10 Tips and Tools For Writing Like a Pro
When you’re handling some or all of the writing for your company’s content marketing needs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. After all, you’re not a professional writer. You don’t have a master’s degree in journalism or years of experience writing for publication. But what you do have is a deep knowledge of your customers, the ability to communicate your business’ unique value proposition, and a voice that’s all your own in a crowded market place.
There is a wide range of options for creating content, from hiring freelance writers to employing a Director of Content to help you get it done. But sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and dig into the writing process yourself to get it done. Here are ten tips and tools that I use to be a highly prolific writer, in addition to handling my SEO business.
Constantly be generating ideas
One of the biggest challenges of an ongoing generative campaign is coming up with new ideas. Many writers struggle to find fresh angles on evergreen topics or a unique angle to add their perspective to the industry’s bigger conversation. If you ask someone who is nervous about writing what problems they’re facing, a common answer is “I have nothing to write about.”
The truth, however, is that most people actually come up with ideas all the time. Customer conversations, industry events, and the blogs and publications you read every day spark a wide range of ideas. It’s not that you’re not having the ideas – it’s that you’re failing to capture them when you have them.
Even the most seasoned writer quickly finds that failing to record ideas as they occur leads to the same outcome: as soon as you sit down to write and face the blank page, you’re not going to remember a single thought you had. Instead of putting yourself in this frustrating and dispiriting position, figure out a way to record them as you go. Different writers use different systems, but the key is simply to have one. Some ideas that I’ve experimented with or heard work for other writers include:
- Keeping a running Word document or mobile notes file dedicated to content ideas;
- Bookmarking relevant articles in a specific folder;
- Emailing themselves ideas or saving titles to a drafts folder;
- Using Evernote, Adobe Ideas, or a similar app to jot down ideas when they arise and you’re on the run;
- Use a physical notebook.
Be on the hunt for inspiration
It’s not just about capturing the ideas that you have. It is also important to create the optimal conditions for your brain to come up with great new concepts. One of the best ways to do this is to spend time each day reflecting and learning more about your industry. The time you dedicate doesn’t need to be hours. It can be as simple as 15 minutes each day reading trade publications or blogs, scanning your social feeds, or touching base with a key colleague to keep a pulse on the industry.
When you have a great conversation or read an article that inspires an idea, ask yourself if you have something to add. For example, Google recently announced that it added HTTPS or site security as a minor factor in its search algorithm. There are numerous ways to approach this, from a simple introduction and tutorial to a journalistic overview of the topic and Google’s investments over the years to a thoughtful op-ed on why security is increasingly the future of digital marketing.
Push yourself to consider the different takes on the points of view you’re exposed to in your industry. Capture potential titles, introductions, or insights that you can later work into a full piece. It’s also helpful to use the right tools to listen to the broader conversation. How to Use Social Media Listening to Build Brand Loyalty can help you get started if you need more information on the topic.
Pay attention to studies and research
Many of the posts that I write and that other leaders publish start with studies and research. A higher volume of research is produced and published on a weekly basis than you could possibly follow. But a powerful statistic, insights on why things work the way they do, or data that sheds light on a growing trend can be just the hook that you need to come up with ideas or shape a compelling narrative.
Writers tend to use statistics in one of two ways. The first is that they use data and research to spur the creative development of new concepts. In other cases, they’re on the trail of developing a particular story and go hunting for the appropriate data to help give direction to their efforts. You can use them in either way to support your efforts, but consider hunting for relevant statistics as a way to fuel your writing pursuits. Be sure to cite the source of any statistics you use in your writing by linking back to the source, as that’s proper journalism etiquette. And as a bonus, try publishing your own statistics to attract inbound links from other writers – it’ll help your website’s organic search engine rankings!
Identify the factors and attitudes preventing you from getting started
Perfectionism is one of the biggest blocks for writers. According to Hillary Rettig, productivity expert and author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific, “Remove the constraints separating you from your productivity – or, more precisely, liberate yourself from them – and your energy, commitment, willpower, discipline, time, etc., will “magically” reappear, and you’ll be able to write. A lot.”
She’s right. Whether it’s a fear of looking silly or a lack of appropriate resources (like a quiet place to work), there’s often real intellectual and logistical challenges holding you back.
Take the time to do some soul searching and figure out what concerns you have. Don’t feel that you’re stylistically or grammatically as proficient as you’d like? Consider hiring an editor to smooth out your prose. Unable to focus in short bursts to write between client work or meetings? Carve out the time in your day to get it done when other factors aren’t competing for your attention.
