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8 Killer Books About the Dark Side of Celebrity

I’m not sure why I’ve always been obsessed with novels about depressed famous people. 

Maybe it has something to do with growing up in Washington, DC, a city devoid of glamor. Or maybe it was that DC fancied itself powerful, which felt like a big sham. Maybe it had to do with being raised as a woman in a patriarchy, seeing fame as a grand metaphor for the ever-present male gaze. Maybe I’m drawn to these narratives because fame is elusive. I’m probably drawn to fame because it’s attention without the icky strings of intimacy. 

But of course, adoration without intimacy is a magic potion for emptiness. 

Growing up, books didn’t really interest me. They always seemed to star boy-crazy, frumpy girls with poor emotional regulation. They took place in New England or Old England or the past. Books were earnest and lacked humor and had nothing to do with me. I much preferred Saved By the Bell

Then I came across Bret Easton Ellis. Ok, fine, first I read Gossip Girl. The series didn’t blow my mind but I enjoyed it—something I didn’t think possible from a book. Then in college came BEE. His sentences were exciting but not gushy. His characters didn’t cry; they numbed out with drugs. He wrote about beautiful people and dark subject matter. I wanted to do what he did. 

My debut novel, Vagablonde, is about a young woman in Los Angeles who prefers dissociation to emotional expression. She’s a lawyer by trade, but she wants to be a rapper. She meets a producer and they make a track that goes viral. She gets everything she thought she wanted, but she’s miserable. That’s because she’s self-medicating to an unsustainable degree. Also, fame is fragile. 

Obviously, all art comes from other art. (Queue: The Life of Pablo.) I didn’t write my book out of thin air. I wrote it based on the thoughts in my head, partially, but also on reality TV and movies and conversations with friends and books I’ve read. And now, at 33, I read quite often! Some could call me a book nerd. In Southern California, where I live, I certainly qualify as a nerd. Anyway, here are 8 excellent books about the dark side of fame. 

The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis

The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis

The Informers is not Ellis’s most famous book by any means. In fact, it was pretty universally panned, mostly as an uninspired repeat of his previous books. But it was the first BEE I ever read, so it was fresh to me. I borrowed it from my college friend—a genetically blessed blond gay who looked like he had been plucked straight from Ellis’s universe. I enjoyed reading about characters who felt numb at glamorous Hollywood parties and in their psychiatrists’ offices. This reading started a long journey of me trying to copy him. (I have several repeat characters in my first few novels as an ode to BEE.) While a recent reread of Rules of Attraction failed to charm me as it did in my late teens, I will always respect BEE for opening my eyes to what literature can be. 

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Play It As It Lays is an utterly perfect novel—sparse and haunting and darkly funny. It follows Maria Wyeth, 36-year-old actress in the midst of a mental breakdown, and my absolute hero of fiction. Maria renders glamorous so many traits of which I’m personally ashamed. She lives in her head, casually degrades her body, and can’t keep up her end of the dialogue with hairdressers. All her friends are gay men or people with whom she is sleeping. She tends towards dysthymia, her body crackles with sensitivity, and she really just wants to spend her time wandering around and looking at the way the light hits random objects.

Most feel compelled to play the game—that is participate in our uber-competitive, capitalist society—but Maria knows the game is ultimately meaningless. She instead finds solace in beautiful images, soothing her mind through sleep, wandering, and driving. Her vision may seem depressing on its face, but there is actually something Zen about it. Maria doesn’t overthink things. Most people ask why Iago is evil. Maria doesn’t ask.

Surveys by Natasha Stagg

While Didion and Ellis focus on Hollywood fame, Stagg’s debut novel deals with a more contemporary form of celebrity: Internet notoriety. While 23-year-old Colleen is mostly anonymous at her job at Arizona mall, she’s an online personality with tons of followers. Her fame increases when she begins a public online romance with another online celebrity. Colleen reflects on fame dryly:

“One day, I was not famous, the next day, I was almost famous and the temptation to go wide with that and reject my past was too great. When I was legit famous, it was hard to tell when the change occurred. It was traceable, sort of, because of the Internet, but it was very quick.”

The LA Review of Books wrote that Stagg’s “prose vaguely recalls the affectless monotone of the drug-addled rich kids who populated Bret Easton Ellis’s late-’80s novels.” Colleen begins to unravel when a girl named Lucinda arrives online and plays the game a bit better. She’s also wise. “In the future, no one will want to be famous,” Lucinda writes in an online essay. “We will aspire to be less and less known as we grow up.” Reading this again, I hope she’s right. 

Look by Zan Romanoff

Look by Zan Romanoff

Like Surveys, Romanoff’s third novel also deals with an internet influencer. Lulu Shapiro has 10,000 followers on the fictional app Flash (which I read as Snapchat meets Tik Tok). Throughout the novel, Lulu grapples with what it means to be looked at while also navigating her first lesbian relationship. I’ll admit I was nervous to read a lesbian romance written by a straight writer, but I was impressed with how it rang true to my own queer experiences. Particularly, the ways in which the male gaze both idealizes and cheapens lesbian relationships. And, yes, I cried!!! 

