The Do's and Don'ts of Content Writing

Content Writing: Skills to Have and How to Get Better

by Paul Kiernan September 20, 2019
Marketing

 

I’m going to leave this right here:

Content.

I’ll let you stew on that word for a moment. 

What does it mean when you see it? What do you think about when you hear the word content? Is it SEO strategy gimmicks or short, trendy, phrases that garner you likes, follows and clicks? Is it, as Karen Webber at Axxon Media says, a focus on the promotion of one brand message. Who is your content aimed at? What do they like to eat? To wear? What do they read? Where do they hang out? Is content just another way of saying advertising? Should your content be selling, selling, selling?

 

What is content? Better still, what is good content? 

Content, by definition, is simply a piece of information that is available electronically. That’s it. Simple. And yet, content can make or break. Content IS clicks, follows, likes, customers and sales. Content should be promoting one brand message. Good content must do all this and be engaging and entertaining and shareable and scannable and … all the yummy things, that all the blogs, articles and digital marketing pundits say it should do.

 

After all, content is king, right?

Leonardo DiCaprio screaming I'm king of the world

Or is it?

Some say content can’t do it alone. No one reads it, you have to promote it, it’s a struggle to get it out there. The truth is content cannot do it alone. However, whatever it is you’re trying to get done, you’re going to have an easier time of it with good content. An even easier time of it with great content.

So, no matter if you think it’s King or just part of the royal digital marketing court, one thing's for sure, you need to know how to write good content.

 

Writing Great Content

I want to break that down even further: you need to know how to write. The very basics, at least, or you’ll never have good content. So, in this here weblog, (goin’ old school), I’ll pass along some nuggets that I have garnered in my twenty-plus years as a writer, as well as ideas from others and, hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a better handle on how to write good content. Okay? Ok, fine, let’s go.

Something to keep in mind: you’re writing for people and people like stories. That’s true, Americans consume somewhere along the line of 100,000 digital words per day and 92% of them want to take these words in as a story. Our brains crave stories. I had a writing teacher in college tell me that, since the dawn of time, someone, somewhere, was standing up in front of the fire and telling a story. Maybe it was the story of the hunt or where he saw a herd of bison. Maybe it was the romantic telling of how he clubbed his spouse Oogla, of the place by the rock Ooglas, over the head and dragged her to his cave where they have lived happily for … this many moon thing. Who knows. The point is, we’re still standing up in front of the fire and telling stories. Only now, instead of a pit with wood and stones, the fires are screens and databases, smartphones and Twitter accounts. You’re still telling stories and telling them to people.

 

Some quick do’s about content:

  • Keep the reader, the person, first and the search engines second.
  • Be enthusiastic about your subject, that will come through to your reader in the writing.
  • Remember facts tell, stories sell.
  • Create thoughtful and conversational content.
  • Go after the emotional connection with your reader, make them feel something.
  • Understand the format you’re writing for: blog, twitter, social media, etc.
  • Know your audience, understand who your readers are and what they like. The questions I asked in the opening few paragraphs, have answers for those.
  • Good stories paint pictures. Dust off the creative writing skills and let the technical skills sit back for a bit.
  • Use good spelling and standard grammar. Messing with these two and your readers will lose trust.

 

Some quick don’ts about content:

(Sidebar, gather close. If you’re writing for the web it’s spelled do’s and don’ts, so says the woman of my dreams; Mignon Fogarty, AKA Grammar Girl. She un-dangles my modifier)

Now back to our regularly scheduled content don’ts already in progress …

  • Content should not be about advertising, do not directly sell to your reader
  • Don’t jam your content full of SEO strategy words, the Panda will slap you down.
  • Don’t ramble, say what you need to say and get out. Shorter is better.
  • Avoid a passive voice, write actively for your reader.  In a passive voice, the subject is acted upon, they receive the action expressed by the verb. She slammed on the brakes as the car sped downhill- is an active voice. The brakes were slammed down by her as the car sped downhill- is the passive voice. Although it is not grammatically incorrect and your robot grammar checkers won’t pick it up, it feels weak and sounds off.
  • Keep your word price logical. By that I mean, don’t spend ten bucks on a word when the ten-cent version will do just fine.
  • NEVER use a word unless you’re absolutely sure of the meaning. Look it up!
  • Content should never be about you or your company, it has to be about the reader. Again, writing actively helps this. What do you want the reader to feel or do when they have finished your story. It’s about them, not you.
  • Don’t overstep your reading level, keep it low. Aim for a middle school education level. There are apps out there where you can plug your content in and it will give you the reading level ease. The Flesch-Kincaid scale is the most popular. On that scale, 1 is very difficult and 100 is very easy. It is suggested that you stay in the 80.0 to 90.0 range, that’s about sixth grade. You could also use the Gunning Fog index to plug in your content. On that index, you're shooting for a number between 6 and 7.

 

There you go, some quick universally accepted ideas about writing content. If you want to delve deeper into the bones of content, there are some great blogs written by the folks over at The Content Factory. Mostly they will say the same thing, be engaging, don’t SEO the hell out of a piece and so forth. The above bits are ones that I have come across most often and make the most sense to me. So, here would be the logical end of the weblog (still clinging) and yet, it’s not.

