No matter what industry you’re in or who your target demographics are, a powerful writing style will take your brand to the next level. For most modern online brands, this means using a combination of strong copy on your website and traditional ads as well as developing an ongoing content marketing strategy with a blog and peripheral content materials. As general advice goes, the better the content strategy, the happier your customers will be.
There are dozens of ways to make your content strategy better, including doing better research, knowing your demographics more intimately, and including more multimedia content in your strategy; these would all serve as interesting, separate topics. Today I want to focus on three critical writing skills that apply to everyone, in any niche: clarity, simplicity, and efficiency.
Why these three specific qualities of writing? Let’s break this down.
The effectiveness of your content strategy is going to depend on dozens of interrelated factors. But what does it mean to be effective? It means communicating your message in a way that makes sense for your audience, and earning a positive ROI while doing so. Choosing the right audience and choosing the right message are both important, but they don’t have much to do with your writing style, or the literal process of writing.
When it comes to the actual writing process, much depends on the industry and format—for example, a BuzzFeed-style post in the news industry might require different techniques than menu descriptions for a local donut shop. Based on this fact and the eliminative process I used above, I can think of three main categories of factors that influence the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of your approach.
The advice I dispense throughout this article will apply, in principle, to any business’s content marketing strategy in any niche. Taken at face value, they’ll be applicable to straightforward forms of content (such as blogs, whitepapers, and eBooks), and much of it can be applied to other forms of content, such as personal emails, social media posts, or even web copy.
However, it’s important for you to realize that every business and every niche is different, and that you may need to make some adjustments to make this work for your brand. For example, if your brand voice is casual and informal, striving for too much conciseness could make you come across as stuffy or unapproachable. Similarly, while clarity is always a good thing, the type of clarity you need may depend on your audience—for example, if your demographics are expressly familiar with your industry, you’ll need to explain fewer terms and get to your main points faster.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s take a look at the ways you can make your writing better all-around.
Clear writing is writing that communicates all of your intentions with as few ambiguities and as many details as possible. It’s not a new phenomenon; companies have been striving for better clarity for decades, and it’s always been a part of academia.
(Image Source: Hubspot)
You could just strive to “write clearer,” but that isn’t a specific or actionable strategy. Instead, let’s take a look at specific ways you can increase the clarity of your writing.
Front-loading is the process of including more relevant information earlier on in your writing. It’s important for several reasons, and manifests in multiple different ways. For example, you can front-load an entire article by putting your most relevant information in the headline of your piece, or you can front-load a single sentence by leveraging the most useful and/or necessary information in your first few words. Why do this?
The most important opportunities for front-loading exist in your headlines, sub-headers, and topic sentences.
The organization of your article is also necessary to communicate your points clearly. Again, there are a number of reasons for this.
A casual reader or skimmer will be able to browse the article from a distance and pick out precisely the information he/she needs with minimal effort. In-depth readers will appreciate the logical flow of one idea to the next. During the writing process, it can even help you flesh out some of your most important ideas. Take a look at how the simple topic breakdown of the Wikipedia page for the Beatles immediately makes the long, complex page more decipherable and approachable:
(Image Source: Wikipedia)
This should be your goal, though you don’t need to have a strict table of contents like this. Throughout your article, you’ll want to hit on the main points of organization quality:
This should be one of the first things you accomplish for your article, since you can do it during the outline process and it basically dictates everything else in your piece.
The formatting of your article can also lend some serious clarity to your piece overall. Though some elements of formatting and organization are somewhat interchangeable, there is a truly significant distinction; organization refers to your choice and order of broad topics, while formatting refers to how you present those topics in a visual format.
For example, breaking up your content into paragraphs of related, short sentences is far better than leaving your audience exhausted with long, rambling blocks of text. Similarly, bulleted and numbered lists offer concise, punctuated items that represent or verify your arguments, and using bold and italics can help you make certain elements of your sentences stand out.
Formatting serves two important functions; it gives skimmers a chance to get the gist of your article, and gives other readers a “recap” that helps them return to and better understand a given section. With this in mind, your biggest job in formatting is making sure you select the best parts of your content to emphasize.
Even topics that offer well-organized subtopics and decent formatting can fall victim to ambiguity if you don’t offer enough specific information to your readers. “Specific” here can mean a few different things, so I’ll explore them.
First, specific means deliberate. Your word choices have a powerful effect on how your content is interpreted, so be choosy and only use the words that communicate your ideas best. A perfect example of this is the difference between passive voice, which uses indirect references, and active voice, which uses direct references:
(Image Source: Writing Commons)
Notice how all the passive phrases sound clunky and awkward, and how most of them make you think, if even for an extra second, to fully understand the phrase. The active phrase counterparts are much more straightforward and accessible.
