Here’s a question a disheartened content writer asked me recently:
Whenever I see the headline “How to Write Good Content”, I’m immediately a-clicking. But often it’s just vague advice that’s heavy on the jargon and light on the practical. It’s all: ‘write to the audience, keep it short, tell a story’.
But what do these phrases actually mean?”
The Internet is brimming with experts desperate to share their knowledge of content writing. But you may be discouraged by wall-to-wall generic buzzwords without specific examples. It’s enough to put you off content writing for life — and many people are.
But spare a thought for your readers. They are eager for content that understands their needs and solves their problems. And your business is thirsty for marketing copy that attracts clients to your services.
So here’s a 10-step guide with examples to improve your copy. Your audience will show their appreciation in leads and conversions.
Step 1: Know Your Goal
The golden rule of writing good content is: be accurate and empathise with your audience.
So before you get stuck into writing, work out the goal of your piece. What are you trying to achieve?
Do you want:
- Potential clients to learn more about your products and services?
- To generate quality leads?
- Your company to be more visible to clients and Google?
- To look more switched on?
Now, relate that goal to your audience. Ask yourself:
- Why should this goal matter to them?
- What should they take away from this piece?
- Why should they care about this?
Keep asking yourself these questions, then distil the answers and put them right at the top of your piece.
Example: You have a new app that connects parents with babysitters living close by.
Goal: You want more people to download your app and use it.
Relate this goal to your audience:
Q: Why should people download your app?
A: They need quality babysitters on short notice that live nearby.
Q: What should they take away from this piece?
A: This app will help them source babysitters quickly and securely in all situations, either in advance or at short notice.
Q: Why should they care about this?
A: To nurture relationships: date nights, friends’ birthday parties, a physiotherapist’s appointment to fix a bad back.
Step 2: Know Your Audience
You’re familiar with the content cliche of “know your audience”, but what does this really mean?
It means doing a spot of brainstorming. Conveniently you can do this anywhere, while stacking the dishwasher or half-asleep on a crowded bus.
Ask yourself the golden question: what’s the best client you could ever hope for?
Once you have this shining star of a customer in mind, dig a little deeper:
- What does she need and want?
- What are his pains and his troubles?
- What industry is she in?
- Is it a business or a customer, or both?
Now, write your content to that one person. Use the second person ‘you’ instead of ‘I’. Connect this client to your piece by introducing a scenario or a story they would be familiar with.
To continue the babysitting app example, your ideal client could be:
- A single parent unexpectedly working late because a software release is delayed.
- A dad who hasn’t seen his friends for two months. The babysitter cancels last-minute and his partner is working all hours for year-end.
- A harried parent juggling a multitude of responsibilities. She can’t spare the 20 minutes it takes to ring around for babysitters.
Step 3: Build that Structure
You might be chomping at the bit to write that 500-word blog post on how your product will change people’s lives.
But if you’re putting it off by reading a “10 Ways the 90s Ruled” listicle — congratulations, you’re a writer.
Writing is like exercising. You dread the treadmill but afterwards, you’re happy you bothered. Usually.
But before you start, get a structure in place. This will avoid you traipsing too far down the wrong road. And it’ll keep you on message when you’re writing your first draft.
What structure is best to put your point across? Is it a:
- Blog post?
- How-to guide?
- Case study?
Then decide on what points you want to hit in your piece. Remind yourself of the goal and what your ideal customer should take away.
Jot down a short sentence for each point, and follow this breadcrumb trail to write your first draft. Time to shut down those browser tabs of procrastination!
Step 4: Write a Terrible First Draft
Now that you have a structure in place, it’s time to start pounding the keyboard.
But instead, you may just stare at a blank page for 5 minutes. Then that listicle will tempt you back again like a siren. Or you’ll just meditate about lunch until it’s actually time to go to lunch.
How can you conquer writer’s block? Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft. Because just having something on the page is half the battle.
It’s easier to reshape bad text into good than to write perfectly first time. We can’t all be Hemingway. And even he wanted to heave his typewriter out the window sometimes.
So go ahead and start writing. Ignore that voice in your head nagging you that it’s terrible. Like all writers who actually produce, you’ll fix it later.
