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.

Is Your Professionalism Pushing Customers Away?

At a conference a few years ago, I met a man selling a product that left me baffled. The idea behind their pitch was to make small businesses seem like they were bigger by making people harder to reach. You know those phone menus you get stuck in every time you need customer service from a big company? They sold those for small businesses.

Just to make this clear: the idea wasn’t to make call volume more manageable, it was to make it seem like the company was just so darn busy and successful that they couldn’t take your call without a system to make calls more manageable.

Now you get to be an unscientific poll of one. Raise your hand if you like those phone menus you get stuck in when you call a big company. I can make a pretty good guess at what you’re thinking (even if you didn’t actually raise your hand, cause it’s kind of a weird thing to do while you’re sitting at a computer.)

I don’t believe I know a single person who wouldn’t prefer to get an actual human being on the other end of the line.

The Dangerous Fallacy of “Professionalism”

If you think being professional means creating more distance between you and your customers, you’re stuck in a dangerous fallacy. This isn’t a fallacy that affects all business owners, but the existence of the company described above shows that it affects enough for there to be an industry around catering to them.personalisbetter

The same fallacy drives business writing that’s dry and bland. If you’re afraid that injecting personality into your writing will make it seem less professional, you’re pushing people away.

Why Personal is Always Better

Your current customers, the audience you hope will become customers, all those people you’re trying to reach – they’re all people. No matter how much brands spend in the hopes that people will feel connected to a logo, people will always have an easier time relating to other people.

Your business is made up of a number of people, all with distinct personalities. Any efforts you make to downplay that reality in order to show your business as something less personal and more generically “professional,” creates unnecessary distance between your brand and the people you want to connect with it.

Now take a look at the way you communicate with your audience. Are you doing anything to needlessly push them away? Look for opportunities to add more personality to your content and interactions. When your customers can get a peek at the humans behind the brand,

10 Lessons that Struggling to Communicate Abroad Taught Me About Business Communication

Sometimes you have a need that seems so simple, but you just can’t get out the right words to communicate it to the person you’re speaking to.

This isn’t an unknown feeling when you’re living in your native country, surrounded by people who speak your own language. But, it becomes an everyday occurrence when you’re in a foreign country that has just a smattering of people who speak the same language, and even fewer who are truly fluent.

Words I think I know are sometimes pronounced so abominably as to be unrecognizable to my audience, and attempts to describe what I mean when I don’t know the correct word are only occasionally successful. For a writer accustomed to using language with ease, struggling to communicate well abroad is a humbling and valuable learning experience.

Many of the challenges I’ve faced are extreme versions of communication challenges common in marketing and the business world in general. Here are a few key lessons.

1) There’s always more than one way to say something.

This is one of the first tricks you fall back on when struggling to communicate in a foreign language. When I get to the point in a sentence where I don’t know the word for what I want to say next, I talk around it. A ball becomes “a circular thing you use in a game,” an ATM becomes “a machine you use for change when all you have is a card.” It’s not elegant, but it gets the job done.

Flaubert reportedly re-wrote everything he put on paper extensively and repeatedly while working on Madame Bovary. He knew the best way to get at le seul mot juste was to try out as many different ways to say the same thing as possible.

When writing a business email or a piece of marketing copy, you’re not aiming for the level of literary masterpiece Flaubert was going for; but, you can still manage to produce a better, clearer piece of writing by taking a little extra time to think about alternate ways to communicate what you’re saying.

2) A little preparation goes a long way.

I went out one day recently with the primary goal of finding somewhere I could print out a boarding pass. As many technological terms in Italian are taken directly from the English (computer, for example, is “computer”), I assumed I’d have an easy time finding where I could print something.

Wrong. I had a completely unsuccessful conversation with a man at a local information office who thought I was asking where to go to buy a computer. Only with the help of his English-speaking colleague did I learn both the correct word for “to print” (stampare) and the closest spot where I could go to do so.

Had I taken 30 seconds to look up the word before I went out, I’d have been able to easily and clearly ask for what I needed.

The words you use, as an industry insider, aren’t always the same ones your target audience is likely to use and understand for the same concepts. Anyone who has thrown the title “copywriter” around to people working in different fields is used to having to give the added explanation “that’s copywrite, not copyright.” Knowing the right words to use with the right audience will save a lot of potential confusion down the line.

3) An interested audience will work to understand.

If you’ve already gained the interest of the person or people you’re communicating with, they’ll be happy to meet you halfway in understanding you and being understood. Communication works much better when there’s a buy-in on both sides.

The conversations I’ve had with the people hosting me, those interested in a friendly conversation, or, oh, Italian men who like the ladies, tend to go smoothly as they’re willing to put in the effort to follow what I’m saying, and help me understand what they have to say.

