I can answer that question pretty simply: I write because I’m hungry. Not just for food, but for communication. To talk to someone and create some kind of reaction with them.
When I was a kid, dreaming of being a famous writer someday, the books I read did two things: they created something beautiful in me and they told a good story. These things I try to do in my writing today, although I had never anticipated the Web and the way it would change the way we read and write.
For example, today there’s not only the demand for good, clean copy on the Web, but also this thing called search engine optimization (SEO). For a writer, SEO means making sure your article has appropriate keywords sprinkled throughout that match what someone might put into a search engine to find articles on the topic you’re writing about. It also involves making careful decisions as to your article’s title and subtitle, so that searchers can tell instantly what you’re looking for. There’s a bunch more techy stuff to it too (terrifying), but I try not to get bogged down in that. As a writer, I have simply become more aware of being reader-friendly and thinking about what they might might want.
And that’s great. But a lot of the writing people want done for the Web is promo and sales material – in itself not a bad thing – designed to get to the top of search engine results by simply stuffing in keywords. You can even buy article spinning software to “write” articles around certain keywords. And this is not why I write – just to fill up space, feed the hungry content maw of the Web, and claw whatever comes out the other end to the top of Google results. There isn’t a whole lot of room for clever titles and surprising leads and slow dives into the material in this Web genre.
But the Web is undoubtedly where the work is for writers today. And writers of every generation have had to adapt and gear their material to where their audience is and how their audience will discover their materials. For Shakespeare, it was through the theatre. For Dickens, it was through the magazines in which he serialized his works, like a Victorian Melrose Place. For Hemingway, it was through novels. And throughout much of the last century, magazines, especially New York glossies, have been proving grounds on the way to a book contract. Each form has its own constraints and ways to hook the audience – which has never meant that writers have had to pander or dumb down the material.
Webwriting can be artful and creative and surprising – and it doesn’t have to be all about text, either. I think what has changed is how we get the work to the audience, and on the crowded, stuffed, and shouting plain of the Web, it’s not easy to get attention. Although I’ve never used the suggested techniques of going to influential bloggers and asking them for links, nor do I truck much with feeds, social bookmarking, and other aggregators, I suppose it’s not realistic to hold to the ideal of just sitting in a room and hoping your writing finds its way out, magically. But I think that good content (maybe optimized, but preferably relevant, well-written, and published in the right place) will find a reader, as it always has.