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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

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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!

Email Marketing Resources

It’s the email, the email, what what, the email. This never gets old.

My blogging companion and I are a bit pressed for time this week. She’s got a big 2-year birthday party coming up (decorations! cupcakes!), and I am attempting to study for a work exam (by watching Homestarrunner, obviously). But products must be marketed and posts must be written, so, I took the advice of a recent article I read on quick-and-easy blog topics and thought, “resource list! I can make that happen in 30…errr…60 minutes flat!”

I chose to concentrate on email marketing today because A) Strong Bad gave me the idea and B) there is no B.

People who don’t do email marketing think email marketing is easy, especially when they aren’t the ones hitting SEND to 20,000 people who could ruin your life (or at least your subscriber list) with a click of a “spam” button. It’s not magic; there is data behind why email marketers do what they do to get those open rates and click-thrus up.

Here are a couple great resources for information on best practices and tips about email marketing (in no particular order).

MailChimp – http://blog.mailchimp.com/

Why: Besides their frequent Star Wars references and the adorably accessorized monkey, MailChimp is the first email marketing platform I ever used (so I might be a bit biased) and wish I still used. They don’t overpost, so it’s not overwhelming to follow them. The writing style is simple to understand. The topics are comprised of a good mixture of MailChimp news, customer success, current events and their impact on email marketing, and tips and tricks. Here is an example of an important one on the Canada Anti-Spam legislation. And then there is a more fun one on the MailChimp QA team in which they use the tag “teamwork” – I love them for that! Hash-tag personality!

Litmus – https://litmus.com/blog/

Why? I love Litmus. I’m kinda obsessed with them. From their color selection and website design, to their event emails and their metrics dashboards, I love me some Litmus. I don’t even need to elaborate further. Just follow them and you’ll love them too. Trust me. I cannot tell a lie.

Some specific articles you should bookmark:

33 New Email Marketing Resources You Shouldn’t Miss
http://unbounce.com/email-marketing/33-new-email-marketing-resources/
(I know, I linked to another resource list. They are all just so good and I didn’t want to be a copycat! Thanks, Unbounce for the informative post.)

37 Tips for Writing Emails that Get Opened, Read, and Clicked
http://www.copyblogger.com/37-email-marketing-tips/

10 Email Best-Practices [Infographic]
http://www.marketingprofs.com/chirp/2014/24729/10-email-best-practices-infographic

9 Email Marketing Best Practices to Generate More Leads
http://blog.hubspot.com/blog/tabid/6307/bid/23965/9-Email-Marketing-Best-Practices-to-Generate-More-Leads.aspx

Perform a simple Google search and you’ll find email marketing sites aplenty, so I’ll continue to post more as I find myself returning to them over and over.

In memory of the late, great Robin Williams, “Thank you for choosing Magic Carpet for all your travel needs. Don’t stand until the rug has come to a complete stop. Thank you. Goodbye, now. Goodbye. Goodbye. Thank you. Goodbye.”

This post was paired with Grilled Scallops and Quinoa, from Giada’s “Feel Good Food” book. Yum!