7 Essentials for Quality Content Writing

A little while back, I asked a number of content strategists to share their tips on what makes a great content writer. They shared a lot of great insights, but they tended to fall more on the ideological side of things, citing curiosity and creativity as top attributes of the writers they worked with.

For anyone interested in succeeding as a content writer, those are hugely important traits to have, but there are also some specific steps and skills related to the technical process of content writing that those of us who have been at it a while learn over time.

For those of you who could use more specific, in-the-weeds tips on improving your content writing skills, these are the top suggestions I offer.

1.    Read (a lot).

This is a good tip for anyone who wants to be better at any type of writing. Don’t necessarily stick with

Image via kaboompics.com

Image via kaboompics.com

reading the type of writing you’re doing – just be a prolific reader all around. Fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles, blog posts – it’s more important that you read anything you can find that’s by good writers who use language well than it is that you read things that are in the format you’ll be writing in.

Spending time with the work of great writers is how you learn what kinds of words and sentence structures work well together, and what kind of language and writing styles feel awkward, haughty, or needlessly obtuse. Gaining a clearer picture of what you like to read will help you shape your own voice as a writer and replicate what works so well when other writers do it.

2.    Do the research.

You can’t write about something you don’t know about. Well, you can, but it will be needlessly difficult and come out sounding like BS (cause that’s what it will be). The first step to every writing project (unless it’s on a subject you already know inside and out) has to be spending time on research.

I spend more time on research than I do on writing. Unless I don’t do enough research, then the writing is like extracting teeth – slow and painful. And the results won’t end up any better for the extra trouble that goes into it.

3.    Actively work to empathize with your target audience.

Empathy requires work. It seems simple to say that different people see the world differently, but in practice it feels unnatural to us. The golden rule we’re taught as kids is flawed because how I want to be treated isn’t always how other people do. My interests aren’t always the same as my audience’s. My values aren’t necessarily the same as theirs. Etc. Etc.

That means understanding your audience –getting inside their head to figure out what they’re thinking and the kind of topics and writing they respond to – is an extra step that quality content writers have to make and a skillset in and of itself.

One of the greatest gifts I can come across in my research as a freelance content writer is a blog post with members of my target audience offering up their opinions in the comments, or a LinkedIn group where the people I’m writing for are active participants in the discussions. Or even better, a conversation with someone that’s in my target audience. The more you understand about your target audience – their wants, needs, concerns, values, interests – the easier it will be attain the level of empathy needed to write effectively for them.

Quick side note: this is something else that reading helps with. Learning about other people’s lives through nonfiction or getting inside the heads of characters different from you in fiction is a practice in empathy. The more reading you do, the more you stretch the empathy muscle you need to flex when it’s time to get inside the head of your target audience. (I’m not alone in thinking this – no less than POTUS himself agrees!)

4.    Pay attention to formatting.

You have to understand how people read and how their reading habits change on different devices and in different contexts. You’ll find a lot of variety in the particular preferences different people have when it comes to content consumption (some people vastly prefer short-form content, others are much more likely to take the time for quality long form; some are more likely to click on a video, others will opt for text every time).

This makes things complicated, but there are certain online reading preferences that are widespread enough to count on:

  • Headlines must be enticing. If no one ever clicks, they’ll never read anything you write. There are too many tips and opinions on what makes a good headline to get into here – but rest assured it’s important and worth spending time on.
  • People skim. Either to find the information they need faster or make sure they’ll like your content before committing to read the whole thing. Using headlines, bullet points, and lists helps make it easier for them to consume your content the way they want.
  • Visuals matter. I don’t just mean including images in your content (which is good form), but the layout of your content and how easy it is to read is important. You don’t want your writing to look cluttered on the page, leave plenty of whitespace so your words are easier to take in.

Start paying attention to the formatting on the blogs and other online publications you like best. If they’re popular sites, you can bet they’ve paid careful attention to what people respond to and are putting thought into how best to format every post according to reader preferences.

5.    Write at your best time of day.

When I try to write at 4 pm it’s soooooo tedious and slow and the work ends up needing more clean up in the proofreading phase. That’s because by late in the afternoon, I’ve usually used up a lot of my brain energy for the day. Writing requires a lot of focus and energy. Even if conventional wisdom says we have eight hours of work in us every day, few people could pull off eight productive hours of writing five days a week – it just takes too much out of you.

