Stephen King famously said that ‘Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.’ He, of course, was talking about fiction writing, but in true ‘The Shining’ style, this message is eerily relevant when applied to content, too.
The simple fact is that there are a dozen content writers for every single job, and most of them are probably pretty decent. For clients, the real challenge rests in determining what great looks like in a pile of ‘pretty good,’ and that distinction often rests on work ethic, and the knowledge necessary to turn that into results.
This is especially true in a job market that moves faster than the latest Lamborghini, but it’s just possible that you don’t need a degree in every subject you’re writing about to do yourself justice. Nor, even, do you particularly need one of the many content marketing manuals that claim to hold all the tricks. Rather, some of the best content marketing lessons you stand to learn may be waiting for you in the best seller on your bedside table. Simply sit back, get stuck in, and consider how the following bestseller lessons apply to your content efforts, too.
# 1 – Start with a bang
The Brontes might have been able to get away with not getting to the point for a hundred-odd pages, but modern day best-sellers rely on writing that grips the reader from the very first page, or even the first line. This instant impact is even more prevalent where short-form, easily digestible content is concerned, especially given that human attention spans have shrunk around 25% in recent years, leaving us less retentive than goldfish, and driving a need for writing that gets the message across in as little as eight seconds. An increasing drive in the use of smartphones to access online content on the go especially means that titles and first lines need to have a dependable, read-worthy hook. To achieve this, it’s generally best to start with the end point of the article, and then work back to explain its inner workings once you’ve already got a reader on-side.
# 2 – Don’t just understand grammar, use it
Jon McGregor’s ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things,’ won multiple awards and earned its place on the bestseller list because of its daring but informed use of grammar, which enabled him to write an entire novel without punctuation. While content writers do need to stick to the rules a little more (no client will appreciate a punctuation-less article!) there is still a lesson to be learned here.
The fact is that a basic understanding of grammar essentials like how to use a semicolon or where to put a hyphen isn’t a sign of great or even good content writing. This is as fundamental to your craft as a lawnmower to a gardener! Rather, what McGregor and other bestsellers of the same ilk teach us is that it’s important to utilize grammar, and language, in creative and informed ways to get our points across. In content, this is perhaps most prevalent in the ways that we present an article, using tools like paragraph breaks, bullets, and m-dashes, to help highlight and provide gravity to our points. This relies on your ability to not only understand grammar, but to actively implement that knowledge so that you can enhance any brief that you send to your clients.
# 3 – Sparse description drives the point home
As we touched on in the first section, countless paragraphs of description are as bad for content as they are for bestsellers, but there is most definitely a place for descriptive writing in content, and bestsellers, for a modern audience.
Think about it; Stephen King wouldn’t get the hairs on the end of your arms tingling without a decent bit of description. And, if his books didn’t spook you, would they be so high on your to-read list? Probably not. As King himself explains in his much-loved writing manual ‘On Writing,’ well-chosen description begins in the writer’s imagination but should end in the reader’s. In so many ways, descriptive flourishes, be they personal stories in blog posts or metaphors to get a point across in more business-heavy writing, are the best way to bridge the gap between you and your audience, which in turn creates engagement. And, in case you didn’t know, that’s definitely a touchstone of great content.
# 4 – No one needs flowery language
Following directly on from that point, it’s also crucial to differentiate between useful description and flowery language. For bestsellers, in particular, success rests in accessibility, and that means simple language that appeals to the widest possible audience.
In content terms, think of flowery language as much-dreaded ‘jargon.’ Unless you’re writing technical content for a knowledge audience (always check your brief!) the chances are that your client is looking to broaden the reach of their information/products. In most cases, this relies on an explanation of their value in layman’s terms, thus creating leads that can leave all the technical stuff to the people who actually work in that company.
So, before you litter your content with ROIs, CRMs, and whatever other acronym you’ve found to fit the brief, think about how you would feel if you’d come across that information without doing your research first. If you wouldn’t understand a word, the chances are that you could do with stripping things back and trying again.
Always remember: Avoiding flowery, convoluted language doesn’t mean that you can skip the research. Like grammar, you need to know your stuff to ensure that your article is the best it possibly could be.
A final word
The chances are that you’ve never compared Twilight and your content in the same breath before, but as you can see, the bestseller list in your local Barnes and Noble might just hold more applicable writing lessons than you’ve been able to find in even those top-notch content classes you spent so much on.