Today, my colleague Lauren turned my attention to Scripted. It sounded like it was an interesting concept, so I went and took a look and now my day is officially ruined. Though writers have been claiming it for years, I’ve finally have to agree: Writing in America is completely and officially dead.
The basic premise of the site, which bills itself as an exchange for writers to connect with people needing writing, is that they will sell you a blog post of 350-500 words for a flat $49 by “expert writers”. Lets examine that, shall we?
A blog post of 350-500 words in and of itself is not bad. We prefer to go a little longer (averaging about 600-700 words for client blogs), but it’s perfectly acceptable to have posts of 300-500 words, especially on quick-release schedules and when you’re posting a lot of content. The next part, however, is what should scare anyone who even remotely cares about the quality of online content. $49 for 350-500 words. Do the math, and that breaks down to $.10 and $.14 cents per word. We’ve all heard about how terrible the situation is for writers these days, but magazines are still paying a dollar or so per word, and reputable news agencies are not too far behind. So what kind of writer are you getting at $0.14 per word?
The Economics of Bad Writing
You could argue that writers have been working for content farms making far less than, but $0.14 a word isn’t what the writers are actually getting paid, is it? Let’s say that Scripted is making a 50% margin. Of that $0.14 per word, the author would only see about $0.07. Keep in mind that a Web Writer I in NYC will earn north of 50k. A technical writer will clear north of 60k a year pretty much anywhere in the country, as will a medical writer. In order to make 50k a year with Scripted, a writer needs to crank out 5 -6 blog posts a day (assuming a five day work week). That’s easily doable…provided you do no research, have only the most surface-level understanding of your topic, and your blog post is basically a pointless fluff piece. Oh, and forget about keyword research. You get none of that. And have fun copy-editing your own posts, because $.07 a word isn’t going to come close to covering that – actually, neither will $0.14 a word.
Math aside, what really amazes me about all of this is the genuine lack of thought most people put into the economics of creating good content. There are people on Scripted claiming to be lawyers, doctors, medical researchers – all sorts of professions that, were I to tell you they write blogs at $10-15 an hour, you would mock me until I cried in shame. Is there really a lawyer out there writing 500 well-written, meaningful, insightful, useful words at the hourly salary of a McDonald’s supervisor? At best, what you have is a sleazy ambulance-chaser who is getting his minimum wage secretary to crank out drivel which he then submits as his own. At worst, you have people who are unqualified to flip burgers with delusions of Hemingway claiming to be experts on things in which they have no expertise. Do you want THOSE people writing your content?
It Gets Worse
If you study the packages offered on the Scripted site, one thing immediately jumps out. Scripted also offers whitepapers – but only ones that come in the form of 500-700 words which averages about a page or a page and a half in length.
Seriously? There are people who actually buy into this utter bullshit? “But what is so preposterous about this?” a typical small business owner who is only familiar with the term whitepaper in passing and has never actually read, let alone written, a real professional whitepaper might say. I’ll take a step back here and let some other people give you an idea of why this is so preposterous:
I tell my clients that the minimum is six pages and the absolute maximum is 12 pages. You need a minimum of six to provide enough background information to bring the reader up to speed on the topic.
-Jonathan Kantor, Principal/Founder at @ppum Group
Some people are convinced that a 4-page or even 2-page white paper, for example, is what they need. Although a document of this length may suffice for a sales brochure, press release, or an executive or product brief, space constraints render it unable to accomplish the objectives of a white paper.
-Steve Hoffman, Pragmatic Marketing, who also points out that more experienced writers write longer white papers
Typically at least 10 pages in length with illustrations, charts and references, the average whitepaper is not designed for casual browsing and usually requires several readings to glean the full extent of its information. Readers expect a high degree of expertise backed by solid research that is fully documented by references. It can take weeks or even months to write and polish a good whitepaper.
The typical size for a technical white paper is actually in the vicinity of 65 pages. A typical business/marketing oriented white paper will clock in closer to 8 (source). This blog post, which is nowhere near as detailed as a good white paper should be, clocks in at just about 2,000 words. So what the hell are you getting for $149? It certainly isn’t a white paper. It wouldn’t even pass as a high school book report (remember those? 10 pages single-spaced with a citation page not included?) Yet many small business will look at this and think they’re getting a good deal. After all, you hear about white papers all the time, so surely every business needs one. Which takes us to our next point.
Stop The Presses!
Press releases. The bane of writers everywhere. Scripted, in their brilliance, includes from one to four press releases per month in its content packages. Have you ever read press releases? If not, take a look at our side project, the CES 2013 Party List, where we regularly post press releases we get from show presenters. 90% of them are absolutely useless. In fact, most press immediately delete the majority of press releases they receive. There’s only so much you can say about the release of a new iPhone case designed by your 12 year old with crayons. And those are the legitimate press releases distributed on behalf of legitimate, large companies, by legitimate PR and MarComm firms. If you upload a press release to one of the release distribution sites (you know who you are!), the only people who will EVER see your press release are scam blogs who scrape those sites for unattributed content. Let me make this as clear as I possibly can:
NO LEGITIMATE NEWS OUTLET HAS EVER WRITTEN ANYTHING OF NOTE ABOUT A PRESS RELEASE FOUND ON A PR DISTRIBUTION SITE! EVER!
