“How do you get your clients?”
“How long did it take you to start making money online?”
“How do you write really good articles?”
I'm asked these questions regularly, and today I want to address how to write really good articles. Or, let's be honest: How to write shit people actually want to read.
Every day, according to unreliable sources, two million blog posts are written. You read that right – every single day, 2 million people are putting fingers to keys and pounding out an article for their blogs, publications, or clients.
The vast majority of those articles won't be read. The vast majority of them are – let's just be real – shit.
A small portion are read by 100 people. A smaller portion are read by 1,000 people. And a few get noticed by “influencers”, syndicated on massive publications and are shared thousands of times.
So how do you make sure that your writing doesn't just end up in the pile of “content” that slowly drifts out to sea? How do you make sure your articles are part of the latter three groups (ideally the latter two)?
Well, you write shit people actually want to read.
Because when somebody actually wants to read your writing, they usually want to share it. They usually get value from it, talk about it, and spread it around.
Creating shit that people actually want to read (or listen to or watch or gaze at vapidly) is one of the main ingredients in the “content” marketing cake, and without it you have no engagement, no fans, no clients and no sales.
My writing is a decade in the making and is still a huge work in progress, but I'm learning and I know some of these tips will turn your writing around.
If you're too lazy to read this post, you can get the checklist I use before I publish all of my articles.
1. You Have a Personality (So Use it)
Look, I know it's hard.
Shifting from writing business reports to the more casual, personal tone of blog posts can be like experiencing culture shock. It's difficult to adjust.
But do what you must to beat the boring out of your writing, because nothing will make a reader run for the hills more quickly than a lack of personality.
People come for the information you're providing, but they stay for you. Inject personality wherever you can.
2. Stop the Regurgitation Cycle
Think back to the last time you read an article, and boomeranged to the blog later.
Maybe you saw a headline on Twitter and couldn't help but click it, or had a date with the Google and stumbled across a post that impressed you. Why did you stick around?
Chances are, you stuck around the blog because it offered something unique. Instead of giving you five ways to save money this fall and telling you to cut out lattes, walk everywhere, and cut up your credit cards, the blog broke the same boring advice chain and offered you scripts to negotiate your bills.
You stuck around because the blog wasn't regurgitating the same crap that everybody else in the blogosphere is. In a crowded market, if you're trying to hawk the same wares as the next dude, you won't get very far.
3. Back That Shit Up
It's not that we don't believe you. We do. Mostly. But there's something credible and sticky about backing your claims up that can't be done through hearsay.
You don't have to read like a textbook to back your article up. You can use:
- Stories: Studies show (see what I did there?) that stories can be more persuasive than logic.
- Studies: Because (gasp!) people tend to believe science more than they'll believe bloggers.
- Analogies: Analogies are like rocket fuel for your writing. Use them.
- Metaphors: Explain the gravity of a situation with metaphors. Or just simplify a complex point.
- “Expert” Quotes: Because people want to know that you're not the only one who thinks so.
The best articles use a mixture of these to back up their claims.
I expect my hyper-backuptivity helped this article I wrote for Fast Company land me 600 email subscribers, be shared over 12,000 times and turned me into a case study for one of Jon Morrow's products. #legit
4. Make Beautiful Word Babies
…with the thoughts in your audience's heads.
This is obviously a…different way of putting it, but you want to pull the thoughts right out of your audience's brains like pulling at a thread on a sweater. Then, weave that thread into your own fabric.
See, studies show we love it when people mimic us. I'm not saying you subconsciously revelled in your little brother's copycatting, but when waitstaff in a restaurant repeat your order in your exact words, they get a bigger tip.
When you use the exact words your audience uses in your writing, you resonate with them; you make them feel as if you're reading their minds. Before I released the Etsy eCourse, I surveyed my Etsy-loving audience for two things:
- To make sure I was helping them with what they actually needed help with, and
- To find out what language they use to describe their pains.
Here are some of the answers I got:
See the part that is highlighted in yellow? “Allergic to social media”? I took that right out of my audience's mouth (the survey respondent even noticed and loved that I used it).
See the first question in the survey? I used the words “stand out” in my first bullet because that's the language my audience used.
