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So you’ve become – or want to become – a content writer.
There are plenty of ‘How to’ guides on improving your content writing, mostly written by successful copywriters themselves. However, it can be just as helpful to learn about what not to do. And who better to tell you what not to do than someone who did all those things?
For the longest time I thought I wanted to pursue a career in content creation or copywriting. During my academic career, writing was my expertise, craft, and comfort zone. I know I’m not the only writing-intensive liberal arts college graduate that expected to pursue a career dedicated to communicating and inspiring others with my written word.
It didn’t take me long to realize that I sucked at content writing. Despite my training in every aspect of the field – from the research and organization, to editing and composition – somehow, when it came to simple, interesting, effective writing for the digital world, it just wouldn’t click. I would end up with a document that was so incredibly detailed it probably needed footnotes. Every simple - even obvious - thought was explained under the premise of an informed opinion backed by multiple pieces of reliable evidence, sandwiched between a full introduction and conclusion. Every. Thought.
So, I did some soul searching (and research, of course -- I can’t help it!) and realized there were a few fundamental keys to content writing that I was either missing the mark on or missing altogether.
Note: I, by no means, have perfected my own What Not To Do’s. Writing is a practice and I’m definitely having to learn a new playbook. However, I’m hoping this guide can at least bring some clarity to anyone else out there struggling like me.
Simplicity & Urgency
Users are looking for quick, clear answers and explanations. As a content writer, it’s your job to take a complex subject or idea and make it easy to understand. While that seems like a simple task, it can be surprisingly difficult to achieve. A “quick answer” is not in every writer’s toolbox – it certainly wasn’t in mine. But it’s critical if you want to keep users from clicking the back button and finding another post on Google in seconds.
Beginner Tip: If, during the writing process, you notice that you’re having to reexplain to yourself the point that you are trying to make, you’re definitely making it too complicated.
The Art of Breaking It Down
While simplicity is key, you don’t have to necessarily do less. Most topics and ideas are not new or original, so how you explain the What, Why, and How of your thoughts is what separates a content writer from a good content writer. Focus on clarifying your topic by examining the process or reasoning behind it in a unique way.
Beginner Tip: If you’re having trouble breaking it down, either because you have too much to say, or too little, try visualizing it. Take a piece of paper and pen and make an infographic on your topic, such as a bubble map or thought tree. This activity not only challenges you to condense and prioritize your thoughts, but also evaluate what really needs to be included to best achieve your point.
Do Your Research. Then Stop.
If you’re struggling with content writing, this may be more of an issue than you think – especially if you’re like me and research is your kryptonite. Over-researching can be a sneaky and vicious cycle that will leave your page empty and frustration levels high. Knowing when to put the books (or search engine) away will produce just as good, if not better, content as an overwhelming amount of research will.
Beginner Tip: Separate your writing from your research. Once you’ve done your initial findings, close everything on your computer except for your notes and begin writing. There is a 99% chance that while writing, you will come across a new idea you hadn’t thought of before. DON’T open a browser to investigate yet. Write yourself a note, leave a space, and continue writing what you’ve already outlined. Researching is as much of a process as writing. Treat them both as such.
Linking is important, not only for SEO, but out of respect for the other thought leaders who helped you arrive at your own conclusions. However, not every point you make needs to be cited by 3 different sources with a full summary of THEIR content. Not only are you distracting users with tons of underlined anchor text or, even worse, giving them multiple opportunities to leave your post, but you’re also not representing yourself well. No one cares to read a blog post that is just a compilation of other content. Take authority and stand by your thoughts as yours.
Beginner Tip: From an SEO perspective, make sure you’re linking to trusted URLs! Google takes the reliability of sources into account, so check that you’re linking to websites with SSL certificates and low spam scores; and don’t forget to link internally when applicable.
Stop Being Selfish
Do you like what you’ve written? That’s great. Guess what? It’s not about you. It’s not for you. It’s for users and search engines. You can love what you’ve written, but your actual writing shouldn’t be what makes you proud of your piece. Your best indicators are the results and feedback you receive from your content. Focus on being proud of that.
Beginner Tip: Have at least one other person read your work without any previous context. What did they learn and take away from it? Did it resonate with them, or even matter to them? Then take that feedback and actually apply it. Your most powerful asset is the person standing next to you.
Talk It Out
Read your work out loud. I cannot stress this enough. If what you’re reading doesn’t sound somewhat similar to how you talk, then you’re writing an essay, not a piece of user-friendly content. Now, no one’s writing is the same, and it shouldn’t be. Writing authentically is what separates you from everyone else and, in turn, makes your writing worth reading. But when you start to sound like you’re reading a dissertation or have to decipher every sentence due to unnecessarily complex syntax, it may be time to reroute and give your phrasing another go.
Beginner Tip: Read your work out loud. I repeat - READ YOUR WORK OUT LOUD.
Perfect Work Isn't Necessarily the Best Work
Everyone should pride themselves on their craft – no matter the industry or expertise. It is important to acknowledge what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. So, here’s what I’ll end with, not only for writers, but for everyone:
Perfect work and your best work are not synonymous. What you produce doesn’t have to be flawless. It just has to have meaning. If you rework your “first draft” one hundred times for five hours and think it’s finished and finally perfect – it’s not. Surround yourself with fellow thought leaders who enjoy collaborating and improving your content with you, whether it’s the first, second, or tenth draft.
It is a biological fact that as humans we are “wired to connect,” and as the internet continues to become such an integral part of our daily lives, users expect digital content to stimulate the same level of relatable human connection as it does in-person.
No one looks to read perfection. We look to be understood, engaged, and informed - from one unique individual to another.