Category Archives: Writing

Wonder Woman Vs Batman Vs Superman: Lessons for SEO Content Creators

Say What? Comic book films and SEO Content Creation?

Yes. Most definitely. And here’s why:

I’m a big DC comics fan, so I probably spend more time than I should thinking about what makes a DC film good. And by “good,” I mean it exceeds my expectations in every way. It impresses me. It surprises me. It demonstrates an appreciation for the DC legacy while daring to innovate and build upon it.

A good comic book film compels me to watch it more than once and leaves me feeling emotionally satisfied when I’m done. In other words, good films leave me with the feeling that watching it was a worthwhile investment of my time and money, and that I reaped some benefit from what I’ve just encountered, even if that benefit is as simple as being satisfyingly entertained. 

The same principle applies to creating content as part of your SEO strategy. People crave content that is fresh, rewarding, and useful. From an SEO perspective, the better your content, the more likely your audience will come to trust your site as a source of information, entertainment, ideas, and so forth. It’s about building relationships and establishing trust, and your audience will judge your trustworthiness on the integrity of your content. 

Content Integrity

Content integrity: that’s what I like to call the quality that distinguishes good content from bad. There are a number of ways in which one can define “integrity,” but I’ll provide my own definition for this situation:

The characteristic of being honest, principled, consistent, and whole. In other words, content with integrity does not manipulate or mislead, nor does it appear to be fractured, shoddy, gimmicky, or incomplete. Content with integrity is content that people can trust.

To illustrate how audiences react to the quality of content, I’ll compare elements of two recent films from the DC Universe: Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Wonder Woman (2017). To this end, I’ll try to make the case that the disparity in critical and box office reception to the two films comes down to nothing more than the integrity of the content presented in each.

The content of a Hollywood blockbuster may seem light years away from the content you’re developing for your company’s website. But the end result is the same: both are trying to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between the provider and the audience, or between the brand and the consumer.

Overview of the DCEU

By now, most people know that DC film fans have regarded the studio’s output as a very mixed bag. I’ll focus on two just two examples here: 2016’s Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the 2017 follow-up, Wonder Woman. Both films drew massive audiences to the theaters and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales. Building on characters and plot elements introduced in Man of Steel (2013), Batman Vs. Superman and Wonder Woman were seen as the leading edge of the highly anticipated and rapidly expanding DC Extended Universe (DCEU).

By way of comparison, take a quick look at the film universe created by DC’s rival, Marvel Studios. In this case, you have 10 generally well-received films (including the Iron Man, Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and The Avengers franchises) with interrelated plot elements, recurring characters, and a unifying storyline. The highly successful project/franchise is exactly what DC has been trying to replicate.

So What Happened?

In short, audiences and critics received Batman Vs. Superman and Wonder Woman very, very differently. Although the fanfare surrounding the release of both films reached a fever pitch before their opening weekends, Batman Vs. Superman disappointed while Wonder Woman delighted.

Batman Vs. Superman is generally regarded as a box-office bomb. Critics panned the film, theater ticket sales plummeted after the opening weekend, and–despite generating nearly a billion dollars in revenue–the studio only posted an estimated net profit of around $100M, an unimpressive margin for such a large scale production. Rotten Tomatoes assigned the film a score of 27%, while Metacritic rated it as a 44.

In contrast, Wonder Woman produced an estimated profit of $250M, more than twice that of Batman Vs. Superman, and has been well-received by critics and fans. The film boasts a Rotten Tomatoes score of 92% and a Metacritic rating of 76. It fared far better than its predecessor in terms of multiple-week box office performance.

Content Integrity: Making All the Difference

Plenty of ink (and keystrokes) have been spilled while trying to decipher exactly what went wrong with Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The most succinct appraisal of the film’s shortcoming’s that I’ve found comes from Rene Rodriguez at Miami.Com:

Batman v Superman is a sleek, stylish commercial by a studio desperate to birth a new cash cow post-Harry Potter. Almost every aspect of the film — from the shoehorning of Diana Prince (a beautifully blank Gal Gadot), aka Amazonian warrior Wonder Woman, into the plot to pointless cameos by several other fan-favorite DC characters — feels like it was decided in a boardroom instead of a writers’ pen. 