One of piece of feedback I hear from Unsettlers is: “I feel like you read my mind”. That's because I did. You email me, I use your words in articles (anonymously) to write things that you actually want to read.
5. Stop Being a Fatty
Nobody likes to look at ugly things.
This sounds really mean in the context of the subhead, but what I really mean is: Fat paragraphs are not okay. They're hard on the eyes, not scannable, and nobody actually reads them.
Break your paragraphs up into snackable chunks: a maximum of 2-3 sentences (or 4-5 if you use really short sentences). Fat paragraphs:
Whip those paragraphs into shape and trim the fat.
6. You're not a Kardashian & Your Blog Is Not a Diary
Back in 2008, most bloggers just wrote about their lives. Since there were approximately 78,847% fewer blogs out there, this was fine. Some even did really well, a la Dooce.
Here's the thing though:
People don't care that much about your life.
If I had a dollar for every time somebody said “I should become a blogger. My life is like a reality show!” when they found out what I do, I'd have enough to ship at least one of those people off to a remote island for the real thing.
Your life is not as interesting to others as it is to you. Trust me. I know, because I think my life is pretty damn interesting, but to you? Hearing what I do on a day to day is like watching the yule log channel. It might give you the warm and fuzzies for five seconds until somebody posts about their baby's potty training progress on Facebook.
In a stuffed-to-the-brim internet, readers want to know about your life to the extent that they can apply it to their own. Weave small stories and facts about you into your blog post, but the whole “dear diary” thing should be reserved for your journal and the blogs of 2008.
7. Don't Waste Your Reader's Time
Ever heard that we have eight second attention spans?
It's bleak, but true. Though this doesn't mean that you'll be forever doomed to writing articles that only take 8 seconds to read, it does mean that useless words are bad news. Stop using “that”, “in order to” and “there are” (in most cases).
- Don't say: “Stop using these words in order to write better.” Say “Stop using these words to write better.”
- Don't say: “I want to do work that I love.” Say: “I want to do work I love.”
- Don't say: “There are many bloggers who use useless words.”Say: “Many bloggers use useless words.”
You catch my drift, so I won't waste your time concluding this point.
8. Write Like You Talk
If you're having a hard time going from stiff business report writing to blog writing, this tip is for you:
Read your writing out loud.
The best way to describe blog writing is like an article where you're writing like you talk. If you read your post aloud it will help you find your “voice” and a good flow for your article. It will also identify those sticky sentences that aren't quite right so you can rephrase them.
Chances are you don't say “however” and “thus” and “estimated time of arrival” (am I the only one who hates that last one?) while you're speaking. But you do say “but” and “so” and “when will you be here?”.
9. Become a Copycat
You don't need a formal education to write well.
You don't need to get a certificate in writing or take writing courses in college or intern under any great writers. I mean… these things will help, sure. But the best writing education I've ever received has been 100% free and a go-at-your-own pace:
Becoming a copycat.
When I got serious about improving my writing, I zoned in on a couple of writers I admire. Then, I read everything they'd ever written (at least, that I could get my hands on).
I read blog posts, books, reports, eBooks, guest posts…
I stalked them on Twitter and analyzed their Facebook posts and immersed myself in their writing. Then, I'd copy them. Not completely, and not in a way that I was plagiarizing them. But in an apprenticeship way.
I would see how they transitioned to a new paragraph. I'd pick apart their introductions and conclusions. I'd study why they did what they did. I'd analyze their headlines. Their blogs became my writing college. I'd test out their methods in my own words, with my own flare.
They probably don't know who I am (certainly back then they had no clue I existed), but I admired their style, so I borrowed their structure. I suggest you do the same. Don't plagiarize anybody. Don't use their precious words. But shop at the same stores as them.
Try their styles out for size. See what fits.
You Don't Have to Be Perfect
To write shit people want to read, you don't have to be Jane Austen, and you don't have to be flawless.
You can make spelling mistakes, commit grammatical errors, and start sentences with prepositions. The point is not to write like you have a full team of editors proofreading your work. It's to write interesting things, like a human, and for humans.
If you can nail that down, you're golden.