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How To Write Better Content — 8 Content Marketers and Copywriters That You Should Learn From
"Your content sucks!" — that's a sentence that no company, content marketer, or copywriter wants to hear. For years we've been told that content is king and that it's key to getting qualified leads that’ll eventually convert to paying customers. There's no denying that. However, many content marketers drown in a sea of sameness. They churn out content just for the sake of it, without much thought or strategy behind it.
If you're guilty of creating content in the same way, it's time to stop. You need to take a step back and learn how to write better content — content that's engaging, educating, and entertaining. To achieve this, the first step is to write. Simple as that. In "Everybody Writes," Ann Handley compares writing to working out at the gym and says, "Learning to craft better content can involve nothing more than developing some necessary muscles." To build up these muscles, you need to write every single day. It won't be easy at times, and sometimes you'll want to bang your head against the wall. Or a keyboard. That's OK, and if you desire to write better content, keep on writing.
Now, apart from practicing daily, it's good to follow fellow writers and their work. I wish I'd done that sooner in my marketing career because I'd have been a much better writer by now. These writers share a ton of advice that you'll want to implement. They'll show you how to write better content.
1. Tell stories to make your boring stuff exciting
You've probably heard that storytelling is the key to success in content marketing. It feels like marketers and brand builders keep repeating it, but few of them turn those words into actions and write content that you want to rave about on social media.
Let me tell you about Dave Harland, a copywriter I've looked up to for a year now. I don't know what made me like Dave more — his copywriting, sense of humor, ability to write compelling stories, or a combination of all three. Dave's a must-follow on social media. Firstly, his tips will make you a better writer. Secondly, we all need a little chuckle sometimes, and I guarantee you're in for a laugh with Dave.
In a webinar for The Marketing Meetup on how to write engaging stories for social media, Dave shared three formulas that’ll teach you how to write better content. He says you don't need to worry about the ins and outs of storytelling, like story arcs, narratives, climax, etc. For starters, all you need to know is how to write a catchy beginning, an interesting middle, and a solid ending.
You can't afford to tell dull stories. They need to be engaging. Here's Dave's short recipe for an engaging story:
- It needs to open with a strong hook that’ll stop people doing whatever they're doing — whether it be browsing emails or scrolling on social media.
- Maintain the level of interest from the hook.
- Finally, make the reader take action at the end. Make them do, feel, and/or think something.
Dave also shared three different examples of engaging stories, each of them built around slightly different frameworks. The first story-building framework you can use starts with something out of the ordinary. Open the story with something either funny, intriguing, or obscure. You'll get bonus points for using quotations. They’ll make the intro to your story more powerful.
Later, explain the opening in a relatable way. Make your story more vivid by using a technique that Dave calls selectively descriptive. Simply speaking, add very specific descriptions now and then. With more descriptive adjectives, people will visualize what's going on and remember your story better. The punchline of your story should make your readers take some kind of action.
2. Create a daily writing routine
I followed Kaleigh Moore on Twitter a few months ago when I was looking for as many inspiring writers as I could find. After I stumbled across a few of her Twitter threads, I knew that I wanted to keep up with the stuff she's sharing because I'd always learn something new.
As her Twitter bio says, Kaleigh’s a freelance writer specializing in retail, ecommerce, and SaaS businesses. If you’re in any of those verticals, you’ll quickly realize that following Kaleigh and her advice is a must.
One of her Twitter threads that stood out to me so much that I’ve even bookmarked it explains how to become a better writer in 30 days. Doesn’t it sound like a perfect hook? It’d also make a killer email subject line.
Want to become a better writer in just 30 days?— Kaleigh Moore (@kaleighf) March 3, 2021
Here's how to do it. Thread!
Kaleigh's process starts with creating a daily writing routine. This ties in with the gym analogy I mentioned in the introduction. You need to build up those writing muscles, right? It doesn't matter if you write in the morning, afternoon, or evening. What matters is to write.
Experiment with different times of the day and figure out when you're the most productive. Also, don't go against your nature. If you're an early bird, it won't make much sense to force yourself to write at night. Conversely, if you're a night owl, make good use of that time when it's all quiet, and you can fully focus on writing in the middle of the night.
Determine how long you're going to write for. Start with whatever feels comfortable for you. If it's 15 minutes, that's fine. If you can go for two hours, good for you. No matter how long you're going to write for, push yourself to write every day even if you feel like you’ve got nothing relevant to say.
Inspiration can strike you when you're away from your keyboard. Don't fret about it. Open your Notes app or any other app that you can use to jot down whatever comes to mind and expand on your ideas when you're back to your computer. It might be weird, but when I have what I think is a great idea and don't want to forget it, I'll DM myself on Slack. By doing this, I'm sure I'll get back to the idea sooner or later.
Also, don’t force yourself to make your first draft perfect. If anything, perfectionism will only interrupt your writing habit because you’ll focus on making things perfect instead of just letting your writing flow.
3. Learn the “list and twist” technique
One day, I came across Dan Nelken's content on LinkedIn. One of his posts made me subscribe to A Self Help Guide for Creatives — his newsletter, which has arrived in my inbox every Monday since November 2020.
