When your writing won’t work

Stuck with your content writing? If an article won’t flow, chances are that you’re suffering from a common problem, which is that you don’t have a clear picture in your head of whom you’re writing for.

The result is that you can’t think what to say or how to say it.

Stop and consider. Work out who your audience is and try to envisage a typical member of that audience. Start writing again.

This trick is usually effective. Vague sentences are replaced by precise, targeted phrases and everything seems to flow.

You can’t write for everybody. Try instead to write for somebody. The likely outcome is that it will be read with pleasure by many.

Nine secrets of expert content writers

1. They start the story with a hook and end with a punch. If these two parts of the content are sound, the rest of the material will sit easily in between.

2. They treat words like goldleaf. Each one has its own glint. They don’t need to elaborate with adjectives or adverbs, or say the same thing in three different ways. People will get it the first time.

3. They know that writer’s block is a form of stagefright. Practice of your craft will give you the confidence to write under the toughest conditions.

4. They understand that writers also get stuck when they don’t have a clear picture in their mind of whom they’re addressing. Clarify that and the writing will flow.

5. They’re happy for their first draft to be rough. And the next two rewrites. After that, they’re getting close to the finished piece.

6. They find that reciting a story aloud is an excellent way of checking its flow. (That doesn’t apply if you’re writing for The Guardian, where tortuous prose may be a sign of cleverness. For every other media brand, it’s good advice.)

7. They never write on a per-word basis of payment, which is a blueprint for poverty. They charge per article or by the hour.

8. They understand that while everyone can write, few people can do it really really well. Most of us are able to cook a meal, but that doesn’t make us Gordon Ramsay.

9. They’ve found that working to a word limit is a tough but good discipline. Most online articles are fewer than 400 words. Any clown can add more. The hard part is leaving stuff out.

Three Shades of English

There are only three types of sentences in written English.

  1. This is the first sort.
  2. This is the second sort, which has a number of clauses, normally separated by commas.
  3. This is the third sort that is separated by conjunctions and just runs on and on until it stops.

Good writing isn’t hard. Create variety in your prose by using a mixture of all three types of sentences so that the readers don’t get bored with your style. It’s simple, it’s attractive, and it works.

The previous paragraph is composed of these sentence types. See what we mean?

Break it up, thanks

Browsing online isn’t like reading a book, but is more like scanning a newspaper. Most newspapers (yes, they still exist) have short paragraphs because they’re easier to skim through without losing your place.

Online copy tends to be consumed in the same way. Most of it is free, so is often attracting an uncommitted readership. A simple format is therefore a key to holding people’s attention.

This means short paragraphs of no more than two or three sentences.

For proof of this, check the comments section of your favourite online forum. Remarks that are written in huge blocks of unrelieved type tend to be ignored.

Comments displayed in short paragraphs are the ones that get attention. So press Enter to make your copy friendly!

Twit or tweet

Twitter comes under fire for the inaccuracy of its information, for publishing rubbish, and as a mecca for trolls.

Yet the social medium remains popular.

Tweets are brief, often mercifully so. This is Twitter’s virtue. It forces writers to be concise with their messages.

Adding unnecessary words is the most common fault of amateur scribes. Their wordiness and length of copy bores people. Thus Twitter is less boring.

Of course, you can always spread your tweet across consecutive posts, but readers will hate you for it. As well, the messages are less likely to be retweeted or Liked.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” wrote Shakespeare. It’s also the pulsing heart of Twitter.

Say it loud, say it clear

If you’re unsure that your media release or blog post hits the right notes, try reading the first four or five sentences aloud, as if they’re an item in a radio or television news bulletin.

Do they sound okay? Are there any places in your flow of meaning that the listener would puzzle over?

If so, rewrite your opening paragraphs until the words are a golden, liquid stream of clarity.

Once these initial sentences are sorted out, the remainder of the story should flow along nicely until the end. You’ll have captured the reader, who is likely to stick with you.

Yes, there are a few stylist differences between media stories written for radio or television news and those in the print format – but not enough to negate the value of this exercise.

Write, listen, revise. It’s the mantra of good language.

8 more habits of expert content writers

  1. They understand that copy should be as short as it can be while properly conveying the desired meaning and tone. Experts hate waffle and padding.
  2. They never write ambiguously, leaving the reader to scratch his or her head. This is especially so when producing instructions, directions or guidelines. The HELP sections of WordPress and Amazon are great examples of clear instructions.
  3. Professionals understand that writing can be improved by leaving it in the computer and reworking it the following day. If they can put the writing aside for a week, so much the better.
  4. Spell check makes stupid errors, often mistaking one word for another. That’s why the pros always proofread their work. Twice.
  5. It’s easier to change copy than to write copy. Therefore giving it to five people to review will result in a mess that pleases nobody. One or two people is plenty.
  6. Expert writers are nevertheless grateful when colleagues find mistakes and point them out. It’s better to have these corrected before the boss or a customer stumbles upon them.
  7. They might be skilled at the written word, but they never criticise colleagues’ writing or make suggestions for improvement, unless asked to. You wouldn’t want these people denigrating your haircut or choice of shoes, no?
  8. The pros are experienced enough to know that writer’s block is a form of stage fright. Starting a piece of writing can be hard. The longer you practice, the more your acquired skills will carry you through.