How To Write Great Content: 20 Tips From Famous Writers
Once or twice a month, I wander down into the basement of the local library, back to the far corner where the books on writing are found. I might grab a book on How To Write Crime Fiction (well, you never know) or Publish Your Novel Today! (everyone’s a dreamer) or even a book with selections of quotes and thoughts from well-known writers. I love reading about the process of writing, told by writers who are making it happen.
They paid their dues. The dues weren’t always the same. Every book I’ve read on writing, whether by Stephen King or Elmore Leonard, is different.
Some writers carefully explained their methods of defeating writers block. Some writers don’t believe in such a thing. Some talk about burnout and others talk about not having enough time for all of their ideas. Some write in the morning, some write in silence, some write every day, some write all day. In fact, I’ve only ever found one commonality between the lot of them:
#WritingTip 1: Why are you reading this? You should be writing.
— Julie (@julesvern97) May 6, 2014
There is no one way to write, except, of course, that you have to actually write.
But even if writers can’t agree on how you should go about the process, there are still valuable gems of wisdom that we can apply to all writing, even our blogging and content marketing. Let’s look at 20 of them.
How To Write Well
1. The more you write, the more you want to write.
Writing is a kind of addiction. It might be tough to get going, and we procrastinate as much as we can, but once you get used to writing?
You want to write more.
Ideas come fast and furious to a mind that has decided to let them move about. Once you start setting the pathways to writing in place, like grooves in a vinyl record, the habit takes over and you’ll want to write. It’ll become almost a necessity.
2. Stockpiling ideas doesn’t do anyone any good.
All the great ideas in the world mean nothing if they stay in draft. How is your unscheduled drafts area of your blog? Is it full of great partial ideas? Do you find yourself devoting a great deal of energy in managing your ideas instead of writing them out and publishing them?
All those unpublished ideas go unpublished because you’ve lost interest and moved on, or they create confusion. You aren’t sure if you already wrote about something or had just considered it. It feels as if the idea is still sitting in your mind, taking up space, wanting to get out.
It is important that you take an idea, write it out, publish, and go to the next idea. Or, delete it entirely.
No one benefits if you never do the hard work of finishing an idea and publishing the content.
3. Writing inspires you as much as anyone.
I would say that just about every time I sit down to write a blog post, I end up learning something new. Not just in the research aspect of a post, which of course teaches me new things, but in my own thought processes.
Much of what I think and theorize stems not from knowing it before I begin writing, but as I am writing. Writing kicks the brain in high gear and leads the mind down paths not considered. You can’t travel those paths without starting the writing.
Frankly, I never think I’ll hit a high word count. Many posts I have written seem like an impossible headline and 600 words if I’m lucky and then, before I realize it, I’m at 2400 words.
Writing is a little adventure; where it takes you is a surprise.
4. Writing is the best incentive for continuing education there is.
This is similar to #3 in that not every blog post starts from a position of expertise. Many do, where I know the subject matter ahead of time. Some I know a basic concept ahead of time but also know I’ll need to do some research to flesh it out. And others are purely new.
This fear of writing about what you don’t know is common. We want to stick with our easy expertise (which is fine), never veering into the exploration of something new.
Try to write a post at least once each month on a topic you’re not fully comfortable with. It’s a great way to learn and to exercise your writing muscles.
5. Helping your readers understand is the most important goal.
One of the biggest barriers we put in front of our readers is that of writing without clarity.
We obfuscate when we don’t know the answers ourselves, hoping the extra words will cover up our lack of understanding. Or, we want to impress our readers and use words, jargon, or ideas that don’t serve understanding, but instead serve our ego.
Your job is to help people understand. Not to impress. You’re not a genius. Sorry.
6. Humor always has a serious seat at the table.
We bloggers write out of different emotions. We might write from a place of frustration, anger, weariness, enthusiasm, solemnity–the whole gamut.
