Wednesday, August 20

How To Stand Out In The Content Marketing Crowd

Maybe it is because marketers have turned more than one quarter of their budgets over to content marketing and as many as 62 percent of all companies outsource content creation, but it seems to be true. More people consider themselves writers today than any other time in history. Someone has to produce the 27 million new pieces of content that are shared each day. It might as well be writers.

Sure, some of them might be designers or public relations professionals or photographers or business owners first, but writing tends to be treated as a verb more than a noun. In fact, even those writers who do embrace it as a noun mostly do so with trepidation. I can't count the number of times that I've heard writers sum themselves up by saying "Oh, I'm just a writer" as if such a thing exists.

I don't really think so. No matter what people call themselves, there are people who write and then there are writers. And no, the distinction isn't only tied to proficiency. It's also tied to sense of purpose.

People who write see the task at hand as something that needs to get done. Writers see it as an opportunity to express an idea and hone their craft. A few don't even have a choice. They must write.

But this post isn't about that minority as much as another. There are some people who write who want to become writers. The only problem for them is that they don't look in the right places. They will never learn how to write a compelling blog post by reading blog posts about writing blog posts. You have to look beyond the medium of content creation to find anything worthwhile. Learn from great writers.

Five thoughts about writing from great writers and what they mean.

1. "If you want to be the writer that you confront 30 years later without shame, then learn to ignore your readers." — Harlan Ellison

Ellison knows that his readers are terrific people and mean well enough. But he also knows that once your readers start to know what they like from you, they will demand it over and over again. If you simply deliver what they think they want, then you will look back and discover you've written the same book a dozen times over or, in the case of content creation, the same post.

People often ask why some of the best content creators come and go. It's very much what Ellison said. If you want to be successful, you'll  have to surrender to writing the same thing over and over. Few people can stomach it, which is why some of the best writers drift over time.

2. "For me, the criterion [of being a great writer] is that the author has created a total world in which his people move credibly." — James Michener

When Michener said it, he referenced works like Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray and Huck Finn by Mark Twain. But then he went on to define it as being able to give your writing its own little cosmos. Doing so gives your writing the sense that it really exists in the real world and gives people the opportunity to accept it.

When content creators talk about doing the same thing in an article or post, they often refer to authenticity. There are bloggers who do it especially well. When you read their work, you almost immediately know it is them because they've lace little bits of themselves into the writing.

3. "My advice to writers who want to write columns is to learn to think, learn about history, learn about economics, learn subjects." — Ellen Goodman 

Goodman went on to describe that journalists writing columns (and we can add bloggers and content creators to her list today) can divide much of what they write into two kinds of stories. There are stories that tell you want happened and stories that tell you what it means. So in order to transcend the experience, you have to know your subject, you have to have a view, and you have to care.

Most content today seems to be written much like Goodman describes. Some writers do something or respond to what other people have done and then write about it. Some writers look for something deeper than the surface observations and add significant depth to the content or perhaps add innovation and clarity to the another field. A few overlap.

4. "There is a terrible tendency in this country to consume art and culture, to try to package it in the same way that all our other familiar products are packaged, and that can be terribly distorting to the work, to the art and culture." — Jay McInerney 

The more a writer allows himself to become processed by the machine, the more their work suffers for it. McInerney warns writers away from becoming too distracted by publicity or critics or anyone. The only thing that really counts, he says, is the writing — the ability to convey a thought, idea, or tangible experience to someone else in such a way that it matters to them.

This is true among commercial writers too. While copywriters, public relations professionals, and even modern journalists are pressured to produce content within the tight confines of what the client or agency expects, what might produce an outcome, or what generates traffic, it's always best to push all that aside while writing the draft. All those other mandatories — packaging that ranges from word counts to headline structures — can wait until later.

5. "If you get too predictable and too symmetrical, you lull your readers into — not a literal sleep — but you put their brain to sleep." — Tom Robbins

According to Robbins, the primary purpose of imagery is never to entertain but to awaken the reader to his or her own sense of wonder. If you become too predictable, the rhythm of the language will eventually languish and lose its angelic  intensity. When that happens, the words begin to lose their emotional impact even if the readers continue to read. You have to find a way to wake them up and engage them.

This is the primary reason you'll see marketers and even some others proclaim their preference for shorter and shorter works. The problem is almost never the length. It's almost always in the rhythm and in the beat. You have to change it up. Wake them up.

Do you really think SEO alone will make one piece of content beat 27 million others?

The writing tips above were pulled, in part, from On Being A Writer, a book that was gifted to me very early in my career. It's out of print now, but readily available as an after-market purchase. I don't know if I would call it the best book on writing there ever was, but it does compile 31 interviews with great writers and poets. Their advice is timeless, even if the book is almost history.

The point of it, I suppose, it that if someone who writes really wants to become a writer, then it's more than worthwhile to look beyond the task and more toward the craft. Learn to be a writer by considering the insights of people like Ellison, Michener, Goodman, McInerney, and Robbins. They all say similar things for a reason. There is an art to the craft that transcends all those other nifty tidbits. And you will find them almost anywhere link bait doesn't exist. Good night and good luck.
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