Monday, February 21

Writing Content: Lessons From Fresh Pick Authors

fresh ideas
Every writer has a punch list of sorts. Elements that help them transform good writing into great writing.

My punch list consists of five — accurate, clear, concise, human, and conspicuous. I don't always hit the mark, but that is what I shoot for on good and great days. Many of these characteristics seemed to fit in while running the Fresh Content experiment. However, there were some other qualities — originality, insight, and an expansive view — that added quality to the content we read.

If you want to become a better writer, someone who offers up quality content on a regular basis, these seem to be among the top five characteristics of quality posts. Almost every fresh pick post during the course of the experiment included them. While there were exceptions (especially the fifth point or on particularly slow days), the majority included these five characteristics.

The Five Characteristics Of Quality Posts.

1. Accuracy. The content has to be accurate in terms of what it is trying to teach. And the most common failings in communication lessons tend to happen on two extremes — overt generalizations and elevating exceptions.

For example, we had little patience for top ten lists that included rules such as limiting every post to 250 words. It's not true. Economy of language has nothing to do length. It has to do with telling a story in the right amount of words.

Conversely, we're hardly convinced that every viral video needs to look amateurish because one or three or fifty examples did. There are hundreds of videos that prove the opposite. This is one of the failings of best practices in general. While they can be useful, circumstances and outcomes vary.

2. Originality. The content had to be original, with originality taking two forms. It had to be original in that it couldn't steal the best content from several solid posts without attribution. And it had to be better than a "pile on" topic post.

new ideasAlthough I've known it to exist, plagiarism is surprisingly common among communication blogs, even popular ones. It becomes more obvious when you're scanning several hundred. We had no patience for it and dumped any blogger from the list when it became obvious their spun content was something more than collective unconscious.

Pile on posts are different. There comes a point when you have to ask yourself if the world needs another Kenneth Cole Twitter post. Unless you have some exceptionally unique insight to offer on the topic or want to refute a colleague's conclusion, let the media follow the media.

3. Insight. More often than not, posts that tended to rise to the top offered exactly what I mentioned in the second tip. They frequently went against the grain because better communicators gave considerable thought to the communication challenge.

There are dozens of examples that pulled from the greater collection of fresh picked posts last year. A few that come to mind include The Flow of the First Mover by Ike Pigott, which fused analogy and truth; Digital Case Studies: Punch Pizza by Arik Hason, which adds analysis to a promotional success story; and The Five Ways Companies Organize for Social Business by Jeremiah Owyang, which detailed communication structure not unlike we did for fan groups a few years ago.

The primary point is that playing follow the leader like the media often does isn't very valuable unless you can add something else to the story. For example, while everyone was writing about the Gulf Coast oil spill last year, I always tried to focus on less covered topics related to the crisis. On the front end, I didn't write about the topic du jour but rather how all stakeholders were handling the communication differently.

4. Humanity. Throwaway posts and bullet lists usually don't include any semblance of humanity. They're not memorable. There is much more power in sharing a singular story, especially when the story telling is as unique as the content.

humanityLast year, Erin Greenfield shared her first-hand experience at creating a promotional video; Rachel Kay shared her thoughts on how people react to earthquakes; and Geoff Livingston saw the damage caused by the oil spill first hand. You can't fake the passion exhibited by each author. There is no formula.

While it's unlikely to happen every day someone sits down to write, there is something to be said about finding the passion and purpose in the topic you want to cover (and by that I mean beyond any organizational objectives). Don't just write about what you know — write about what makes you passionate. And, when your personal interests don't fit the organizational goals, look for links that help tie them together.

5. Expansive. Too many myopic posts become boorish. It's one of the reasons why links generally lend a little more to any story. It shows evidence that the author isn't considering their point of view to be absolute and helps create content with more depth in fewer words.

While there were some exceptions, the greater majority of fresh content picks were inclined to share supporting and conflicting points of view. It might be worthwhile to point out that this wasn't a condition for inclusion, but rather a post-experiment observation.

One thought of caution: Simply dropping in links to draw the attention doesn't work in the same way. The links included have to be as thoughtful as the content. All too often, we had to brush aside posts that recapped the same private bubble lists that raved about the same three people day after day after day. Sometimes I was tempted to leave a comment — you're friends through thick and thin, we get it.

There are no rules to social media.

light bulbI might like to stress that these five all provide a solid guide, but there are no rules to great writing (blog posts included). And while there is something to be said about design, positioning labels, post times, and share times, focusing on quality content will pay higher dividends over the long term than over analyzing all those details some people prescribe.

I also hope this helps guide some of the people who have asked me to share "all" the blogs that were included so they might learn what not to do as much as they can learn what to do. While I will be including a master list of all those picked some time after the fifth lesson next week, I'm hesitant to include those who were never picked because the intent was never to disparage, popular or not.

This is the fourth lesson from the Fresh Content experiment, which tracked 250 blogs for almost a year. The experiment focused on the quality of the content and not the perceived popularity of the authors.
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