Taipei by Tao Lin

Taipei by Tao Lin

I firmly believe you CAN judge a book by its cover. And that’s exactly how I found this book, which is now one of my favorites. Taipei addresses a more niche type of fame than the others on this list: lit world fame. While Tao isn’t a household name, anyone who spends time in indie bookstores or on literary Tumblr knows him as the founder of the “alt lit” movement.

Taipei is semi-autobiographical. It’s about a famous writer on a book tour, self-medicating with drugs throughout. It’s also a love story. Upon its release, Brett Easton Ellis said Taipei rendered Tao Lin “the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.” He also called Taipei “boring.” Maybe he was jealous, I don’t know. I’ll admit it took me a minute to get into Taipei. But once I did, I was captivated. I was moved. I laughed, and I cried. And I’m still trying to copy his endearingly peculiar voice. What else do you want from a novel? 

Image result for murder your life a memoir

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

How to Murder Your Life was the type of book I had to read slowly because I didn’t want it to end. The memoir chronicles the writer’s life from childhood (in DC, where I grew up!) to boarding school to Conde Nast to becoming a famous Internet writer, the unifying thread being her addiction—first to stimulants, and eventually to essentially every other drug imaginable. In the final third of the book, Cat’s addiction hits its peak and her fame skyrockets. An essay she writes about Whitney Houston’s death while high on a potpourri of substances goes viral, and at that point the Internet begins to glorify her twisted brain (Jezebel wrote, “Cat Marnell is Both Fucked Up And Fabulous,” and Vice gave her a column called Amphetamine Logic).

Marnell wants to stop using—she’s exhausted and feels ill all the time—but she’s also being praised for her addiction, and making money off it. Sad for Cat but a killer conflict to keep the reader hooked. I also fell in love with Cat’s writing style. She writes such energy, using exclamation points with abandon (might be the speed!!!) and frequently addressing the reader. Her subject matter is dark but the narrative remains light. It’s not easy to make reading fun, and Cat is the Queen. 

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

Confession: the author of this novel is my ex-girlfriend. I read it before we started dating, and before I even met her. And I’ll admit I read it with a lot of envy. Catie was my age, 28, and her thoughtful novel about a pop star who goes missing landed a glowing review in The New York Times. I hated her a little. But I loved the novel, a structurally inventive and intricately-plotted ride filled with trenchant social commentary. My favorite were its asides on Situationist philosophy (the fictional pop star Molly Metropolis is obsessed with Situationist leader Guy Debord). Getting critical theory fed through a queer pop culture narrative is heaven to moi

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne

Teddy Wayne tells this charming story from the perspective of an 11-year-old, Bieber-esque pop star named Johnny Valentine. Given that I don’t care about boys or anything boyish, I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel. But I fell in love with Jonny’s funny, sympathetic, and ultimately very sad voice. I didn’t even mind reading about Jonny’s masturbatory frustrations. After Jonny can’t make himself come, he imagines a groupie accusing him of getting her pregnant and then having to issue a public statement saying that would be impossible because he couldn’t even come on his own. “[A] policeman would have to watch me in private to see if it was true, and they’d give me an adult glossy to help, and we’d also have to bring in [my bodyguard] to make sure the policeman wasn’t a child predator.” It’s these sorts of darkly funny interior monologues that sucked me into the narrative. In the end, the book nails home how just lonely it is to be a super-star. 

The post 8 Killer Books About the Dark Side of Celebrity appeared first on Electric Literature.

How will you use the tips from this post?

I know that writing about the PESO model can seem a little retro. As useful as PESO is for marketing comms and PR professionals, it was coined in 2014 and you don’t see it mentioned as frequently any more, as maybe it’s just become part of the furniture now we’re all used to new media.

But during the pandemic, I’m more aware than ever of which brands are set up to use the model well. Those that haven’t integrated or invested in each area of the model may suddenly find themselves flat footed at a time when consumer behaviour is changing.

If you’re not familiar with the PESO model, it stands for paid, earned, shared and owned media – the model illustrates that each of these areas is merging to some extent and that where PR was once about earned media, it must now consider each of these four areas. You can read more about PESO via the model’s creator, Gini Dietrich. Though it was created to guide PR, it can be applied to marketing communications, too.

It’s easy to see how each area is changing in importance or usage, depending on which sector you work in.


For many brands, budgets are stretched, and even though everybody is telling you that in a downturn you should invest more in advertising to grow your share of voice on the cheap, that seems difficult if you no longer have any distribution. “You can’t spend your way out of this one,” as Martin Sorrell put it. Why would travel brands be spending millions on direct response advertising or digital brand advertising when almost nobody is buying?

