If Your Writing Sucks, So Will Your Content

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Posted: January 16, 2013 | Modern B2B Marketing

Content marketing is taking a bit of heat these days as marketers scramble to jump on the latest trend of thinking like a publisher. Chris Penn recently wrote a post that perfectly sums up the current state of content marketing: “If 2012 was about the power of content marketing, then 2013 has to be about making content that doesn’t suck if we want content marketing to remain a viable method of reaching and acquiring new customers.” I agree 100%.

The problem isn’t necessarily content itself; it’s the lack of quality content. The cookie-cutter SEO driven, keyword stuffed, generic regurgitated content is becoming a sort of white noise that blocks all of the real quality stuff from surfacing. It’s a problem that continually challenges Google to show the most relevant information, but it goes much deeper than that.

While there is no way in hell we can all instantly become great content writers and producers, we can all go back and revisit what in my opinion seems to be the root of the problem. I remember reading a great post about hiring a journalist for your content marketing strategy. While that may be a good idea for creating topical real time newsjacking worthy content, I would recommend just cutting to the chase and hiring a marketer who is interesting and writes well.

Writing sucks, and it’s hard. The people who enjoy writing are already making a living from it, they are called authors. For the rest of us we have to try a bit harder.

But that’s just part of the puzzle. To be a good content marketer you have to have a personality that shines through and resonates. Have you ever met someone who lights up the room in person but then writes a piece of content that could bore someone watching paint dry? It happens because it’s difficult for a personality to easily transfer to paper.

Writing sucks, and it’s hard. The people who enjoy writing are already making a living from it; they are called authors. For the rest of us, we have to try a bit harder. So what’s the answer? Start with the basics. Go read two or three books on becoming a better writer. Then read an autobiography from a comedian to get some tips on how to be funny. Take everything you learned from there and keep it in the back of your mind as you revisit your industry and your customer’s needs.

Add a fail-safe to your personal content creating process. After you write a piece of content, read it yourself. If you find that you can’t get through it all the way, then who else is going to? If you do make it all the way through, ask someone else to read it. Then ask them two questions. Was it helpful and was it interesting? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, you probably have a good piece of content on your hands, unless it was your mother who you ask to read it.

I am not a writer, nor am I a journalist. What I do have going for me is the fact that I learn very quickly, I carry around a copy of The Elements of Style, I read as much as humanly possible, and I hate sleep. As content marketing continues to be a necessary tool for marketers across the gamut, let’s all make a commitment to be a good writer first and a content creator second.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/e.adamporter Adam Porter

    As a journalist who cut my teeth (and still does a good bit of) marketing writing, I can personally attest to the distinction between the styles and skill sets involved. Some people can do both. Others can’t. If you are reading this and considering hiring a writer, make sure they CAN do both…or at least can offer both. That way, if you need timely, newsworthy PR – hey, we got that. And, if you need bangin’ market-ready content – not a problem.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Well said Adam. I agree completely. I think there it’s a struggle to find someone who is great at doing both, so it’s time for every marketer to take the initiative to become a better writer. Thanks for the comment.

  • Anonymous

    As a marketer I couldn’t agree more with this post. I have been working to do just that -become a better writer so my content will improve. What books (besides Elements of Style – which luckily I have read!) would you recommend I read to get a better grasp of good writing?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.lionz Jeff Lionz

    Jason Miller’s article strikes the exact right tone and his assertions are spot on, most of the content I see is terrible or blather and it gets so annoying trying to wade through it sometimes. Add to that in my own SFDC consulting practice I am currently struggling with how to create new content that is worthy of the effort of writing it. I get instant headaches thinking about what matters, how to express my ideas such that it’s valuable enough to share. Thanks for this insightful commentary Jason it only reinforces the ideas I need to find someone like Adam or a professional writer and let the pros do the writing.

  • Anonymous

    I agree Adam. In a moment of foolishness, I once signed on to a content farm as a writer. I quit 36 hours later, when I realized that quality and useful information had nothing to do with the objective, which related solely to keywords and eyeballs.

    People who want good content have to do two things. They must demand copy that’s both informative and engaging. And they need to pay people who write well commensurate with their skills – and with the time it takes to do some original reporting, rather than information hijacking.

    Until good writers are paid to do good work, businesses that get suckered into supporting content farms are receiving very little for their money. Winning clicks is not the same as winning sales or brand loyalty.

  • Anonymous

    “While that may be a good idea for creating topical real time newsjacking
    worthy content, I would recommend just cutting to the chase and hiring a
    marketer who is interesting and writes well.”

    Couldn’t disagree with this part any more. Biased as a former journalist now in marketing/communications, but all journalists/reporters know how to write content aimed at compelling readers to continue reading.