Second, specific means precise. Don’t use vague words or generalities when you can substitute highly targeted words and phrases for them. For example, don’t say “a lot of companies” when you could substitute something like “80 percent of companies.” Even if you don’t have access to this data, you can use more specific terms like “the majority of companies I’ve worked with” or “most B2B companies.” Leave no room for misinterpretation.
The human mind is programmed for abstract thought; it’s easier for us to think in metaphors, illustrations, comparisons, and ideas than it is to think in words and numbers. While improving the specificity of your writing is important, it only appeals to the “words and numbers” part of the brain. If you want to make your ideas as clear as possible, you need to appeal to that intuitive, abstract part as well.
The best way to do this is with illustrations. You can take this literally and include things like charts and diagrams in the body of your work, but don’t underestimate the value of a good metaphor. For example, Einstein’s theory of general relativity is mathematically complex and almost inaccessible to the average person, but as soon as you liken the curvature of spacetime in the presence of massive objects to a bowling ball warping a taut rubber sheet, it starts to make sense.
Don’t worry about the details here; your illustrations are not meant to be taken literally, nor are they going to be the only means your audience has of understanding your ideas. Instead, think of them as a complementary service, like condiments at a hot dog stand.
Next, we move onto simplicity. There’s significant overlap between clarity and simplicity, since the clearest writing is often simple by default. However, these are independent ideas, and if you want your content to be as effective as possible, you’ll need to simplify your message drastically.
Take a look at this ad from Dove:
(Image Source: Coull)
This ad actually sacrifices some clarity by refusing to elaborate on the details of its intentions. Instead, a simple pairing of words is enough to convey the powerful idea behind this campaign—and that makes it all the more effective.
Just as long, rambling jokes often fail to be as clever as basic one-liners, simple content outperforms weighty content almost every time. How can you accomplish this for your own writing?
First, make sure your focus is in the right place. You should have a clear goal for your article, even if it’s a “general” topic, or one that wanders to several different areas. Do this: try and reduce your entire article to a single sentence, or a single point that you’re trying to make. If you can’t do it, your article might be too broad, or you might need to find a way to make an argument, rather than just blindly stating facts.
Once you have this, consider it your “keystone.” Theoretically, every word of your article should in some way point back to this keystone statement. Every sentence should either present, illustrate, or confirm a point that eventually leads back to your overall argument—if it doesn’t, it probably doesn’t need to be there.
You can also create “keystones” for each of your sub-sections, or even each of your paragraphs. Doing so will help you stay focused and avoid deviating from the most important parts of your content.
There are over one million words in the English language. If you’re spewing thoughts from the top of your head, chances are you’re not coming up with the best possible choices and combinations. You don’t have to agonize over every word in your article, but making even a handful of simple swaps can make your content simpler and more elegant.
For example, which is more appealing to you as a reader: “The CEO’s mistake was an especially bad one, and because he made it, there were a number of serious consequences for the company” or “The CEO’s egregious mistake was devastating for the company.” Most would select the latter as being simpler and more effective, partially due to using stronger descriptive words, and partially due to cutting out the fluff (which I’ll touch on momentarily). Don’t be afraid to consult a thesaurus, as long as you double check to ensure you’re using each new word appropriately.
With the knowledge that long-form content tends to attract more shares and links than their shot-form counterparts, many businesses have exhausted themselves trying to beef up every section of their content. However, you don’t need to do this—and you probably shouldn’t.
When you expand the individual sections of your article, your goal should be completing your point fully and efficiently. As soon as you’ve reached a definitive conclusion, it’s time to move on to the next section. This will prevent you from providing too many examples (yes, it is a thing), rambling for too long, or obscuring your original point with unnecessary additions.
There’s no easy way to tell when your section is complete, other than by judging your content compared to your original point. Have you given your readers everything they need to get your main takeaway? If so, leave it at that.
Everyone writes fluff, whether they realize it or not. It’s a natural human tendency; our word selection processes aren’t perfect, and even if they were, we’d still often write or speak too fast for our perfectionistic selection processes to keep up. As a result, we write filler words, filler sentences, and include unnecessary modifiers in our work.
These aren’t inherently damaging, since they aren’t detracting from your main point. However, they can obscure your main point by making it harder to find (a “diamond in the rough” effect), and if you include enough of them, they’ll bring the value per word of your content down, possibly reducing your readers’ perceptions of your content value overall.
This effect manifests in a handful of ways. Redundancy is one of the most common offenders (using synonyms or repeating your meaning in other words), and while it won’t kill your meaning, it will make your work seem sloppy and unpolished:
(Image Source: Writing Commons)
Other forms of “fluff” include meaningless modifiers like “a lot,” or “very,” and extended definitions of concepts that require only a concise description.