And I’m talking about REAL press releases here. The kind that announce new products or major developments. The “Company Y just released a new line of widgets” or “Company Z has closed 300 Billion in Funding” or “Company YZ is demolishing impoverished schools and replacing them with meat packing plants as part of a new community outreach strategy.” Now, think about your business. Do you have four newsworthy events happen every month? I know some of you think you do. I’ve done small business marketing consulting, and I’ve had to suffer through meetings where I was asked to write a press release for a small ($1 mil revenue) company that had just designed new t-shirts for their employees. That isn’t news. No one cares. Your customers don’t care, and legitimate press REALLY doesn’t care. They’re too busy writing about legitimate news.
At best, you can occasionally squeeze in a press release disguised as a seasonal story for a small newspaper on a slow news day (“Plumber Bob tells the West Nowhere Cageliner about how to winterize your pipes!“), but that isn’t something you get from writing four press releases per day and mass-mailing them to anyone you think might care. No, that kind of press requires some thought, and a careful process of selecting recipients and building relationships before you approach them for a favor.
But there’s more. Tweets and Facebook updates. You can buy them in batches of 25 or 50. This makes about as much sense as buying tires when you don’t own a car. Ask any reputable social agency: can I write out 50 tweets a month in advance with no tie-ins to any other content, social events, relevant news, or existing conversation, plug them in to post automatically, and watch my social influence grow? You’d be laughed out of their office and probably resort to using one of those shady follower buying services hoping to eke out something meaningful from an arbitrary number on your social profile.
We at S&G offer pre-written social updates with the rest of our writing services, though we offer them exclusively as part of packages with blog content, so are we hypocrites? I wouldn’t say so, since the only social updates we pre-write are those that are linked to a specific blog post, and are timed to go out with that post and as a follow up. None are standalone. No social update is an island, as the saying goes.
Why U Mad?
This is an excellent question. Why am I upset at a company that is paying people to write? As a writer, shouldn’t I be happy that they’re paying other writers to follow their dreams? Perhaps, if there was a single actual writer who was worth a damn among the thousands of “writers” that work for Scripted. Writers whose bios make claims of everything from having a “diploma in Business Law” (What legal grad says that? Ohh….a foreign one) to the plain simple truth, “I am excited to write of Lifestyle and travel” (obviously saving their creativity for you, the client). A large portion of the writing samples on their website make it clear that English is not the primary language of the writers (despite Scripted claiming that 80% of the writers speak English natively. Wouldn’t you want to feature THOSE writers?), the rest read at a fourth grade level and make elementary mistakes that should never have been published as final, featured, spotlit pieces.
But that’s scratching the surface, really. There have always been bad writers, and they have always dreamed of the day when they could vomit forth their abysmal filth on an unsuspecting public and get paid to do so. The big difference between then and now is that in years past, they were told to go f**k themselves by editors who knew better. Alas, these days it seems that the gates of writing have been opened to every person that can plop down $300 for a laptop and has a couple of free hours. On the other side, you have services like ODesk and Elance, in which pathetically cheap “small business owners” try to pay minimum wage for professional services and find a horde of exploited third-world workers fighting each other to the death to oblige them.
This is the environment in which Scripted exists: exploitative and undermining of the professionalism of an entire field. Who, after seeing writers working for spare change, will go on to hire a professional writer at a respectable, professional wage? And as services like this spread and become the norm, who will be able to tell the difference between sh*t piled high from these services and real writing, the kind that inspires, that informs and educates, and that entertains. This is one of the tragedies of Scripted and it’s ilk: the devaluation of content, even as content moves more and more to the forefront of the web.
The other tragedy is the plight of the business owner, though I have less pity for them since it is their penny-pinching that led them to this miser’s grave. Nevertheless, they are also being exploited by shady used car salesmen that tell them that having a blog, any blog, is the key to making their financial dreams come true. And so the guy who runs an auto repair shop, or the doctor who sees patients 60 hours a week, or the furniture store down the corner, are fed a steady stream of BS cloaked in the latest slogans and buzzwords: “Content is king”, they are told. “The Google Panda and Penguin updates mean you need content, or the search engines won’t find you”. “You have to be on Google or your business will die”. And so the small business owner succumbs to their fear, to their lack of understanding about how this ‘Internet” thing works, and admit that maybe they should have a blog. And maybe since they don’t have a lot of time, they should let someone else write it for them. Someone who gets this “Internet” thing. And maybe, since money is a little tight, they should find the cheapest writer available.
After all, no one explained to them what good content is, or why it’s important to produce it. No, they figure, content is content. Besides, anyone can write. So they get saddled with a blog, and a raft of content that returns a negative ROI, though most small biz owners couldn’t figure out how to track a content marketing ROI if their lives depended on it (this is not a judgement, merely a fact: everyone can’t know everything), and when after a year of spending money they find little to show for it, they sour on the whole idea and the blog is shuttered, never to be heard from again. This is the second tragedy of Scripted: it is slowly killing the market.
So this is why I’m mad, and this is why I will continue to be mad at Scripted and Contently, and the hundreds of other “content marketplaces” sprouting up. This is why every good and decent writer, and every good and decent person, should stand up and say “Enough! Enough of garbage masquerading as writing. This far and no further.”