Sometimes, his newsletters are so short that you can almost read the entire thing without scrolling, but boy are they packed with writing wisdom! I had a hard time choosing just one piece of advice on how to write better content, so I decided to tell you about two of them.
The list and twist
Imagine you're writing an email subject line, ad copy, or an introduction to an article, and you’re wondering how you can hook your readers. That's where the list and twist technique comes in. You need a list of at least three items, and one of them should always somehow mismatch the remaining two.
Why three items? Dan says, "It's the least amount of items required to form a pattern, and patterns help our brains absorb information." Take a look at this quote from writer/comedian Laura Kightlinger to see how the list and twist can work in practice:
“I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.”
It’s a bit of an extreme example, but you get the idea. Here’s another one.
The art of misdirection
Misdirection is another technique that can make your writing more unpredictable and engaging. The essence of it is that you lead the readers in a certain direction. When they think they know what will happen next, you take them in the opposite direction. In one of his newsletters, Dan brought up a brilliant example of misdirection by Sarah Silverman:
“Once I was with two men in one night. But I could never do it again — I could hardly walk afterward. Two dinners? That’s a lot of food.”
Once again, it's an example that stands out and stays in your head for a long time. And that's what you want to happen with your writing. You want it to stay in your customers' heads for a long time. In his final piece of advice, Dan says that you need to think about how you want your readers to feel when they read your content and start drafting your copy from the opposite direction to mislead your audience.
4. Everybody writes
You're probably wondering if this heading has anything to do with Ann Handley and her marvelous book. Of course, it does, and there was no way for me not to mention "Everybody Writes" and its author in this article.
Ann makes a point that just the fact that you own a website makes you a publisher, and your presence on social media means you're in marketing. Whether you write content for a living or you occasionally post on social media and communicate with your co-workers on Slack, we're all writers to one extent or another. Because of that, we should all learn how to communicate our thoughts better and write clearly and succinctly.
Ann takes a bit of a different stand on storytelling. She says, “Quality, relevant content is less about storytelling; it’s more about telling a true story well.” Ann adds that quality content needs utility, inspiration, and empathy. What does this even mean?
The utility is about making your content useful. You should write content that solves your customers' problems or makes their lives easier. Inspiration relates to what inspires your content. It can be data, or a podcast you listened to that moved you so much that you decided to build an article around it. Finally, empathy means focusing on your customers.
Remember that you create content for your customers and not for yourself. Make your content all about your readers and customers. They don't care about the stuff you sell. All they care about is themselves and how your product or service will help them.
Ultimately, Ann boils down quality content to a formula:
Utility x Inspiration x Empathy = Quality Content
Why multiplication instead of plus signs? Because if you put zero effort into any of those areas, you’ll never create quality content.
5. Move your readers further away from pain or closer to pleasure
I've been listening to a lot of podcasts recently, especially when I drive. I bookmarked Marie Forleo's interview with Cole Schafer a while ago, and I finally listened to it a few weeks ago.
One of the first questions touched on the distinction between creative writing and copywriting. The difference between the two is what's going to make your content a lot more effective. While the essence of creative writing is in telling a good story and entertaining the reader, there's no goal or specific action that the authors want the readers to take at the end of that book you've just read. To be a good copywriter, anytime you write something, you need to have an action in mind that you want your audience to take, Cole says.
He later expands, saying that people essentially buy for one of two reasons — they buy a product or service to move closer to pleasure, or they buy to move further away from pain. When you think about it, almost everything we buy falls into one of those two categories.
Obviously, pain doesn't always mean physical pain. It can be related to your work, and that you can perform some tasks more efficiently if you buy a software application to automate the process, for instance. To give you an example, once I had the draft of this article ready, it needed to be edited. My Grammarly account put me further away from the pain of spending an additional few hours editing this article myself.
Do yourself a favor and listen to the whole interview. It lasts a little bit longer than half an hour, but those 30+ minutes are so packed with quality advice that I could write a separate article about it. Or get some of the phrases from that interview tattooed on my body.
6. Don’t forget that readers are just people like you and me
Remember when it was normal for most of us to work from an office? I joined LiveChat in January 2020 and worked in our office for less than three months before the company switched to working remotely and eventually turned into a remote-first company.
People best remember events that evoke strong emotions. I remember a few of my first days in the office very well, but my memory of the following days is all fuzzy now. However, there is a day I still remember like it was yesterday. It was a March morning, and while I was browsing Twitter, I stumbled across a Twitter thread by Harry's Marketing Examples. It was a story about Lemonade, an insurance company, and how they delight their customers. I wasn't new to Twitter threads, but that one thread and many others I read after I started following Harry have been unique.
His threads don't just tell you how to write better content or copy — they show specifically how one version of content is better than the other and how you can apply similar rules to your writing.
