This is an excerpt from the twenty-third edition of The Write Fit, a fortnightly newsletter about writing, editing and proofreading, content marketing and good editorial practices for business, from Sarah Mitchell and Dan Hatch at Typeset.
I have just returned from Rome.
It wasn’t some budget-busting, lockdown-breaking, holiday of a lifetime. In fact, I never left my couch.
I have just spent many, many hours hanging out with Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, and their ilk, binge-watching every “swords and sandals” movie or TV program I could find. (It has been a long lockdown here in Britain. Can you tell?)
But there was one specific program that got me thinking about the nuts and bolts of creating good content — Roman Empire.
This is a documentary series but whole swathes of it are dramatised, so it feels a bit like you’re watching Game of Thrones but every two minutes Mary Beard or Ken Burns pops up to explain all the context.
Here’s what I learned about creating good content from my time hanging out with the Romans in Roman Empire.
The stories of Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Caligula, and so on, are 2000 years old. Partly apocryphal, sure. Exaggerated? Undoubtedly. Biased? Absolutely. Does it matter? Not on your nelly.
These stories are deeply ingrained in our culture not because they’re good history, but because they’re brilliant stories. There are plenty of Roman emperors we don’t remember, whom Netflix didn’t make documentaries about. The ones we remember, the ones we celebrate, are the ones with the best stories.
If you want to be remembered, tell a good story.
Roman Empire was filmed in New Zealand and the cast is littered with Australian, Kiwi and even South African actors. I know the film Gladiator taught us that Romans sometimes spoke with antipodean accents, but nothing is more distracting than being engrossed in a story only to have a character casually slide into Kiwi while addressing the “sinutt”.
This isn’t the fault of the actors. Actors’ accents are bound to slip occasionally, just as writers sometimes won’t quite “click” into your brand voice. But there is a whole band of people who should be monitoring quality control. If what’s being produced doesn’t sound right, keep working on it until it does.
You can’t afford to sound inauthentic.
Recreating ancient Rome is expensive. I get it. But the creators behind Roman Empire saved money by re-using not just sets, but even shots (including shots from other programs).
Perhaps this is the sort of thing you only notice if you’re binge-watching something, but whenever a group of people needed to be shown on the move, they’d at some point go marching around this same corner, past the same window, and into the same marketplace.
And every time the creators needed to show a crowd cheering, they’d use the same footage of the same crowd, leading me to fear those same people had been in the same spot, in the same clothes, for perhaps the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty.
When you cut corners, your audience notices. And it distracts them from the message you want them to hear.
If you’re going to tell a story, don’t just make it good; make it well.
14 July 2020
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