The 20% Rule for Writing Creative and Entertaining Web Content

by Nick Usborne on April 27, 2011

Why should web content be creative and entertaining?

Well, that’s an easy question to answer.

Because readers like to find stuff online that is creative and entertaining.

Why isn’t most web content entertaining? Because too many rules gets in the way.

Actually, there are layers and layers of things that get in the way of a writer’s natural inclination to be creative and, yes, entertaining.

Part of writing well is about the freedom to enjoy yourself while writing. Writers take pleasure in sharing what they know or feel. Writers like to have fun. Writing is a creative art.

When we write poems, short stories and novels we are being creative. Everyone knows that.

But how about when we write a blog post or a page for a website, or a company newsletter? Can’t that be creative? Or do we have to turn off our creativity and just do “business writing”?

Well, that sounds like a miserable way to make a living.

But the sad truth is, that’s what we do, most of the time.

If we want to earn the meagre bucks, we do “business writing”.

This is where the layers come in, burying any last hope that a web content writer can add a little life to his or her writing and, just perhaps, be a teeny bit entertaining.

One layer may come from that group meeting where someone stands up and talks about content strategy.

Another layer is put in place by the SEO group, which tells you which words and phrases to use in your headline.

Another layer appears when some bright young thing lectures you about the importance of making your content shareable through social media.

Then, to cap it all, there’s the email from your manager or boss, sharing his or her invaluable insights into the appropriate feel and tone for the site’s content.

Pity the poor content writer.

Give the process the finger, just sometimes

I know a couple of writers who were either too courageous, or naive, to toe the company line.

Instead, they decided to do something different, and entertaining.

The first persuaded his boss to allow him to write a short story at the beginning of every company newsletter.

The other persuaded his boss to let him rewrite one of the company’s B2B newsletters in the voice of an alien who thought all human were nuts.

In both cases, the outcome was hugely entertaining.

In both cases, the outcome was a big increase in revenues.

Yes, being entertaining made these companies more money.

Kudos to the bosses who had the courage to say yes to approaches that were scary, and broke all the rules.

But what about the rules, the strategies and the style guides?

Rules, strategies and style guides make life easier for bosses and managers.

Managing writers who are creative and entertaining is hard work.

Keeping writers in line by stuffing rules, strategies and style guides down their throats makes life easy.

Which reminds me, I have yet to complain about content management systems that confine writers with required character and word counts. There’s a creativity-crusher for you.

Google’s big, bad Panda

Google’s latest Panda update doesn’t help. It is telling us all that if we want to get our pages on page one of the search results, they had better be helpful, useful…and not too short.

I understand why they are doing that.

But…what about a really short, but wildly entertaining page?

What about a page with very little content, that happens to be amazingly creative?

The way Google is going, it is severely limiting the ways in which we can be interesting, creative and entertaining.

Unless, of course, we can figure out a way to be creative and entertaining while at the same time being useful and wordy.

And now for the 20% rule

I may think Google is stacking the odds against creative and entertaining content, but I do like their company policy of allowing their employees to devote 20% of their time to their own projects.

I would like to suggest that companies give their web content writers the same opportunity.

In other words, ask your writers to spend 80% of their day creating content according to your multi-layered rules, but then give them 20% of their time free of those rules.

Allow them to create great content that totally ignores SEO, style guides and every other constraint. Ask them to come up with some great ideas…unexpected ideas, even crazy ideas.

You don’t have to publish everything produced. But you do need to have the courage to try some approaches that don’t follow your rules.

You also need to trust your writers. They are smart, decent people. They won’t deliberately set out to create content that could damage your company or your brand.

But writers are, by nature, creative. So give them a little breathing space. Allow them to be creating and entertaining.

What they bring to you during their 20% time may be a little scary.

But as with the two examples I cited above…scary, crazy and entertaining content can build you a whole new audience of fans, and boost your bottom line.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathryn Aragon April 27, 2011 at 10:15 am

I love this article, Nick! How true it is that we can lose touch with our creativity if we try too hard to stick to the rules. Your 20% rule is a good solution. Even when I was working 9 hours days as a corporate copywriter, I’d work on personal projects during lunch or after hours. That’s when I’d break rules and stretch myself. Not only did it make me happier, it made my corporate writing better too.

Susan April 28, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Thank you NIck,
I have always done things differently, and always been offbeat, and it paid off in my days as a morthgage broker. I sent out funny and crazy newsletters, and had a warm, friendly website.

And I attmept to stay that way now.
Thanks for the support.

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