How to write content faster – and better

by Danielle Styles

According to legend, in April 1951, Jack Kerouac sat down with purpose in front of his old beat-up Underwood typewriter.

There followed an intense creative splurge, in which, fuelled by coffee and benzedrine, his thundering fingers racked up close to 110 words per minute. Three weeks later he emerged with the complete text of On the Road inscribed on an 120-foot-long scroll.

Now that’s fast writing.

It would be incredibly fast, if the story were strictly true. But once you start looking at the evidence, and adding back in the details of the thinking he’d done, the notes he’d made, and the drafts he’d written – all through a period of years – the creation of On the Road suddenly seems a lot less of a miracle. As Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas once remarked, the novel wasn’t written, but ‘typed up’, in 3 weeks.

Of course, three weeks to type up a book is still enviably quick. There’s little doubt that Kerouac was a fast writer. But was he a good one?

I’m going to leave you to decide that for yourself. (Opinions vary: on the one hand you have legions of Kerouac fans, and on the other, accusations of ropey sentences, chauvinism and a lack of depth.)

The point is that if you want to write fast and well (which you’ll need to do to produce regular, high-quality content), you’ve got to develop ways of becoming more efficient. That means getting organised, focussing your mind and letting go of inhibiting perfectionism and doubt. And Kerouac has a thing or two to teach us about that.

Once you’ve got a handle on all this, you’ll probably find yourself not only writing faster, but with more confidence and creativity. And you might just see the quality of your writing improve as a result.

Sound good? Right, then here’s a step-by-step plan for making it happen.

 

Step one: prepare

Think ahead

On the Road didn’t come to Kerouac in a bolt of inspiration. His journal entries show that he’d been incubating the idea of a road-trip novel for at least two and a half years. As a content writer, you’re unlikely to have the luxury of such a massive stretch of time. However, if you’re in the routine of creating regular output, you don’t have to leave your information gathering until the point you sit down to write.

As you go about your daily life, keep your eyes and mind open for topics, anecdotes, and interesting stories you can use to frame your content.

Take a leaf out of Kerouac’s (note)book and carry one with you. Get something mini and light that you can slip into your pocket – this one works a treat. Then, whenever ideas come to you (in waiting rooms, on bus journeys, while walking the dog) you can capture them.

 

Step two: plan

Construct a skeleton

At this point you need to be a little more rigorous and organised than I suspect Kerouac was, and get the organisational structure of your piece down.

Focus on your audience (what do they want to know?) and your aim (what do you want your audience to feel and do as a result of reading?) With this in mind, write out your main headline, subheadings and all the points you want each section to include. This will give you a skeleton text, which you can then simply flesh out without having to worry about where you’re going.

 

Step three: write first, then edit

Write without judgement

Kerouac was an advocate of spontaneous prose, a style of writing in which:

  • Language flows freely from the mind
  • There’s no pausing to think of the proper word, no improving expressions and no afterthoughts

This writing style is uninhibited, fearless – and swift. Although I don’t subscribe to the ‘first thought, best thought’ notion held by Kerouac and his cronies, I do think spontaneous prose is a brilliant method for getting your first draft down. Not only does it make you more productive, it also frees up your brain to make the creative connections that a judgemental mind might suppress. 

When you write your first draft, don’t spend time looking for the right words – use the first phrases that come to mind, no matter how clumsy and inelegant. Relax, don’t judge yourself – just allow the words to flow.

Scrutinise

This is the quality control stage. The truth is it does take time (you can’t expect to write high-quality content in a flash). But to avoid letting your inner perfectionist get carried away, allot a time for the editing stage that’s in line with your deadline, other priorities and how important you consider the piece to be.

While you’re reviewing what you’ve written, put yourself in the position of the reader. Is anything else needed to make your text clear, cohesive or compelling? Do the ideas follow logically from one another? Can anything be omitted (repetition, unnecessary words, etc.)? The more you practice doing this, the better and more efficient at it you’ll become.

 

Step four: optimise your performance

Take breaks

You’re not a machine. To keep working effectively, your brain needs regular breaks, so make sure you take them. Of course, the myth of On the Road would have us believe that Kerouac eschewed breaks in favour of coffee and amphetamine, but by all accounts he was not a happy man. If you want to keep your sanity, this approach is best avoided!

There doesn’t seem to be any true consensus on how often you should take breaks or how long for, so you’ll need to experiment. I’ve found 50-minute writing sprints with a 10-minute break in between to be pretty effective, but you may want to vary this depending on how fresh or brain-weary you’re feeling.

Alter your mind

Not with amphetamines! I’m talking about the skill of mindfulness, which helps you develop an engrossing focus on the present moment.