You want to figure out how to structure your day so that the work that requires the most energy falls into the hours of the day when you’re usually the most productive. It won’t always work out perfectly (I do still find myself having to do writing at 4pm some days), but at least having an idea of what those best writing hours are so you can plan as best you can will pay off.

6.    Track how you work.

This relates to #5, you want to understand your process and habits inside and out. Paying attention to how you do things is the first step to figuring out what works best and how to structure your work productively. Here are a couple of examples of how this has paid off for me:

  • Outlining – I used to poo-poo all the advice that insisted that outlining was crucial to writing. It time-trackingwas something I rarely did for the first year I worked as a professional content writer and my work was fine without it. But I realized over time that it made the work easier and better. By starting to create outlines for every piece I write in advance, my productivity and the organization of my content pieces has definitely improved.
  • Understanding where my time goes – I mentioned earlier that a lot of the time I spend on a piece goes to the research part of the process, and if I every try to spend less time researching, I spend more time writing. Tracking my time helps me make sure I don’t overload my days and that I do my work in the most efficient way possible (e.g. don’t try to jump to the writing before adequate research has been performed).
  • Carbs – This one’s personal, but I’ve noticed that whenever I have carbs for breakfast or lunch, I spend a chunk of the day drowsy and unproductive. How much I get done and how good it is has a direct relation to what I eat. So carbs are now for dinner and weekends only.

7.    Proofread (at least twice)!

It’s last on the list, but oh so important. You have no idea how many embarrassing errors or just awkwardly written sentences I’ve caught when proofreading. You never want to send that on to a client or publish it for the world to see. Ideally, someone else should also be reviewing your work before it gets published, but even so, read it at least twice before passing it along. Make one of those readings out loud – you get a better feel for how well your sentences work when you hear how they sound.

I can tell when I read something that hasn’t been proofread (or adequately proofread). You probably can too. It will make you look bad if you let a lot of sloppy errors or bad writing through. This is one of the most important tips I can provide to make sure you avoid that.

 

 

These are my experiences and I expect that most other professional content writers would agree with this list (with maybe a few things to add). Most people have the capacity to become better writers. Reading a lot and getting feedback on your writing will inevitably lead to growth in your skill. If being a better writer isn’t really a goal you have (not everyone needs to write well in their work), you can always hire someone to help.

Unpopular Opinion: Stop Calling Blogs Social Media

blogs aren't social mediaLanguage can be so complicated, can’t it? Especially when you’re dealing with words that are new and still evolving. The word “blog” only just came onto the scene in 1997. The first use of “social media” may have beat it by a few years, but the evidence of its earliest use is unclear. These are words that apply to technology that keeps evolving. And even as the technology itself evolves at a rapid pace, the way we use it changes even faster.

For a long time, blogging has been lumped in under the larger category of social media. I think it’s time for us to acknowledge that it no longer belongs there.

3 Reasons That Blogging Is No Longer Social Media

  • Blogs increasingly resemble media properties more than they do the content on social networking websites.

Brands have spent years trying to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks when it comes to blogging. Recently, we’ve started to gain a clearer idea of just what does work and, in most cases, it’s well researched, meaty, long-form blog posts that more closely resemble the articles common to media properties than the short and pithy posts of social media.

The difference between this type of blog post and a tweet is comparable to the difference between a magazine article and a slogan – they’re completely different types of writing, with different goals, and vastly different work processes involved. The way we talk about them should reflect that.

  • The most social thing about blogs – the comments – are only a prominent feature on a small portion of blogs.

If there’s one component of blogging you could use to really make a case for their being social media, it’s the comments. But how many blogs do you visit that don’t seem to have any comments at all, much less significant social interaction in the comments? Many prominent blogs have even done away with comments altogether, due to the increasing workload of sifting through comment spam. Copyblogger, a big proponent of calling blogs social media back in 2009, famously disabled the comments on their blog in 2014. They felt confident people would move the social component of interacting with their blog to social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

So if the blog is for putting quality, article-like content out there and social networking platforms are for talking about them (and anything else you want to discuss), perhaps it’s time to acknowledge they’re serving different purposes.

  • The goals of a blog are different than those of a social media presence (although they’re related).

Social media is all about interaction, awareness and promotion. Blogging is about education, thought leadership, and traffic. The specific goals and KPIs for the two mediums should differ.

Social media’s a great tool for promoting your blog posts and ideally developing the community that will visit your blog, and blogging can be an opportunity to gain the trust of readers and turn them into social media followers – and both should be helping you work toward the larger goal of building trust and gaining customers. But they each have a distinct role to play within the larger strategy of content marketing.