Once you’ve wrestled a first draft onto the page, it’s time to put on your editing hat. But first:
Step 5: Take a Break
Fresh eyes boost the ability to edit and rewrite a piece.
Walk away from your first draft. Treat yourself to that lunch you were fantasising about. Take a stroll in the rain and kick stones. Bore a colleague by ranting about your awful first draft.
If you can, sleep on it. But if that’s not possible, make sure to get your eyes off it for a few minutes at least.
Step 6: Swap Places with the Reader
Remember how a great content writer always empathises with their audience? Swap places with your ideal reader and look at your piece through their eyes.
To sell a product, don’t just explain what it does — that way flat, boring content lies. Instead, explain how the product will help them with their problems.
Read the text and ask, is it:
- Keeping them interested and engaged?
- Answering their questions?
- Making them work too hard to understand your point?
To return to the babysitting app, here’s a boring company-centric phrase:
ChildcareConnect is an app where parents can find local childminders quickly.
Instead, rephrase from the client’s perspective:
Never miss date night again. Find quality childcare with the click of a button.
Step 7: Make it Readable
Writing for the web is a different animal than a novel. Maybe you think good writing equals flowery text with big words. Or maybe your English teacher did and you never got out of the habit.
Think poetry rather than prose, concise rather than verbose.
Online readers tend to scan text and lose focus if sentences are too long. Lots of white space means your content is easier to read and take in.
Here are a few rules:
- Keep paragraphs to no more than 3 sentences.
- Keep sentences to no more than 25 words.
- Use lists, like bullet points and numbers.
- Use subheadings.
- Highlight key points using bold, block quotes or pull quotes.
- White space helps the reader scan your text better.
- Use photos, graphics or slideshows.
Step 8: Use Strong Verbs
So sentences shouldn’t be more than 25 words. But how do you put this into practice?
Make your writing concise by cutting the bloat. See where you can make cuts to your adjectives and adverbs. As a reminder, adjectives modify nouns (a lovely man) and adverbs modify verbs (he spoke loudly).
But how can you remove adjectives and adverbs while still keeping colour and life in your writing?
By using strong verbs instead of weak ones. Strong verbs are sensory, while weak verbs are abstract and don’t help you visualise a scene.
For example, the verb ‘to eat’ in a sentence doesn’t paint much of a picture. But change it to a strong verb and:
Devour: picture a ravenous man tearing into a hamburger, ketchup dribbling onto his chin.
Dine: picture a refined woman daintily eating a steak in a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Pick at: picture a disgusted child pushing broccoli stems around her plate.
Tip: If you’ve edited a sentence and it’s looking flat, just search a thesaurus for synonyms. Pick a juicy strong verb from the list to replace your weak one and you’re off!
Step 9: Make the Lead and the Kicker Shine
Take extra care of the lead (beginning) and the kicker (end) of your piece. You want your copy to start and end strong.
The lead is where you place your reader into the story. Introduce someone with the very problem you’re solving. Or paint a picture of a scenario familiar to your reader.
In the kicker, make sure to restate the point of the piece. Include a call to action if it’s appropriate. Ask yourself: what do I want the reader to do next?
Step 10: Enrich Your Writing
Take a point from the previous paragraph to connect an idea in the next paragraph. This helps your writing flow.
Avoid Jargon and Buzzwords
You’ll just sound like any other company. Instead, concentrate on what sets you apart and how you can help your clients.
Find Your Voice
What is your brand’s personality and point of view? Are you Fun? Snarky? Reliable? Pick some adjectives that define your company and apply it to your writing style.
Show Don’t Tell
Instead of telling your audience how great your product is, why not show it adding value and meeting needs? Always swap the generic for the specific — include details, stories and people to your content to make it more relatable.
In a world saturated with content, good copy is surprisingly hard to find. Companies keep falling into the trap of flatly reporting their products, assuming their audiences are riveted. Faced with climbing a 10-foot wall of dull content, busy readers go elsewhere.
But you now have the tools to go forth and write engaging copy that your audience will adore. They’ll be asking: where have you been all my life? And where can I find out more about you?
Originally published at yvonnereilly.com on November 30, 2018.