Again, we all write fluff, so it’s hard to simply stop writing it. Instead of avoiding it, let it come out naturally and try not to overthink it. Then, when your draft is finished, you can go back and edit your material. Look at your work on a sentence-by-sentence level and ask yourself, “is this a necessary phrase? Is this a necessary word?” You’ll find more fluff than you bargained for, but over time you’ll naturally become a more concise writer.
While clarity and simplicity are about making sure your writing is effective in delivering a message, efficiency is about making sure your writing is worth the effort you put into it. To put it bluntly, the less time you spend on a knockout piece, the more return on your investment (ROI) it’s going to yield.
The massive caveat to this is that your content must be high-quality. Never sacrifice the quality of your content to save time or money.
With that out of the way, there are general “efficiency” strategies you can use to make yourself a more productive person in general, or “hack” your mind to becoming more focused and more alert. For example, you can turn off your message notifications to zero in on your most important work.
(Image Source: Specialmompreneurs)
I’m not going to get into these strategies. There are plenty of articles on the subject, including ones I’ve written (linked above). Instead, I want to focus on strategies that will exclusively help you become a better, more efficient writer—helping you produce more work in less time without sacrificing any of your quality.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, good marketing is a team sport. If you have trouble coming up with ideas, get a few of your coworkers to chip in a few topic ideas. If you have lots of ideas, but can’t pick a good one, ask your coworkers for feedback. Fill your staff with other writers and marketers who know your demographics and know your brand—they’ll be able to help you come up with new directions and perfect your approaches. Even five minutes of someone’s time is often enough to help you break through a plateau you’ve encountered on your own.
Additionally, don’t be afraid to reach outside your company. Talk to peers, influencers, partners, and mentors within your industry and those who share similar content goals. Mingling like this will help you avoid “stale” ideas, and will give you enough inspiration to keep moving through even the toughest episodes of writer’s block.
Most content marketers will tell you that the vast majority of their work comes in the research and planning phase; once they’ve collected all the information they need to create a good post, the actual writing process is somewhat simple. Therefore, reducing the amount of time it takes to research will definitively reduce the total time to write any given article.
How can you do this without just decreasing the amount of research you do?
Create ongoing streams of research and habits that keep your reading list full and your mind topped off with potential ideas. For starters, sign up for a blog reader app like Feedly, and select publishers and industries that are relevant to your brand. You’ll get top headlines to read every morning, which you can turn into an ongoing research habit. Take notes on topics that interest you and set them aside if you want to develop them in the future; it only takes a few minutes per day, but soon you’ll end up with more ready-to-go research than you know what to do with.
You can also create research streams on social media, with your coworkers (see previous section), or in your company’s research department—the key is to start getting these topics and data automatically, so you can spare yourself the trouble of seeking it out manually.
Don’t think of writing as something you sit down to do for X number of hours, to stop only once the article is complete. Instead, try adapting your mind to write on a constant basis. Think through your spoken sentences as if you were drafting them, self-editing for clarity and simplicity, and when you’re stuck in traffic, or you’re out for a walk, let your mind brainstorm about possible topics.
This open brainstorming will help you find better ways of communicating, and will help you explore new ideas at a leisurely pace, rather than trying to forcefully extract them all at once in a single session. Plus, you’ll get the perks of better communication in other areas of your life.
While writing is an area where new experiences and new perspectives can introduce new ideas and angles to your work, it also pays to develop a routine. Every day, you should start by reviewing some news and research, and every time you start a new article, you should have a repeatable process for how to do so effectively. This won’t happen all at once; you’ll encounter strategies that consistently work and strategies that consistently fail. Only by adjusting them and building a better overall process will you be able to consistently produce better material at a faster pace.
This is one example of a routine, or repeatable process you can use to write faster. It doesn’t work for everybody, nor is it guaranteed to help you write faster or better, but it does make the process more streamlined when you start managing lots of pieces at once.
There are many stages of the content development process; research, outlining, drafting, polishing, publishing, and syndicating. Rather than following this sequence for every available piece, try to operate as an assembly line for greater efficiency; do all the research for all your posts, then all the outlining, then all the drafting, and so on. You could even delegate certain stages of this process to individuals of your team who excel at them, divvying up the process like a real assembly line.
If you start implementing all (or most) of the strategies I’ve covered in this guide, I guarantee your writing will become clearer, simpler, and faster—I just can’t guarantee that it will come all at once. Like with the development of any skill, writing improvement takes time, and you’ll run into some obstacles along the way. Try to think of these recommendations as a loose guide for development, rather than a rigid checklist or dogmatic list of rules. Through trial and error, you’ll learn to apply them to your niche and your own personal style in a way that maximizes your efficiency, and at the end of it, you’ll walk away with more powerful pieces of content in every form you publish.
Want more information on content marketing? Head over to our comprehensive guide on content marketing here: The All-in-One Guide to Planning and Launching a Content Marketing Strategy.