Building good content writing habits

Finding your path into a blog post, or any article can be daunting. One of my habits is to look for a quote. Let’s face it, there’s always a quote. Here’s a good one from Leonardo Da Vinci, ‘A rule for developing a good brain is to know how everything connects to everything else. 

By the way, once you’ve got going you don’t need to keep the quote. It’s often just a bit of ‘throat-clearing’ before you start your main story, but in this case it’s relevant. My story starts with connections.

This blog connects to a lot of work I’ve been doing recently about the future workplace. Most of what I’ve been writing involves technology, the clue is in my job title, but for me the interesting stuff happens when you bring people into the equation. I’ve been reading a great deal about how to retain or attract ‘older generation’ employees. I won’t lie, I’m firmly up there as one of those. These aren’t platinum lowlights no matter how much I pretend.

I have been heartened by the positive messaging about the value of experienced employees when it comes to sharing knowledge with other generations. So I thought I would share some content writing habits I’ve developed over the years.

A quick note might be needed here, I think. I’ve been both an agency and in-house writer. As I’m currently working at an agency, I’m using agency terms of reference like ‘account manager’ and ‘client’. These simply mean ‘the person who’s asked you to write the piece’ and ‘the person or company that the piece is being written for’. In-house this could be the content manager or marketing manager and the client would be your company or the subject matter expert.

Twelve habits for effective content writing

  1. I’ve given you the first one already. To find your ‘in’ look for a suitable quote.
  2. I’ve also given you the second. You can always chuck the quote away once your writing is on the move. Or, if the quote doesn’t fit, you just write around it and get rid of it later.
  3. Prepare your ground. This is a multi-part habit to get into.
    1. Research your client (see my note above, if you work in-house this is the person or company you’ve been asked to write about. Subject would probably be a better word. There’s always a better word!) Understand what they want to say about themselves and the work in general. Look beyond the ‘messaging document’ and see what they authentically say about themselves. LinkedIn posts and comments, customer forums, replies to reviews are all useful.
    2. Read the brief. This might go without saying, but don’t just read it, make sure you understand it, and the deadlines, etc. Don’t read it for the first time when you’ve scheduled to do the work, allow yourself some thinking time and ask questions if it’s not clear.
    3. Draw up your article in an outline doc. One of my employers called this the ‘content platform’ – which is a great way to describe it. It’s a kind of content ‘wireframe’. The words don’t have to be pretty, but the story and/or argument has to flow and be sound. Let the client or their account manager review this and provide feedback before you get started.
  4. I can’t stress this enough. Wait for the feedback on your ideas before you start writing or even doing more research. It’s tempting when you start on the content platform to get carried away and turn the outline into the final article, after all, you’re probably on a roll at this point. Hold yourself back and wait. They might come back with a different angle and you’ll have to unpick your thinking. This leads to five.
  5. Hold strong opinions weakly. This might sound a bit flimsy, but when you are writing on behalf of a client you need to reflect their thinking, not your own. By all means challenge an opinion that is at odds with the evidence, but be prepared to change your mind when the client’s viewpoint varies from your own. As a content writer, it’s really not all about you.
  6. Just write the damn thing. Some pieces are a joy to write, others sit in your head and don’t seem to want to make out and onto the screen. It happens even after 35 years of content writing. We all have to ‘eat the frog’ sometimes. I generally give myself an amount of time to get something, anything, down. Understand what works for you.
  7. Submit ahead of time – especially if you work in an agency to allow the account manager to review it and make comments. If you don’t work in an agency, it’s still a good habit to submit early if you can, certainly don’t crash the deadline. It’s just too stressful all round.
  8. Trust the marketing manager/account manager/account director/content manager. They work with the client or subject on a regular basis and pick up on the nuances of what the client likes/doesn’t like, will or won’t accept. If you’re writing for multiple projects you won’t recall everyone’s individual foibles. And a good client services / content writing team based on trust is a formidable combo.
  9. Proof your own work and then ask someone else to check it – a content writing colleague or the account manager. It’s just good practice. I generally read it out loud and do the old spellchecker thing. Then I look at the readability statistics. I can’t help it. For B2B, technical stuff 40 is my minimum. This article scores 73 if you’re interested.
  10. Listen to feedback and don’t take criticism personally. Sure, it can be unpleasant to get an unjustified critique. My favourite was just the word ‘yuck’ written across the opening paragraph. As I recall, I started that piece with a quote as well. Lesson learnt. Look for the positive and move on… As your career develops you’ll value those irksome comments as guides to stronger writing.
  11. ABL – Always be learning. Read about copy and content writing. Set aside some time each week to look at books, articles, websites, blogs and LinkedIn posts from people in the content writing world. Look for good content writing examples in your clients’ sectors.
  12. ABH – Always be helpful. Pass on your habits for effective content writing to your fellow writers. Sharing is caring.

The inspiration for this blog connects to a book I’ve just started reading: ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear. The opening story is rather alarming but I’m hoping to gain some further nuggets and new habits that might, who knows, make content writing even more rewarding for me.

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