What makes content good

great story

30 Nov What makes content good

As the editorial director for Content That Works, I put my stamp of approval on hundreds of  great stories, graphics, blog posts and native ads every month. I’m a daily reader of the New York Times and the Chattanooga Times Free Press as well as wide-ranging websites from Mother Jones and FiveThirtyEight to Tennis.com and Pitchfork. I’m always in the middle of 2-3 novels at any given time and read at least 2 picture books every night to help my little girls fall asleep with words and wonder in their heads.

At the end of the day, it’s a wonder my eyes are still firmly in their sockets.

But each morning without fail, I wake up eager for more words and more stories to teach me and move me and inspire me to do better in my role as editor and my roles as father, husband and citizen of Earth.

As someone who reads as much as I do, I’m often asked, “What makes a great story?”

The answer is – as is the answer to so many of life’s questions – it depends. It changes constantly and there is no template for what makes a story engaging.

I hold little regard for or interest in cars, which makes it an interesting job to edit CTW’s Wheel Deals section. It would be logical for non-car people to recoil at any and all stories about cars, but I have learned to run toward stories that don’t easily fit in my tastes. Recently, our automotive columnist, Sharon Peters, wrote a piece about mice setting up shop inside car engines. She offered actionable, humorous tips to solve this oddball, real-world problem. It was brilliant – in 400 words she made me laugh, kept me reading until the very end and I walked away knowing something I didn’t know before that was definitely worth knowing. All about a topic for which I have little interest.

If that’s not the sign of a great story, what is?

As a diehard tennis fan, I was delighted to see a front-page story in Monday’s New York Times sports section about tennis upstart Lee Duck-hee, 18, who is ranked 143rd in the world and defying one of the sport’s long-held beliefs about what is necessary to be successful – he’s deaf. Tennis star Andy Roddick famously said at Wimbledon that he knows how to react to an opponent’s shot first by what he hears, then by what he sees. I consumed the lengthy story like a cup of dark roast French (liquid gold in my profession) and by the end, I had uncontrollable anticipation bubbling in my belly. I’m now just as excited to see Lee Duck-hee play tennis as I am for Christmas morning.

If that’s not the sign of a great story, what is?

This weekend, I read to my daughters Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and I was so immersed in the whimsical wordplay and driving narrative that my brain reverted to its childlike state if only for 15 minutes. It was one of those precious, fleeting moments when you actually can feel the life you had before worries about bills, elections and the herniated discs in your back took center stage. At the completion of the book, my 7-year-old said, “It’s important to remember that Christmas isn’t about what we want or Santa or cookies, it’s about sharing the love we have for each other.” I melted.

If that’s not the sign of a great story, what is?

These three pieces of content have nothing in common, at least not on the surface. One was about something I don’t like (cars), one was about something I like more than pretty much anything (tennis) and one was a children’s story for which I thought (wrongly) I had lost my taste for decades ago. In my job and in my personal life, the things I read usually don’t move me like these three stories. Absent of my children and their wisdom, would the Grinch have proven so powerful? Probably not. If I were a car-loving know-it-all, would Sharon’s mice column have been as surprising and humorous? Probably not. If I preferred basketball to tennis, would I have even read the courageous tale of Lee Duck-hee. Probably not.

As content creators and providers, it is our job to try – with every story we release into the print and digital world – to captivate, inspire, teach and entertain our readers. Different stories will do the job for different readers, but every story must teach your readers something they don’t know, something worth knowing and/or something that inspires them to live better, do better and be better. Words matter, and if you ever find yourself filling space instead of filling your pages with greatness, that’s a sure sign you’re not producing good content. And if we’re not producing great content, what exactly are we doing?

Share your thoughts on what makes good content in the comments below.