Formal mindfulness is done through meditation, but it can also be practised informally, by simply concentrating fully on the task at hand.

The idea is that when you notice your mind has wandered from your writing – to working out what to buy for dinner, getting caught up in distracting sounds, or worrying about how you’re going to pay your bills – you gently bring your attention back to refocus on what you’re doing.

Mindfulness combines concentration with acceptance – a bonus in helping you to write without inhibition or judgement.

You can learn more about mindfulness here.

Write from your life

It’s well known that On the Road is an autobiographical account of Kerouac’s travels, thinly veiled in fiction.

Whenever possible, write from your experience and what you know. This will speed up the writing process, reducing the research and thinking time you have to put in. It will also give you a more vivid and authentic voice with which to compel your readers.

What techniques have you used to become a more efficient writer? Please share your experiences with us in the comments.


5 golden rules for effective content marketing

by Danielle Styles

In my last post, we saw how content marketing turns traditional advertising on its head, by prompting pro-active and interested customers to find you. But the question still remains – what exactly do you need to do to make this happen?

Putting out any old content sporadically and hoping for the best is unlikely to have much of an effect. To reap the results you’re looking for, you need to prepare and execute a smart plan. And your plan needs to incorporate these five golden rules.

1. Document your strategy

Writing down your content marketing plan is essential to carrying it out effectively. Why? Because writing focuses your mind. It makes it easier to check that the steps you’re taking lead logically to the result you want. It allows you to nail down the whatwhen and how of creating and distributing your content, in a document that your colleagues can refer to. In short, it keeps everyone on track.

Your strategy doesn’t necessarily need to be flashy or in-depth, especially if you’re a small organisation with limited resources. What’s important is that you answer these critical questions:

  • Who are your customers? What are their needs? How will your content meet them?
  • How much time/resources are available for producing content?
  • What do you want your content strategy to achieve?
  • What’s the most appropriate channel, tone and structure for your content, taking into account your audience and aims?
  • How will you convert your readers into subscribers and/or buyers/donors/supporters?

2. Give your customers something that genuinely enhances their situation

It’s simple: your content needs to improve the lives of your target audience. It needs to have real value for them by meeting a genuine need.

Your first task is to work out who you’re marketing to. A vividly imagined persona is far easier to work with than a vague demographic profile, so flesh out a description of the single character who best represents your audience.

Now put yourself in that person’s shoes. What are they striving for? What gets in the way of what they want to achieve? How can your content be written, styled and delivered so that it really floats their boat? (Include these notes in you documented strategy.)

Remember: to truly educate, entertain or otherwise help your target customers, your content needs to be high-quality. Hastily churned-out rubbish won’t cut the mustard. If your free content is so fantastic that a little voice in your head is questioning the wisdom of gifting it to people, then you’re probably on to a good thing. Generosity is the whole point.

It’s when you’re authentically yet strategically generous that wondrous things (like increased site traffic, customer conversions, loyalty and brand awareness) start to occur. Which leads me to my next point.

3. Deliver content regularly and consistently

It’s simple. Give your audience a reason to keep returning to your site, and don’t disappoint them when they do.

Decide how often you can reasonably produce new content without compromising on quality. Schedule in regular release dates – whether daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Then make sure you stick to that schedule.

If you regularly deliver content with the wow-factor, people will keep coming back to you, strengthening rapport each time. Having set their expectations high, what you don’t want to do is let them down and risk losing them. So make sure you keep the timing and quality of your content consistent.

4. Integrate social media

The more your content is read, liked and shared, the more influential it’s going to be. The right kind of social media exposure triggers behaviours that (1) get your content read and (2) drive relevant traffic to your website. So you need to make sure you’re stoking the flames.

Know what social-networking sites your target audience use, and get active on them. You’ll need to invest time to create and engage a following, and this calls for a strategy of its own. Broadly speaking though, your social media activity needs to be two-way, cooperative and (as with your content) focused on the interests of your audience.

Particularly when you’re starting out, and you don’t have much content of your own, it pays to promote other people’s. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if the content’s excellent and relevant, the benefits can be huge. Selectively promoting other people’s content not only builds your reputation as a savvy ‘curator’ worthy of a follow, it also makes the owners of that content more likely to share your content in return. (Plus it feels like a rewarding, human thing to do.) So suss out who’s generous and influential, and – as long as their content is right – focus on sharing their materials.

Writing irresistible headlines and posts is another social media technique you must master, to get your links clicked on and your content read. Which brings me to…

5. Apply time-tested copywriting techniques

With all this emphasis on content, you could be forgiven for thinking that copywriting is defunct.

Nope! Guess again.

It’s true that writing a classic one-page newspaper ad is not the same as writing a delectable piece of content. If the tone of your blog post or e-magazine is overtly salesy, you’re just going to turn people off.