This tweet of Harry's struck me more than any of his other ones:
Never forget that customers are just people— Harry's Marketing Examples (@GoodMarketingHQ) June 17, 2020
Regular people. Like you and me
They snooze the alarm and sing in the shower
Say something REAL, you get their attention
Say something generic, they drive by pic.twitter.com/uigHjbykAk
As Harry says, your customers are regular people like you and me. Whether you do marketing for a B2B or a B2C brand, you sell your stuff to people at the end of the day. Bland, generic stuff doesn't get people's attention. If you can describe your content with those two adjectives, you're doing marketing wrong. You’ll get people's attention with something out of the ordinary, though. Surprise them with something they don't expect, something that’ll make them say, "Wow, I've never seen a hitchhiker with a sign like that!"
Imagine it's you driving by the guy in the tweet above. Which sign would make you stop and tell him to hop inside your car? Sure, some of you might give him a lift regardless of what's on the sign, but I bet it'd be easier to stop people with the sign that says, "To Mom's for Christmas." When you read that sentence, your mind instantly paints a picture of you driving home for Christmas (shout-out to Chris Rea), helping out with Christmas preparations, and enjoying a Christmas dinner. That's what you should aim for with your writing — stop people in their tracks and paint pictures in their heads. If it doesn't, people will keep scrolling their feed or look for answers to their questions elsewhere.
Format your writing
Let’s take one more page out of Harry’s book.
The power of formatting: pic.twitter.com/mTlDkkmwf0— Harry's Marketing Examples (@GoodMarketingHQ) May 1, 2020
Which ad did you read first? I bet it was the one on the left. It grabs your attention. It’s easy on the eye, and it’s a lot more encouraging than the example on the right.
Use headings, bold font, and bigger font sizes to make your content scannable. No matter how good your content is, nobody’s going to be interested if it’s a wall of text that’s hard to read.
7. Forget about short attention spans
A short attention span can be one of the negative effects social media and our exposure to screens have. With so many stimuli constantly poking us, many find it challenging to focus on doing one thing for an extended amount of time.
People’s short attention span is often quoted as the main culprit for creating short content. We're told that we won't be able to enjoy and digest long-form content that'll improve our professional and personal lives because of short attention spans. It's also the reason why there's so much subpar content that lacks depth and gets published just for the sake of it.
Julian Shapiro, an angel investor, and a writing expert, argues that people don't have short attention spans if they can binge-watch shows on streaming services. They have short consideration spans instead, and this means you need to hook them in quickly. If you can do that, there's no reason why you shouldn't go for long, in-depth content.
What’s a hook, and how can you write a good one?
In his handbook, "Writing Well," Julian defines a hook as a part of an introduction that’s a "half-told story," raising a question and only revealing part of the answer. He also shares his formula for writing compelling hooks.
To write a strong hook, prepare a list of questions you want to be answered. Once your list is ready, turn those questions into hooks. Take a look at the example Julian shares in his guide:
The questions above don't make you go, "Wow, that's such a great question!" However, they make for exciting hooks that pique your interest and promise to deliver examples on how to reach a particular goal. They're perfect for the audience they're targeted at, and anyone just starting in bodybuilding will want to find the most effective ways to build their muscles.
With hooks like the ones above, you won't have to worry about short attention spans. Once you get people to read your stuff — and if the rest of your content matches the quality of your hook — people will keep on reading until the last word on the page.
8. Make quality and quantity go hand in hand
You’ve probably heard more than once that quality trumps quantity, less is more, etc. Sure, people should strive to do the best they can in everything they do, whether it’s their job, running a business, parenting, etc. The thing is, focusing on quality shouldn’t limit the quantity of your work or the number of attempts you take to reach the best quality.
I’m talking about this because of one of the newsletters I got from Eddie Shleyner earlier this year. Eddie is one of the best copywriters out there and the owner of VeryGoodCopy, a copywriting blog where he shares micro-articles about copywriting, content marketing, and psychology.
So the newsletter I'm referring to was about the ever-problematic choice between quality and quantity. To illustrate the dilemma, Eddie brought up the story of how he took a course in writing vignettes in college. The professor divided Eddie and the other students into two groups and said that he'd grade one group based only on the quality of the last vignette they'd turn in. In contrast, he'd grade students in the second group solely on the quantity of the vignettes. The professor said that the more vignettes they'd turn in, the better their grades would be, regardless of the quality of those vignettes. I can only imagine how consternated both groups were. Confused students said that it would be fair to grade them all on the quality of their work. They added that writing vignettes is art, and art should always be graded on quality and not quantity.
You could say the same thing about content marketing and doing your best to write better. Nobody wants to read poor content, but I can't resist the feeling that there's a lot more half-baked content than content that's useful and adds value to its target audience. One reason for creating subpar content is focusing on either quality or quantity too much and not paying enough attention to the other. The quality of your writing will only improve if you practice and write more, which means focusing on both quality and quantity instead of just one of them.
By now, you’ve probably figured out the ending to Eddie’s story. The professor said to the students, “The people with the highest quantity of submissions always — always — produce the highest quality work too.” Keep that in mind the next time you’re debating whether you should go for quality or quantity. Writing better content isn’t about either/or. It’s about both/and.
Not going to lie — most of the time, I don’t remember the specific posts that made me follow the writers I mentioned above. What matters is that their content was so valuable and high quality that it made me stick with them and learn from those marketers over and over again. That’s what you should aim for with your content — constantly provide value that people will come back for, and they’ll eventually become your customers.