25 things I learned about content that should make you a better writer
What’s common between an established writer, a new writer, a freelancer and someone who just writes casually? Everyone faces a writers’ block. All writers are used to staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page wondering how they are going to fill it with 3000 original words that can engage the reader, draw traffic and earn some ranking love from Google. Over the years, I have come face-to-face with this dreaded blinking cursor (or its pre-historic equivalent) several times. With age, I have understood this and now have the wisdom of making this blinking cursor my friend – who waits patiently while urging me to get the words flowing.
And just like that, I want to share a few more words that I know in my heart from years of writing.
1. If you don’t write it first, then you better write it well
The world has exploded with content. There are over 2M blogs published each day. Take a minute and re-read that sentence. Unless you are writing about a newly-discovered scientific phenomenon, it is likely that the topic you are writing about has been written by quite a few people. What makes you think that people will want to read the 21st person writing about a topic? The only reason they’ll do so if your piece is authoritative, completely original and adds more value than all the collective wisdom from before. You’ll most likely not write about the same topic twice – so ‘Make it count’.
2. Write everyday
Being a writer means that you’ll have to write everyday. You’ll have to write on things you haven’t heard before. If you are writing for someone else, you’ll also have to adhere to tone guidelines and word count. While it sounds good, like any other job, it will get boring after a while. The only thing that can keep you going is a few cups of coffee and the chance to write what you like once in a while.
3. Sometimes writing what you don’t like can make the difference between just bread and bread with butter and jam
There have been several occasions when I was given topics that were totally out of my comfort zone. But the work came in bulk and the pay was good. So without a lot of thought, I got down to writing them. It meant I had a few months of bills taken care of. The ease of knowing this helped in my work overall. So, if you get a topic that is too ‘technical’, don’t give up on it. You might just end up learning something in the process.
4. Share sleepovers with your writings – always
Most clients like to rein in writers on a deadline. Thousand words by ‘yesterday’ is mostly where it starts. But always remember that bad writing and edits can make you lose your credibility. When you take work, always give it an extra night so that you can sleepover what you’ve written and re-read the whole thing the next day. This has been the single biggest factor in making my edits better.
5. Only new experience will grow you as a writer
Writers provide their unique point of view on things. Be it travel, art, tech or any other topic they have expertise in. But in order to keep their content fresh and relevant, new experience is a must. I write a lot about digital marketing. But I’m able to do so only because I actually handle customer accounts and gain first hand insight on how things work. Advice that is copied or regurgitated doesn’t hold water too long. Take time out to hone your expertise, only then will you be able to write about it. Writers often draw inspiration from real life so keep things interesting outside the laptop.
6. Read other writers’ advice
And while on the topic of honing your skills, the collective wisdom of the horde does come handy. Writers are notorious about not taking style advice easily but it does help to know how other writers are using writing hacks to get around things. Most advice comes from years of experience so do listen to your peers. From ways to find inspiration to tools that can get things done faster, read what other writers have to say.
7. Eat right and exercise if writing is your long term goal
Elaborating on the earlier point, here’s one piece of advice that I would like to share with all writers. Unless you choose to get up and take a walk every half hour or keep a check on your sitting posture, you are going to end up an obese writer with back problems. In the long term, that’ll not help you or your readers. With a laptop and wireless modem, it is easy to get a change of view. Move away from your workstation and sit out in the open. It is fresh and inspiring.
8. Self-editing / re-writing is the toughest thing to do
When you submit a piece of writing to client scrutiny, it is a super tough job if the work needs a re-write. Most writers are already in love with what they’ve written. Re-writing involves thinking of a new angle to write something and added research. It is not the easiest thing to do especially when you think you are done and over with a piece. But as a writer, you’ll just have to bite the bullet sometimes and get it over with.
9. There will be bouquets, brickbats and no comment days – accept it all
When it comes to writing, praise is like fuel for the soul. It gives a sense of accomplishment and helps you keep going when the days aren’t as glamorous. But when it rains brickbats, it can be an equally frustrating nightmare. In this day and age of social media and trolls, a controversial piece of content can even cause legal trouble. The damaging piece of comment / review / rating can even bring down the overall quality of your website.
And then there will be those pieces which will receive no reaction because they haven’t been found by the right people. This ‘not knowing’ is as bad as negative comments if not worse. All these are a part of a writer’s life. The only people who get a hang of the negativity (sometimes) are the rich and famous writers whose praise can drown it all. For everyone else, this is one difficult pill that we have to live with.
