Content marketing is key to developing a strong online presence. Great content helps define an organization and connects it with potential customers and partners – but first, it has to engage its audience.
The writer with a knack for writing attention-getting headlines faces the daunting task of writing articles that live up to the promise of those titles. If a post called “10 Amazing Life Hacks” reads more like “7 Mildly Interesting Techniques for Solving Problems You Didn’t Know You Had,” the reader may justifiably be more annoyed than impressed. But without these kinds of bells and whistles, how do you write content that works?
I’m a college English professor turned professional writer, so it’s fair to say that I have spent a large portion of my career thinking about writing. I know how difficult it is to write anything well, let alone craft engaging online content. To create great content, I encourage writers to begin by focusing on just two core principles: write for your audience, and revise your draft.
Write for your audience
…not for yourself. Great content provides value to its audience. That value, whether informative, persuasive, or entertaining, is what inspires readers to share an article or learn more about the organization. The most effective way to write content that provides value to its audience is to write from a sincere desire to serve the reader.
As writers, we are often stuck in our own heads. This is understandable: it’s hard enough to figure out what we’re trying to say without adding other elements into the mix. But content creation is an act of communication, not merely an act of expression.
The audience is the crucial element to consider when writing compelling content. Both the writer and the message itself should be subordinate to the audience in the sense that both writer and message should shape themselves to serve the reader’s needs. The message can be challenging or controversial without losing the audience if it is written from an audience-oriented perspective.
To win your audience, revise your draft
For many – certainly for me – trying to think from the reader’s vantage point(s) while writing the initial draft is asking too much. For that reason, successful writers tend to view revision as an essential step, equal to drafting in importance.
When I say revision, I don’t mean proofreading for errors (although that is important as well). I mean analyzing an article’s rhetorical strategy from the reader’s viewpoint and considering how each section, each paragraph, each sentence, and each word could work better for the audience.
The truth is that even the most interesting content rests on a knife’s edge: the same amazing Internet that brings readers to your article from all over the globe is also full of other things to read and watch, shiny distractions forever trying to lure those readers away. No matter how valuable a piece of content is, if it is unclear, vague, or wordy, it will lose readers.
Tips on revising for your audience
I’ve designed the following five-point checklist to help writers revise their work. While the “tip of the iceberg” cliché comes to mind, these suggestions will help develop the reader-oriented mindset that is crucial to writing great content.
- Consider scaling back. Many posts take on too much, resulting in pieces that are long on generalizations and short on specifics. Instead of 10 tips, it might be better to choose the best five and use the additional space to provide supporting evidence, examples, or details.
- Scrutinize the article’s arrangement. Is the piece’s main point clearly stated in an easy-to-find place? The classic place for the article’s main point is at the end of the introduction. Other good spots for your main point are at the very beginning of the piece and at its end. (Fair warning: articles that save the revelation of their main point for the end of the piece must take particular care with organization, below.) Are the subpoints placed in the most effective order, or would a different sequence be better for the reader?
- Add a system of signposts. Subheadings are great, but they do not take the place of topic sentences that govern each paragraph’s material. Also consider how each sentence relates to the sentences before and after it. Would it be helpful to the reader to have a transitional word or phrase like “in addition,” “therefore,” or “on the other hand”?
- Be careful when co-opting the reader’s perspective. Phrases like “most people would agree that…” or “as we all know…” are more likely to drive a wedge between writer and reader than to build consensus. “You” is the riskiest pronoun to use, because it often comes in the context of telling readers what they should do or what the writer assumes they are thinking. Too much of this will tempt even the most generous reader to rebel.
- Before moving on to the editing stage, review the draft three more times from three different perspectives. First, read it through the eyes of your best friend to highlight the piece’s personality and remove stiff or forced-sounding language. Second, read it through a stranger’s eyes – someone who owes you nothing and only wants to get value from the article – to uncover areas where the piece can be clearer or more specific. Lastly, go through the piece as an enemy might, to excise weak arguments and anticipate objections.
These steps take time and trouble, but they will result in a clearer, more compelling article. I hope you’ll try them, and let me know how it goes.