    You will have MUCH better odds finding a former journalist who writes well to train on marketing, then finding a marketer who writes well.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment. You make a valid point, but in this day and age both journalists and marketers alike need to be agile and round out their skill set. Journalists turned marketers are in short supply while folks who write well and have an interesting point of view are becoming empowered by blogging. It’s a hybrid role with no exact job description, but the point I am trying to make is that everyone can and should brush up on their writing skills.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Well said Peter! Thanks for the comment. I for one am thrilled to see Google put an end to the “content farms” effectiveness. Good writers are everywhere, many of them just need a bit of coaching to get their thoughts out in the most effective way.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment Jeff. Content creation is incredibly challenging for everyone in my opinion. Lots of trial and error and frustration involved, but once you get a piece that resonates it is all worth it.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment Kristi. I read the following books several times over: Content Rules by Ann Handley and CC Chapman is ESSENTIAL! I also found these two great for improving my writing overall: 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost, and Stein on Writing by Christopher Lane, Confessions of an Advertising Man – David Ogilvy (great for copywriting/ headlines) and finally The Kings English by Kingsley Amis (really entertaining take on the state of the language). Hope that helps!

  • http://twitter.com/hollybmartin Holly Martin

    Fun read! And good news for content writers (who CAN write, that is)…

  • http://writtent.com/ Tatiana

    Reading great books on the topic is absolutely necessary both for grasping the basics of writing (if you are new in this) and for improving your writing skills (if you
    are a mature writer already). But don’t you think it’s also very helpful to read some real articles produced by professional marketers and content writers? Apart from giving you examples of how great and engaging content looks like, it also may give you some inspiration for your future content. Jason, do you have any favorite bloggers whose writing style you like? To my mind, your examples can be of help to newcomers in content writing who really want to succeed in this sphere.

  • Jon

    Jason … odd request here. I’m working on a magazine article for B2B Magazine on a subject you blogged about not too long ago. I can’t figure out how to reach you via email or phone, so I’m leaving a blog comment. If you are available to schedule an interview, I’m at jvzile@aol.com.

  • Jon

    Jason … odd request here. I’m working on a magazine article for B2B Magazine on a subject you blogged about not too long ago. I can’t figure out how to reach you via email or phone, so I’m leaving a blog comment. If you are available to schedule an interview, I’m at jvzile@aol.com.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks Jon, just sent you an email. You can reach me directly at JasonM@Marketo.com

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks Jon, just sent you an email. You can reach me directly at JasonM@Marketo.com

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Great point Tatiana. I read the New Yorker weekly. Some of the best writers out there and great for inspiration. Another favorite for ideas is The Week and Mental Floss. As for my favorite bloggers? There are a lot, but the ones I read daily/ weekly – Seth Godins’ blog, Copyblogger (Absolutely Essential Reading) Convince and Convert, Chris Brogan has a great Sunday newsletter that I read, Joe Pulizzi and anything over at Content Marketing Institute, Marketing Profs, Ardath Albee’s blog, Salesforce Social Blog, Michael Brenner’s B2BMarketing Insider, Social Media Examiner, Harvard Business Review, SEO Moz (minus the technical stuff) Blueglass, the AimClear Blog, Social Fresh, Ekaterina Walter’s blog. Those are in my reader at the very top. Oh, and of course my fellow Marketo contributors : )

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Great point Tatiana. I read the New Yorker weekly. Some of the best writers out there and great for inspiration. Another favorite for ideas is The Week and Mental Floss. As for my favorite bloggers? There are a lot, but the ones I read daily/ weekly – Seth Godins’ blog, Copyblogger (Absolutely Essential Reading) Convince and Convert, Chris Brogan has a great Sunday newsletter that I read, Joe Pulizzi and anything over at Content Marketing Institute, Marketing Profs, Ardath Albee’s blog, Salesforce Social Blog, Michael Brenner’s B2BMarketing Insider, Social Media Examiner, Harvard Business Review, SEO Moz (minus the technical stuff) Blueglass, the AimClear Blog, Social Fresh, Ekaterina Walter’s blog. Those are in my reader at the very top. Oh, and of course my fellow Marketo contributors : )

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment Holly! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment Holly! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://twitter.com/Kristi_Richey Kristi Richey

    Great recommendations all around! I have read Content Rules but I should definitely continue re-reading it and combing through it for more insight as I work to get better and better. I will have to look into the other titles you suggested, as well as start reading some of the blogs you mentioned. Thank you Jason!

  • http://twitter.com/Kristi_Richey Kristi Richey

    Great recommendations all around! I have read Content Rules but I should definitely continue re-reading it and combing through it for more insight as I work to get better and better. I will have to look into the other titles you suggested, as well as start reading some of the blogs you mentioned. Thank you Jason!

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    You got it. Thanks again for chiming in.