And yet even in badly effected sectors, such as hospitality, there are still opportunities. As Owain Powell of UP Hotel Agency writes in an article about hotels for Econsultancy, “Booking intent may of course be low due to current domestic and international travel restrictions, however with little visibility of OTAs currently, this presents hotels with a strong opportunity to advertise at a lower cost, due to the bidding auction being less competitive.” These opportunities can include anything from 2021 wedding bookings to developing brand awareness and visibility of ‘book direct’ benefits.

For those still investing heavily in paid media for comms, strategy has inevitably shifted for many. Digital media consumption is up, brands are trying to display empathy, something that is harder to do in a paid medium, and may need to shift messaging to any support they are providing or to push people towards digital service channels. If customers are desperately seeking answers to particular questions, it may be that paid media is used not just for so-called ‘hero content’, but for ‘hub’ and ‘help’ style content, too (see Econsultancy’s Content Strategy Best Practice Guide for more on this model pioneered by YouTube).

Though trust in paid media is low, marketers and PRs also understand that their best shared, owned and earned media efforts can always be given a paid boost, particularly on social media. However, influencer partnerships have come in for scrutiny since lockdown. Patricio Robles writes in an article for Econsultancy, “at a minimum, brands should be very careful about influencer marketing campaigns that seem to pretend it’s business as usual, and about working with influencers who flout lockdowns and other health guidelines.” He adds that “depictions of over-the-top lifestyles — something influencers are known for — is worth avoiding. Instead, brands should embrace influencers who are not afraid to depict the situation honestly even if it’s not glamorous..”


As the news cycle became frantic in March, PR outreach started to feel a lot different. First of all, nobody cared about much other than the public health. Brands that took action quickly, such as LVMH manufacturing hand sanitiser, got great coverage.

Where earned and shared media cross over, brands are finding that their work with charities and more broadly in CSR are increasingly important for cut through on social media and in the press.

Earned media has always been good at providing benefit in the long-term, and some are even arguing that though long-term thinking seems impossible to some right now, the pandemic may be analogous to a war, in that afterwards we will remember and reward the companies that acted for the greater good.

Marketing surveys and consultants have been discussing the nature of brand purpose for a few years, with some commentators dismissing it as bunk. Suddenly, I’m not so sure. Nike seems to be inspiring people to achieve their goals through determination, but to do so indoors (Play at home, play for the world).


Social media engagement is up during lockdown, and it’s easy to see how socially savvy brands with a young target audience are better set up to take advantage. Boohoo is a great example of creativity with content which drives shared media that has helped them to impressive results in April. Just take a look at their #boohoointhehouse competition.

Another great lockdown example is in entertainment. Look at a show like Normal People and how massively it has benefited from shared media, with viewers discussing the drama online. This isn’t just useful promo, it demonstrates how and why the show is striking a chord with viewers and can fuel other forms of media, particularly earned, as well as feeding back into the BBC’s understanding of its audience.

More prosaically, when call centres are busy and customers frustrated, negative sentiment on social media may increase, and companies without well-drilled community management teams may suffer. It is also on social media where any brand hypocrisy will be exposed.


It’s fairly obvious that lots of business has moved online, and whether you’re a B2B company, a supermarket, a brand newly exploring direct-to-consumer, a bank, or a fitness instructor, your digital owned media is now even more important. It could be videos, apps, user generated content, or just a humble website with content design and information architecture that allows user to complete tasks quickly.

Informational content is in high demand (email open rates are up more more than conversions, for example) and it’s very difficult to quickly scale up your organisation’s ability to create excellent content and adapt it to multiple owned channels online, if you don’t have processes already in place. You may not have the infrastructure to ‘write once, publish everywhere’ or you may simply be lacking a good content arm to your marketing or ecommerce function.

Econsultancy’s Nikki Gilliland recently examined the email marketing of B&Q and Homebase, on the weekend before lockdown was eased for garden centres, and it’s clear B&Q was able to draw on lots of owned media. The DIY retailer had a newsletter full of links to ideas for outdoor projects, tasks for the kids, and inspiration for turning a garden into a ‘mini sanctuary’. Okay, so spring is always an important time for a garden centre, but B&Q truly understood how lockdown would influence spending, with copy on their website that urged customers to ‘create your own outdoor lounge’.

On a different scale entirely, I have written for Marketing Week about the effectiveness of Nike’s content strategy across its mobile apps (Nike Training Club, Running Club and its ecommerce app). The sports apparel brand made its training app free at the beginning of the pandemic, recognising an opportunity, and a constant stream of content to each of its apps draws consumers to inspirational content but also promotional messages. In China, Nike saw an 80% increase in Nike Training Club workouts in the latest quarter and CEO John Donahoe remarked during a post-earnings conference call: “The strong engagement of Chinese consumers with our activity apps translated to strong engagement with our Nike commerce app.” Digital business in China grew more than 30% during the quarter.

Clearly not every brand can invest the way Nike has, but Nike’s investment looks valuable in our current situation, with ecommerce thriving. The same can be seen amongst retailers who already had direct-to-consumer infrastructure in place, or amongst supermarkets who had robust delivery and click-and-collect services operational. Firms such as Heinz and Pepsico have brought forward their DTC efforts to capitalise as best they can.