10. Write what other people want to read and it is more likely to get read
It is a well-known fact that shocking and negative content gets much more viral than regular content. So do ‘handy list’ content that is interspersed visually with appealing imagery. Look at standard Buzz Feed articles and you’ll know exactly what the above means.
People don’t wake up thinking today I want to read “25 Hilarious Memes That You’ll Probably Wanna Send To Your Mom” but will end up reading anyway. These are classic click baits and the headlines work amazingly well in attracting reader attention and keeping it. They also offer the reader satisfaction of being first in their network to share the information. While some writers may sneer this off as ‘bait’ content, it is an art that most of the online world is currently in love with. With superlatives like ‘worst’,’ strangest’ ‘most disgusting’ and ‘unbelievable’ catching people’s attention, it is good to write what people want to read – so that all the hard work you put in actually gets read.
11. Knowing how to ‘measure’ your writings success can work for you
For a book author, a few thousand or million copies sold used to be the mark of success. Today, Kindle Direct Publishers (KDP) has spawned Kindlepreneurs whose eBook success stories deserves a blog of its own. Online writers (blog and content) on the other hand have been successful in turning content into a money making machine.
The common thread here is that each has found a way to measure their content based on the amount of people who’ve read it – with views, downloads and shares. Understanding how your audience will consume your content will allow you to create goals and measure success from time to time. While well-read content is definitely an ego-booster, it also gives you an opportunity to share it as an example of your work. If you are an online writer, understanding analytics and metrics can do a world of good.
12. Spend 50% of your time being a content marketer – exclusively
No matter what masterpiece you write, it won’t ‘work’ until it gains readership. And that requires marketing. There are very few people who can claim to have created content that went viral on its own. Everyone else has to rigorously market it to get to the right readers at the right time. With so much content being available, it takes only a moment’s shift in attention span to lose interest in your article. The right image, cover, title and synopsis becomes the game changer here. The using it to send feelers on social and connect with your audience on forums can give you a push. Even then, you have to thoroughly invest time to market your content.
13. Keep your influencers close to you
Speaking of marketing, influencer marketing has turned out to be a key mantra this year. There are certain leaders in a sector who hold the attention span of a wide audience. With millions of followers, a tweet mentioning your story can be the difference between average and viral content. Besides, an endorsement from them helps too. To gain this, you’ll need to consistently serenade influencers and woo them over time so that they turn into instruments of content marketing when the time is right.
14. Keep abreast with the latest tech tools that can make life easy
The most writer-friendly tool that I recommend is Grammarly. It saves a lot of time by helping you correct errors during the first round of edit. Then there is Google docs, which stores stuff ‘forever’ and helps you find it easily.
There is Evernote, Final Draft and Bibisco, Libre Writer and of course the shining beacon of Microsoft Word that has helped me write, edit, save and send. With more people eager to solve problems around the world, you just might discover that someone, somewhere has solved a writing problem that you didn’t know you had.
Once every few months, check if there are tools added to your list that can make life just a tad easier as a writer. I, for example, even count ‘Mavis Beacon’ as a top tool in my list. The typing text tutor took my meagre 20 wpm to a cool 75 wpm. It has single-handedly allowed me to finish 1000 word pieces in an hour and given as much speed to my hands as my thoughts.
15. Writing something will mostly take longer than you think
I’ve often read topics assigned for blogs and thought, “Hey, I should be able to finish that by noon!” And those topics have taken me a day and a half. While you may have knowledge, research is still essential. Thinking of a new angle to write and then making an impressive write up takes time. For topics that need more research or more technical in nature will need extra time investment to understand and write.
As always, last-minute unannounced guests, events, meetings and other ‘important’ things (like puppy dog eyes requesting help for school projects) have an ugly tendency to crop up right around an important deadline. While you can’t plan it all, it is safe to buffer a little extra time right at the beginning.
16. Keep an idea book / page handy
When you write for others, it is very difficult to contribute to you own blog. It is even more difficult to keep track and maintain consistency. Earlier, it used to be fun to carry a little red book along to jot down ideas as they come. And I still have this book in my bag. But the book has mostly been replaced with a cloud app on my phone that is accessible from other devices.
Over the years, this is the place I consistently go back to when I am stuck. These days, ‘bookmarking’ isn’t as cumbersome as it used to be but it isn’t a perfect cake walk yet. I like to use Neil’s method of creating an empty G+ account with no one in my circle and then share what I want to save in this account. It is easier to search for it this way. Once in a while when the phone battery runs out or I’m just in the mood to feel the touch of pen and paper, I get out the red book.
