Our online content diets mirror the way we eat in the real world.
We scarf and read on the run, phone in one hand and microwaveable mush in the other. We are consumed by consumption, and yet we often feast on filler. Convenience too often trumps nourishment or nutrition.
Of course, being harried, overloaded, stretched and stressed out does not lend itself to a healthy diet—of the food or content variety. This goes for writers, too.
When you’re behind the eight ball or under deadline pressure, it’s tempting to fill the page with uninspired, cheap ingredients. Sloppy work does a disservice to your readers. Regularly serving up bland, wordy junk can also damage your reputation and career.
If you’re in a rut, tick these four boxes to write more substantive, satisfying copy:
1. Go beyond yourself. Why should I take your word for it? I don’t know you, and I certainly don’t trust someone with something to sell—but I will listen to <insert respected industry expert>. Hell, I might even listen to <insert non-biased consumer, industry employee or impartial sentient being not related to you>.
Put out a HARO request. Call a niche expert. Call five niche experts. Email someone in your industry who has earned a bit of gravitas and sway, and ask for relevant quotes. Ask your social media followers to weigh in on a subject.
It takes longer to add outside perspectives, but then again, so do delicious meals.
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Use online tools to uncover, vet and validate information. Fact-check your claims, and cite reputable, respected sources. (Macedonian troll farms don’t need your support.) Prioritize data over opinions or feelings.
You might also be tempted to make stuff up on behalf of your CEO, but use caution when conjuring baloney quotes. Consider this guidance from seasoned author, writer and journalist Russell Working:
Quotes serve an important role in making stories sound conversational and informal. The trouble is, a lot of PR pros make up quotes for their executives or principals. It’s hard to get facetime with top bosses, and busy executives often are happy to sign off on whatever’s easiest.
The trouble is, unless we have an ear for dialogue, canned quotes do the opposite of what they’re supposed to. They sound tinny and false, lending an air of inauthenticity to writing. Besides, people surprise you. They might say something totally unexpected if you push them for a concrete anecdote or story.
Back when I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, I interviewed the father of an Arkansas soldier deployed to Iraq. His quote alone nearly propelled the story onto page 1:
“Me and him are avid hunters,” the father said of his son, “and he told me he’s killed more people in the past few days than he ever killed deer or turkeys. And he’s killed a lot of deer. He told me, ‘Dad, it’s wrong to kill.’ I told him, ‘If God is going to look bad at anybody, he’s going to look bad at George Bush. You do what you need to do.'”
Now that’s editorial oomph.
2. Edit fastidiously, and then edit again. Some people conflate word count with quality. This is a rotten way to live.
Instead of cranking out a bloated, 1,000-word blog post, whittle it down. Cut out useless information that impedes your reader’s progress.
See a section that doesn’t have to be there? How about that 300-word introduction rehashing the “history” of your topic before launching into your tips? Delete it. Isn’t that freeing? You can also almost always jettison those paragraphs meant to convince people “why xxxx is important.” Repetition is not persuasive; it’s annoying.
Sure, there are potential SEO benefits for writing longer posts, but respecting your readers will yield long-term benefits.
Five hundred words’ worth of carefully selected content beats 1,500 words’ worth of generic slop . So, push back against arbitrary word counts. Err on the side of brevity. Be thorough, but keep it concise.
3. Educate, empower and uplift your readers. Perhaps you’ve heard the advice to “Write what you know.” That’s fine, but better yet: “Write what your audience wants to know.”
You might be the world’s foremost expert on blenders, cumulus clouds or flamingo mating habits, but your knowledge is for naught if your core audience doesn’t care about the topic.
Savvy writers know that readers care about themselves, their jobs and their well-being. Pontificate on passion projects on your own time. If you’re getting paid to write, craft content that educates, empowers and inspires your readers.
Start by asking your followers via social media, email, in person or on whichever platform they prefer:
- “What sorts of things would you like us to write about?”
- “Which content formats do you prefer?”
- “Are there are persistent problems you have at work that you’d like expert insights on?”
Let readers’ preferences—not your own ego—be your guide.
4. Supplement text with worthwhile visuals. Visuals and text go together like bagels and cream cheese. Unfortunately, as relocated New Yorkers will aggressively tell you, the world is filled with substandard bagels and cream cheese.
Whether text or images constitute the bagel or cream cheese portion of this analogy is an argument for another day, but the two should enhance each other. Visuals can elevate a drab block of text, and pithy text adds punches up an image’s power.
Writers, even if you don’t have a design-savvy bone in your body, plenty of tools and resources can help up your game. At the very least, learn how to edit photos, embed charts, upload videos, make memes and create GIFs.
You needn’t be a professional artist to create sleek, eye-catching visuals that enhance your work. Just make sure it’s tasteful.