 

When you hear the term “social media,” what do you picture? For the vast majority of us, the interfaces of Facebook or Twitter will be the main images that come to mind. I’d be genuinely surprised if you told me that the image of your favorite blog popped into your head. Blogs are a type of media, and they’re often social. But they don’t fit with how most us now use and understand the term “social media.” It’s time to acknowledge that, as important as the relationship between the two mediums is, they’re not the same thing.

Why It’s Time to Re-Consider How You Think About Competition

Austin is a city full of freelancers in general, and freelance copywriters in particular. In this town, meeting other people who do what I do is common. From a competitive perspective, that makes it sound like a terrible place to be a freelance copywriter. In my experience, the exact opposite is true.

Instead of viewing each other as the enemy, we help each other out. I’m part of a freelance referral network that has brought me thousands of dollars in business, much of it sent directly my way by other local freelance copywriters – my so-called “competition.” And I know some of them have profited from jobs I’ve passed on because I was too busy or they weren’t a good fit.

Befriending my competition may just be the best thing I’ve ever done for my business.

How Do You View Your Competitors?

Whenever I encounter clients who insist that nothing they publish can include links or references to their content marketing competitioncompetitors, I usually shrug and oblige, but I always think what a missed opportunity. These are the businesses that share your target audience, and that are probably producing content that would be of great use to them. Is trying to pretend they don’t exist actually going to bring you more business?

If you view your competitors as a threat to the degree that you worry any mention of them could hurt your company, take a minute to analyze why. Is this really a strategic decision, or one borne of fear?

Why Content Marketing Doesn’t Have Room for “Competitors”

The big goal is to provide value to your audience, right? Content marketing is a long-term strategy designed in large part to gain customer trust. You know what makes me really trust a company, if they’re not afraid to admit a direct competitor has done something good.

Whether that’s an impressive piece of content they’re willing to share, or acknowledging that a feature in the competitor’s product makes them the better choice for some customers. Man, I hear that and think: this company is confident in their product and positioning.

Still Skeptical?

All my arguing for this so far has been based on my personal opinions and anecdotes, so I could see someone being unconvinced. But I’m not alone in this thinking. KISSmetrics, one of the top blogs out there in the marketing space, gives tips for growing your social media following that include following your competitors, commenting on their posts, offering to guest post on their websites, and promoting their stuff. But that’s just social media; I argue that there could be a clear value to publishing content that directly mentions your competitors or links to them.

Imagine for a minute that you’re the first person anyone looking for products or services in your industry comes to when they have a question about what to buy. How different would your business be?

Marcus Sheridan pretty much pulled that off with his pool business by publishing content about his competitors – not negative content, just informational stuff. He paid attention to the kind of questions his clients had and he answered them honestly on his website, even when it meant saying something positive about one of his competitors.

If you’re interested in using content marketing to become a thought leader, or even just a trusted brand, then the fear of mentioning your competition has got to go. You don’t have to go out of your way to promote and interact with them (obviously), just be willing to do so when it fits in naturally with your overall strategy. If the product or services you offer are really and truly great, then what do you have to fear?

5 Questions to Guide Your Blog Strategy

If your business has a blog, but doesn’t have a blog strategy yet, I just decided what the next two things on your to do list should be:

1. Finish this post. 2. Create a blog strategy.

You can’t just blog blindly. Whether you’re taking the time to write content yourself or hiring a freelance blogger, blogging has a cost. No good businessperson wants to incur that cost without taking the proper steps to get something back from it. When it comes to business blogging; that means creating a blog strategy.

The Difference a Blog Strategy Makes

Based on a 2013 study, only 20% of businesses had blogs, and over a third of those never got updated. You know how that happens, right?

Someone says, “we need a blog!”

Someone else says “Ok.”

Then no one creates a blog strategy or puts in the work to keep it updated.

An abandoned blog will do nothing for you. A blog that you’re investing time and money into that’s not getting read or driving conversions won’t do much more for you than an abandoned blog will (although you’ll be spending a lot more on it).

Creating a blog strategy can help you avoid those fates.

Here’s what you need to consider to put a good one together.

1)   What are my blogging goals?

A blog can bring in new leads and customers, but that’s not going to happen right away and it’s not always easy to determine which leads first found you through the blog. So while that can be your overall goal, when it comes to creating your blog strategy and tracking your progress, it helps to have some lower-level goals that can help contribute to that, like:

Think about why you want a blog and what you want it to accomplish for you. Your blog strategy should be based around those goals.