You might accuse me of rambling, and that all this amounts to is “media and comms has changed since coronavirus”.

And yes, I suppose that’s it. But brands are having to be smart about how they use their paid media budget (spot the opportunities, audit their media buying, and change messaging strategy), there are suddenly more pitfalls in earned and shared media in a time of great strain when companies are furloughing workers, and owned media is really having to work at greater scale than ever before.

Marketers and PRs who understand the integrated PESO model, and know where their strengths and weaknesses lie in this framework, may just appear to have a little more foresight in this very difficult time.

The post As coronavirus crisis hits media, brands should reconsider the PESO model appeared first on Econsultancy.

What is an MFA, and More Importantly, Should You Get One?

You know you want to write for a living, but you don’t quite feel qualified to go out on your own and try it yet. Or, perhaps, you have an unfinished manuscript that could really benefit from peer input. Or you may want to explore several different genres to see what type of writing sticks the most. 

Enter the MFA. A master’s degree in creative writing can offer you all of these things and more. 

Let’s explore all aspects of this specialized degree, starting with the question that may be on your mind: “What is an MFA?”

What is an MFA?

A Master of Fine Arts degree provides an opportunity to study your art, and this art can be writing. 

It’s a graduate-level program, so you need a bachelor’s degree before you can get an MFA, but a fine arts degree doesn’t require you to take the GRE like many graduate programs. Not having to take the GRE can come as a relief for those of us (ahem, me) who aren’t good at standardized tests.

When you study writing in an MFA program, you have several choices, depending on the program: nonfiction, fiction, journalism, poetry, pop fiction, playwriting, screenwriting and more. 

Often, you can take a workshop or two in a genre other than your focus if you want to explore other areas of creative writing. Obtaining an MFA gives you the credentials to teach at universities and colleges if you want to go that route. A program can last between one and four years, but two years is typical. Costs vary widely depending on the program, but you should expect to invest a pretty penny into your degree. 

The 3 types of MFAs

Whether you’re working full time and want to get your degree on the side, like I did, or you prefer to dedicate your life completely to your writing, you have options.

There are three types of MFA programs:

1. Online residency

For an online degree, you complete it without having to travel or move anywhere. You can do all the work from the comfort of your home. 

This type of program could be excellent for working folks, parents or people who don’t want to spend the extra money on taking trips to residencies. 

2. Low residency

You also work mostly online with an assigned mentor in a low residency program, but it requires you to travel twice a year to residencies. 

Each residency lasts around 10 days and gives you a chance to mingle with other writers in your program. This type could be the perfect choice if you want to hold a part-time or full-time job but need writer-to-writer interaction. You might be surprised how quickly you can become best friends with people even if you see them only twice a year.

3. Full residency

A full-residency program is like a standard degree — you move near campus and commute into class to learn among your fellow students. 

This type of program could be a great choice for writers who want a normal college experience. You can work directly with your classmates, call on them for editing help and attend your professors’ office hours easily. Whether or not you can hold a job on the side is up to you. 

Should you get an MFA? Let’s weigh the pros and cons 

Deciding whether or not to go back to school can be a tough process. There are many positives and negatives that you need to weigh before making a decision. 

Here’s a breakdown of factors that I looked into that helped me make my choice.

Pros of getting an MFA

  • You’ll form a tight-knit writing community. No matter the type of program you choose, when you share your art with each other, you will bond. Knowing other writers is invaluable — for everything from advice to emotional support to writing a blurb for the back on your book.
  • A degree will probably save you time in the long run. Two intensive years of cramming everything writing-related into your skull will almost invariably lower the learning curve for you. Instead of teaching yourself how to write better over the span of 10 years on the job, a degree should expedite the process.
  • You’ll dedicate time to honing your craft. Like me, you could consider a writing program a gift to yourself. You’re honoring your art by making space in your life to advance your skill.
  • You’ll sharpen your grammar skills and become a better writer, editor, reader, and critic. There’s no doubt about it: No matter what form of writing you study, writing a lot makes you better at all of it.

Cons of getting an MFA

  • It will cost you. The average cost of a full residency program is $20,180, and the average low residency program is $31,184. One thing to consider: Does your employer cover any tuition costs? Keeping a full-time job allowed me to pull from the tuition reimbursement that my company offered, which helped immensely.
  • You may not gain the hard skills you’re looking for. The number one complaint in my program is a lack of focus on the tougher side of writing: how to market yourself, build your portfolio, deal with agents or publish a book. Instead, these degrees tend to focus on the craft and leave the hard skills for you to figure out.
  • You’ll use up time and energy. Instead of spending two years getting a writing degree, you could be out there writing. Even though you would be starting with more of a blank slate, there’s absolutely no requirement to get a degree first to be a writer. You could instead put that energy into getting published or freelancing. 
  • You may not need it. If you’re thinking of a career as a marketer, social media manager, publisher, or some other specific job, an MFA might not help you get there. It will teach you some things about the writing industry as a whole, but nothing you couldn’t learn from attending conferences and workshops outside of a degree program.

