Updated Sept. 28, 2020
Below the erupting mass of new digital content – billions of new articles every month – a secret army labors tirelessly.
Wherever you see marketers launching e-books, running webinars, promoting blogs, and crafting events, these artisans are hammering, hacking, and whittling the words. These are the writers who make the content marketing world run. And alas, much of what they produce is junk.
The great preponderance of content goes unread, and not for a lack of bullhorn-blowing. Much of it is poorly written. Eighty-one percent of a group of professionals say poorly written content wastes their time and, in the 25.5 hours they spend reading each week, much of the content they see is “too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.”
There are many reasons for this problem that fall into two categories – either they aren’t the right writer or you’re feeding them garbage. Here’s how to fix both.
Finding Mr. or Ms. Write
As the editor-in-chief at the content studio Fenwick (formerly Find A Way Media), I’m both a writer and an employer of writers. After five years of helping clients set up content operations, I am certain the responsibility for great writing lies with the employer; it’s the organization that must deliver results and so it’s up to managers to find the writers to do that.
Finding the right writer can be like apartment hunting in New York City: After the 10th viewing, your brain begins to melt and you’re willing to settle for anything just to make it stop. But you can shorten the search if you understand the type of writer you need.
Most writers fall into three broad categories:Journalists – Trained to be precise, journalists are supposed to adhere to a code of ethics and be objective. This makes them excellent fact-checkers and concise writers, but they often abhor self-promotion and find the principles of marketing foreign. Writing content for marketing takes some adjustment. Copywriters – These are writers raised in the marketing world. They’re often bloggers. They understand web writing, headlines, SEO, and marketing, and intuitively grasp what the business wants to accomplish. But they often lack the fact-checking, storytelling, and literary finesse of journalists. Novelists – This category encapsulates people who write as an art and freelance to merely fund their passion. They are screenwriters, comedians, essayists, playwrights, and novelists. I’ve never found one who cut it as a content writer. That’s not to say they can’t be found, but they are rare.
In my experience, you’re best off seeking someone with experience as a copywriter or a journalist and helping them develop any skills they lack.
To further whittle your list, consider the trade-off between writing proficiency and subject expertise. These factors don’t have to be at odds, but they often are. Most writers either excel at their craft but are unfamiliar with your topic or are well versed in an industry but middling writers.
Which is better? That depends on how you plan to support them.
When in doubt, lean toward writing proficiency. It’s better to be read and shared than to shout expert advice into the wind and wonder why nobody cares. You can always have the writer interview subject-matter experts, talk to customers, and study up.
If your content topics are highly technical or emotional in nature, however, it can be better to select a subject expert. Real expertise is tough to fake. Writers for an analytics software firm, for example, will struggle if they aren’t familiar with concepts like regression analysis.
If your organization crafts content for a tight-knit audience whose members share a common experience, such as startup founders, a writer who isn’t an expert may not work well. A writer who has lived that entrepreneurial life and knows the misery of not closing a round of funding is more likely to be convincing.
Where can you find your ideal writer? Broadly consider these four places:Writer job boards: These forums connect writers and employers, and include Problogger, Freelance Writers Den, Freelancers Union, Craigslist, or LinkedIn groups. Because they’re often lightly moderated, the quality of applicants varies widely. Freelancing platforms: Sites like Upwork, Fiverr, and Freelancer.com promise to make matchmaking easier with automation. You can view the writers’ profiles, client reviews, and past work. But, with millions of freelancers, it takes a lot of dredging to find gems. Content marketing platforms: Content platforms are pricier than other alternatives, but potentially worth the cost. Platforms like Contently, Skyword, and NewsCred curate their pool of writers and sometimes provide an editor who ensures top quality. Referrals and word of mouth: Of all the options, referrals net the best results. As a rule, the best writers rarely look for work. They’re inundated with clients starving for their unicorn-rare mixture of writing proficiency and industry expertise. The easiest way to find them is to simply ask around. You’ll know you’ve found them if they’re already booked solid for the next few months.
To evaluate candidates, just looking at their past work won’t do. Always ask them to write a test article. According to Brad Hamilton, editor-in-chief of the investigative journalism nonprofit The Hatch Institute, “You can’t tell how good someone is based on something they’ve published – you never know, they might have had a fantastic editor.”
