Would Marcel Proust and Edgar Allan Poe Have Made Good Web Writers?

Collaboration – December 2, 2011

The world of literature is full of famous writers who, in their heyday, gave rise to classicism, romanticism, and other literary movements.  Some have been read, studied, analyzed, and then re-read and analyzed again anda gain… you get the idea.

Since this is the age of the Internet, you may have already asked yourself if any of these literary giants of the past would make good Web writers today. I had some fun examining that very question, using two well-known writers of the past. You too can get a bit of Friday entertainment by reading my take on this question – but, more importantly – you may also pick up some tips and tricks for effective Web writing along the way

As you read, you may ask yourself this question. In your own opininion, would Poe and Proust have made good Web writers?

Remembrance of Things Past – not the example to follow

Interminably long sentences, many digressions, and a story without a clear ending… It may make for a great novel, but these are clearly mistakes when writing for the Web.

“Sacrilege!” you say? Don’t worry, I am not questioning the literary talent of Marcel Proust. Remembrance or Things Past exemplifies his fertile imagination and his perfect mastery of syntax. But when we are talking about writing specifically for the web, the situation is quite different.

If Proust’s writing style were applied to writing website content or blog posts, we could say without a doubt that he would have made a poor Web writer.

Marcel Proust – an expert in SEO

True to form, in his French translation of The Bible of Amiens by John Ruskin, Proust added what he termed a “Translator’s Preface” which was a full 95 pages in length! What’s more, his preface is punctuated with footnotes referencing other authors, books, locations, etc. Proust also added so many notations to his translation of Ruskin’s text, if they were lights, the Rockefeller Center could use them to decorate its giant Christmas tree.

However, although numerous, the notes he added also demonstrate the vast store of knowledge and cultural familiarity of this celebrated writer, which is undoubtedly an important asset to any good Web writer.

In fact, if Proust had written for the Web, and if all his references were hyperlinks, this author would have no doubt reigned supreme as the king of keywords, or, more precisely, a master of SEO.

Edgar Allan Poe, brief but intense

A specialist in short but very dramatic stories, Poe described his theory of dramatic effect in his Philosophy of Composition, which is strangely relevant today. Even so, there is no question about whether he may have had any experience writing for the Internet. It’s safe to say he didn’t – since his book of writing theory was published in 1846! And yet, we can still use many of “Maître Edgar’s tips on effective writing.

The reason Poe wrote mostly short stories as opposed to novels is that he believed the short story could have a more pronounced effect on readers. Poe believed that any text he wrote should be short enough to read in a single sitting. There is no greater challenge on the Internet than the average time a visitor will spend on a given page. If you believe the statistics, you have already read more of my post than the average visitor. Whew!

Poe also maintained that none of the steps involved in writing could be based on intuition or coincidence. He felt effective writing demands careful structure. That rule is a good one to apply to writing for the Internet. He even compared the writing process to mathematics – and that’s an astonishingly timely insight when we consider that the technical basis for SEO involves complex mathematical logarithms!

The Internet, the ideal refuge for underground trends

Like the author himself, Poe’s stories are strange and obscure. But, as we know, most people are drawn to accounts of the strange and extraordinary.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote primarily for others, not for himself. He wanted to be widely read and he worked to entertain his readers. And that’s another basic tip for those who want to succeed as Web writers. The moral of the story? Save your deep introspections for your private journal and write entertaining horror stories, preferably short ones, for your audience.

Poe also would have been a terrific blogger! There’s little doubt this prolific author would have garnered a ton of Facebook friends and followers on Twitter.

What do you think? If he were alive today, would you hire Poe as a writer for your website? Would you  fire Proust from the job? Perhaps some other classic authors come to mind as either good or bad examples of writing for the Web? Let us know!

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