Miami.com, 3/22/2016

Rodriguez’s review is harsh but justified. Batman vs. Superman sacrifices substance on the altar of style, glosses over character development in order to deliver maximum action, and comes across as a rushed attempt on the part of Warner Brothers to make as much money as quickly as possible by launching their own cinematic universe. Audiences and DC comic fans recognized the ploy, and the internet is replete with negative reactions to the film. If you could sum them up in one word, that word might be cheated.

Superman
From DC Comics/Warner Brothers Films. No copyright infringement intended.

Content Weaknesses in Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

  1. Character development. Fans of the comics and previous films know these characters well. Their origin stories are established and their roles in the DC universe are generally well-defined. The film makes some brief and paltry attempts to explore their relationships and personal crises, but fails to spend enough time on the interior life of the characters to reveal anything new. Audiences may enjoy special effects and epic battle sequences, but they invest emotionally with characters, especially when those characters grapple with recognizable human dilemmas. 
  2. Compelling narrative. The storyline of Batman Vs. Superman is completely telegraphed in the film’s title. In other words, the point of this film is simply to have two of DC’s most iconic characters featured in a the same film, and of course, to see them fight. True to form, Zack Snyder’s battle/action sequences are meticulously conceived and gorgeously executed. But fans received little in the way of innovative storytelling, and storytelling is how we build connections with our audience. 
  3. Sense of urgency. This critique is a bit more abstract, so let me phrase it this way: it was difficult to shake the feeling that the point of the film was to lay the groundwork for future DC projects. As Rodrigues pointed out above, the film felt like a commercial for upcoming films, and lacked a sense of authenticity or merit of its own. Why should anyone care about a film that feels like a prequel? In the end, DC failed to make the case for why the events of this film were critical. 
  4. New information. Some of the best moments in Batman Vs. Superman (and let me be clear, there are some good moments in the film) occur when the audience is given new information or introduced to new characters. The teaser footage for the other members of the Justice League was exciting. But other than this, we don’t really get much in the way of new insights in to the DCEU. There’s no depth added to Superman’s relationships with his mother or Lois Lane, and, in contrast to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Batman reveals little in the way of vulnerability since his character primarily interacts with Alfred.

So that’s my short critique of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Sorry DC, I really do love you!) Now let’s focus on what DC did right with Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman
From DC Comics/Warner Brothers Films. No copyright infringement intended.

Content Strengths in Wonder Woman

  1. Character development. Ok, so director Patty Jenkins had a clear advantage in the rich mine of characters from which she could work: virtually all the characters in Wonder Woman were new to the big screen. Beyond this, she also gave audiences sufficient time to bond with the characters, especially Diana Prince. Not only do we see Diana grow up in Themyscira, but we see her struggle to become involved in the outside world and negotiate the political and human realities of WWI. We also get a peek at her attempt to resolve gender and value differences as she encounters them outside of her native island. The result: a three-dimensional character with flaws as well as superpowers with whom people can relate. 

To take this a bit further, consider this TomandLorenzo review of Wonder Woman’s costume:

Quite possibly the most dramatic and emotional superhero costume reveal ever filmed. Director Patty Jenkins, among her many other fine qualities, understands that superhero stories work best when simple scenes are tied to big emotional moments, whether that scene requires punching or nothing more dramatic than shedding a cloak. For her entire tenure in “man’s world,” Diana had been told to cover herself up, hide who she is and accept what she cannot do. Her experiences as a hero are metaphors for the things virtually all women have been told while striding through the world; to be quiet, to be demure, to do as you’re told.

A male director almost certainly would not have understood the emotional depths of this metaphor or how well it could be paid off simply by paying attention to her costume and what it means. This is the classic “hero accepts her mission” moment and it’s bound up entirely in costume design as she sheds her disguise to accept her task. The eagle, the star, the gold and the lightning bolt, unveiled and unleashed. Her history, her family, her people, her destiny.

In other words, even though Wonder Woman is built on themes audiences will immediately recognize, the film manages to deliver them in fresh and exciting ways.

The film’s biggest asset is its capacity for delivering dynamic characters who feel authentically human. The film focuses on the crises Diana faces as she attempts to reconcile her personal sense of mission, her Amazonian worldview, and the moral decay she encounters in the outside world. The film also explores her complex relationships with her mother and aunt, her Amazonian sisters, and Steve Trevor. As a result, Diana Prince comes across as a human endowed with superpowers, rather than as a superhero whom the writers attempt to humanize. 