17. Your book cover / website does matter
The world isn’t fair. A webpage gets judged by its title and meta description as much as a book gets judged by its cover. If the place you present your write up isn’t visually appealing with the right fonts and colours, people may just bounce off. Luckily, finding this out isn’t too tough. Look up the most popular books or websites in your category.
While it is best not to blindly emulate, it is a good place to start thinking about your style guide. The synopsis or brief description is one of the biggest driving factors in helping readers decide if they want to invest time in fully reading what you have to say. So think, read, re-write, edit and re-read these 100 words as they are the most important part of your entire work.
18. Respect copyrights – always
As a writer who reads a lot, there have been a couple of times I have picked up on the ‘language’ used by someone else. I’m of a very firm belief that plagiarism is a strict no-no. It is just not OK to take someone else’s work and pass it out as your own. In fact, the internet is currently filled with so much ‘regurgitated’ content that it makes me want to puke.
One author takes the time to create a well-researched authoritative long-form content. The moment it trends, the leech writers choose to re-write it with different words but the similar meaning and pass it off as original work. Now, imagine someone doing that to your work. And worse, the content you have so painstakingly written is outranked by its ‘inspired’ counterpart. It hurts. Always expect that your every word will be scrutinized by a plagiarism checker. But more importantly, respect the hard work behind the original content and try to use it only as an inspiration to write your own.
19. You better keep hitting that Ctrl+s
All writers have lost their valuable work once in while to a tech glitch. Forgetting to hit ‘save’ can be a costly mistake – one that has happened quite a few times to me before I learned my lesson. Today, hitting save every five minutes is more of a habit. I also use Google docs extensively to write and store ideas that can come handy later.
20. Write for ‘search’ so that you can be found
While I touched upon a point earlier on writing what people want to read, it partly extends to the point for using the right amount of technical expertise to aid the discovery of your content. SEO or search engine optimization is a great way to tell search bots what your content is all about. The basic rule of thumb remains that you write for ‘real’ humans and not for algorithms.
But you have to know a few intelligent tweaks to make your content work for both. Optimized titles, interesting descriptions, optimized images, links and page structure can go a long way in getting you the readership you desire. Search engines are your friends so don’t try to ‘game’ the system but work along and you’ll soon start seeing results.
21. Keep your writing ‘evergreen’
I have written various travelogues years ago which are still relevant today. But they aren’t ‘fresh’ any more. Because of this, the content sometimes doesn’t get the views it deserves even though it is ‘evergreen’. To keep this content fresh, I have created my list of ‘evergreens’ that I look up once a week. I then take one content and update it with latest information about events or local updates which adds value. The content now gets a new ‘angle’ that can be shared on social. This allows old content to continue delivering traffic long after it has been written.
22. Polish yourself with cheat sheets
From grammar to SEO, the internet is filled with cheat sheets that can get you all the relevant information about a topic in just 10 minutes. Take this grammar cheat sheet for example which is perfect to refer to when I have a nagging doubt on the little big things. I save up cheat sheets I find useful in a cloud folder, sorted by topics and go back to it when in doubt.
23. Create your ‘voice’
The writer’s ‘voice’ is what readers fall in love with. The voice is a unique way to express views on a topic that makes reading an enjoyable experience. This is one aspect that cannot be taught – only developed. You’ll have to find a comfort zone and you will eventually. One of the things I did is to use a free text to speech tool that read out loud what I had written. Other times, I read it out loud myself. If it doesn’t ‘sound’ right, it is out.
24. Keep learning
Earlier, popular publishers enjoyed an upper hand in choosing which authors they choose to publish. With internet and medium like Kindle, people have moved to a self-publishing mode. The only thing that stands between you and success is you. Several authors who suffered multiple rejections from publishers tasted success when they self-published.
Even then, written content is now being taken over by other media like images and video. Scripting for videos is one of the hottest forms of content structure requirements. How people consume content is changing fast and you never know what will emerge in the coming years. Both the art of writing and the tools used to consume it will keep changing.
25. What’s next
Writing is not the only thing that writers have to do. You also have to invest time in finding quality projects that you need to be a part of. You have to spend time creating and updating your portfolio and customizing job applications.
You have to also spend time reading, marketing it and measuring its success. People mistake writers to only furiously type behind their laptops with nerdy glasses. In reality, you’ll have to wear multiple hats and be in a constant learning mode. It isn’t easy but it is a rewarding career to have. So go ahead and try it out.
Your Favorite Learning as a Content Writer
What are the things that you have learned from your years as a content writer and feel would help others?
Let us know in the comments below.
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