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Here's the Romantic Lie of content:

Creativity is the ex nihilo product of a singular human mind.

"Ex nihilo" is Latin for "from nothing." It's the idea that creative ideas spring forth, unbidden and spontaneously, from a single person's mind. They need no help, no support, no details—just glorious content, pouring out like the mighty Nile.

I maintain that Hollywood has drilled this into us. Look at the classic Mad Scientist trope—Doc Brown, Doctor Frankenstein, Tony Stark. They're always men, always working alone, always coming up with amazing ideas from nothing but the brainwaves pounding back and forth inside their own skulls.

Mike Monteiro, in his book, Design in a Job, parodies this idea in the opening pages:

In this beautiful myth you are what is known as a “creative.”

While others are weighed down by requirements, metrics, testing, and other variations of math and science, you are a child of magic.

Knowledge of these base matters would only defile your creative process. Your designs come from inside you.

This, of course, is ridiculous.

Content creation is hard. It's painful. It's full of stops and starts and rewrites and profanity and throwing things while pacing back and forth wondering why you didn't just become a damn accountant like Mom said you should.

Sportswriter Walter Winchell once said, "Writing is easy. You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed."

Here's why this matters:

Our refusal to admit how creativity actually works has prevented us from supporting our content teams like we should.

Yes, managers and directors, I'm talking to you. You probably don't support your creative teams as well as you should, because you don't understand what it takes to create great content. You try to hire "children of magic"—people you think will embody the Romantic Lie. They have something special that enables them to set the keyboard on fire from the sheer friction of their mighty keystrokes.

We don't like the thought that content creators need platforms and process. There's something so deeply unglamorous about it. Process is for developers and people in finance. Trying to bind a content process into any type of structure will just destroy it. So we continue to believe the Lie and hope for the best.

But here's what content creators actually need:

  • Platforms: They need a place to "meet," a place to store their work; they need an atelier, a workshop, a virtual gathering spot to concentrate their collective activities.
  • Process: They need to know how content gets from their fingertips to some production artifact; they need a distinct lack of surprises; they need scheduling and repeatability.
  • Feedback: They need a way to get their content in front of a larger group of people and organize their critiques.
  • Intake: They need a way to take in ideas from the larger organization, parse them, discuss them, and combine them. Consider that two people inside your organization each have one half of a great idea—how you find them and combine them?
  • Context: They need a way to frame their immediate work into the larger, evolving body of content from the organization—do they fit into the big picture, and how does their content relate to the larger message?

I know, I know, it sounds boring.

But there's the truth: content creation should be boring. And by that I don't mean tedious or unrewarding. I mean, the details should be boring like a trip to the dentist is boring. Consider that no one wants an "exciting" trip to the dentist.  If someone comes home from their dental appointment talking about how "exciting" it was, you can bet they have problems. The best dental appointment is the one you have no memory of.

There's a great documentary on YouTube called Saturday Night. It was filmed by James Franco back in 2009 (as an assignment for his NYU film class), and it follows the creation of an entire episode of the sketch comedy show. It starts with the cast and writers meeting the host (John Malkovich) in Lorne's office on Monday, proceeds through the table reads, the planning sessions, the rehearsals, the set building, the dress rehearsal, and finally, the actual show.

SNL has this image of being a wild, chaotic bastion of free-spiritedness, but when you can watch what happens behind the scenes, other adjectives emerge: Structure, Process, Control, Predictability.

And episode of SNL is not an accident. It's a tightly-structured, known, predictable flow from start to finish. Sure, writers and cast members have space to go a little crazy, but within limits. They have "gates" that they have to get through. You can stay up all night consuming any substance you want while you and your buddies dissolve in laughter while writing a sketch, but you know that the table read is Wednesday, and you better be ready to throw down.

Content creation is equal parts inspiration and procedure. You need to create amazing stuff, and complete a bunch of annoying little details to get it out the door. Make those details as boring and predictable as possible.

Back to Monteiro (emphasis added):

A magical creative is expected to succeed based on instinct, rolling the dice every time, rather than on a methodical process that can be repeated time and time again.

"Methodical." To most, the word sounds incompatible with "creative," and that simply has to change.

As a content manager, your goal is to create a steady stream of good content to support your organization. To do this, you need tools, platforms, and process. If you think those are just for developers or accountants, then you need to reorient your thinking.

In the content space, these tools are generally known as Content Marketing Platforms (surprise—we sell one). These are systems that help manage the creative process. They provide things like:

  • Idea intake
  • Editorial calendaring
  • Content creation environments
  • Approvals and workflows
  • Library services

You know, the boring stuff—the stuff that you need to take off the shoulders of your content creators to free them to be more creative and more innovated, unencumbered by having to reinvent the wheel every. single. time.

Your team wants to be creative. They want to make amazing things. But too often, they're saddled with a vague process through which they have to hack their way... every. single. time.

The path from idea to artifact shouldn't be hard to navigate. Too many great ideas get lost on the way.

Interested in learning how Optimizely Content Marketing Platform can better support your content creation process? See how it works in this quick video.