2.  Compelling narrative. There is a lot going on in Wonder Woman. Not only is DC introducing a new character to the big screen, the studio provides a story that is rich in history (both mythological and actual) as well as connected to the larger DCEU. By weaving Wonder Woman’s story into that of WWI, Patty Jenkins achieves a balance between the familiar and the strange, the classic and the modern. It feels fresh.

3. Sense of urgency. The choice to set the events of Wonder Woman against the backdrop of WWI is one of the film’s greatest assets. Audiences can appreciate the gravity of the plot, and having Wonder Woman play a (limited but significant) role in the events of the war allows the film to capture the inertia of actual history and harness it to propel the events of the story. 

4. New information. Again, Patty Jenkins and the writers of the film have an advantage here. Beyond the new characters introduced in Wonder Woman, this film also marks a major expansion of the DCEU. The mysterious island of the Amazons is revealed, along with the deities of classical mythology. But these introductions also offer a tantalizing taste of what is to come: if there is one magical island, there could be more? If there is one pantheon of gods, why not others? A human origin story is provided, and magical artifacts (WW’s lasso, braces, habit, shield, and sword) also come into play. Audiences will find plenty to fascinate them in this film. 

The Takeaway

Whether you’re developing content to increase website traffic or entice audiences into a movie theater, the lessons are the same:

  1. Audiences are smart and highly selective about how they spend their time. Make sure your content provides value for them, and they will return for more.
  2. When it comes to building content for your website, you may only get one chance to earn your audience’s trust. We know from the data that users only need a few seconds to decide whether or not they will explore or abandon your site. Get their attention ASAP by providing fresh, crisp, and relevant content.
  3. Good storytelling builds relationships. As many a marketer has told me, most people make decisions based on their emotions, so why not create content that engages them on that level? People enjoy seeing themselves and their lives reflected in the world around them, so present them with useful information, but deliver it in the most human way as possible.
  4. Give your audience the best possible content, every single time.

Thank you for your time!

I hope this blog post has been helpful. Feel free to leave a comment below. I love to learn!

Disclaimer: All images used were taken from the internet and should be credited to DC Comics/Warner Brothers Studios. No copyright infringement intended. 

Why I Refer to Myself As a “Language Geek”

The Challenge

During a recent conversation, a friend of mine challenged me: Why do you refer to yourself as a language geek? A fair enough question, and one I’m happy to answer.

To do so, I’d like to work backwards, perhaps, from more specific to general qualifications.

Close Reading

Jane Gallop is the Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she was my instructor. In her class, I learned a technique called “close reading,” which focuses on the words, syntax, grammar, and the idiosyncrasies of a particular text. Close reading requires microanalysis of word choice, punctuation, and vocabulary, in an effort to more thoroughly understand the work and sometimes its author. It’s about as obsessive about language as you can get.

Snapshot of example text
Snapshot of the text in my copy of “The Psychic Life of Power” by Judith Butler.

Studies in Literature and Cultural Theory.

An MA in English? Big deal. Actually, yes, with regard to SEO and content creation, it’s a very big deal. Graduate programs in the humanities demand the analysis and synthesis of complex information, in an effort to understand humans.

The themes, strategies, and styles that I’ve studied (not to mention the content) allow me a keen insight into what makes people tick. Want to motive a person to perform a desired action, even one as simple as clicking on a link? You’d better have a good understanding of how language, thoughts, and words affect people. After all, language is the building block of culture, society, and reality.

Studies in Marketing

Finally, I decided to return to school a few years ago to pursue a degree in business. Much of my program was centered upon marketing, in particular, how to a) create compelling stories to connect with potential customers and b) how to develop content that establishes your brand as an authority.

Fascination with SEO

During my marketing studies, I became mesmerized by SEO strategies, so I decided that this would be a focus of my learning. How are people using words to access information? What are the most popular terms? Where are the long tail opportunities? What can research tools and data reveal about search behavior? 

A Lifelong Obsession with Words

I read my first real novel at the age of 8, when I discovered The Hobbit, but my parents and grandparents had been reading to me since I was born. I became a voracious reader, taking in anything I could get my hands on. My love of literature became a love of communication and teaching, and there begins the trajectory of my professional career.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about words. About their meanings, their histories, and their value. Why this word and not another? How does this word relate to the words that precede or follow it? Doe this word have different meanings in different cultural contexts? Is there room for misinterpretation or ambiguity? All important to me.

