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Book Review: The Elements of Content Strategy

April 18, 2011

I’m fond of little books. My favorite book related to my chosen profession is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. In 85 8X5 pages, the authors manage to convey the essential aspects of writing clean, concise and clear copy in the English language. I’m not the only one who likes the book. According to Wikipedia, more than 10 million copies of the book have been sold worldwide. And reams of little books have been published under the “The Elements of…” meme since MacMillan first published the revised version of Strunk and White in 1959. Erin Kissane’s The Elements of Content Strategy is one such book.

A picture of a stack of bookd titled The Elements of Content Strategy

Though no book can live up to the standard set by Strunk and White, Kissane manages to live up to the meme, which I take to be the most concise statement one can write encapsulating a practice or discipline. In this case, the practice is content strategy. Kissane manages to encapsulate a new and highly fragmented discipline into 75 pages of clear prose. But she doesn’t just follow a well-worn formula. She manages to inject her lively wit and well-earned wisdom to add life to the narrative.

It is a narrative that needs such life. Let’s face it: Content strategy can be a challenging field full of hard work. There are no shortcuts. When describing the field, it is easy to lapse into procedural gorp. Case studies tend to focus on the crappy state of web content because there is just so much crap, content strategists can’t keep from stepping in it. Light-hearted prose that makes the field seem fun and exciting is noticeably absent from the literature on the subject. For most of the book, Kissane manages to describe the practice in a light-hearted way, even if she is unable to call such things as content audits fun in good conscience. That alone is worth the price to be paid in time and attention.

I highly recommend this book, especially since you can read it in one flight from New York to San Francisco. However, no self-respecting reviewer can review a book without having something critical to say. If you’re interested in my criticism of the book, please read on.

Why Content Strategy Lacks Strategic Vision

I do have one quibble with the book. In sooth, my criticism is not unique to this book, but to the content strategy literature. Kissane regularly disavows the methods she recommends as the “One True Way.” The following is an example.

Though you should feel free to use it, I don’t offer my own methodology as the One True Way, but as an example of a methodology optimized for performing certain kinds of content work. (p. 40)

I appreciate hedging one’s bets and avoiding conflict from hyper-critical interlocutors. But if there’s one conclusion I can draw from the book, it’s that the content strategy discipline is sorely lacking in its own strategic vision. Every discipline needs at least one “school” which includes a point of view or strategic vision around which its practitioners can rally. Most established disciplines have several competing schools, which add life to the literature and serve to refine the practice.

By way of example, in rhetoric, we have classical, modern and post-modern schools, with variations such as media determinism–the school we favor in the book and on this site. Media determinism gives me a powerful lens through which to view the practice of content strategy. It is not perfect, especially since its founders –Marshall McLuhan and Fr. Walter Ong–never knew the web as we know it. But absent of such a lens, all we have is our own rather individual experiences as practitioners in the field–none more valid than any other.

If we never have the conviction to say our way is the One True Way, we never get past the state content strategy is in: Every way is equally valid for every practitioner. Of course, we know this is not the case. There are certain established facts about digital media that affect every practitioner of content strategy in every case. Most of them relate to how humans use digital media. When combined into a point of view, a set of facts can yield a framework that serves as a foundation for a discipline. Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think is such lens for web user experience.

Kissane started building this framework with her use of the Aristotelean rhetorical lens of logos, ethos and pathos. But that just covered the rhetoric of writing influential prose. It did not cover such things as audience analysis (with whom to communicate), topicality (what to communicate), task analysis (when to communicate it to the audience), media type analysis (where to communicate it), and business analysis (why to communicate it). She covered all these aspects of the practice in the book, but her lens was too limited to unify all of them into one point of view.

To be fair to Kissane, some of the best thought leaders in content strategy fail to do what I hoped she would do. For example, Colleen Jones recently published a brilliant article in Smashing Magazine, in which she describes the central facets of content strategy–analysis, editorial and architecture–and unifies them into one project flow.  It is an even more concise description of the practice of content strategy than Kissane’s book. But it fails to get beyond a tactical description of a typical project to a strategic vision of the practice.

In viewing Kissane’s bibliography, our book was conspicuously absent. Actually, that’s typical in this field. Our book has yet to show up in bibliographies, perhaps because it is seen as a book on SEO rather than content strategy. That’s unfortunate, because it is perhaps the only book that covers the who, what, when, where and why of digital content strategy from one point of view. The point of view is media determinism as it applies to the central digital user behavior–search.

I don’t mean this to be a bitter reproach of Kissane or other luminaries in the field for not recognizing our work. I only point this out to emphasize that we chose to invest reader time and attention into developing a unifying point of view for a reason: The content strategy field is in desperate need of one.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 26, 2011 11:12 am

    On the critical side as well, I’ve read the book once quickly to appreciate its significant lesson and now I’m reading it again to learn from it. I’m less pleased this time through.

    Erin Kissane is a writer, no question. Yet, no matter all the advice about clarity and consumer-centricity, I find myself peering through opaque prose. Difficult sentences and paragraphs, glib new terminology and distant pronouns are making my absorption of the details a bit of a trudge.

    Don’t misunderstand. To have this subject circumscribed in so few pages is a godsend for the business of content. But my editor’s spidy sense tingles constantly on this second pass. Someone who is not in love with Erin needs to do a good copy edit for a second edition before I’d expect anyone other than writers (who are inherently patient with the writerly mindset) to obtain full benefit from her wisdom.


  1. 3 Questons: The Content Strategy Discipline « Writing For Digital

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