Just get it down
Even if you don’t read fiction and you’re not into romance, you’ve probably heard the name Nora Roberts. Her books are splashed across best seller lists and she’s got what seems like hundreds of books to her credit. She’s reported to have been asked for writing advice from a hopeful author and said, “You can’t fix a blank page.”
You can edit something you’ve written for hours or days until it sings with perfection. But not until you’ve got the first draft down on paper. Getting your ideas down in some format – even if it’s rough – gives you the power to edit, shape, and develop that work into something you’re proud of. If you’re struggling with an internal editor (basically, a voice in your head) that’s trying to force you to write and rewrite before you’ve finished, give yourself permission to write imperfectly. Simply finishing that first draft can be incredibly empowering. You can then work on improving your craft.
Write like you speak
There’s nothing more awkward than reading a stiff article or blog post where you can tell that the author was struggling to find his or her voice. Here’s the thing: you already have a voice. You use it every day when you make sales calls, work with your vendors, mentor and manage your employees, and talk to your colleagues.
One of the best ways to think about writing as a non-writer is to write like you talk. It’s fine if your natural voice is neutral or journalistic; if that’s your actual perspective on things, it will come through as crisp and informative. If you’re chatty and informal or earnest and helpful, try to capture that in your writing. The more that your differentiating viewpoint comes through in your written work, the more it will connect with your audience as something that’s really representative of who you are and how you do business. When you’re writing like you speak, you’re also more likely to write to your audience instead of to the wrong person such as a colleague or peer.
Find your hook
The most compelling pieces have a clear hook. In some cases, your hook has an emotional resonance. It captures the reader’s attention by using a story, a joke, or something else to appeal to their intellect and sense of humor. Other times, you can use a shocking statistic or a counterintuitive insight to stand out.
However, the truth is that people are often reading online content in search of specific information or help solving very focused issues. If you don’t have a great story and you’re not a comedian, don’t worry. Often, especially in business content, an effective hook is simply one that addresses the reader’s urgent concern. Be concise, be clear, and be helpful. That’s often enough to stand out from what other people are doing online, hyping products and otherwise failing to provide real value.
Think about formatting and flow
A common mistake that many writers make early on is thinking only about the content. It’s important to also consider what the user experience of reading your piece will be. There’s nothing more daunting than a 1200 word piece that’s broken up only into two or three paragraphs. It’s too dense and it doesn’t play well for a digital audience.
What’s more, with almost 60% of consumers owning a smartphone and more than 40% owning a tablet, it’s not mobile friendly either. Instead, keep in mind some of the simple rules for optimizing a piece:
- Break up paragraphs wherever possible and logical. Shorter is better.
- Use bullet points, bolding, and subheadings to provide visual relief.
- Illustrate your pieces with video, visuals, and audio to provide a more engaging experience.
- Consider adding links to let people explore specific ideas off the page, rather than bogging your writing with unnecessary details.
- Make sure your piece has a clear conclusion, which is a step that too many pieces online skip.
- Think about formatting for a mobile device.
Reread, revisit, and revise
One you’ve got a draft down, you’re primed for one of the most important steps in the process. Resist the urge to simply slap what you write into your email newsletter template or your blog and hit send. If at all possible, let a piece sit for at least a few minutes and then review it again. Here are some tips for quick, effective revisions:
- Read the piece out loud. You’ll often catch mistakes and awkward phrasing.
- Review your writing from beginning to end, looking specifically for placing where the logic breaks down. Ask yourself if the transitions between ideas and paragraphs are logical.
- Consider using a tool such as Grammarly to help you spellcheck and look for grammatical errors.
- Do you best to revise with a fresh perspective. A bit of distance between yourself and a manuscript can give you the insights to elevate your work to a new level.
Don’t be afraid to employ an editor
One final note. Sometimes it’s not feasible for you to handle all aspects of the writing process yourself. You might be able to do the research and initial draft, but benefit from an expert that can polish and proofread. Consider hiring a freelance editor to work with you. It’s often less expensive than you think, and the quality of your work increases dramatically. As a result, you build a better impression, get opportunities to contribute to high-value publications, and much more.
If you’re an entrepreneur that’s tackling the content creation for your business, you may be struggling if you don’t feel like a writer. But there are steps that you can take to improve all steps in the process from coming up with ideas to sitting down to get it done. Remember that writing is a skill that develops over time, and creating the right systems will support you in your success.