So Those Are My Qualifications

Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments below. Cheers!

Exploring Wisconsin – Deeply Rooted

A Camping Weekend

Last week, I had the opportunity to join some friends for a camping retreat in central Wisconsin. We met at a place I’d never heard of before: Deeply Rooted Community in Athens, WI.

About Deeply Rooted

Deeply Rooted is an intentional community in the woods of central Wisconsin. It’s completely off-grid, by which I mean there is no running water and the only electricity is provided through the use of solar panels. They do have a gas stove for cooking in the main lodge, but otherwise the place is completely rustic.

 

Things To Know Before You Go

For those interested in visiting Deeply Rooted, there are a few things you should know before making plans.

  1. DR community hosts several private events throughout the year, so check the website calendar to see when they are open to receiving visitors. You’ll need a reservation to visit.
  2. DR offers two types of accommodations. Visitors can bring a tent and camp on the land, or stay in the communal sleeping area on the second floor of the lodge. Think of a camp dormitory: you’ll be sleeping in your own bed in a large room full of other people in their own beds.
  3. You’ll need to be comfortable with using primitive facilities. DR offers no running water, but there are jugs of fresh water available for drinking and cleaning the kitchen area. If you want to take a shower, you’ll need to invest in a solar portable. This also means no plumbing. The DR community uses a composting outhouse.
  4. Prepare for it to be chilly, even in the summer. DR is far enough north that it gets quite cool at night. Those staying in the lodge will be kept warm by the large wood stove. Those outside will want to bundle up.
  5. The closest towns with amenities are Medford (20 minutes) and Wasau (30 minutes).

Discovering Why She Wants to Be a Doctor – A Student Story

Background

During my final semester in graduate school, I took a part-time position in the Writing Center at UWM. The WC gave undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a trained writing coach.

The WC helped any student with any writing assignment. We coached freshmen with their first essays, assisted grad students with their theses and dissertations, and helped students with just about everything in-between. On occasion, students also came to us for guidance when it came to writing their resumes, cover letters, and other professional documents.

This is the story of one such student. A woman from the Middle East who was preparing to apply for medical school in the U.S.

Some Context

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I should provide a little context for this story. Although I have studied and written on a range of topics related to culture and language, I am by no means an expert on Middle Eastern societies or cultures. What I relate here is based on our conversation as well as some of my own meager research. I will paint with some very broad strokes.

Because of my background in international nonprofits, I was quite comfortable when it came to navigating cultural differences and collaborating with people whose backgrounds were strikingly different from my own. So it was not a big deal when I received my schedule for the day and saw that I was to work with this particular student. Little did I know this meeting would become one of the most important moments in my life.

A Student with a Dream

This woman was brilliant. She was a graduate student who grew up in a Muslim country in the Middle East, and English was her third language. She was completing her MS in Biology, preparing to apply for medical school, and wanted help writing her application cover letter.

The instructions for the cover letter read something along the lines of “tell us why you want to be a doctor.” She had written a three-page response but felt that she was faltering in her delivery and wanted help. She knew that this might be the most important thing she would ever write in terms of her career.

I looked over her draft and noticed immediately that her narrative was focused on her family. Among the reasons she listed for wanting to be a doctor, she noted that it would make her father proud, that it would bring honor to her mother, and that her family had worked very hard for her to receive an education and to be able to study abroad. All good insights, but none of them really answered the question why do you want to be a doctor?

Culture & Language

When it comes to language, we here in the U.S. tend to value a direct approach. We prioritize clarity, efficiency, and individualism. In other words, we want it short and sweet and to the point. Even further, when it comes to professional writing, we want to see the mark of the author in what we are reading.

But this is not the case in other cultures. Elsewhere in the world, individualism is eclipsed by the family or social unit. A person defines him or herself not by what they want, feel, or think as a person, but by their relationships and family history. This is especially true for women, who in some cultures continue to be defined by their relationships to fathers, brothers, and husbands. (That’s a whole different conversation, and one I will sidestep for the time being.) Back to the story.

For this student, answering the question “why do you want to be a doctor?” was a challenge. She’d grown up in a Muslim country, where women’s roles in society were often limited and in which it was considered poor form to dwell on oneself as an individual. She simply was not used to talking about her self in this capacity.

