reading

Thoughts and Tips on Good Writing

With diminishing attention spans and exploding communications channels, good writing has never been more important – or more daunting. The secret to improved writing skills may be simpler than you think – read, study, write, edit, then edit some more.

With diminishing attention spans and exploding communications channels, good writing has never been more important – or more daunting. The secret to improved writing skills may be simpler than you think – read, study, write, edit, then edit some more.

Good writing is essential to effective marketing. Blogs, video scripts, ad copy, promoted content and email subject lines demand an informed literacy – you need to write in ways your viewers will read or listen.

Bryan Hutchinson, founder of PositiveWriter.com, offers suggestions on how to write better. They include reading a lot, studying the techniques of good writers and writing. That’s right, you can get better at writing by actually writing.

The one caveat to writing better is a personal commitment to edit more. Editing is not a form of self-flagellation or an expression of self-doubt. The most gifted writers in history have been craftsmen with words. They didn’t consider what they wrote down as gospel; they viewed what they wrote as the first step toward something better after the hard work of editing.

Hutchinson encourages writers to have passion. I agree. But passion can blindside a writer, allowing them to fall in love with his or her own words. Writing is not about romance, even when it is intended as romantic. Writing is about craft. If you must, fall in love with the process of producing words that speak clearly to your readers. That’s especially true if your mission is to write marketing copy.

As a college student, I deeply admired e e cummings who broke conventions of form and grammar to create a distinctive personal style. Commendable, but not always readable. Since Shakespeare, no English-speaking author has written with more boundless scope than James Joyce, another personal favorite. Yet few people even attempt to tackle Joycean prose. Cummings and Joyce would have made poor marketers, even though they are great writers of poetry and prose because both were relentless editors of their own writing.

In addition to writing and editing, good writers also need to empathize with their audiences. Cummings and Joyce didn’t write for their readers; they expected their readers to meet them on their terms. Modern writers, especially those in the field of marketing, don’t have that luxury. They need to write in ways that audiences will want to read. You can make fun of romance novels, but they can be page-turners because they give their readers what they want.

Learning your audience isn’t purely instinctive. It takes discipline to research and understand an audience. For marketers, this requires intentional research, often in both qualitative and quantitative forms. But novelists often do much the same things by listening carefully to how people speak so they can capture their words and cadence in the characters they create. This is what make characters seem real, just like market research makes product appeals familiar and realistic.

Many of the barriers to good writing – or writing at all – are psychological. One of the biggest bogeymen is “writer’s block.” Any writer can be stumped on the journey to a final script, short story or op-ed, but it isn’t because of writer’s block, which is a state of mind, not a road bump. Writers must have determination to power through road bumps by writing, rewriting or rethinking a key passage. Another phony ruse is waiting for inspiration from the muse. There are plenty of great places from which to gain inspiration without waiting for a mythical voice to whisper in your ear.

Even the phrase “gifted writer” is misleading. If you struggle to write well, you can blame it on your genes. The truth is that some people have better verbal skills than others. So what. Authentic writing comes as much from the heart as the brain. You can write what you feel with a ferocious genuineness. Writing that is genuine can be compelling and sparkle, even if the grammar is fractured.

The most existential part of writing is developing your own voice. Being unique is a hallmark of good writers. Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo writing style is about as far away from John Milton’s classical style as you could get, yet both are viewed as excellent writers. Your style should match your message, but most of all it should reflect your mastery of how you compose words and tell stories. Good writing never goes out of style, even when styles of writing change.

Don’t let writing be the bane of your life. It can be a great stress reliever and outlet for self-expression. It also can be a trusted conduit to share information of value to family and friends and to customers, and constituents. 

Gary Conkling Image.jpg

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

 

Design Online Content for Skimmers

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

Content providers beware. The explosion of online content has turned readers into skimmers. We still read what interests us, but we typically skim over most everything else.

Say what you want about shrinking attention spans or rising visual IQs, the evolving patterns of viewership have less to do with verbal and visual intelligence and more to do with survival. There is simply no other way to cope with masses of online material than to skim.

Developing content creation strategies that recognize our reading/skimming habits is essential if you want to be noticed. Here are some suggestions:

1  Create online content that people can skim. Design content with concise verbiage, good imagery and clear packaging that makes it easy to get the point even when skimming.

2  Include more visual content. Not pictures for picture’s sake, but quality visual content that tells your story better and more quickly than words. It can be photography, video, a chart, an infographic or a doodle that grabs the eye of a skimmer. Take consolation in data suggesting people remember more of what they see than what they read.

3  Place content where skimmers congregate. User data shows social media sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are growing rapidly because they cater to cursory readers.

4  Leverage the online capability of layering content. As people skim, they look for what interests them, which they read more intently. Online architecture and links let people drill down on what interests them, even as they skim. Embedding links needs to be an integral part of content creation.

5  Offer content that answers questions or solves problems. Readability assessments reveal people will read content that answers their questions or offers problem-solving assistance. This requires sharp targeting, drawing on credible research, to find who is asking the questions you answer and problems you solve – and where they go to find reliable information and advice. People are more apt to read your content if they trust it.

6  Provide content that is pleasurable to read. Evidence indicates people take more time reading – or actually reading – material they enjoy. You may have to tell the boss to deep-six his merchandising message and substitute other content, perhaps content generated by other consumers or site users. Instead of describing the features of your product, show how a consumer can enjoy it.

7  Think about riding a bus. This is a useful metaphor for designing content aimed at increasing numbers of mobile users. If you can find ways to stick out as someone thumbs through sites amid jostling and looking for your exit, then you are probably creating content that is tailored to skimmers.

8  Make your content appealing to share. Sharing is a trait of skimmers. They assume other skimmers may miss something they should see. Don't get your heart broken if sharers haven't read your entire content. Getting into circulation is a form of validation of your content that will impress some skimmers to treat it as trusted content – and actually read it.

If this seems a little discouraging, don't let it get you down. You have to walk before you can run, and you may have to abide skimming to convert scanners into readers.