Is an MFA worth it?

So is an MFA worth it? The answer to this question is deeply personal, so I can only tell you my opinion. And my answer is yes. For me, an MFA was worth the time and money I spent. 

Two key things made the experience valuable for me: the writers I met and the confidence I gained. 

When I made the choice to enter the program, I knew I wanted to write for a living, but I didn’t know in what capacity. Sure, I wish I had a better baseline understanding of my goals when I started, but that doesn’t mean it was a waste of time. Some of my friends had no idea what to write when they started but ended up with a manuscript that turned into a published book a few years out. I gained a writing community that will be with me for life. These are friends who understand the struggles of the writer’s life.

Plus, I felt like the degree propelled me into “Real Writer” status. It doesn’t take a degree to become a writer, and I had already become one the day I started writing. However, I didn’t know that yet. I needed a confidence boost. I appreciated the backing of a degree before I went out to make a living at it. 

Alternatives to getting an MFA

If your gut is telling you not to go the MFA route, trust your instincts. 

There are so many other options out there. You could try freelancing for a while. Even if it doesn’t work out, there’s nothing stopping you from applying to a degree program later. Also, there are plenty aspects of an MFA program you could replicate on your own. You could read grammar and writing books on your own. Additionally, you could write a book in your spare time, take individual writing classes, or attend workshops and residencies. 

There’s even an entire course we’ve reviewed here at The Write Life designed to help you DIY your MFA.

There’s no one right answer. You can do several of these things at once. Take a class at your local writing center and become a member of a local critique group. The most important step in becoming the writer you want to be is to try something.

Photo via / Shutterstock 

The post What is an MFA, and More Importantly, Should You Get One? appeared first on The Write Life.

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Editor’s note: To be inspired to write in these difficult times is hard. With so much going on in the world, it can feel impossible to carry on writing when such monumental events are unfolding before our eyes. So this week we’re re-publishing one of Mary’s most popular posts to help re-inspire you to write. […]

The post Inspired to Write: 20 Inspiring Quotes to Help You Through Difficult Times appeared first on WTD.

How will you utilize the tips from this post?

Google Ranking Signals

When it comes to search engine optimization, content is key to success. The thing is, while technical SEO does exist (and even plays a teeny-tiny factor), Google has stressed it time and again: All you really need for Google to like your site is publish high-quality, useful content. But what exactly is perceived as a sign of high-quality content?

Here are five content-related ranking signals Google is using to determine whether a specific article deserves to appear on top of Google.

1. Highly-Linked Content

A backlink profile is Google’s oldest ranking signal. Ever since Google launched, backlinks were at the core of its ranking algorithm. And while Google has repeatedly added dozens — and even hundreds — of other signals, backlinks have remained the most powerful one.

It used to be very simple: the more, the better.

When website owners figured it out, Google’s search result pages were heavily manipulated, so Google had to up its game. It’s all very complicated now, to the point where I doubt there’s a single person working for Google who completely understands how it works.

There are good and bad links, there are natural and unnatural links, and there are high-authority and low-authority links. One group may be balancing the other. Some links may be dragging you down, and some may be driving you up, and it’s not always possible to tell one from the other.

Now, this all comes down to one thing: you need as many editorial and natural links as possible. In other words, we need to create linkable content.

This is where the content creator can play a crucial role: it is actually in our power to create content that attracts links.

What is linkable content?

There is no single definition to linkable content, as there is no single type of link. Educational content attracts links from teachers, bizarre content drives links from popular media outlets and discussion boards, and innovative content may get links from niche journalists.

There are no set rules here, so it will be up to how well you do your research, and for the most part, up to your luck.

When working on an article, check out Buzzsumo to get an idea of which content attracts most links on your topic. Buzzsumo allows you to filter results to see recently published content and evaluate the current linkable trends:


Buzzsumo allows you to filter results to see recently published content and evaluate the current linkable trends:

2. Relevancy

Actually, this one should be #1, of course. I put after links only because it is a more recent signal — the one Google is still figuring out.

Years ago, adding a specific keyword several times in an article or on a page was enough for Google to consider that content relevant to the matching search query.

Obviously, this was a very easily-manipulated signal, so Google has been working hard on improving its relevancy signals.

Yes, there’s no single signal here, so, like with backlinks, we are talking about a group of signals. But as copywriters, we have more control here, as we actually create the content.

One of the biggest improvements to Google’s relevancy algorithms has been implemented thanks to the introduction of semantic mapping, which helped Google understand each query in context rather than matching the exact sequence of words to the indexed documents.

Semantic research can help publishers create better-researched, more relevant content, similar to how it helps Google algorithmically calculate relevance.

Text Optimizer is a great tool that helps you create a more relevant context to better match Google’s and its users’ expectations:

Text Optimizer

Text Optimizer is a great tool that helps you create a more relevant context to better match Google’s and its users’ expectations.