Someone who already has a good relationship with you or your company, or is coming to you based off of the enthusiastic recommendation of a trusted friend, will have a higher tolerance for any communication difficulties because they already like you.

On the other hand…

4) An uninterested audience will begrudge you for not making communication easier on them.

People at shops and train stations are often annoyed at the girl speaking broken Italian because having to communicate with me makes their jobs harder.

Someone not already convinced communication with you is worth the effort, or who has some reason to be unhappy with your company, is going to be much less patient with anything you say that’s hard to understand.

Imagine waiting for tech support on hold for 30 minutes, and then talking to someone who uses tech jargon you can’t follow. Your impulse won’t be to calmly ask them to put that in simpler terms, you’ll probably want to do some yelling.

For anyone that hasn’t already been won over to you or your company, it’s worth making an extra effort to communicate clearly and use a tone that can only be construed as helpful.

5) Context is crucial.

The difference between trying to have a conversation somewhere crowded with loud music playing or in a quiet park or restaurant is considerable. Just as who you’re talking to changes the way to approach a conversation, so does where you are, the subject matter being discussed, and the relationship you have with the audience.

In marketing, this point has less to do with being able to hear the words being spoken and more to do with thinking carefully about how people are coming to the information you’re putting before them. The words you use on the website’s product page will be seen by prospects at a different point in the process, looking for a different sort of information, than the words in your blog posts, emails, or that you share on social media.

The experience of the information you provide in these various formats differs and what you say, and how you say it, should reflect the knowledge of those differences.

6) One-on-one conversations work better than trying to participate in a group.

Hanging out with a group of Italians who are all more comfortable speaking with each other and for each other (e.g. quickly and naturally, with some slang here and there) means I’m less likely to actively participate, and more likely to quietly (try to) follow and learn from those speaking.

There are a lot of benefits to group communication. You have the opportunity to meet more people, learn from the questions and ideas of a variety of minds, and appreciate the difference in expertise and perspective presented.

Nonetheless, a more personalized, focused interaction one-on-one is often much more productive than a communique meant for a large audience.

7) The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Isn’t this just true of everything in life? My first week back in Italy, I thought I’d lost all of the ability I’d gained in my year here 6 years ago. But, the second week I realized my questions and conversations came a little easier, and by the third felt pretty close to where I’d been at the end of my year abroad.

Each conversation boosts my ability and confidence a bit more.

With writing and speaking, it’s inevitable that you’ll get better the more of it you do, especially if you’re mixing research into your practice. The words start to come more easily and confidently, you find yourself getting faster, and you get better at picking up techniques and wording that work.

8) Never hesitate to ask more questions.

The most egregious communication errors occur when people get complacent and assume they’re understanding each other just fine. I might feel awkward asking more questions of an annoyed ticket seller, but if I’m not 100% confident that I know which train to get on and where to get off for my connection, I’m much better off irritating a stranger than getting stuck in some small town in Sicily without knowing where to go next.

With clients, customers, vendors, colleagues, and, let’s face it, friends, family and significant others, you are much less likely to find yourself in conflict if you’re particular about clarifying terms and getting as much information upfront as possible.

You don’t want to learn that your customer thought your product had a capability it doesn’t after they’ve purchased it and are pissed. Or, that your client had a 20-page white paper in mind, rather than the 6-page one you sent in, and now wants you to do over triple the work for the same rate.

If someone gets irked at you for wanting more information and clarification from them, that’s their problem. You want to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it right, or what’s the point?

9) Being understood is more important than being clever.

I remember having a conversation with a fellow student in my abroad program years ago about the realization that it’s very difficult to communicate a distinct personality in a new language. Cracking jokes, or communicating personal quirks, just doesn’t have a place when you’re struggling to communicate at a basic level.

Humor and wit in marketing can often work fantastically and give your brand more personality. But, they should be lower on the priority list than communicating who you are and what you do effectively.

If you’ve got a good handle on that part, and someone in your organization is pretty adept in the humor department (there’s nothing worse than trying for wit and failing), then building up that personality around and within the basics can work fine. Just focus on clarity first.

10) You can’t always predict which concepts will be difficult to explain, and which will be simple.

With the Romance languages, many of the more formal and academic terms are very similar across the languages. But, the everyday common-usage terms are distinct. When the Roman Empire was imposing its language on all the territories it conquered, people deigned to use it for some business, scholarship, and writing; but when it came to talking amongst themselves and facing everyday tasks, they held on to their original languages more.

Thus, it’s actually easier to have an academic conversation with someone about great literature or history than to chat casually about the weather, food, or how your day went.