Humor is unique in that people like to be made to laugh (i.e. your content is sticky) and they’ll read something that’s funny more than they will something that is angry, guilt-inducing, or manipulative. Humor can communicate all of those emotions, but does so in a way people like.
Humor is tough. Lecturing your reader or drowning them in data is much easier. But give humor a try, anyway.
7. Customers buy things. You want customers.
This is a direct approach, but it boils down to this: either your content is a public service or it has an end goal of making money. Which is it?
The content you write might be loved by your audience, but it might not get them to buy. This is most likely because you probably aren’t trying to sell. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t be upset that no one buys what you’re not selling.
If selling is your goal, then write to that goal.
8. If it’s a breeze to read, it was hard to write.
Writing is easy enough. Good writing is another story.
With content marketing, it is so simple to get caught up with the SEO focus of keywords, debates about whether people really read things before they share them or not, word counts, and so on.
We forget to make our content easy to read.
Easy to read visually, easy to read in comprehension. Make what you write easy to read. That’s the whole point.
9. You can learn to write. You don’t have to be the greatest ever.
One particularly frustrating comment people would make to me as they looked at my art is that they “couldn’t even draw a straight line.”
Guess what? I can’t either.
Art isn’t about the ability to draw straight lines; I’ve always believed anyone can be taught to draw. They may not be the greatest artist ever, but they can be taught to draw and enjoy the activity.
The same goes with writing. There are foundations you can learn, habits you can be taught. You may not turn the phrase like a poet, but you can still write.
Are you awake? You can write.
10. Know what makes up good content. Then break the rules.
In college, we had to learn the foundations of art. We had to know about color theory, design, technique, and materials. Once we spent a few years learning the rules well, and creating within those boundaries, we were free to break them.
Learn what good writing is. Write within the boundaries until you understand them. Create within those rules. Once you know and understand the how and why these rules work, then you can break them.
Because breaking rules, when you are aware of them, gives that action meaning. Otherwise, it’s just an accident and you can’t replicate any success you might have.
11. There is no hierarchy in your content.
My approach to writing is to avoid writing as if I was lording over my reader, but instead, as if I was walking alongside them.
Avoid patronizing readers, or in any way trying to put yourself above them. They won’t find it endearing, for one thing, and it is yet another barrier you might be introducing in your writing that causes people to not return.
You haven’t arrived as the end all in your area of expertise. Picture yourself on a journey with your readers, writing about what you’re learning, and you’ll get more meaningful conversation back from them. People have conversations on journeys, not in lecture halls.
12. Write how and what naturally interests you.
Don’t feel guilty about tending to write in a certain way about certain things. That’s where you write naturally. Sure, you stretch yourself out of your boundaries to learn new things (see #4), but you always have a particular angle on writing that you will fall back on in a pinch.
Writing about the things that interest you in the way that you want to will help keep you from burnout. It’s OK to care about topics the rest of your team doesn’t care about. That’s why you’re a team: everyone brings something different to the table.
Don’t feel guilty about being the guy who always writes the same way on the same things. The rest of us are doing that, too.
13. Some topics are tough to tackle in an interesting way. That’s called “work.”
Not ever topic lends itself to being exciting for either the writer or the reader.
Find a way to make it exciting.
My old standby, when a topic seems boring? Personal anecdote.
Ever been listening to a sermon that’s dragging along at church, and how people perk up when a story is used to illustrate a point? Call it a natural tendency for voyeurism, curiosity, a tendency to compare ourselves to others–whatever it is, we are immediately interested in someone’s story.
Get personal, and just tell a story that applies to what you’re writing about. Tell how something worked (or didn’t). Tell what happened that changed your mind about something. Tell what you learned. Just tell your story.
14. Much of what you write is merely the packing material surrounding the gold.
Editing is your friend.
Cutting, trimming, moving things around–all good things. Editing your own writing, though, is not easy. I always find it much easier to cut and slash through someone else’s writing because I can easily hear what needs to be changed. In my own writing, my own style is too familiar and it is difficult to distance myself from it.
