It is neither new nor revelatory to say writing isn’t easy. There may be no art form so frequently tried and abandoned as writing.
But while writing isn’t easy, it’s an essential content marketing skill. We reached out to some professional writers to get their take on how novices can approach (and improve) their writing skills.
Read on to get advice from Jon Winkour, author and the man behind the popular Twitter account, Advice to Writers; Scott Baradell, president of Idea Grove and Kari DePhillips, co-owner of The Content Factory.
How Do I Get Started?
“You can’t want to be a writer, you have to be a writer. You also have to read, it’s absolute folly to try to be a writer without being a reader. The roughest part is sitting down and starting. Overcoming that obstacle is what separates the amateur from the pro. Ultimately, just do it, make yourself do it — if you really want to write, you will.” — Jon Winkour
“I think too many people approach writing the way Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian approached acting. They are so caught up in formalities and pretense that they forget to be themselves, which usually defeats the purpose. Start by writing the way you actually talk. Get something on paper and then adjust from there. If you have problems getting words on paper, why not start by recording yourself talking about the subject and then transcribing it? It beats a blinking cursor on a blank screen.” — Scott Baradell
“There’s a lot to be said for faking it until you make it, while educating yourself along the way as much as possible. There are a ton of great content writing tutorials out there, which will walk you through the process of creating compelling content, then marketing it. Derek Halpern and Sandi Krakowski both offer thorough, easy-to-understand tutorials (both cost money, but are worth it).” — Kari DePhillips
How Can I Improve the Quality of My Writing?
“The best thing you can do is to start with the end in mind. What do you want the piece to achieve? Who are you writing it for, and what impact do you want it to have on this audience? And then stay laser-focused on this audience and your objective for them. A next step can be to craft a simple outline to organize how your story will unfold. If you start with this level of focus, you then have the freedom to be yourself in your writing without straying off-topic or rambling about things your audience doesn’t care about.” — Scott Baradell
— PSMG – North Bay (@PSMGNorthBay) October 16, 2014
“Creating an outline for the article ahead of writing it can be very helpful, and help you organize the post before you start writing it. (It’s a lot easier to make organizational changes to an outline than a completed article.) Research the topic and try to cover all of the relevant points, focusing on making sure that your tips are actionable and specific instead of weak and broad.” — Kari DePhillips
“Constantly compress, revise and distill — get shorter and shorter and tighter and tighter — let that be your guide.” — Jon Winkour
How Can I Brainstorm Effectively?
“BuzzSumo is a great tool to figure out what types of articles on a given subject are being shared the most online. If you see that certain types of titles don’t get many shares, avoid them. Check out the articles that get the most shares, and see if it sparks additional ideas.” — Kari DePhillips
“We like to have good old-fashioned brainstorming sessions in our conference room as we build out editorial calendars for our clients. But if you don’t have access to this in your work environment, social media can be a great place for brainstorming as well. For example, I’ve been part of a private Facebook group of social media professionals for years, and I’m always turning to them for ideas and feedback. It’s a safe place for brainstorming even the craziest ideas.” — Scott Baradell
How Should I Deal With Feedback and Rejection?
“Rejection? Get used to it, it’s part of the life, it goes with the territory. If you can, ignore critics, they don’t know what they’re talking about anyway. But I do believe in the trusted first reader, a friend, someone who is on your side and knows what good writing is, they are invaluable before you submit.
I’ve published a number of books, and it’s very rare that someone says: ‘I read this and this is what I thought’ or ‘That was a funny quote.’ It’s more often, ‘I saw your book.’ Well, I’m so glad you weren’t compelled to buy it. It can be hard to know whether something resonates or not. I heard a good quote once: “It’s like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo. As has been said, you don’t finish a story; you just abandon it. There’s always something else you could do, another pass, another revision.” — Jon Winkour
— Jon Winokur (@AdviceToWriters) October 16, 2014
“The important thing with feedback is to not take it personally. If you can remove your ego from your writing and objectively look at your content, your writing will be better for it. If your ego is so tied to the content that you take every client edit as a personal insult and argue every point, you’re not going to progress very far as a writer — and people won’t enjoy working with you.
Learn from rejections and feedback, and try never to make the same mistake twice. There are tons of stories in the book world about famous writers who were rejected over and over again before making their first break. Agatha Christie was turned down by every publisher she approached for the first five years of her book writing career — now, her book sales have topped $2 billion. Had she given up in year four, she never would’ve gotten to experience success as a writer.” — Kari DePhillips
“If at the end of the day you settle on an idea or produce a piece of content that your boss or client doesn’t like, it’s important to understand the reasons, so ask questions and listen. You can’t improve if you’re defensive about feedback. But you also shouldn’t let it get you down.” — Scott Baradell
How Do I Know if What I Wrote Worked? What Lessons Can I Draw From Content That Didn’t Work?
“Comments, links, time on site, conversions and social shares. You know your content is resonating when people interact with it.
If your content didn’t work, these are usually the reasons why:
– The content marketing was weak
– The content wasn’t unique (there are hundreds of other articles on the same subject)
– The information wasn’t compelling enough
– The information wasn’t easy to follow
In almost all cases, one of these four causes is the culprit — assuming the writing itself is solid. Once you find the cause, you can either fix the existing copy or write better content.” — Kari DePhillips
“Finding out whether something you wrote resonated used to be pretty anecdotal; an editor, a supervisor, your peers or others you trusted might tell you as much. But now it can be measured in clicks and shares. Increasingly, that’s how both journalists and marketing writers are judged. The lessons you can draw from a piece that didn’t work vary quite a bit. Sometimes, it’s because the idea isn’t unique enough, or the story isn’t well written enough. Other times, it’s simply that you aren’t crafting your headlines in a way that attracts clicks, or that you aren’t sharing the content in the right places.” — Scott Baradell
Where Do You Turn for Inspiration?
“I find George Orwell, among all other writers, the most inspiring in his life and writing and politically and morally, he was just a cut above. I like his kind of writing — the lucid, distilled prose. Joan Didion also belong in that category and Hemingway. But reading Orwell always seems to rejuvenate me.” — Jon Winkour
“Derek Halpern’s Social Triggers puts out a ton of great content on a regular basis, and I regularly send clients to his blog posts and videos. HubSpot and Moz also regularly publish very useful, helpful information.” — Kari DePhillips
“I’m both a fan and friend of Brian Clark of Copyblogger and Ann Handley of MarketingProfs. I’d encourage everyone to check out Ann’s new book, ‘Everybody Writes’, which shares how folks of any experience level can get started writing marketing content.” — Scott Baradell
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