2)   Who am I writing for?

Hint: it’s not you. You can absolutely create a blog that’s all about the things you’re most interested in – but it shouldn’t be on your business website. Your business blog has to be about what your audience cares about.

You have to think about their problems, their questions, the types of things they normally like to read and do online and in the world at large. What you blog about and how you write needs to all come back to them.

3)   What does my audience care about?

You really want to get inside their heads here (as much as you can without being creepy, anyway). If you’re a local business in a city full of people with local pride, that should come through in your business blog. If your audience is moms who care about the environment and worry about the ecological effects of every product they buy, your blog should share that concern (and provide information that helps them make informed choices).

Do some research:

  • Pull up websites you know your customers like and look at what posts and articles are the most popular.
  • Read the comments that people in your audience write on those sites.
  • Spend time in forums.
  • Have conversations with your customers and prospects directly.

Keep a running list going where you collect all the ideas you learn so you can make sure you’re blogging about the things they care about.

4)  What’s my (realistic) blogging schedule?

If you read somewhere that you have to publish a new blog post every single day, forget it. While it’s often true that regularly posting fresh content adds up to better blogging results, that’s only true if the content is good and you keep up with it. A lot of businesses don’t have the bandwidth for daily blogging.

My one-woman business publishes once a month because I know that’s the most I can expect from myself while also getting all my client work done. The ideal isn’t to produce as much content as you possibly can, it’s to produce as much good, worthwhile content as you reasonably can. Setting your sights too high in terms of quantity will mean an abandoned blog or junk content no one wants read.

Carefully consider how much time you really have, how much time your employees really have, and how much you can afford to spend on a good freelance blogger. Then create a blog strategy and editorial schedule that’s doable.

5)  How am I going to promote my blog posts?

Don’t overlook this step. It’s one of the big things that sets successful blogs apart from those that fail. People have a lot of content to choose from out there. How are they going to find yours if you don’t create a plan to get it in front of them?

Content promotion can be part of a long-term social media and influencer strategy, it can incorporate paid media to get results faster, or it can be some combination of the two. Just make sure your blog strategy includes room for promotion (both in terms of time and budget).

 

Starting a blog is easy enough, but doing blogging that’s worth it and yields results for your business is hard. Anyone who says otherwise is misleading you. If you’re going to invest in a blog, be willing to invest enough to make it worth it. My free report on building a better blog is a good place to start in visualizing your larger blog strategy. If you could use some help with the content writing, side of things, I’m happy to help.

9 Expert Content Strategists on How to Be a Better Content Writer

Be a Better Content Writer

Content writers know the importance of trying to get inside readers’ heads to tap into what matters to them most, but that penchant for empathy doesn’t always extend to those other people we’re doing our writing for. We can’t read the minds of the people who are hiring us, but the simple solution to that is a willingness to ask.

With content marketing one of the fastest growing and most lucrative industries for professional writers to work in today, many of us are increasingly likely to find ourselves answering to people with the newly familiar title of “content strategist.” In the interest of tapping into what’s going on the heads of these content strategists (without trying to read minds), I’ve asked a few of them just what they value most in a content writer.

Here’s what they had to say:

9 Expert Opinions on What Makes a Great Content Writer

1) “I appreciate writers who have a clear understanding of their skills, strengths, and things they’re not as good at.

I love when writers ask smart questions upfront and ‘group’ their questions when they have to ask during the project. It’s so much easier to field than one email after another.

The most organized writers anticipate an editor or content strategist’s needs. They proactively research organic search terms, they craft concise pitches and cite expected sources, and they reach out on a regular basis (once a quarter is ideal) to see what they can help with.”

Kirsten Longnecker
Content Strategist, BancVue

2) “I most appreciate content writing that reminds me of my academic roots in creative writing and analysis. I am looking for a voice that pops off the page — an intellectual heft, an analytical rigor, and the kind of word choices that will stick with me long after I’ve left work for the day. It’s all possible in the content world, but only when writers, editors, and content developers lead the way.”

Leah Levy
Content Strategist and Copywriter, Just Start Storytelling

3) “Adaptation.  This is really broad and can apply to many different situations. Whether it’s taking feedback and adapting content accordingly, seeing a blog post fall flat and adapting the headline/tone/format the next time around, or taking something that’s complex and technical and adapting it for a more general audience — the ability to mold and shape content is absolutely necessary.

