Copy Writing

5 Tips to Elevate Your Content Writing Game

A couple weeks ago I shared some content marketing tips from the amazing book Everybody Writes by Ann Handley of @MarketingProfs. I mentioned I’d share even more of what I soaked up from this go-to guide as I read on, and here it is. I’ve boiled down the next few chapters of her book to get to the juicy bits. It’s pure gold.

Rewrite
Once you have written your first draft, rewrite it. According to Ann in one of my favorite quotes from the book, “reworking the work is what separates us from the chimps.”  She breaks rewriting into two types: editing by chainsaw and editing with surgical tools. Basically, the first is a look at the big picture. During the second read, pay more attention to detail and trim down extraneous words, obvious statements, cliches, and word bloat. (We’ll get to grammar in a later post.) Another tip is to get to the point. Cut out the metaphorical paragraphs at the beginning and your article will still probably make sense, if not be more powerful.

Ann Handley QuoteHave Empathy
At the root of your content should be empathy for the customer experience. Gone are the days of writing content for search engines; today, people need to know you feel their pain points and that they are understood. Talk to your customers; listen to them. Don’t just rely on data to make assumptions.

Writer’s Block Evasion
This might just be my new favorite concept. I can’t even count the times I’ve said I have writer’s block and stared at a blank page. Well, I could have written anything on that page — an anecdote of my trip to the grocery store, what my cat might be thinking while she’s staring at me from across the table, anything. I was avoiding writing out of fear of not having anything to say. The point is, just write! One great tip from Ann is to write like you’re composing a letter to someone you know, a customer or your mom for example. A real person with a real face will make it more conversational.

The Lede and the Kicker
Everyone knows from high school that your lede (or lead) is the most important part of your piece (and the kicker the second). But if you’re like me, it was also the toughest part to write. The pressure to make it great was just too high! Luckily, Ann has some tips for your lead sentences I wish I had 12 years ago:

  • Put your reader into the story
  • Ask a question
  • Quote a crazy controversial bit of data
  • Tell a personal anecdote
  • Start with a quote
  • Make a bold statement
  • Use an analogy

As for the closing to your piece, finish strong (and if applicable include a call to action). Don’t just trail off; summarize — not regurgitate — your main point. Add the element of tonal surprise; if your piece was formal, make it relaxed and vice versa. If you have quotes from interviews, end on someone else’s high note. Just make sure it’s relevant and makes sense as a closing statement.

Buddy System
When I need motivation to go to the gym after work, I grab Elizabeth. That way, if I want to go home and be a couch potato instead, she pushes me to stay on track. Same goes for writing. Having a writing partner can help with brainstorming, feedback, and quality. Beyond friends and colleagues, you can reach into the vast ecosystem of intelligent, helpful professionals online through LinkedIn or other online communities, or through groups that meet in your own town. If there aren’t any, start one!

Stay tuned for more great insights from Everybody Writes; I’m only a third of the way through. Man, there are not enough hours in the day.

– Rach

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Content Marketing Tips from “Everybody Writes” by Ann Handley (Part 1)

I love Everybody Writes. And according to Ann Handley (@MarketingProfs), the most important piece of information should be written first. So there you have it. I’m becoming a better writer already.

Everybody Writes Part 1On the day Everybody Writes arrived in the mail I started reading it and was immediately intrigued by the introduction; so, I opened it up and plowed through 12 (albeit short) chapters. I couldn’t wait to share what I learned and went straight to the computer. And not knowing when I’d finish the rest of the book, I decided to spread the learnings across a few posts. I don’t want to give everything away because I could seriously quote this entire book — it’s that jam-packed with goodness. I recommend everyone who deals with content read this book and soon (and I say that without having finished it!). Don’t be scared away by the fear of writing; Handley does a great job relating to us ordinary marketing folks in the first few pages. (I mean, bowling and Mean Girls references? It’s like she wrote this book for me.)

Let’s dive right in, shall we?

What is content?

Everything! Webpage text, emails, newsletters, blogs, content on social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, SlideShare, etc. Basically, anything your audience interacts with is considered content. This is why content creators, social media managers, and designers should work so closely together. Everything is intertwined, and working in a vacuum results in sucky content.

