Content has been king for the best part of two decades now and its popularity shows no signs of relenting.
Businesses that subscribe to content marketing attract roughly three times as many leads as those that don't and enjoy a conversion rate almost six times higher than non-adopters.
And while you've certainly got to be in it to win it, unlike a primary school egg and spoon race, simply taking part won't earn you any medals. Producing sufficient levels of tailored, effective and engaging content in a timely manner are commonly cited as some of the biggest challenges for marketers, particularly in the field of B2B.
Content shouldn't be confused with copy, however, and while the likes of video, visual and other types of rich media are on the up - written articles remain a steadfast favourite for newcomers and veterans alike.
In this guide, I'll tap into the experience I've gained after spending the best part of a decade in the field as a professional writer and reveal my one sure-fire method for producing better content that attracts leads and delights your prospects.
Content and Competition
The good news is content marketing works. The bad news? Everyone knows it. Around 60% of organisations plan to up their game in the field - devoting more time and effort to attracting leads via its methodology. The stuff you produce now faces more competition than ever before as more and more businesses jump on the bandwagon and try their hand at inbound marketing.
When it comes to content - and particularly written articles - the quality of your work is one of the key differentiators. The discipline has thankfully moved beyond being a simple way to court search engines and producing quality pieces that people want to use, share and link to is now considered something of a Holy Grail for marketers.
Text-based articles are the easiest and most cost-effective type of content to produce, but that doesn't make them any easier to get spot-on. So without any further ado, I'll reveal my one guaranteed way to produce readable, genuinely engaging content that your audience will love:
Become a better writer
A bit of an obvious one, perhaps, but far from straightforward. Some may doubt that the skill of good writing can even be taught or developed but I'm utterly convinced.
So where to start?
No good writer (or any writer for that matter) exists in a vacuum. Reading gives you the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants - so why would you even try to take baby steps on your own?
In terms of what you should be reading, there's few boundaries. Try your hand at everything - from Shakespearean sonnets to classic Bildungsromans and modern thrillers (although forgoing 50 Shades of Grey, et al is probably a safe bet). Be sure to make a habit of it, however, as its usefulness will be drastically reduced if you attempt to do it in fits and spurts.
My personal favourite novel for its writing is Joseph Heller's Catch 22, which is a gem of wordplay, although the one serious recommendation I'd make for every aspiring writer is to delve into J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series - and particularly the first book. Her writing is probably the least 'flabby' I've come across - it gets to the point with a minimum of baggage and emulating her straightforward style will be a boon for anyone looking to improve their writing.
Don't let the process become one of passive consumption, however, and be sure to note any works/chapters/stanzas you find to be particularly captivating. Look at what exactly they did to make you feel that way and try and turn it into a general point you can apply to your own work. The path to better writing is paved with a thousand of these micro-lessons.
Read some more
Now we've covered reading for pleasure, when producing written materials for content marketing - checking out what your competitors, peers and the industry leaders in your field (both at home and abroad) are doing is a must.
Make detailed notes on what they're up to and what strategy you can glean from their public-facing efforts. Decipher what they're doing well, what they're not doing so well and what they're not doing at all. Don't confine yourself solely to your field either. Look beyond and even consider disparate areas that at a first glance, might have nothing to do with your sector or industry.
They say the best thieves make the best artists and they're not wrong. Every writer worth their salt has borrowed and adapted from somewhere else, so don't be afraid to jump on the bandwagon. Needless to say, you shouldn't plagiarise though - posting duplicate content won't go down well with Google and it's not likely to win you any friends in the long-run.
Sub-edit the work of others
I'd attribute the biggest improvement in my own writing to sub-editing the work of others. This is a process whereby you read over their work, suggest amendments and check for errors.
Everyone's brain works differently and by being exposed to different forms of expression, you'll be able to co-opt things you like into your own writing and avoid practises that rub you up the wrong way.
Get the ball rolling
While reading will definitely set you in good stead, you're undoubtedly looking for some practical guidance in what to do when it comes time to knuckle down and put words on a page.
Blank Page Syndrome: Blank page syndrome is a common affliction that strikes veteran and beginner writers alike. Its symptoms are characterised by a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer quantum potential of what you've yet to write.
My top trick for dealing with this? Start writing. If you put (virtual) pen to paper, even if you think what you've written is terrible, you'll have a firm foundation upon which to build on. By writing that first sentence, you'll get a feel for what you're trying to get at and a better idea of what tack to take.
Go away: You heard me! The worst time you can possibly review your writing is straight after producing it. My advice is to go and focus on another task or simply take a break (time allowing) before coming back to view it with a fresh pair of eyes.
This step can be especially difficult if you're constrained by deadlines but trust me, make time for it - it'll work wonders for your writing. Not only will previously-invisible mistakes become apparent, but you'll be able to re-read your piece with a much more detached editorial eye.
Break it up over there: Paragraphs are your friend. Breaking your writing up will make it easier to comprehend - particularly for info-hungry online readers, who tend to scan. Containing points within paragraphs will also help you organise the points you're trying to get across in a more coherent fashion.