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  • http://www.multiinfotech.com/website-design/ecommerce-web-design.html Ecommerce Solutions

    Content marketing catch some heat these days as traders rush to jump on the latest trends in thinking like a publisher. Chris Ben recently wrote that summarizes quite another current status of content marketing: “If 2012 was the power of marketing content, then it should be 2013 on the production of content that does not absorb road if we continue viable content marketing reach and win new customers. “I agree 100%.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment!

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Hi Paul, good question. In my opinion I think good writing starts with proper style and grammar but then relies heavily on the ability to clearly communicate a point or opinion. This is where personality, entertainment value, education, and the ability to tell a good story comes into play. Couple that with the less is more approach and I think you have a pretty solid foundation. Just my thoughts though. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Hey Bruno! Thanks for chiming in. Really great points that I agree 100% with. Love the quote “Personality sells as easy as sex”. Those who can let their personality shine through in writing clearly have the edge.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Hey Bruno! Thanks for chiming in. Really great points that I agree 100% with. Love the quote “Personality sells as easy as sex”. Those who can let their personality shine through in writing clearly have the edge.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Hey Justin! Thanks for the comment. I am a big fan of your work and content at LeadMD. I think you add two very important points to the conversation. Personas are essential and keeping your content conversational are two things I think content producers many times overlook. Thanks again for chiming in, very much appreciated.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Hey Justin! Thanks for the comment. I am a big fan of your work and content at LeadMD. I think you add two very important points to the conversation. Personas are essential and keeping your content conversational are two things I think content producers many times overlook. Thanks again for chiming in, very much appreciated.

  • Dekker Fraser

    Great writing is like a great business: you need a good product, good technicians, and good marketing. To make a good product (a piece of writing) you need a good technician (an expert who has the experience and expertise to know what the hell he’s talking about) and a good marketing department (the writer who structures the writing in a way that the market can understand it and becomes interested in it).

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  • Anonymous

    There’s a certain amount of myopia in this — a perspective that ignores an entire profession: people who write for business. Whether they specialize in finance, technology, manufacturing, or can handle just about anything, they’re out there. And it will take much less time to bring them up to speed on what you do, what you want to accomplish, the people you need to reach, and the concerns those people have than it will to turn a non-writer into an acceptable one.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Thanks for the comment Peter. You make a great point. There are of course a lot of great business writers out there, but content has evolved into a more conversational medium and I think it’s the technical writers who may have trouble adapting. In addition, by turning a non-writer into an acceptable writer, you risk creating acceptable content in a world that craves epic content. Thanks for adding your perspective, very helpful.

  • http://twitter.com/JasonMillerCA Jason Miller

    Those are great to have, but in the end you need to created something that people want to read, and content that they want to consume. That’s the real challenge. Thanks for the comment.

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  • Stephanie Kapera

    I like this debate about hiring journalists vs. hiring marketers and, ultimately, I have to say I agree with Jason. You need the brain of a marketer to do this job well. And in my experience, most marketers are pretty good writers, if not fantastic writers. So I’d vote for looking for a marketer first and a writer second.

  • kencarroll

    Super, super, super. I spend my days arguing this very point. I believe the old way to learn writing is essentially useless. But there’s a hack that I call remarkable writing techniques – which you can hear all about on my podcast! We can’t all become Tolstoys but we can definitely make remarkable progress if we use the right approach.
    Thanks for this post, Jason. It’s really spot on an encouraging. I’ll be a regular visitor.

  • Lou Covey

    As Dorothy Parker, a great writer, said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” That sums up the basic problem. Marketing people have a job already. It takes a lot of time and they have been trained to do that job. They are NOT trained to write, so adding that to their workload means they won’t have time to do it and will rush through the process. Carrying around Elements of Style will tell you how to write correctly, but it won’t tell you how to write engagingly. Companies who want to do content well need to hire the services of someone who has spent at least as long working on their craft as the VP of marketing has spent getting an MBA.

  • Lou Covey

    Jason, just saw this post and I agree with Big Nasty. You are right that marketers who want to do this need to learn how…. but that takes years. I once had lunch with a administrator at the business school of a significant university who bragged to me that they had just implemented a 6 week seminar for their marketing grad students on how to write. 6 weeks. That’s all that was given in a degree program that took 3 years to complete. And I totally disagree with your statement that the supply is short for journalists. Between 2000 and 2006, 90 per cent of all journalists dedicated to the B2B tech niches were laid off. Most of them are still working as free lancers. I have several of them under contract for my business of developing engaging content. The only reason companies don’t want to hire them is strictly financial and an indicator that they really don’t care about the quality of their content.

Jason Miller is Senior Manager of Content Marketing at LinkedIn. Previously, Jason was Senior Manager of Social Media at Marketo and focused on optimizing social for lead generation and driving revenue. He is a regular contributor to leading marketing blogs such as Social Media Examiner, Social Media Today, and Marketing Profs.

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