Wednesday, May 14

Five Popular Content Writing Tips That Are Dead Wrong

With the proliferation of technology, some people assume that writing proficiency is increasing and not diminishing. This isn't the case. One recent OECD study shows that despite having higher than average educational attainment, adults in the United States are below average in basic literacy.

How low? The United States ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, with one in six adults scoring below level 2 (illiterate) on the literacy scale. Perhaps more troubling, college graduates demonstrate comparatively miserable scores. This means that degrees are beginning to create a meaningless expectation that graduates possess basic skill sets.

"Moreover, the relationship between parents’ education and skills proficiency varies across generations," the study says. "In Korea and the United States, for example, the relationship between socio-economic background and skills proficiency is much weaker among younger adults than among older adults."

While some might not be surprised to see the study cite a decline in literacy, education is not at fault exclusively. Despite employers wanting employees with strong written and verbal communication skills, more and more professionals promote content tips that reinforce the idea that writing is less important than it was in previous decades. Here are five myths that demonstrate it.

1. Everything is trending toward less words so write less. While writing tight and economy of language are important objectives for all writers, writing "less" is always superseded by the idea that content needs to be as long as it takes to effectively communicate a point. More can be memorable.

Never mind what big brands do. Copywriters have long known that big brands have the advantage of product familiarity. It's easy for Coca-Cola to show a big picture of a polar bear and a can of coke and have people understand it. Coca-Cola literally leverages a lifetime of marketing about Coke, its taste, and its product distinction. They don't write "less." They wrote "more" in a very, very big way.

If you tried to launch a new brand of soda the same way, it would likely fail. New voices in social media and content marketing face the same challenge. Well-known names writing about social media can say something in a few sentences. Newcomers and less familiar voices have to provide proof.

2. Adding exciting words to marketing copy will jazz it up. The biggest division between advertising copywriters and less experienced marketing content writers is seen in their word choices. Many marketers think that people respond to "greatest," "most exciting," and "best ever." They don't.

People respond best to facts because they convey memorable bits of information while empty claims lack conviction. You can write that a car has "zoom" and possibly attract attention (even if it is cliche), but if you don't back it up with facts — 0-50 mph in 60 seconds — people will easily draw their own conclusions. They might even conclude that all your hype is really hyperbole.

The truth is that empty claims are as boring as cliches. They are also harder to remember because they blend into the background like other generalities. A restaurant that sells delicious chicken is much more forgettable than a restaurant that sells crispy fried chicken, oven-roasted chicken, or free-range chicken. While all of them could be delicious, facts help people make purchasing decisions.

3. Writing catchy copy takes almost no time at all. Real writers know that packing conviction into a few short graphs or a headline demands discipline. It requires editing skills, proofreading skills, cutting, rewriting, and then more cutting and more rewriting. Writing tight takes more time, not less.

If you ever study automotive marketing, you'll find that the best manufacturers tell different parts of a big story across several mediums. Television commercials and some print advertisements are often nothing more than invitations to the rest of the message. The bulk of the marketing message comes later, perhaps in a brochure or on a website where it makes sense to provide details for people who are actively purchasing a car.

The point? Looks can be deceiving. One ad with a 3-5 word headline has an entire novel of strategy, psychology, and content behind it. Very few good writers just jot down whatever comes to mind. For most, even if some spark did originate in the shower, the hard work happens before and after the fact.

4. Persuasion and believability comes from good writing alone. There is some truth to it, but not really. Even when writing is beautifully conceived and perfectly written, it still needs some help. This is especially true for advertising copy and marketing content because people know it is biased.

When facts alone are not enough, content writers can employ several dozen approaches to elevate content credibility. These can include any number of customer testimonials, third-party endorsements or research studies, independent case studies, organization success stories, performance tests, key performance indicators, objective measurements, and even guarantees (provided they aren't cliche).

Even marketing content writers can boost their credibility by providing links to other stories and sources. It demonstrates that the opinions, thoughts, and conclusions weren't generated in a closet but within a greater and informed context. Let readers know you've done some homework.

5. One medium will rule them all and in the darkness bind them. There is increasing chatter that visual communication is outpacing written communication on the net. It's true and untrue at the same time. Images can boost both attraction and retention but the notion that images beat words is fiction.

Good copywriters (and perhaps all writers) have always known not to think in terms of words alone. Most are taught or teach themselves to think about communication as a mixed medium and in multiple dimensions. Pictures, symbols, shapes, layouts, and different components like audio and video can all contribute something to whatever needs to be communicated.

The idea is to think visually, no matter what role writing plays as part of the communication. Ask good educators. They know it too. Teaching that includes audio, visual, and written communication creates powerful connections and increased retention. So don't expect writing to lose its luster anytime soon. It will only become more important.

The solution for a better educated work force is to stop making excuses. 

The current education system isn't exclusively to blame. All five of these "tips" indirectly contribute to the greater myth that the written word is an inferior form of communication. It's not. The written word in one of the most accurate and flexible means of communication ever conceived and we're living in an era where we can access more of it than ever before in human history.

As communication professionals, we ought to do everything we can to support the written word rather than dumbing down marketing communication to cover for the abundance of bad writing being produced on daily basis. It seems to me that overtly short content, marketing fluff, rushed content, unsupported claims, and pretty pictures aren't a solution to combat illiteracy but a contribution to it.

These topics and how to make a positive impression with clear, concise, and grammatically-correct personal or business writing will be part of a half-day program, Editing & Proofreading Your Work, on June 6 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to discussing current trends, the class focuses on common mistakes that writers make and how to assess your individual writing skills.
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