In life, we’re often not all that great at predicting what’s easy for others to understand, and what’s more challenging. Thinking back to the earlier tech support example, the guy on the other end of the line doesn’t know how adept you are with technology. Maybe you’re something of an expert and would be offended if he didn’t speak to you at your level, or maybe you’re the kind of person who really does need to hear that question that frustrates so many: “have you tried restarting?”

We have to be prepared to shift how we talk about our expertise based on the needs of the person we’re communicating with. Sometimes the concepts we think are a piece of cake may actually be those that make our audience want to bang their heads against the wall.

Want to be a Better Writer and Thinker? Learn Another Language


Learning another language is hard. For native English speakers living in a world full of people making an effort to learn English, it can seem like a waste of effort. Counterintuitively, the comfortable position of speaking the world’s dominant language puts English speakers at a disadvantage too few realize. Because we don’t bother trying to learn new languages, we lose the fringe benefits that come with the process.

A recent post on the Radiolab blog takes a look at just what some of those fringe benefits are.

Dr. Ellen Bialystock studies the cognitive effects of learning a second language, specifically during childhood. Her findings:

 Look, I will never say that bilingual kids are smarter…What we can say is that some of the cognitive processes that are part of intelligence are more developed in bilinguals.

On the neurological side of things, there’s actual, literal growth in the part of the brain devoted to vocabulary.

In practical, applicable terms:

  • Learning new, different ways to say things opens up the mind to different ways of thinking. It might not change what thoughts you’re able to have (as was formerly thought), but it does give you different ways of approaching and expressing those thoughts. For those in the business of communicating effectively, it lets you practice and play with methods of wording and structure you may not have considered before.
  • A friend of mine who was raised bilingual once told me she argued with an elementary school teacher who insisted there was one right answer to a question: in her world, every question had at least two viable, correct answers. Bilingualism makes it possible to better process ideas that don’t fit easily together, a valuable thinking tool in a complicated world.
  • Bialystock’s studies show the bilingual are better at tuning out distractions, an increasingly handy skill in the internet age.
  • Her research also suggests bilingualism could help with memory in old age — diminishing the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Most people who have studied a second language at the most basic level are quick to comment that it forces you to learn the grammar of your own language better. In order to learn different tenses and parts of speech, you must gain a refresher in how to talk about grammar, something many of us have forgotten by adulthood, if we ever learned it well at all.

Bialystock’s research mostly focuses on bilingual children, and most of us missed the boat on learning another language as a child, when it’s much easier to gain fluency. Many of the neurological benefits do require fluency to begin taking effect, a state that’s extremely challenging to get to as an adult.

While only so many adults are capable and willing to take on the challenge of linguistic immersion often required to gain fluency, there’s still plenty to be gained by learning what you can. Learning another language tends to go along with learning about another culture as well. Even without reaching fluency, you’ll gain new words, new ideas about grammar, and a greater understanding of the ways other people think and live. It’s hard not to see how that will make you both a stronger writer, and a better thinker.

On Reading and Writing

I’ve always been a big reader. Writing came pretty naturally to me and I realized early on that the quality of my writing had a lot to do with the amount I read. The best way to develop a firm grasp of language and learn to communicate effectively in your writing is to spend a lot of time immersed in how great writers do it.

This always seemed like a fairly obvious truth to me: to be a good writer, you should first be a good reader. It was thus a surprise to encounter this Salon article that posits that there’s a new generation of aspiring writers with no interest in reading.

The evidence of this as a trend is largely anecdotal, so I’m not sure just how seriously to take it. That said, it’s difficult for me to imagine how someone would even come to the idea of wanting to make writing a focus of life without first cultivating the love of language, storytelling and knowledge that to me seem so intertwined with reading.

I often think of the history of literature as one long conversation. Different writers over time can borrow ideas and style techniques from one another to create something new. Shakespeare took stories from history and many of the great writers that came before him. Jorge Luis Borges, my personal favorite, often wrote of his preference for reading over writing and both his fiction and non-fiction essays are littered with ideas and references to other writers. Dante made this idea of writing as a continuing conversation over generations explicit with his use of Virgil in The Divine Comedy. The two even meet with several other poets in their time in Purgatory and discuss various issues related to poetry and religion*.

The written word allows us the great privilege of maintaining our knowledge of the ideas and stories of the brilliant men and women who came before us. If a writer rejects learning from the writers of our past, he or she lose the opportunity to be a part of the great conversation. So much of what’s been new and progressive throughout human history has come about due to our ability to build off of the ideas that came before. A refusal to embrace that means you’re likely to stay a few steps behind those that do.

*I might be the only person to read The Divine Comedy and prefer Purgatory to Inferno, specifically because I love the idea of Dante using it as an artistic outlet for having an imagined chat with his favorite writers.