With all the fuss about Dickens' centenary a few years back, I took to reading or re-reading a few of his novels and a couple of the biographies.
I was quickly struck by how modern a writer Dickens was in many ways, and how many of the challenges he faced resonate with content writers today. So here are a few content marketing lessons from the great man himself...
Write of what you know
Dickens' fiction was rooted in his own experiences, such as his time as a child labourer (David Copperfield), his stint as a lowly law clerk (Oliver Twist, Bleak House), and his father's imprisonment in debtor's prison (Little Dorritt, The Pickwick Papers). Every anecdote and character he encountered was grist for his fictional mill, and with a near-photographic memory he was able to transform even distant real-life scenes into vivid fictional set pieces.
Learning: Always be on the lookout for ideas and jot them down whenever they arrive (often this will not be in the office).
Serialise your efforts
Dickens was one of the very first writers to publish his novels in instalments, in literary magazines. This meant he had to map out the story in advance as far as he could and tweak chapters as he went along. It gave a structure he could progress over time – an editorial calendar, if you will – and helped him eke the maximum mileage out of each fictional idea.
Learning: Look for ways to break down content into episodes, series and cliffhangers that can help your ideas work harder and stretch further.
Listen to feedback
The instalment format also allowed Dickens to gauge audience reaction to his work. He could then modify future instalments in response to public reaction to particular characters or plotlines – a kind of early social media feedback loop.
Learning: Use feedback from your users to help you shape future content ides and executions.
Develop production discipline
Dickens was the ultimate hack writer, a protean content machine who could turn his hand to pretty much anything and could be relied on to deliver almost industrial volumes of copy to ridiculously tight, often overlapping deadlines. He ruthlessly prioritised his work, and the monthly instalments he signed up to provided immovable production milestones to help him manage his time and keep producing.
Learning: Use your production milestones to discipline yourself. Your content marketing efforts will quickly flounder unless you treat your deadlines as immovable objects.
Develop a content brand
Dickens quickly became identified with two key positions: there was Dickens the social reformer and, first and most famously, there was Dickens the patron saint of the domestic hearth. So identified was Dickens with this image that even when his personal life was anything but connubial bliss (he was separating from – and disparaging – his long-suffering wife, while keeping an actress lover with whom he may have had a child), his public were still clamouring for his annual cosy Christmas tale.
Learning: Work out what kind of content brand you are as a business – do you inspire, educate, serve or entertain? – and plan and create content accordingly.
Adapt and reuse for new platforms
Dickens learned to serialise his works early on, and later he capitalised on a new trend by performing his own works at ground-breaking public readings. Ever the amateur thesp, Dickens took his greatest works and completely reworked them so that he could declaim his greatest hits from the stage, which he did to great acclaim (and at no little physical cost) on reading tours of the UK and the US.
Some thought Dickens vulgar to read publicly – and even more vulgar to insist on being paid to perform – but Dickens had an eye for changing public tastes and was always keen to assert the rights of creatives to their commercial due. (He fought – and eventually partially won – a protracted dispute with US publishers who exploited his writings without paying him anything.)
Learning: Make your content work harder by reformatting and reworking for different platforms and audiences.