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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

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!

Score Big on Your First Email with 4 Simple Ingredients

The story my husband loves to tell at parties is how I adamantly said “No, thanks” when he very nervously asked me out (and as usual, he’s not exaggerating). But, after I messaged 20 of my closest friends and was called an “idiot” by every single one of them, I gave him a chance. In my defense I had a good reason, but that is neither here nor there. The other story we both like to tell is how our first date was horribly awkward. Like how-about-them-Dodgers bad. But another date followed, and another, and the rest is a five-year history filled with laughter, adventures and wedded bliss.

Where am I going with this? The first date can be either the gateway to a life-long relationship; or it can end tragically before it even begins. There are four key ingredients to making a first date successful, whether it’s with a stranger or a longtime friend. And, the best part is, these rules are just as relevant to email marketing. I just hit you with a double-advice blog post whammy! It’s just as nerve wracking hitting that send button to 25,000 people, whether it’s to prospects or longtime customers, as it is asking someone out for the first time. And we’ve probably all been there right? Relevant life experience analogy? Check!

The Perfect Email Recipe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The Subject Line and Sender

There is only one first impression, and in a list of unread emails that look identically bold at 8 a.m., you really need to razzle dazzle.

  • Be familiar. Using a real person as the sender name, rather than some unknown group of yahoos like “marketing,” can elicit an emotional response. It might make someone say, “Hey, Judy sent me an email and needs my help! I’ll open it.”
  • Be simple, clear, and relevant. Segment your audience and focus your subject line on specific solutions to popular pain points. Make people think about what amazing info they might miss out on if they don’t give your email a chance.  I have an example of this in action at the end of this post.
  • Don’t be too clever. More than a just a handful of recipients need to understand the witty reference. Below is an example of one subject line that was meant to be clever (I assume) but I was very hesitant to open at first.

Orbitz Example

 

  • Be brief. The shorter the subject line the better (6-10 words, 50 characters or less) because it may get cut off, or you might lose the point if you say too much.
  • Don’t say anything insulting. Some words should be avoided in any instance. Don’t use these spam trigger words.
  • Show your fun side. Symbols in subject lines are OK in some instances, like a heart icon in a fun newsletter. But use sparingly as they are not always supported. Nothing is more annoying than a tiny empty box where an emoji once lived.

2. Design

A schleppy mess does not impress. The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” is basically crap when marketing to prospects. The look of your email is just as important as the words within it.

  • Be color conscious. In a recent Litmus Webinar, I learned that yellow can cause anxiety and urgency, which might improve your CTRs; blue conveys trust; green might suggest to go, act now. This is a good article on color psychology, which actually suggests to avoid yellow. The point is you should perform A/B testing to find out what your audience reacts to the best because colors can play a huge role in your email’s success.
  • Look dapper. Slapping some random, ill-sized images here and there does not an aesthetically pleasing email make. At least look like you tried even if you put the email together in five minutes. This is where professionally designed, easy-to-replicate templates come in handy.
  • Make eye contact. Use images of real people looking in the direction of your CTA. According to the folks over at Emma Marketing, it works!
  • Take risks. Do you remember the last beige email you received? Exactly. Try bold color combinations and an interesting style. Just don’t stray too far from the authentic you. It might be a shock the next time if you look completely different; consistency is important.

3. Copy and Tone

The most important part of any email is keeping your audience interested. Getting your email opened is the hard part. Now it’s all about the conversation. Otherwise, it’s “check please!” before you even get to the good part.

  • Don’t talk about yourself the whole time. It’s not all about you. Remember WIIFM: What’s in it for me? Ask questions. Be interested in the other. What can you offer that no other email can?
  • Don’t use complicated jargon. Unless you speak the same technical language, keep it clear and simple. You don’t want to confuse your audience or make them feel less knowledgeable, even if they do think the capital of California is Los Angeles. (If that’s the case, maybe they aren’t the right prospect for you anyway.)
  • Be personal. Know your audience and segment based on customer type, geography, and interests. Personalize the email with first name (but always check the data first for potential data entry errors). People like being constantly reminded that you know their name.
  • Don’t push. You don’t want to intimidate someone right off the bat. This is just the first email; you don’t have to put everything out there yet. Verbal diarrhea is usually a major turn off. So is the word diarrhea. Sorry.

4. Call to Action

The email is coming to an end. Your ultimate goal is to get your audience to extend a hand to you for a future engagement and to make them want to see more from you.

  • Be clear. Only use one main call to action. Make sure you end on the same page with a clear next step. Will you call them? Will they contact you?
  • Sleep on it. Avoid intimidating language like “Buy Now.” People need time to consider things, so make sure to nurture them and kindly follow up after an appropriate waiting period. But also don’t keep people waiting and wondering! Will you respond in five minutes or one to three business days? Set expectations.

I clearly established in an earlier post that I have a borderline-obsessive crush on Litmus. So you can imagine my excitement when I received an email from them the other day. It’s like Christmas morning when I see one of those clean, crisp messages in my inbox. I know something exciting is about to happen! Squee!

I wanted to share this as an example of an email that definitely includes the four key ingredients (and a couple of the insights in this post came from their 8 Second Challenge Webinar). Excellent timing with my post.

Litmus Email Example

The subject line instantly has my attention. I have 8 seconds until what? The message self destructs? The aliens arrive? I want to know more!

And hello@email.litmus.com is a casual and approachable sender email address. Everyone knows it’s from marketing, but they are subtle about it.

Some other reasons I think this is a great email:

  • The H1 copy immediately answers the question “I have 8 seconds for what?”
  • “Better” is used in a non-offensive way. They aren’t insulting your emails, rather suggesting that everyone wants better emails. Because who doesn’t?
  • The image is simple but eye catching.
  • The body copy is under 100 words.
  • An easy-to-digest number is used in both the subject line and the body copy.
  • The copy gives you just enough information on what you can expect from the Webinar.
  • The name of the Webinar is appealing and inviting you to be involved.
  • In this case, the determining factors on if I can attend (date and time) are up front. I’d rather know now than find out after wasting valuable time that I can’t attend.
  • CTA: “Save your seat” is less forward and more personable than “Register Now.”

Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it lovely? Isn’t it wonderful? Ok, enough of the love fest. Next time you are crafting an email, think of the ingredients that make a successful first date and you might just score big time. In open rates and click-thrus, of course.

This post was paired with some cauliflower stir fry. I didn’t notice that I was drooling into it as I dissected this email. Still delicious!