Text Optimizer will also score your content relevancy and point you to all possible areas of improvement.

Other improvements to Google’s relevancy algorithms which are not so easy to put into practice but still are good to be aware of include:

3. Content Length

This is one of those search signals that keeps causing lots of debates and arguments in the SEO niche. In truth, we will ever know the definitive answer, even though multiple research studies (including this one) seem to show that Google favors long-form content.

rankings signals study

The average length of content ranking on Google’s first page is 1,447 words.

It is rightfully argued that long-form content may be generating more backlinks, and hence it tends to rank higher.

Either way, whether it is a direct ranking signal or simply a way to create more linkable content, long-form content seems the way to go.

Always use your own editorial judgement, but as a rule of thumb:

  • If you have a choice between writing one 1000-word article or three 200-word articles, choose the longer option.
  • However, if you feel like your article is turning into a 5000-word book, it is time to consider breaking into a series by breaking it into more specific angles and subtopics.
  • Finally, if you feel like you have fully covered a target question in your 500-hundred article (this often happens when you address very specific / narrow queries), don’t force it. A useful article that clearly answers a question is better than a long-form content that was written solely for word count.

4. Exact Keyword Match

While Google has moved beyond exact-match keywords and can now understand relevancy beyond word strings, including your target keyword is still important.

The same study mentioned above found that “the vast majority of title tags in Google exactly or partially match the keyword that they rank for”. Note that most titles didn’t have exact-match keywords but rather some variations of those.

keyword matching stats

Most title tags on the first page of Google contain all or part of the keyword that they rank for.

This does tell us that Google is still looking at keywords, so keyword research and optimization is still important. Here’s a helpful list of best keyword research tools out there, updated for 2020.

5. Content Engagement

To the best of my knowledge, Google has never confirmed that they use on-page engagement (what people do once they land on your page) as a direct ranking factor.

I can see why it may be a difficult decision for them. If users leave right away, does it mean the content was useless? Or does it mean it is so great that people found an answer right away, totally satisfied with what they read?

The above question makes both “bounce rate” and “time on page” metrics questionable signals of content quality.

However, for the search giant to totally ignore user satisfaction signals would be a huge oversight, given that they also own Google Analytics, which gives them plenty of data to peruse.

There are educated theories that Google uses some user engagement metrics as a ranking single, but those signals are evaluated differently from SERPs to SERPs, and they are never absolute metrics. Instead, they are being compared for top-ranking sites, allowing Google to quickly identify possible anomalies.

There’s not much content creators can do to impact user engagement, apart from creating genuinely useful content. But it is always a good idea for content creators to view site analytics and track content performance.

Finteza is the modern web analytics platform with a huge focus on conversions and engagement monitoring. You can use Finteza to better understand which of your articles are read in full, which of them send the users down the sales funnels, and which send them away from your site.

Finteza engagement

Use web analytics to figure out how to create more engaging content.


Of course, there are many more search signals that help Google serve up the most relevant search results. It is likely there are hundreds (at least 200) search signals at play any time a user clicks the “search” button. Many of those SEO factors can be handled through plugins. But content is still the foundation.

A content creator cannot influence all the aspects of search engine optimization. There are still technical elements to figure out (including the most important ones like site architecture and internal linking). And there are powerful ranking signals that are beyond an optimizer’s reach, like personalization and localization.

What you, as a content creator and content marketer can do is lay the important foundation for a high-ranking asset.

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Vintage WD: 36 Plot Nots: Plot Clichés to Avoid

From our September 1959 issue, here are 36 clichéd plots that will kill your chance at publication.

By Donald Westlake

This morning I received a story in the mail, a story that contained some of the most vivid, incisive, and clever writing I have read in a long, long time. But the story was the oldie about the man who murders his wife, drags her body into the darkened living room, the lights go on and a million relatives stand around shouting, “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” The writing was wonderful, but the story wasn’t bought.

As Executive Editor of Mystery Digest and former Assistant Editor at a literary agency, I have spent too many hours a day reading and rejecting well-written stories because they are afflicted with Plot Formula, the “Tired blood” that kills an otherwise competent writer.

Definitions, please. A plot is a planned series of connected events, building through conflict to a crisis and ending in a satisfactory conclusion. A formula is a particular plot which has become stale through over-use.

My 5C Plot Plan

My own working definition of plot is what I call “5C.” First, a character. Anybody at all, from Hemingway’s old man to Salinger’s teenager. Second, conflict. Something for that character to get upset about, and for the reader to get upset about through the character. Third, complications. If the story runs too smoothly, without any trouble for the character, the reader isn’t going to get awfully interested in what’s going on. Fourth, climax. The opposing forces in conflict are brought together. Like the fissionable material in an H-bomb and there’s an explosion. Fifth, conclusion. The result of the explosion is known, the conflict is over, the character has either won or lost, and there are no questions left unanswered.