Finding the correct writer takes time. It is work. But unless you’re happy to spend money on content nobody will read, it’s worth it. Once you’re certain you have that writer, it’s your job to give them something worth writing about.
Supply your writer with substance
The first rule of content writing is GIGO – garbage in, garbage out. If you don’t supply your writer with substantive, thought-provoking material, they’re unlikely to invent it. It’s like casting a great actor in a movie with a rotten script. (John Travolta in Battlefield Earth, anyone?)
I’ve been in too many conference rooms with clients who think they should be creating content because, well, everyone else is. They think it’s simply a matter of filling a bucket with words. Sometimes they start the conversation about content marketing services by asking, “Do I need to do anything?” Yes, of course you do. You are the marketer, after all. You’re the one who should have an iron grip on your company’s ideal buyer persona and should feed the writer, not the other way around.
TIP: If your writers don’t understand your buyer persona, they’re writing for themselves or you, but not for your customer. That’s how you get bland-as-sawdust content that feels disingenuous or simply doesn’t resonate.
What can you give your writer to improve their writing?
Six-step checklist to help your writers be betterBuyer persona research: The more your writer can get inside your customer’s head, the more precise the writing will be. Access to your team: Most writers do better work when they feel included. Invite them to the office or to a virtual gathering to meet your team and set up ongoing opportunities for them to communicate with the team. Access to your customers: For all writers, the well of ideas eventually runs dry. Give them ways to get reinvigorated, such as interviewing customers. It breaks them out of their pattern and gives you a never-ending fountain of fresh, authentic stories. Data: Content marketing writers rarely see data on how their writing performs. Sure, they might see the number of shares, but they don’t get to track their engagement from piece to piece or A/B test headlines. Subscribe them to performance reports in your marketing system or Google Analytics. Feedback: Most writers never get more feedback than “thanks.” If they don’t know how they did, they can’t grow. Always track and share edits in Microsoft Word. Even better, build a style guide together. It’ll save you both a lot of time. Structure: If every deadline feels like an emergency, your content quality suffers. “I’ve never regretted waiting until the next day to publish,” says Caroline Vella, freelance content writer and editor. “I can’t say the same about rushing work through. Sleeping on it not only saves you from mistakes, but it also brings a fresh perspective.”
To provide structure to your writers, consider a project management tool like Trello, Asana, or, my favorite, a shared G Suite document with links. Oh, and invest in a written content marketing strategy.
Marketers must remain in writing process
It’s been a journey, so let’s recap. Have research? Have data? Have structure? Great. You’re halfway to effective writing. The next step? Marketers must remain heavily involved in the creation process if they want results.
Marketers frequently want to set the strategy then ask the writer to run the content operation. They are abnegating their role as editor. It’s one thing to be creative and ideate, it’s another to call the shots. Rarely can one person do both.
If marketers entrust their writers with the responsibility to do it all, those marketers often develop a case of what the eminent psychologist and author of the book Influence, Robert Cialdini, calls the tapping problem. In it, one test subject, the tapper, is asked to think of a song and tap the beat on the table. The other test subject, the listener, is asked to guess the song.
You can try this with a colleague. You’ll find tappers invariably get frustrated that listeners don’t know the song. “How could you not know,” they sputter. But the tappers fail to realize the song is only obvious to them because they hear the tune in their head.
Marketers who don’t offer clear briefs with suggested outcomes, quotes, links, and statistics to their writers are like tappers. They shouldn’t be surprised when their writers create something different than what they had in mind.
Behind all great content, there’s a writer
Great content doesn’t happen by accident. Neither does great writing. If marketers want to savor the results of content marketing, they must invest in finding and nurturing the writers who ultimately determine its worth. For their part, writers need to see content creation as a partnership in which they receive substantive information to build from and feedback to improve.
When marketers are paired with the correct writers, magic happens. And that’s when you get truly high-performing content.
Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).
Want to grow the writing skills in your content marketing program? Be sure to attend the writing track at Content Marketing World Oct. 13-16. Register today and get access to all the tracks, keynotes, and exclusive post-event content.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute