Can web writing be creative?

A comment I've heard a few times recently from content types of various kinds – especially writers with a print or advertising background – is that web writing isn't creative. Is that true?

 Can web writing be creative?

Certainly much of the writing for the web we do isn't creative in the sense that there's lots of scope for agonising puns or cryptic references or exhibitions of individual flair. There aren't obvious opportunities for web writers to show off or do work that can go straight into their books, which is what I suspect the comments I've heard tend to mean. But then this is perhaps a rather limited definition of 'creative'. I once heard a talk by content guru Gerry McGovern in which a member of his audience complained that the tone of voice his clients required him to write in was 'boring'. But the clients in question were banks and other financial institutions.

As Gerry pointed out, banks look after our money; we look to them to be sound and reliable and responsible above all, not wacky dispensers of gags. What the audience member called boring was in fact tonally appropriate. And being creative online is just about being appropriate in this way. It's about coming up with words that help your clients meet their objectives while at the same time providing users with the content they might actually want to read.

It's about coming up with interesting ways to talk about things that often aren't obviously interesting. It's about gaining people's attention when they're pushed for time, or can't see why you should be any different from the rest, or don't believe there's anything new to know about a particular subject. All these things require talent, skill, thought, imagination... creativity. Like a cathedral or an episode of Emmerdale, websites are collaborative projects, where individual efforts must be made subservient to the greater good of the whole.

Online, writers must learn to leave their ego at the door. Between the website's consumers and the website's owners there should be an uninterrupted flow of content, seamlessly bridging user needs and marketing priorities. There is no place for the ego of the creative, no place for individual 'style'. (Style, incidentally, can be overrated. Asked why he originally wrote Waiting for Godot in French rather than in his native English, Samuel Beckett replied: 'In order to write without style.') 

This is a different kind of creativity, the kind that involves immersing yourself totally in the needs of your audiences so that you disappear and only the right content remains. That content should belong naturally to the site -- done well, it shouldn't be possible to tell which author did which bit. Allied to this is the issue of parameters.

Artists and craftspeople often say that constraints are creative, that working at the edge of rules produces the most interesting results. Well, web writing is full of parameters to test the creativity of any writer: character counts for headlines, search guidelines for copy, pay-per-click constraints, corporate style guides and more. Finding interesting copy solutions that do the job without busting these limits often requires real ingenuity. Artists of the written word have for centuries agonised about what Virginia Woolf called the 'eternal struggle with form'. A harmonious blend of style and substance, of form and content, is a classic hallmark of a satisfying work of art. Online, where people scan read at motorway speed, form virtually IS content.

The need to structure web content in ways that intuitively highlight meaning and encourage engagement is perhaps the greatest creative challenge of all. Web writing isn't for everyone. But for those interested in doing it right, it's almost never boring and often very creative. But then we would say that.