5C: Character. Conflict. Complications. Climax. Conclusion.

No matter what the definition, the essential ingredients are always the same, and the result is always plot, not formula. It wasn’t formula when Homer used it in The Odyssey, and it still wasn’t formula when Pasternak used it in Doctor Zhivago.

How to Tell the Trite From the New

A lot of writers, when told they are writing stale, cliché-filled, trite formula, cry, “How can I tell the new from the old” How am I supposed to read every copy of every magazine that was ever published?”

Something like that, yes. The writer should certainly read everything he can possibly find in his own field. It has always been my belief that no writer should expect to write a story for a particular magazine until he knows that magazine just as well as the editor does. And constant reading in your field will soon give you a pretty clear idea of what has already been done.

But here’s a head start: a list of story ideas to stay away from, and its purpose is to help you decide for yourself whether your rejection slips have been the result of poor writing or poor plotting. Included are twelve stale formula ideas from each of three fields, mystery, science fiction, and slick.

The Mystery Field

1. John Smith is sitting in his living room, reading the paper or watching television, and one, two, three, or four hoodlums, who are being hunted by the police, break into the house intending to lie low there until the neighborhood quiets down.

2. John Smith is sitting by the windows, and he watches Joe Doakes murder Jane Plain. The phone is out of order. John is bedridden, confined to a wheel chair, 10 years old, or too drunk to move. The murderer is coming to get rid of the witness.

3. John Smith comes home from his job at the gas station, is greeted by his pregnant wife, and sits down to read the paper or watch television. The doorbell rings, and it’s John Doakes, who used to be John’s cell-mate at the state pen. He wants John to come in with him on a big job, or else he will either expose John as a parole jumper or will murder John’s wife.

4. John Smith is sitting in his office and a man from Why-Do-It-Yourself, Inc., comes in and offers to murder his nagging wife for him.

5. John Smith, private eye, walked into his best friend’s apartment to find the friend dead and Lieutenant Joe Doakes from Homicide standing there with a notebook in his hand. “If I get the killer first,” says John, “there won’t be much left for the law.”

6. John Smith, private eye, is sitting in his office when a total stranger staggers in, says, “The green jade – cough, cough,” and drops dead with a kris in his back.

7. John Smith wakes up with a hangover in his head and a smoking gun in his hand. Joe Doakes is lying on the floor, shot to death.

8. John Smith is sitting in the park, feeding the other squirrels, when a beautiful girl runs up, kisses him, and whispers, “Pretend you know me.”

9. John Smith, private eye, is sitting at his desk, when Marshall Bigelow, thimble tycoon, trundles in waving thousand-dollar bills and shouting, “My daughter has disappeared!”

10. John Smith, hen-pecked husband, fortyish, short and stout, meet and mild, has decided to murder his battle-axe, demanding, shrewish, and nagging wife, and he has this plan, see, which is foolproof. Only it isn’t.

11. Johnnie Smith, 16, decides to break with the neighborhood gang, the Golden Dragons, because Becky Thatcher, 15, was to be proud of him.

12. Fourteen people, one of them named Fitz-Warren, are all weekend guests at the mansion of cranky old John Smith. Suddenly, a scream pierces the plot, and the whole entourage runs into the study, to find cranky old John Smith dead at his desk, a kris in his back.

The Science Fiction Field

1. At the end of the story, we learn that the hero and heroine are Adam and Eve.

2. At the end of the story, we learn that the solar system is really just an atom in a much larger Universe, with the planets being electrons revolving around the nucleus of the sun.

3. Johnnie Smith, age 10, is lonely, because he’s different from the other kids. He can lift things with his mind.

4. John Smith stumbles into town with a wild story about Martians who are taking over the bodies of human beings. At the end of the story, it turns out that everybody in town is a Martian.

5. Eight million miles from Earth, a crewman discovers a beautiful girl stowaway on the spaceship. Captain John Smith, old and gruffy, says, “Eight men and one woman, on a six-month voyage to Sirius. There’ll be trouble.”

6. A Frank Buck type from Alpha Centauri comes to Earth to get a male and female of every type of Earth animal, for the big zoo on Alpha Centauri. At the end of the story, he takes the hero and heroine along for the zoo, too, and it’s a good place for them.

7. It is the year 3000 A.D., and the Time Tourists are receiving their final instructions in the lounge of Time Travel, inc. “Remember,” says the guide, “do not try to bring back any souvenirs with you.”

8. It is a Navy outpost at the South Pole. John Smith, one of the eight scientists at the outpost, rushes in from the outer cold and shouts, “Something is happening to him. He’s growing younger!”

9. John Smith, having invented a time machine, decides to go back in time and kill his grandfather, just to see what will happen.

10. In the world of 2500 A.D., crime is impossible, because the police are telepathic.

11. John Smith and the green-tentacled Alien stood facing one another, both alone, both unarmed. The fate of the Galaxy was dependent upon the outcome of the struggle between these two individuals.

