Content is King; Learn to Write

There is a reason “content is king” is a big ol’ cliche — it’s true. While you might be tempted to farm out your copywriting to students or foreign content-mills, do you really need to? Is the reason you’re not writing your own copy because you truly don’t care about the subject matter of your website, or is it because you don’t believe you are capable of writing?

There are a lot of reasons why people think they can’t write, but boil all the excuses down and what you’re left with is either apathy or embarassment. I’m not sure how cure apathy, because I honestly can’t wrap my brain around why anyone would be apathetic about a website — a business — you built yourself. Embarassment or lack of confidence, however, are definitely fixable, and here’s how:

  1. Regularly read newspapers, magazines, and books of all types (especially classics).
  2. Write something. Write more. Then do it again.
  3. Don’t be afraid to let others critique your work.
  4. Let your mind wander periodically; it will find inspiration.
  5. Publish your work.

Reading doesn’t necessarily include other blogs or online forums, and it definitely does not include chat transcripts. Good grammar and spelling is somewhat hard to find in those venues. You want to read newspapers, magazines and books to train your brain to THINK well-formed sentences. If the complexity of your reading material is roughly equivalent to a third grader’s essay on what he did over the summer, then your writing output will be roughly equivalent to that of a third grader.

I make a point of reading a classic every other book. The last classic I read was Vanity Fair (not the magazine… the 600+ page book). It took me six months to get through it, as opposed to the 2 days it took to read The Half Blood Prince; but, I felt like I was regrowing some of the brain cells that had been killed during my college party days.

The same concept applies to watching news programs. Being able to imagine a news anchor reading your work will give you a gauge of how well you’ve written a given piece. This is especially useful if you’re writing press releases, op-eds or anything intended for the media. Your press releases should read like a finished news story, complete with quotes, proper AP style, and LACKING exclamation points and subjective commentary.

The next step is to start writing. Keep a journal, write some blurbs for your site. Post something to your blog. Just start writing. Keep writing. When you reply to an email, get flowery. Be verbose.

When you have a significant piece of writing finished, let someone who’s opinion you value (and who is capable of writing) look at your work. Give him a red pen and let him mark it up. If you’ve written something that is important to you, or that you’ve spent a lot of time on, there are probably little things you may have missed that a fresh pair of eyeballs will catch. Constructive criticism is just that: constructive. If your proof reader or copy editor is just plain critical, then perhaps you need to find someone who is actually helpful rather than just cruel.

Now that you know to let the light of proper grammar and good spelling into your life and you’re exercising your writing skills early and often, don’t forget to take time to savor the coffee and give your brain a break.

If you’ve ever had writer’s block, you know the worst thing to do is sit in front of your PC and stew about it. The block just gets bigger. I’ve started going inside to get my coffee (or tea when the mood strikes) and sit down with a newspaper or just a pen and a notebook, rather than pulling through the drive-up. Sometimes we just go and go and go so much, we don’t remember how to slow down and just let the mind drift. As much as training the brain is important, it’s equally important to let the brain rest. Treat your brain like an athlete treats his muscles: exercise, eat well, sleep well and rest occasionally. You’ll ultimately perform better.

Finally, publish your work. Put it out there for people to read and appreciate. Yeah, you might get a crappy comment from someone, but maybe the crappy comment has a wee little bit of value buried in it. If so, turn that into an article and continue the dialogue. Make sure that your writings have substance and that you’re not just adding static to the conversation. At the end of the day, if you can look at your body of work and say “I’ve contributed something of value”, you’ve done a good job.