I have a confession to make. It pains me to have to say this, it really does, but… there are a lot of bad writers out there. Call me a traitor to my kind if you must, but it’s the truth. Maybe it’s because everybody had to write papers in school so lots of people assume they can do it for a living, maybe it’s because we’re all surrounded by language all day whether we do it for a living or a calling or not, I honestly don’t know. And even more than there are bad writers, there’s bad writing out there, too! Even good writers sometimes produce work that is, shall we say, not up to their usual standards. So as content becomes more and more critical to a company’s marketing efforts, how is anyone supposed to sort through the bad writers and the sometimes bad content coming from otherwise good writers to find the really, actually good stuff?
Whether you’re looking at a sample piece from a writer you’re considering hiring or you’re looking at a piece by a writer with whom you’re already working and who you know to be talented, when it comes to good and successful content, you can look for four things.
This is number one because it’s arguably the most important. If the message is not being clearly communicated, the rest doesn’t matter. You can start by looking at the easy to spot things. Are pronoun references clear? (When the author says “they” do you know who they’re referring to without pausing to think?) Is terminology used consistently? (Do they switch between words that have similar but perhaps slightly different meanings without explanation, like customer vs. user?) Is word choice appropriate? Then, take a look at the more difficult aspect. Does the writing produce a clear flow, where one idea seems to be a logical extension of the last? This can be relatively easy to maintain for the space of a few sentences or a paragraph, but can be more difficult when it comes time to transition between thoughts, and it is critical to maintaining a reader’s attention.
Most people, when reading a magazine or a blog article or similar content are going to scan the first page (or page equivalent) before committing to reading the entire thing. We’re all busy, nobody wants to spend an extended period of time reading an entire article only to find out it wasn’t interesting or informative or it didn’t really cover what we expected it to, so we hedge our bets. Is the intent of each paragraph or section clear? Are there headers, bullet points, or lists to summarize content? Is there bold or italicized text or a pull quote to clue the reader in to the most important points? Some writers coming from a traditional journalism background may be resistant to write in the “listicle” format or to break up their content with smaller paragraphs and headers, but those kinds of formatting tricks can make content much easier to parse, especially for readers who may not be 100% attentive.
Yes, accuracy is different than clarity. Clarity is whether an idea is expressed well enough to be understood, while accuracy is whether that idea is true and reasonable in reality. Are there facts to back up the claims made by a piece? If there are statistics being used, is the original source cited? Are there specific words being used that don’t actually mean exactly what the author thinks they mean? Especially when it comes to what my freshman English teacher called “thesaurus words”, those words you didn’t know until you looked them up in the thesaurus, and industry buzz words, it can be very easy to misuse a word by just enough to be confusing or misleading, albeit unintentionally.
As the saying goes, or as Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch goes to be more specific, there are only really seven stories in the world. There are millions of variations, but really only a small number of plots. The same is true for business writing and content marketing, though in our case it may not be exactly seven. Even the brand new stories of cutting edge technology and changes in your industry are going to be covered by other people, too. There are going to be competitors who have similar products or marketing approaches to your company. Successful content comes from being able to go over material that has already been presented by other people, or by yourself previously, and find a new angle or a new way of presenting it. How many different ways can we really talk about authenticity in business? Well, look at the business section of your local bookstore or Amazon. A ton. The general idea doesn’t need to be new, the content just has to find a new way to present it.
As the content world gets more and more cluttered, the need for good, really good, excellent content is going to become more and more distinct. Keep an eye on these four tips, and get ahead of the trend! And while you’re at it, share with us in the comments how your favorite pieces of content used these elements successfully.