If you have someone else who is good at editing, use them.
Without editing, the really good stuff gets lost in the loose packing material that has much less value.
15. The end determines the beginning.
To write a blog post, you have to write something.
You might be like me and write an introduction and then start moving along through the post, once in a while tossing a couple of notes or headlines down the page so you don’t forget them even if you’re not there yet. And then, when you get to the end, you see that your introduction is all wrong and you go back and re-write it.
You have to start somewhere, but be flexible. Your start might just be there to get going. Your ending is going to determine how your start should be.
16. Unique ideas are usually less about new ideas and more about your interpretation.
If you happen to stumble upon an idea that no one in the history of humankind has ever considered, congratulations. The rest of us, though, still have content to create and blog posts to write. We can’t all sit around and wait for that to happen.
Most of the blog posts I’ve written are on topics others have written. Some are even on topics I’ve written about in the past. But they are unique in that they are my view point. They are unique in that they have my stories in them. They are unique in that they are filtered through me.
This is the same for you.
If you were to write the same post, you’d say something different. You have different opinions and ideas. Don’t sit around and use “I’m waiting for a unique idea!” as an excuse to not write. Don’t be discouraged if someone else writes what you were going to write about.
Write it anyway.
17. Writing is something you can schedule.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, there is only one thing I’ve ever read which writers can agree upon, and that’s this: if you are a writer, you should be writing.
The strength of an editorial calendar like CoSchedule is that it gives writing a date and time to be done. You aren’t able to just wait until you feel creative or inspired. You have to do it.
Write regularly, whether it makes it into a blog post or not. You’re going to be editing, anyway, so you need a lot of words to cut from.
18. Strict adherence to rules can deaden your writing.
I learn a lot about the readers on my own blog in how they react to errors they find in my posts, going so far as to write a post about it. There are some folks that cannot abide any errors in a post.
Grammar, however, is like any other rule: it can be twisted and broken. Sometimes, for example, a split infinitive isn’t always wrong.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer “to boldly go” rather than the proper “to go boldly”. The phrase is more powerful because it ends on the word “go.”
Some readers will always disagree with you, but the more you write, the more you become accustomed to the fact that words are your tools to be used as you need and want them to be used. Sometimes you can use a screwdriver to open a paint can.
19. In a distracted world, headlines matter.
We’ve give considerable time on this blog to headlines and how to write something that works. We even give considerable time to headlines for each individual blog post.
In the content marketing world, we tend to find ourselves in an echo chamber when it comes to the accepted techniques, and headlines are the same. You can see this in how trends change and how all of the content shifts with it. Longer headlines, then curiosity-provoking Upworthy-style headlines, then direct no-frills headlines…
The best headline is the one that works.
How do you know what works? Check your analytics. Watch social shares. Frankly, the headlines used on a post probably have more to do with how often it is shared than the content it holds because (sadly) people tend to share posts they haven’t even read. Clearly, they are basing it on the headline.
Write Better Headlines With A Free Headline Analyzer
The headline analyzer will help you:
- Use headline types that get the most traction for social shares, traffic, and search engine ranking.
- Make sure you have the right word balance to write readable headlines that command attention.
- See the best word and character length for search engines like Google and email subject lines, while also seeing how your readers will scan your headlines.
20. Writing is equal parts thinking, remembering, and capturing.
There’s a reason we give a notebook to all of our new CoSchedule customers, despite the low-tech nature of it.
Some of your best content ideas aren’t going to happen to you conveniently between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm, while you sit at your computer.
They’ll happen while out walking your dog. While riding the bus to work. While washing the dishes.
Be ready when ideas strike, and have a system in place to organize those ideas that you capture so that you can later use them on your blog. If you’re serious about writing great content, you’ll see that the process of writing is still going on whether you’re committing words to paper or not.