Quality Content = Utility x Inspiration x Empathy

Quality content is not just about a grandiose vocabulary, beautiful allegories or poetic descriptions, which goes against everything you learned in high school English. You could go on for 20 pages about the origins of the television, but I can guarantee your reader doesn’t give a hoot if it doesn’t explain how to make the picture not blue and squiggly. On the other hand, the person who is doing research on the history of the television for his college course might care about that detailed information. Know what you are writing and who you are writing it for.

What matters isn’t storytelling. It’s telling a true story well.

Storytelling implies embellishments and a bending of the truth. If you have a great story to tell, it’s more important to tell that story well (using the formula above).

Writing daily for 30 minutes is better than writing once a week for 5 hours.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this tip, but it was good to be reminded of its importance. Everyone finds inspiration to write in different ways: in the early morning hours, on a sandy beach, in a bustling coffee shop, at home in front of a laptop. I am a night owl so I find it easiest to gather my thoughts in the evening with a glass of wine and some background music to get me in the groove (hence, how Dinnertime Marketing was born). The point isn’t where or how you find inspiration; the point is to write every day, for even a few minutes. It’s one of the few good habits to have, and doing it once a week if you find the time isn’t going to make it a habit. . . Chances are you’ll stop doing it altogether. Even if it is crap (or what Handley calls barf), write. Write. WRITE.

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Not your boss’s.

After you write your first draft (or, according to Handley, “The Ugly First Draft”) switch places with your reader and consider things from their perspective. Don’t think about who is signing your paycheck. Think about if what you just wrote down helps your reader. Does it answer “so what?” Is it easy for them to understand what you’re trying to say?

A lot of the above are more aspiration thoughts to remember when writing. Here are a couple actionable tips I gleaned from the first 12 chapters:

  • Put the most important information first. Avoid words like:
    • According to . . .
    • There is a . . .
    • It is [important, critical, advised, suggested, and so on] . . .
    • In my opinion . . .
    • The purpose of this [email, post, article] . . .
    • In 2014 [or any year] . . .
    • I think [believe] that . . .
  • 12 Steps of Writing
    • Goal. What is your business goal of writing this blog, article, etc.?
    • Reframe. What do you want your reader to get from the piece? Ask “So what?”
    • Seek out data and examples. If necessary to prove your point, use credible, real-world examples to support your piece.
    • Organize. Is your piece a bulleted list, a step-by-step guide, a longer narrative? What structure will best represent your thoughts?
    • Write to one person. Use “You” (not “they” or “people”) to make your piece more relatable.
    • Produce The Ugly First Draft. Personally, I call this a brain dump. Just write. It can be crap. You can take all grammatical rules you have ever learned and throw them in the garbage disposal (gasp!). Just take your thoughts and regurgitate them on the page. You can clean it up later.
    • Walk away. I do this often. Take a break from your first draft. It’s a rough draft because it’s rough. Go get a drink, take a walk, sleep on it. Whatever you need to do to distance yourself from it before you get back to it (just don’t wait too long or it’ll soak into the carpet and you’ll have to ditch it and start all over again).
    • Rewrite. Self explanatory.
    • Give it a great headline or title. This is the hardest part for me, but the most important if you want the readers to click on and read your article.
    • Have someone edit. I’m lucky that I have Elizabeth, my partner in crime on this blog, to edit my posts for me. It’s always important to have someone read your work before you post it.
    • One final look for readability. Is your piece inviting, easy to scan, alluring? Bulky paragraphs aren’t fun to read. This is why I love Handley’s short chapters. The book could be one run together chunk of text and I’d probably donate it to the local library without reading it. But I’d miss out on all the delicious insight!
    • Publish with a call-to-action. Don’t leave your readers left with “now what?” at the end of your piece. Do you want them to buy a product, subscribe to something, read more? Make sure let them know what to do next.

I warned you there were a ton of good tips and I was only 45 pages in. Stay tuned for more awesomeness as I get my act together and finish the book!