Learning to Say What You Already Know

In the role of a writing coach, much of my time was spent challenging students not to write, but to think. I would often encourage my clients to approach questions from multiple angles, to brainstorm ideas, and to try and get outside of their comfort zone. All of these strategies were in play in this situation. To add an additional complication, we were up against a tight deadline.

We met over three 1 hour sessions, during which time I gave her the fundamentals (reduce the letter to one page, aim for clarity, and get right to the point.) Once we’d covered the basics, it was time to try and figure out why she wanted to be a doctor. The sad truth is that she knew, she just didn’t know how to say it.

My approach was to challenge her to come up with as many reasons as she could to why she wanted to be a doctor. As she volunteered each one, I critiqued it for clarity and originality. You need something that sets you apart, I told her. She struggled.

Breakthrough

During our final session, we finally got to where we were going. We’d already spent two hours in previous sessions discarding her reasons for wanting to be a doctor. Yes, it would make her family proud. Yes, it would allow her to take care of people who need it most. Yes, she could make a good living. But these reasons were not going to get her into medical school.

We were about out of time, and I’d been pushing her pretty hard. She was clearly frustrated, and I was afraid at one point that she might even cry. So I eased up, told her to take a break, and then we’d put together our best strategy for getting this letter written.

Out of nowhere, she looked me in the eye (I think she was angry at this point) and told me something like this

I want to be a doctor because Muslim women in the U.S. deserve a female physician who is sensitive to our cultural needs for modesty and privacy.

Boom.

Out of nowhere, this woman who sat across the desk from me in a headscarf had her breakthrough moment. She was finally able to articulate a career motive that originated with her and could set her apart as a candidate for medical school.

I told her that if she built her letter on this idea, she was likely on her way to becoming a doctor.

Sometimes, all it takes for any of us is a little push. Just enough to get us out of our comfort zone so that we can deal with our obstacles on their terms.

Risky Business: The Writing Process

The students in my writing class are about to take their final exam.

This is a foundational class, meant to provide students with the basic tools they will need to successfully complete written assignments for the remainder of their academic careers. They are predictably anxious.

The questions I expect to hear before the exam begins will likely follow a familiar pattern. My students will want me to tell them what to write. I’ll give them a topic, but they’ll press me for specifics. One may even ask me: how should I begin?

How to begin?

After working with students as both an instructor and as a writing coach, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that the most difficult part of the writing for most students is simply getting started. This shouldn’t be surprising. It aligns with my own experience, and I’ve been writing in various capacities for years. It’s also a sentiment echoed by some of the most successful writers in the world: the uncertainty, the intimidation, the risk of beginning.

So why so much fear about putting pen to paper? Or about those first few taps on the keyboard?

Fear of Failure

Based on my own experience, I think there are two answers to the question of why it can be difficult and stressful to begin writing anything. The first is quite simply a fear of failure. What if my opening line leads nowhere? Or even worse, what if it sets a trajectory for my essay that, if followed, will produce something boring, clumsy, or downright horrible?

On a personal note, this fear of failure is compounded by a fear of not investing my time wisely. I’ve been guilty of putting off an assignment because I was not confident that it would yield a perfect, effective, engaging piece of writing. Or perhaps I did not have a clear endgame in sight and so was afraid that I would just write myself in circles until the end of time.

Fear of Being Vulnerable

The second reason I think so many writers have trouble beginning the writing process is that it requires us to be vulnerable. I think this is especially true for the students in my class, who are still getting their sea legs, as it were, when it comes to showing their own personalities and staking out their claims in the world. In addition, they may not have had the time to learn how to avoid common pitfalls or had enough positive feedback to boost their confidence. No one likes to take an uncalculated risk, and that’s exactly what writing demands.

The fear of vulnerability affects me as well. This is especially true when it comes to writing fiction. I’m currently working on a novel and the fear that it will be awful is sometimes a serious obstacle to progress. It’s more than just fear that my book won’t be grand, it’s that it will be a reflection of me and my creative circuit. That’s terrifying.

But it’s good to have these problems. It means I’m still identifying with the same issues as my students.

Fear and vulnerability. Yes, writing is indeed a risky business. Let me keep that in mind as we begin this final exam.