and have some coffee and take a nice brisk walk for 20 minutes and then settle yourself down in a quiet place and have two luxurious hours of stillness in which to put something on the computer. Then make a hard copy and stick it in your back pocket to mark up during any odd free moments during the day. If you're out of the habit of writing, you may need to do some exercises — give yourself some assignments — write about your parents, describe your best friends, write the story of your worst low point in life, etc. Just to get your brain working. In the evening, I'm afraid, your brain will be tired of words, so the morning is your best bet, and you'll have to give up some of your evening pleasures so you can get enough sleep. But it's worth trying this for a year or so to see what comes from it. And I wish you well.


Garrison, thank you for drawing the line in the sand regarding creativity and 'content'-- and for calling a spade a spade as to the sound compression of your broadcasts -- anathema to those of us geezers who thought technology was meant to be at the service of art, not the other way around. Someday you must visit my cave and we can share a few snorts whilst diatribing about the New Media.

Oh, I can only say "Yeah!" for the whole conversation.
I've had my first introduction to the content/creative on-line writing experience this year. I used the term once while scouting around, looking for conversations about exploring social values and regretted it immediately. Learning a lot as I spend time amidst other's who're writing daily.

The diatribe is right on target. The indifference implied isn't conducive to fostering creativity; our own or others (and...the early bird advice is the best going).

Thanks for the motivation. I consider myself as part of those who are out of habit of writing. However , I do follow your advice on those exercises and I Could come up with thousands of words.

Mr. GK

I hardly see the discontent with content. I always read the Table of Contents to see if I am content with any contentious chapter titles.

This is because I enjoy contemplating contentious discourse.


Lovely comments. I wonder if the term content in this context was a technology term that differentiated between the programming and the good stuff, meaning the artistic and creative discourse and interpretive meaning that is structurally supported by the programming. Just wondering.

I have followed your regimen for 30 years and have been quite amazed by how much writing I have gotten done that way. It really does work.
Also completely agree with your rave about "content." Let's throw in the use of the words "unit" and "product" for book, shall we?
I hope you're feeling better and recovering completely. Glad to hear it was a "minor" stroke, but I think that's like a "minor" operation (excuse me, "procedure"); they only happen to other people.
Your devoted fan,
Obscure American novelist working at his trade

I loved your diatribe AND your advice. There's a book in my head that's just not getting on paper (or disk...)

Oddly enough, the suggestion that confronted me most pointedly was the one about the brisk 20 minute walk. I am NOT a morning person and that's partly why it has been so difficult for me to start the day with writing. I am typically in a terrible fog first thing in the morning. The walk would make all the difference, I think.

I can't get as grouchy as you about the use of the word 'content'. I do understand and nearly sympathize with your perspective on the vacuous nature this word has taken on. However, to me, it's a useful shortcut that encompasses writing, photography, video, audio, music, and more--even cranky diatribes.

If you think about it, each of the words being encompassed with this sweeping term also represents a large body of many different kinds of work. Take writing for example: we have poetry, song lyrics, personal essays, screenplays, shopping lists, multiple genres of fiction, idiotic nonsense about death panels, and yes, even cranky diatribes.

I would go breathless and waste the time of many people if I always had to enumerate the items I'm referring to when discussing the 'content' for a website, multimedia presentation, or other forms of communication in my everyday world.

Yours truly,

A devoted fan formerly of the Twin Cities but now ensconced in lovely Portland where our content consists of beautiful coastlines, inspiring mountains, and just a little rain now and again.

Oh, Garrison... I am not even going to read the other comments first because they might sway my opinion. However, I doubt that. " Content " is the ingredient in the soup, the flavoring in the steak. Content is to writing what a "secret ingredient " is to a great family recipe. As writers we must always rise above the common media terms that try to govern our lives. Omaha is not a development. Omaha is that secret restaurant that no one else knows about. It's that little dive bar that serves the best Friday night " special , " that has customers waiting in line for a good seat. "Content" is a word you seem to abhor, but I ask that you consider it in a different light. It's the little dash of uncommon spice that makes recipes special. Most humbly yours, Linda

Back in my advertising copywriting days, the art directors would refer to my carefully honed print wordsmithing as "verbage." To them it was a gray blob they had to fit into their layout. And how did something so creative come to be called "copy"?

Mr. GK

I see moving words from one context to another in a lot of cases to dehumanize the situation and make it more sterile.

George Carlin did a whole bit on going from Shell Shock to PTSD as the terms for the same phenomenon.

