How Do You Want To Be Seen?
Our words online tell the world who we are. For that reason, everybody is a writer, and writing is increasingly important. Future employers and friends can see the type of person you are, the type of thinker you are, and the types of things that you’re interested in just by checking out your social media feeds.
Your writing, either intentionally or not, will make you appear smart or stupid, interesting or boring, scatterbrained or focused. By becoming a better writer you can learn how to choose the nicest light for other people to see you in.
What Counts As “Content?”
Everything is content. And writing is the fundamental building block of most (all?) of that content. Writing is even the basis for visual content like YouTube videos – the video itself might not have any written text, but the script or the outline might have been thought of ahead of time.
“Creating great content is less about storytelling and more about telling a true story well.” - Ann Handley
Storytelling connotes embellishment and flourishings that don’t necessarily have a place in modern content marketing. Precision and concision are important.
The formula: Utility x Inspiration x Empathy = Quality Content
And it’s a multiplication, so if any of the values is zero, the whole thing is a zero.
Who Can Be A Writer?
Good writing is a learnable skill. Anybody can improve their writing. For most people, becoming a better writer simply boils down to writing more.
Build a habit of writing every day and over time you’ll become a better writer. Writing is just writing, there’s nothing inherently special about it. The way that you write doesn’t matter.
Here’s a great video from poet Taylor Mali on his writing routine:
Make writing a habit. Habits have more control of your life than conscious decisions, and both good and bad habits will compound. Form good habits to shape a better life.
Simple Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing
- Keep everything clear and concise.
- Begin paragraphs with the most important sentences. Begin chapters with the most important paragraphs. Every level builds on the one before it.
- The first step in writing is to figure out the goal. What do you want this piece to accomplish?
- Put time between each step in the writing process. Separate the writing from the editing. These processes require you to think in different ways, and it’s much faster to single-task on either one or the other at a time. Switching back and forth between writer and editor will lead to slower writing and a sloppier final piece.
Keep These Things in Mind
Intention doesn’t matter. What you intended to say and what you actually said could be two different things. Take time between writing and editing to catch disconnects between your intention and the words you wrote.
Add a call to action at the end of every piece. Tell your reader exactly what to do next. For bonus points, tell them that other people are doing it already (people might not like it, but they are influenced by the actions of others).
Separate the Writer and Editor
Write a bad first draft but don’t worry about it. Nobody will see the first draft and editing will let you fix all the mistakes and turn it into something you’re proud of.
The goal as the writer is to give the editor something to work on, not a polished masterpiece. Let the writer do their work and let the editor do their work (even if you’re both the writer and the editor). Don’t multitask. Don’t try to combine writing and editing.
Add humor and analogies during the rewrite. Add your personality during the rewrite. Make sure each paragraph pops with something unmistakeably “you” during the rewrite.
The first draft is just about getting something out there. The second draft and onwards is about making it your own.
Edit before you copyedit. Ideas come first, grammar last.
Writer’s block is actually writer’s evasion. Sit down and get to work.
More Nuanced Writing Tips
- Give yourself a deadline.
- Talk about your readers, not about yourself.
- Write for people, not businesses. Forget buzzwords and quit trying to sound smart. Use plain English and be clear about what you want to say. Simplify, simplify.
Things to Change During a Rewrite
The active voice is better than the passive voice. (<- Active voice)
Don’t let the passive voice be the one that gets used by default. (<- Passive voice)
What’s the difference?
- Passive: Video games are being played more than ever.
- Active: People are playing video games more than ever.
When you see a cliche, change it or delete it.
When you’re in school, writing is all about adding words. Longer essays get better grades, even if they’re poorly written. Sometimes word count is the only thing that even matters.
In real life, you should remove as many words as possible from your writing. Keep it simple and concise.
Separate a sentence into its own paragraph to emphasize a point.
It really works.
Quick Aside about Mondegreens
“Mondegreens” are hilarious.
A good example of a mondegreen is when you mishear a lyric but just roll with it. In the song “Raw” by Sigrid, she sings, “You know I’m terrible at putting up a show,” but for the longest time my wife thought she was saying, “You know I’ll tear a bowl of pudding up for sure.” Listen to it here and you won’t be able to unhear it :)
Another great example of a mondegreen is in Tom Waits’ song “Cold Water”, in which he sings “I woke up this morning with the cold water,” but I (even when I really try) can’t hear it as anything other than, “I woke up this morning with a Koala.” Listen for that here:
If you have any other great examples of mondegreens from your own life, tweet them to me at @stuarthahn.
The copy on your site should describe only your site. Don’t make the mistake of generalizing so much that any other site in your field could copy and paste it and nobody would bat an eye. Be unique. Use your unique voice and perspective to tell your story.
Develop your own voice. It will happen naturally over time, but you can hurry the process by writing a lot.
Be biased, but back it up. Make sure your opinions are rooted in facts and don’t hesitate to change your mind when given new information.
Be useful to your audience. When you’re doing an interview, for example, advocate for your audience by asking the big questions. Think about what information would be most useful to your audience and tailor your questions to extract those insights.
Podcast interviews are conversations, not tests.
Use questions initially as a guide to get the conversation flowing, but then just let it flow. You’ll have better rapport and your interview won’t sound as stilted, which is more engaging for your audience and also opens up opportunity for serendipity.
A good question to ask in conversation with experts is, “How did you end up here?” The path that someone took to end up as a leader in their field is usually fascinating and filled with all kinds of practical knowlege.
Check Your Facts
Make sure that you’re spelling names correctly and following the preferred format. When I worked for Muthead, for example, a lot of people would talk about the site as Mut Head or MUThead or MutHead – all of which were incorrect spellings.
This formatting issue comes up a lot. Is it Grubhub, Grub Hub, GrubHub, or something else? Always look up names and make sure you’re spelling and formatting them correctly.
Use Primary Sources
Find and talk to the person closest to the center of the story. The creator of an app is a better source than your friend who heard about the app through their boss who saw it on Hacker News.
Cite as you write and watch out for “accidental plagiarism.” Link as close to the original source as possible. If possible, link to the person and to the work they did.
A Few More Tips
Curation is an important tool for any content marketing program. It’s a form of authorship.
Tweet as if you’re talking to someone who is in the same room as you. Be personable and friendly. Be informative. Be helpful. Be funny. Be a real person.
Use a clear call to action if you want people to do something. Explicitly tell them to do the thing. “Click on the ‘buy now’ button and order your book.” “Follow me for more copywriting tips.”
On LinkedIn, avoid buzzwords. Avoid buzzwords everywhere, anyway. Use words that describe only you. It shouldn’t be possible to copy your profile and paste it on someone else – there’s only one you.
Mirror the language of people and companies that you want to work for.
What would you open? Write emails that you would open and read. If your audience is like you and into the same things that you’re into, then they’ll be likely to open and read the same types of emails that you would.
The message on the landing page should match up with the language on the take-off page. Where did a person come from? Twitter? The landing page should remind them where they came from, where they are now, and what they’re doing there.
Do you have reading recommendations for me?