Content marketing. Everyone’s doing it, and a lot of it’s bad. Well, not bad. Sub-optimal. Run of the mill. Lacking in confidence, craftsmanship and originality.
If you’re going to crank out a clickbaity top five list like this one, at least don’t write exactly the same drab, aimless, carefully-hedged drivel you’ve read five times since breakfast, subconsciously retching every time.
So what are my tips for turning your boring old vanilla content into an ice cream sundae of words? Glad you asked.
“Their pathetic attempts at profundity were qualified out of existence and largely interrogative in mode. They liked to begin a paper with some formula like, ‘I want to raise some questions about so-and-so’, and seemed to think they had done their intellectual duty by merely raising them. This manoeuvre drove Morris Zapp insane. Any damn fool, he maintained, could think of questions; it was answers that separated the men from the boys.” – David Lodge, Changing Places
In schools, colleges and especially universities, writers are taught to be cautious. That doesn’t fly in content marketing. Clients are trying to position themselves as thought leaders, experts in their field, professionals who are confident in their offering – and they only have a few hundred words in which to do it. Everything you write for them has to ask a clear question and pose a clear answer.
While we’re talking about this: you’re on the Internet. You can use hyperlinks. You don’t need to twist your sentences around so they can include an author-date citation. If people want to check your references. Copy and paste what you need, tweak it to fit, turn the most important phrase into a link, job’s done.
Activate your voice
“There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, “Mistakes were made,” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.” – Charles Baxter, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction
There’s a time and a place for the passive voice. It can, on rare occasions, sound witty; it can elegantly sidestep making an accusation and leave the reader to make the conclusion.
Most of the time, though, it’s cluttered, cumbersome and unclear. “Subject verbs object” is easier to parse than “object is verbed by subject”. It’s also shorter. Why does that matter? People don’t read, especially not online. People scan, and long sentences with inside-out clauses only slow them down. Sentences of 11 to 14 words are understood ninety per cent of the time. 24 is the upper limit for most readers; save those for complex ideas that don’t make sense without details.
To fix this, strip out superfluous words. “That” is nearly always dead weight. Look for excessive modifiers, redundant verbs – most forms of ‘to be’ can go – and dependent clauses. A dependent clause becomes independent by simply restating the subject. Basically, make it clear who’s doing what and to whom.
Passive: 24 words. “One of the questions that Tails.com will ask you is whether there are any ingredients you’d like to avoid in your dog’s food.”
Activated: 15 words. “Tails.com will ask for ingredients you don’t want to see in your dog’s food.”
Avoid weak words
“If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack.” – Winston S. Churchill
In case you’ve forgotten: your clients want to sound confident. Like they know what they’re talking about. That means their copy can’t betray a lack of confidence. “Just” has no place in the content marketer’s vocabulary, unless we’re talking about the opposite of “unjust”. “Really” and “very” are also off the books: they’re empty syllables which add no weight to your claims.
A strong claim is positive, assertive and declarative. Even if the client is admitting they don’t know something – trying to predict an upcoming trend or speculate about new technology – you can still use strong conditional modifiers. Try “we expect” or “we predict” instead of the weaker “we think” or “we believe”. The first two sound like they’re based on data and confidence; the others like we’re still working things out.
Craft your own sentences
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” – George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
There are some sentences you see time and again when you’re editing web content. I gnaw the desk every time I see a sentence like this: “And with rhetorical training appearing on fewer and fewer curricula, the problem of automatic, unconsidered sentence construction won’t be going away.”
I’ve read this sentence a thousand times. Often it doesn’t even make sense, because the writer has jammed two concepts into this stock sentence for linking concepts, without thinking about the causal relationship it implies.
For another example: “content is key.” Key to what? Most of the time, web copywriters don’t bother to explain. They’ve said it’s key and now they can get on with explaining why their company is the best at dealing with it. It’s one of those things we do without thinking when we’re writing for the Internet, like cutting off sentences if they hit twenty-five words. And dependent clause relationships be damned.
Did that last one make you cringe? It’s true that many great writers begin their sentences with conjunctions, but only if the sentence means something on its own. Most of the time, ‘and’ or ‘but’ or ‘with’ are a point on which the meaning of a sentence turns. Slapping a full stop in front of them cuts the length down, but loses the flow. Bereft of context, a great idea becomes an interruption.
All of these stock stylistic structures make your writing forgettable. Bland. Easily dismissed. They turn your content generic – make you and your clients part of the Internet’s background noise. Be better than that. Write your own sentences. Oh, and read Politics and the English Language. All of it.