Personally I prefer 50 or 60 years ago when we went from being People to being Consumers.

I loved this advice and have a commment. I wondered why your show didn't sound great from time to time. At home we kept the old, warm sounding speakers and not digital tuner. In the car one has no control.
I don't even bother to buy most music anymore because the tuning, overtones, harmonics and imperfections are removed. The thin tones left are not worth listening to. I remember listening to Van Cliburn in a park on a barely in tune piano with the tears pumping down my cheeks at the sheer artistry. How did art turn into content?
Hope you feel great and get all the support for your art you need. Sincerely, Kathy

I very much second your take on "content". To me it simply anonymizes meaning, value and what is real.

The way the term is used it devaluates and sterilizes creation.

Thanks for your cranky diatribe delivered with real emotion!

Please change your red shoes to green. It will help your heart. We all love you and wish you the best.

I can only say that you and your comments and the truth about the lutherans, have given me some of the greatest comfort of my life. Your satire and humor amaze, and yet baffle me. I listen to you, and your program at every chance. You make me think of the hard cold nights, the ice and the snow, the winds, Then the fires, the warmth of being with family.
My father would have loved you,
Please slow down, go fly fishing, hunt pheasant in the cornfields.
Thank you for giving me the greatest entertainment of my life. John Bortness, related to Haag, related to Olsen


Get Peter to play for you "I wandered today to the hill Maggie." And some related stuff. Find that little place in the creek where the water is deep and still... quiet, placid, after cascading down the hill. Watch the minnow school at play, a mellow way to spend a day. Thinking 'bout you. Jim

...and then there is the quiet upper Klehini Valley where one might further that story towards a novel about a fragile affair...

It's wonderful to hear the modern execrable usage of "content" appropriately deplored.

The correct and useful meaning of "content" is the subject matter or substance of a work. Example: "his speech was content-free" means he spoke without substance. Example: "he's a content editor" means he edits for content, not typographical errors, not diction foibles.

Most of the time "content" as used today means nothing. It could be eliminated entirely and the expression would mean exactly the same thing. Example: "I don't like this content" means I don't like this.

Sometimes "content" as used today means very nearly the exact opposite of what the speaker thinks it means. Example: "this content won't display" means this format won't display. Example: "I own this content" means I own this work. "Copyrighted content" is an oxymoron; all you can copyright is expression.

Sometimes "content" as used today means "the stuff contained". It's really that circular and empty. Since people misusing the word generally don't understand that, you will find examples such as "the content contained herein" put forth as if it meant something wonderful. It's nothing but redundancy. It means this stuff.

Sometimes "content" as used today means "product pretending to be items of substance or interest". Example: "visit our website for exclusive content" means visit our website and we'll hawk our product to you.

Sometimes "content" as used today means the speaker or writer avoids specifying exactly what it is that's being displayed. Examples: "Youtube content" means videos. "User contributed content" means individual opinions.

But most often "content" as used today means entertainment pretending to be news or information or something more than entertainment. Example: "NBC content" means NBC's TV shows. Most are content-free. Content-free "content" is presented to the viewing public. "NBC content" may also refer to NBC's ads. The fact that "content" as used today doesn't reliably distinguish between the show and the ad tells you how little it means.

"Content" as used today has replaced "information", the previous computer-industry hype term. "Information" that didn't inform has now been transformed into "content" that's content-free. We were all more honest in the industry when we just called it "data" but that term didn't sell. "Content" as used today is about selling.

I wish you all the best on this project, you may need to make some changes to your attire though.

The internet is the only "territory" where you find writing, photography, drawing, and design being referred to as "content". It indeed tells you nothing in the way it generalizes about the actual quality you find in the variety of what is offered.

I definitely can vouch for the morning freshness thing. By evening your brain is a jumble and trying to write in that condition is... trying.

I loved this advice and have a commment. I wondered why your show didn't sound great from time to time. At home we kept the old, warm sounding speakers and not digital tuner. In the car one has no control.

I will have to try writing in the morning, up until
now I have always written at night.I think I will need two cups of coffee.

Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses? If so how do you prevent it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it's driving me crazy so any support is very much appreciated.

We do need to draw the line in the sand regarding between creativity and content. But don't forget about the sound compression of the broadcasts.

Previous Post:
« The Dales

Next Post:
Home Again »

Post to the Host Archive

Complete Post to the Host Archive

American Public Media © |   Terms and Conditions   |   Privacy Policy