What’s also true – from a marketing perspective at least – is that without copywriting, your free content is pretty much useless.

You may not be using old-school marketing methods, but the techniques of copywriting still stand. Integrating them into your content is an vital part of encouraging your prospects along the path to conversion.

Your content needs:

  • To offer a real benefit, and communicate it in an irresistible headline
  • To pull the reader from one sentence to the next, all the way through
  • To speak to the audience with a targeted, compelling tone of voice
  • To have a clear ‘call to action’ to direct them to the next step

It’s copywriting that captures your reader – first the intriguing headline hooks them in; then the fantastic tone and style pulls them through; and finally the call to action pushes them onwards – to subscribe to your mailing list, register for a demo, or share your content with their social media connections.

In my next blog post, I’ll be passing on some tips and tricks to help you hone a skill that’s absolutely critical to the success of your copy, content and social media marketing: writing headlines.

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Content marketing: How to befriend customers and motivate people… by making life better

by Danielle Styles

I may be a copywriter, but to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of adverts.

There are exceptions of course. I find the cascade of multicoloured balls bouncing down a San Francisco hill pretty beautiful. And who hasn’t been won over by the drumming skills of that uber-serious, Phil Collins-loving gorilla?

In general though, I resent time-wasting interruptions to the flow of my day. I don’t like that feeling of being sold to.

When adverts fail

Ad-overdose. You’re probably all too familiar with it. I mean, how often do you have to comb through your emails, weeding out irrelevant promotions? I’m sure I didn’t knowingly subscribe to half the marketing emails that end up in my inbox.

And what really annoys me are those flashing banners that stalk you through the Web, regurgitating all the products you once browsed but decided against buying.

The problem with unsolicited ads is that they don’t necessarily have much – or anything – to do with the priorities of the person on the receiving end. Worse than simply ‘falling short’, misfired ads could end up having the opposite effect of what was intended. By getting in the way of what you’re trying to get done, they can transform from a temptation into an active turn-off. The brand becomes something you have to swat away like a persistent fly, or uproot from your day like a weed.

So unsolicited ads don’t work ?

It’s tempting to claim so, but it isn’t actually true.

The fact is that for decades, traditional sales copy (read direct letters, flyers and ads) has worked precisely by being hurled in the direction of people who haven’t asked for it, and might not be interested. And admittedly, these methods have prompted millions of people to purchase or take action. If you throw enough muck against a wall, some of it is going to stick.

But here’s the thing: you don’t need to throw muck these days. We’re living in a digital world – one that has opened up a far more appealing, and potentially far more effective – possibility. You don’t have to risk annoying people, because you can choose to market only to those who’ve chosen you. And you can motivate these people to take action by actually making their lives better.

It’s time to drop the gift of the gab, unslick your hair and ditch your used-car-dealer suit.

There’s a better way. It’s called content marketing.

What is content?

When we talk about content, we mean the quality written or scripted materials you give away as part of a marketing strategy. Content could take the form of blog posts, an entertaining video or an infographic. These days, content marketing tends to revolve around your own branded website, from which you distribute rapport-building goodies to your customers/supporters for free.

You need to hold something back for paying customers of course, and your content-giving needs to be woven into a smart, strategic plan that encourages people to become buyers or donors eventually. But the essence of it is that you get prospects on board by giving them something that enhances their lives.

Why content works for you and your customers

Today’s buyers are empowered, informed and – crucially – pro-active. They’ve got Google, so if you’re a great fit for their needs they’ll find you.

Having brilliant content means that instead of throwing lassoes into the (relative) darkness, you can deliver your sales messages to the prospects who’ve actively sought you out, and then – by drawing them back with regular updates – woo them over time by building rapport and trust. The better your content, the easier it should be for people to find you. Users who are engaged with your site will link to it more and spend longer on it, and it’s these stamps of approval that really curry favour with the search engines.

Get it right, and your target audience will no longer be trying to avoid your marketing. They’ll be actively looking for it, reading it and sharing it with others.

In contrast with the traditional, ‘single-shot’ approach of direct mail and cold calling – which place the prospect on the spot and push for an instant ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ – content marketing expands the timeframe for your target customer to say ‘yes’. It also completely transforms the relationship between you and them. You haven’t rudely interrupted their day; you’ve just made it better. This slow-burning, win-win relationship creates much more scope for a positive outcome than your average isolated sales pitch ever could.

Content marketing has worked brilliantly for high-profile brands like Lush, John Lewis and Prostate Cancer UK, and it can work for you too – as long as you apply the principles that make it truly effective. The next post on this blog will talk you through how to do it.

And come think of it, that drumming gorilla was less of an ad, and more a piece of content anyway.

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