Attempt to Alliterate: Many ancient cultures believed alliteration to have magical properties - and it does (they also believed this of rhyme and iambic pentameter, but these are understandably harder to include in blog posts). By attempting to alliterate, you'll force yourself out of your comfort zone when it comes to adjectives and stop yourself slipping into by-the-numbers or formulaic writing.
Don't spend ages agonising over the perfect phrase though, and if alliteration would make a sentence feel contrived, avoid it like the plague.
Theasurus.com: Overusing words will make your writing drab. I myself am a recovering addict of the word 'plethora'.
Fortunately, finding alternatives is easier than ever before. If you're using a modern browser and your default search engine is Google - simply type 'thesaurus <word>' and you'll be greeted with a selection of substitutes.
Writing is inherently subjective and while there's no right way to do things, there's a few issues that I've seen crop up time and again from both those just starting out in the field, those who dip their toe in now and again and professional writers alike.
I'm no grammar fascist and definitely not an authority on the English language, but mistakes definitely do detract from readability and there's a few common issues that really grind my gears.
Received Pronunciation: Sometimes, when people put pen to paper - they inexplicably become a BBC TV presenter from the 1950s. That is to say they drop their normal tone of voice, and instead adopt an over-formalised style - using a jumble of ten-dollar words and sprawling sentences that come across as contrived at best and nonsensical at worst.
When composing editorial - and particularly blog - content, write like you talk and don't be afraid to make ample use of contractions. Pay no heed to those who fanatically change 'there's' to 'there are' and focus on producing clear, compelling copy that gets your point across in a straightforward fashion.
Comma, comma, comma chameleon: I'm a huge fan of style guides that proscribe avoiding what's known as Oxford or 'serial' commas (comma's before 'and' in lists) and generally recommend stripping back comma usage as much as possible.
You're not writing a Bronte novel and overly-complex sentences that contain a wealth of comma-separated sub-clauses don't make for easy reading.
Ellipsis points… Completely made-up fact - nine out of ten people don't know how to use ellipsis points.
These are the three dots that are used to indicate the omission of words. In my experience of sub-editing the writing of others, I've seen these used in every conceivable way and yet rarely the right one. Simply steer clear of these.
Semicolons: The same goes for semicolons. Described by the Oatmeal as 'the most feared punctuation on earth' - these innocent looking dots are another of the most chronically misused typographical tools I've come across.
To get round their trickiness, I'd heartily recommend using a friendly dash - it serves the same purpose without the potential danger of putting your proverbial foot in it and attracting the scorn of grammar purists.
Consistency: I'm a firm believer that language is in a constant state of flux and evolves through usage and as such, take a particularly permissive view of colloquialisms, alternative spellings and the like.
Having said that - whatever you choose to use, it's vital to be consistent with your syntax throughout your writing. Don't arbitrarily trade up 'online' for 'on-line' half way through a piece or be 'focused' in one paragraph and 'focussed' in another.
Be sceptical of spellcheck: Spellcheckers are an incredibly useful tool and they're improving all the time. Nonetheless - they can and do make errors, so don't let your natural proof-reading schools take a backseat to the automatons when looking over your work.
Oh and please, please, please - ensure your dictionary is set to 'UK'. For some reason, British readers are particularly hostile to our US friends' prolific use of Zs.
Companies are singular entities: This one personally took me some time to get my head around. Despite everything we know to the contrary, companies are referred to as singular entities, rather than the group of people they're made up of.
Therefore, Joe Blogs Inc. didn't release their new marketing campaign, even though we know a group of people was responsible for it. The company released its new marketing campaign. It's also important to note that they're also forever denied the use of possessive apostrophes - but many spellcheckers won't understand the context of this, so be sure to keep an eye out.
Humour: It can be really hard to convey humour in writing. Something you, your friends and/or colleagues might find hilarious can often fall flat in the face of a wider audience.
My rule of thumb is only include humour if you're absolutely sure it'll appeal to the majority of the audience you're writing for. Witty wordplay, however, should be encouraged across the board (although try not to make copy too contrived in pursuit of this).
Anecdotes: Telling a story can be a great way to captivate a reader, but make sure it has a genuine link to the point you're trying to get across.
I've seen too many tenuously-linked tales and meandering memoirs that don't really add anything to a piece and could easily be replaced by a straightforward statement.
The Exception that Proves the Rule
Of course, in the proper circumstances all the recommendations above can be safely disregarded without fear. As mentioned previously, whether or not you appreciate a piece of writing is an inherently subjective call and those who think outside the box can make great strides.
Writing editorial content, blogs, and writing in general, is more of an art than a science, but by listening to your critics (the biggest of these is likely to be yourself) and putting in plenty of practice, you'll be able to craft creative copy that captures and holds the attention of readers.
If you've got any writing tips, or want to ask any questions, be sure to leave a comment below or give me a shout on Twitter.
And if you're looking for more tips on copywriting or content marketing, be sure to get in touch today. We've also put together a new introductory guide to content marketing, so hit the button below and download it for free right now:
Image used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Marketingfacts.nl.