I Criticize Because I Care: The Power of Grammar Shaming

Wow, it’s been a busy few weeks out there in the real world. Since my earlier post there has been a slew of major headlines I could discuss: the privacy of naked celebs in the cloud-o-sphere; ice-water-bucket controversy (even I know that you shouldn’t drop ice on your baby’s head to avoid donating money); the Jolie-Pitt union (finally, but that dress!?); the death of Google Authorship (déjà vu?); the death of Joan Rivers (the only woman more judgmental than I am on fashion trends); the death of the color white (bad Labor Day joke); and a lot of people saying some really interesting things but sounding really dumb in the process.

All of these are more or less important, especially since I am currently wearing a white T-shirt (go ahead, judge me), but I’m going to focus tonight on that last one. It really gets my goat. It grinds my gears. It grates my Gouda.

Important figures in politics, fashion, entertainment, marketing and what have you have deemed it acceptable to ignore the rules of grammar in social media, news articles, and blog posts. But when you’re a role model to the young and impressionable, it’s extremely important to lead by example. My little English-major heart is broken and disturbed by the age of “say it in 140 characters or less.” People speak in tweets not sentences, i.e., illiterate gibberish. Kids can’t focus for longer than it takes to read this blog post. If I can’t stop the world from proliferating these bad habits then the least I can do is shame my fellow marketers into avoiding them.

Caveat: Nobody is perfect. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes. First step in moving on is admitting it. It’s taken me years, but I’m finally beyond step one. Unfortunately, the Internet is rife with basement-dwelling trolls that I imagine look something like this who live for the sole purpose of calling you out. There are entire blogs dedicated to embarrassing mistakes. A tiny error can turn into a PR nightmare. Does it make the little troll feel less pathetic? Maybe. Does it make you feel really embarrassed? Yeah. Do you remember the incident so it doesn’t happen again? Definitely. Ah, I knew there was a silver lining in there somewhere.

Here are some of the biggest grammar errors I see multiple times a day. There is nothing worse than finding a great article or social post you want to retweet/share and it has one of these grammar atrocities, right? That’s an instant “never mind” in my book. You may lose some free promotion because of an apostrophe catastrophe. Your brand will also suffer from a lack of quality and attention to detail in your marketing content. But remember that no one is perfect. I probably have errors in this post that a professional copy editor might point out. It’s inevitable. But as a marketer, these mistakes below are completely avoidable and borderline unforgivable. Don’t be troll fodder! That’s an icky mess no one, especially not your PR department, wants to mop up. (And if you ARE the PR department, I am so sorry. Good luck.) I’m not spending this post explaining the why behind these rules. There are plenty of websites out there that do a better job explaining than I ever could. These are just examples of the errors I see most often and an example  of the correct usage. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to visit Grammar Girl and Merriam-Webster for grammar rules and spelling, respectively.

1. Their vs. They’re vs. There

Their I love their product!
They’re They’re my favorite brand.
There You can buy the product there.

2. It’s vs. Its

It’s It’s my favorite brand.
Its Its store is my favorite.

3. Your vs. You’re (There is also “yore,” but if you get that confused, there might be no hope.)

Your Your product is the best!
You’re You’re my favorite brand.

4. Affect vs. Effect (I have to often check myself on this one; it’s a tough one.)

Affect (verb) The marketing copy they write affects me in a good way.
Effect (noun) The effects of their marketing copy are amazing.

5. ’90s vs. 1990’s (My biggest pet peeve.)

’90s (not possessive) Their product looks like it’s from the ’90s.
1990’s (possessive) The 1990’s products were awesome.

6. Lose vs. Loose (Embarrassed I even have to explain this one.)

Lose Don’t lose your favorite shoes!
Loose The laces on these shoes are too loose.

7. A lot vs. Alot (There is also allot, as in, an allotment of something.)

A lot I love their product a lot.
Alot Alot isn’t a word.

8. Well vs. Good (@EAMillar shared this gem as a reminder.)

Well My company is doing well.
Good This is a good product.

A couple more common grammar mistakes that you should study up on: i.e. vs e.g, than vs. then, “quote marks” usage, hyphens, who/whom, verb/subject agreement, and comma usage.  If you’re not sure, don’t assume. It’ll make an ass out of you (and not me, because I’ll be over here using proper grammar and laughing at you).

This post is paired with a big fat helping of spaghetti squash, chicken apple sausage, and mushroom marinara sauce. But I started writing this a week ago. I think I remember it being delicious? #slacker

Grammar Rules