The Slick Field

1. Jane Smith hears from a gossipy friend that her husband, John, was seen lunching with that new French secretary. During a so-called “business” trip, John and the secretary were seen together at the Stork Club. There is lipstick on John’s handkerchief, and it isn’t Jane’s lipstick. Of course, at the end of the story it turns our to have been an innocent mistake.

2. Jane Smith is a steno at the Lumbago Corporation. She wears horn-rim glasses and tweed suits, and she has her hair in a bun at the back of her head. Gwendolyn Gloria, another steno, is blonde, voluptuous, and a man-chaser. Jane falls in love with the new vice-president, but Gwendolyn says, “That new VP, Doakes, looks like my kind of guy.”

2A. Jane Smith is a student nurse, a mousy type, and she falls in love with Joe Doakes, a handsome intern. But Gwendolyn Gloria, another student nurse, a voluptuous, blonde man-chaser, says, “That new intern, Doakes, looks like my kind of guy.”

2B. Jane Smith falls in love with the new minister, Reverend Doakes, who really wants to be a missionary in Pago-Pago. But Jane’s voluptuous, blonde, man-chasing sister, Gwendolyn, plans on marrying Reverend Doakes and going with him to the Riverhurst Church, where the country club sets hang out on Sunday mornings.

3. Joe Doakes, who works nights, is kept awake during the day by someone in the next apartment playing long-hair music on the piano. Joe stomps over and hammers on the door, shouting, “Quit that racket!” The door opens, and it’s a beautiful girl with red hair and a terrible temper. She tells him off, and at the end of the story, for no known reason, they get married.

4. Joe Doakes is driving along, minding his own business, when some clown drives right into him. He gets out of his car, stomps over and shouts, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?” The driver turns out to be a beautiful girl who is just as feminine and helpless and cuddly as can be, and at the end of the story they get married.

5. Jane Smith is married to a career man in the Army. She hates the rank-pulling and back-biting of the other wives on the base. She is lonely and irritable and doesn’t fit in with military life, and it is affecting her marriage.

6. Any story told in an exchange of letters.

7. Jane Smith is married to a rising young executive. She doesn’t get along with the other executives’ wives, and in particular she hates the boss’s wife. Her attitude is ruining her marriage, and her husband’s chances for success.

8. John Smith devotes all of his attention and energy to business. He plans to get ahead, to be a big success, and he claims that he is doing it all for his family. But the family (one wife, two children) rarely see him, and in a scene full of pathos and saccharine, John Smith realizes that what his family needs is not so much a new car as a real husband and father.

9. It is Jane Smith’s 35th birthday, and she suddenly feels old. But her husband, John, convinces her that in his eyes she is young and lovely as ever. And besides, they have two children who look, talk and think exactly like the tykes on television, and who could ask for anything more?

10. Johnnie Smith is twelve years old today, and he’s been hinting for weeks that what he wants for his birthday is a brand new bicycle. But nobody even says, “Happy Birthday,” to him and he is sure that everybody just forgot it was his birthday. He mopes around all day, miserable and unhappy, but at eventide out come the relations, the birthday cake, and the bicycle. (A real-life child would have killed himself by noon, but that’s neither here nor there.)

11. Jane Smith is fifteen, plain, and wears braces on her teeth. Her older sister, Gwendolyn, always has millions of dates, and Jane is jealous. She pulls a bit of trickery, and winds up almost forcing one of Gwendolyn’s boyfriends into taking her out instead of Gwendolyn. At the end of the story, she learns that she must be patient. Some day the braces will come off, and she, too, will be popular.

12. Joe Doakes, a traveling salesman for a paper clip company, gets involved in some pretty unbelievable adventures in a small town in the Midwest. The other participants are a local belle and a salesman for a rival paper clip company.

Why Are These Taboo?

This is by no means a complete list, but it should give you the general idea. I have tried, in this listing, to give a cross-section of the stale ideas which are still being rejected every working day of every week in editorial offices throughout the country. If what you really want out of writing is enough rejection slips to paper the den, included above are 36 stories guaranteed to bring you rejects enough to paper the whole house. But if what you want out of writing is to see your stories in print, and see them there regularly, the preceding list is a good reminder of the kind of thing to stay away from.

The Old Switcheroo

One last word. No matter what any editor says, no cliché is ever really dead, and no doubt practically all of the ideas I mentioned above will find their way into print again sometime in the future. But not in the way I have described them.

This brings us to that last standby of the writer desperate for story ideas, the variation, the old switcheroo. If you can take one of the 36 clichés listed above, and give it a brand new twist, so it doesn’t look like the same story any more, you may have a sale on your hands. If you search hard enough in the magazines on the stands today, you’ll find one or more of these variations currently in print.

Actually, it’s much the same as the old two-men-on-a-desert-island cartoon. Every cartoon editor in the business will tell you he’s sick of those two men on that desert island, but there are still variations on the gag being bought and published every day in the week. But for the new cartoonist, a desert island is a good place to stay away from.

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