 

“I’m not a writer with a drinking problem, I’m a drinker with a writing problem.” - Dorothy Parker

 

Pushing The Envelope

I want to talk now about the writing part of it. I’m going to share with you some of my hard earned knowledge and an argument or two, depending on how feisty I feel and how much coffee I can immediately get my hands on.

Rules are made to be tested and sometimes broken. We don’t progress unless we examine certain rules and ask ourselves, why.  Remember what Netflix did to their way of running a business? (https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr). The whole don’t go swimming for a half an hour after eating a tuna fish sandwich is a rule I have often thought about breaking but, since I don’t swim and rarely eat tuna fish sandwiches, I haven’t bothered.

A number of the “rules” about content seem ready to be toppled and I want to encourage you, as writers, to try, to push the boundaries and perhaps reinvent. Maybe content isn’t king in its present form.

 

Make Your Readers Think

The first argument involves the final piece of don’t advice, don’t overstep your reading level. I included it because a bunch of content wizards say it and because I wanted to use it to bounce off an idea to you which is this: what if you treat your reader as smarter than a 6th grader? Not to disparage any sixth graders, I don’t want no trouble man, step away from the kickball, seriously.

What if, when you’re writing your content, you don’t second guess that “big” word? What if you encourage your reader to visit the ol’ dictionary? Is that a bad thing? No. If our job, as content writers, is to inform and engage, can adding a word to our reader’s vocabulary or dropping a more difficult sentence on them, getting them to stop and think, not be informative?

man pointing to his head

On the Flesch-Kincaid scale, Time Magazine comes in at about 52, the Harvard Law Review has a readability score in the low 30s. I know the web and content is about speed, however, maybe your content becomes THE content to read because it doesn’t necessarily dumb down. Now, this remains within reason, of course. At the beginning of Proust’s Swann’s Way, there is a sentence that scores -151.1 on the Flesch-Kincaid scale, that would be alienating. Hell, maybe mentioning Proust is alienating, you don’t want to do that. However, making your readers think and be better informed could make this a rule worth breaking. I like to operate under the belief that readers are smart.

 

Find Your Voice

Your voice is important when writing. Your voice, your unique you that hits the page, should be developed and nurtured. You don’t want to say the same thing, in the same way, about the same subject, as the rest of the folks online who are saying the same thing, the same way, about the same subject. Your content catching on and being shared can come down to your particular voice.

Have an opinion. Write as it matters to you. This is a good way to start. Don’t be afraid to express that opinion and, you know, back it up with facts. If someone argues with you, be gracious. How you deal with adversity shows character and will also help solidify your voice. Also good to note, if someone argues with you, they’re reading you. Oh, joy!

Don’t be afraid to show your flaws. Tell stories about your mistakes and how you overcame them or, better still how you didn’t. You’re human writing to humans about human things. Let your human show.

Listen to yourself speaking with friends when you’re hanging out. How do you, when standing in front of the fire, tell a story? What words do you use when you’re not thinking about writing “content” and you’re trying to make friends laugh, cry, think? That’s a good indicator of what your voice is. Take the natural, causal, unjudged voice and apply it to your content. The freedom with which you speak to friends is a freedom you want to incorporate into your content voice.

girl with megaphone yelling attention please

Get out of your own way when thinking about what to write. We’ve all experienced that dread of knowing you have to write something and just not being able to come up with an idea. Just put pen to page, yup I said it, pen to page, and write. The great Chuck Jones, animator, storyteller, has a splendid idea about “yes” sessions, where he and his artists just threw it against the wall. It’s a great way to start and be inspired about writing.

Note in the above dos and don’t’s (sigh Grammar Girl, just sigh), I say “reader” and not “customer”. I do this because it’s the way I think. I think of the audience as readers I am speaking with rather than customers I am selling to. It takes the pressure off, it allows you to be more personal, more conversational and, believe it or not, but please believe it, you will connect deeper and chances are your words will be remembered longer. This is an idea expressed in Impossible to Ignore, by Carmen Simon, Ph.D., of engaging your reader at point A so that they recall it later and act on it at point B. Your voice, connecting naturally and conversationally to your reader, can achieve that goal.

 

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” -Hemingway


Narrative, done well, will have a serious effect on an object's subjective value. To stress this point I encourage you to visit significantobjects.com and read their story and the results of their experiment. If this doesn’t enforce the point of the need for good storytelling then you’re dead, you’re just dead, I tells ya, dead.

 

If You Can't Write, Don't Write

Now, here’s a second argument, one I hinted at touching upon. I feel feisty and I’ve consumed much coffee. I firmly believe the words of Ernest Hemingway:

“You shouldn’t write if you can't write.”

Written content resonates most with searchers. According to blog buffer, 58% say that written content is their most important form of social content. More than visual, it’s written. So, if you skimp on your written content, it’s going to bite you on the ass. If you’re not a writer, don’t think you can just copy and paste, drop the SEO words and have good content. That’s not going to happen. If you can’t write, don’t write. Hire someone who can or take the time to learn how to do it. It’s far too important, far too critical a part of your brand, your message, your business, not to put serious time, effort and attention into it.

 

Now, that’s the end of the weblog (dogged determination here). Like anything else artistic, learn the rules before you break them and then, break the ones that have done their time and no longer help. Take a walk before you write, think about your readers as people, share your voice and trust it. That’s my advice, that’s what I have to say, other than, if anyone knows Grammar Girl, please tell her I love her. Thank you.

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