Curiosity. Ask questions! When I work with content writers who ask a lot of questions, the end product is usually a better, more performant piece of content. Writers should be asking “who is the target audience?,” “at what point in the buying cycle will someone be exposed to this piece of content?,” “how much should I assume they know about this topic?,” “how will the target audience benefit from reading this piece of content?,” “what is the intended call to action after reading this?”

Hannah Simon
Content Strategist, Fastly

4) “One quality I find indispensable in a writer is curiosity. The best writers are incurably enthusiastic and want to learn as much as possible about the subject of their writing. I’d rather read a curious neophyte writing about a technical topic than a complacent expert! Curious writers unearth interesting facts and make insightful connections. And their energy is infectious.”

Melanie Seibert
Content Strategist, Razorfish

5) “Coming from the magazine world and into content development, the most important things for me are the age-old elements. Know your audience and know the voice of the site. Certainly, great writing is great writing but if that writing fails to take into account the brand persona and audience, then you’ve just lost an opportunity to connect and convert.”

Lara Zuehlke
Account Supervisor, Pierpont Communications

6) “The quality we most appreciate in the content writers we work with is their willingness to learn. We want to develop long-term relationships with the writers who develop content for our clients which means we play a very collaborative role in creation. Being willing to learn all there is to know about the client and their business, accept feedback, and then of course apply what has been learned to future content is a huge benefit to everyone in the relationship.”

Mack Fogelson
CEO, Mack Web

7) “For me it’s a little bit of a two-pronged approach and trying to find a balance between them.

I used to value writers who excelled at audience engagement – creativity and passion and being able to really get inside the mind of the persona – even if their process was chaotic.

But as we move to a more structured approach to content, I’m really finding that I value content writers that can also organize their thoughts clearly, deliver outlines in advance of drafts, who know how to research and footnote material. It’s no longer just about engagement – the structure and process are critical as well.

Jenny Magic
Principal/VP of Content Strategy, Sitegoals

8) “When I hire writers – I do so because I want to bring their view of the world to an issue that I or my client is trying to communicate.   Alignment and agreement is important – but so is (in many cases) disagreement and (in almost all cases) a unique perspective.

So many times writers want to ‘write what they think the client wants’ instead of bringing their unique talents and point of view to the table.  Certainly there’s a place for writing in a different voice (e.g. ghost writing) and trying to match tone and perspective. But, most of the time what I appreciate and value about a content writer is that they have the ability to tell a story in a unique and differentiated way.”

Robert Rose
Chief Strategist, Content Marketing Institute

9) “Given the space I work in: the ability to clearly communicate fresh ideas.

I’m all for pretty prose, but in content marketing it’s all about educating customers; this places priority on clarity over articulacy, and demands an ability to argue unique perspectives. In other words, I mostly value a writer’s ability to think clearly and then put those thoughts to page over their ability to ‘write well.’ Perhaps they are one and the same, though. :)”

Gregory Ciotti
Content Strategist, Help Scout

Edit: Bonus Tip!

One strategist got back to me after the post went up, but I didn’t want to deprive anyone of her great advice.

“I need people who are super curious and constantly educating themselves about all the different areas of content strategy, particularly UX and metadata basics. Great writing only goes so far! :)”

Kristina Halvorson
Content Strategist, Brain Traffic

One thing that quickly becomes clear through these answers is that not every content strategist has the same priorities when it comes to finding a great content writer, which goes to show that much of being good at your work is finding the employer or client that’s a great fit for you.

There are a few key themes we see emerge though:

 

  • Curiosity

 

      – A good writer has got to be a great researcher and that’s a skill that usually comes from having a driving curiosity to learn new things. The best writers

like

      that process of digging up new information on a topic and becoming a mini-expert in every little thing their readers want to know about.

 

  • Creativity

– Good writing is not formulaic, it brings something unique to the table to help keep the reader interested. While that curiosity-driven research takes care of the background work, creativity is what makes for greater skill in the writing process itself. Choosing the best possible words, finding the right voice, bringing some humor into a piece ­– these are some of the kinds of creative skills that really set content writers apart.

 

So there you have it, the things content strategists care about the most when it comes to the work you do for them aren’t those nitty gritty values like meeting deadlines or crafting the right headlines (although I’m sure they’d all be quick to say those matter too). It’s more about the most basic personality traits that drove many of us to become writers in the first place: the desire to continually learn new things and stretch our creativity muscle.