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Honor Thy Content: The Five Commandments of Editorial Excellence

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Five key ways to captivate your audience with content
  • Three pitfalls to avoid in content marketing
  • How to identify your company's voice when writing content

Here's a basic truth of content marketing: Your work must be in publishable condition before you hit the "post" button. "Publishable condition" means your podcasts should be as professional as your favorite radio shows, your videos as polished and entertaining as the shows you watch on TV, your articles as well written as the magazines you read. Well, your stuff should at least aspire to reach that level of professional excellence.

"Are you kidding?" you say. "I can't compete with all that professional content!"

Sorry, but you have no choice: The Content Wars are on. "The one who has the most engaging content wins, because frequent and regular contact builds a relationship" and so offers lots of opportunities for conversion, says Joe Pulizzi, the unofficial godfather of content marketing (as quoted in Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business (Wiley 2011), co-authored by Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman).

Like it or not, your content battles, every moment, to break through the daily avalanche of contemporary media and claw its way to its intended audience. To succeed, it must be as strong as you can make it.

The most direct way to create first-class content is to hire a professional writer or videographer. But if your company can't afford to do so, don't worry. There's another, more cost-efficient path: The Five Commandments of Editorial Excellence.


1. Be patient

People—marketers included—generally hate to write. When forced to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, most of us race through the task... and in our haste we don't necessarily do our best work. If you've ever been in a college composition class, you know what I'm talking about: One very fast draft, maybe a quick proofread, and then, boom, "Here's my paper, professor!" So much rushed writing is, to borrow from Shakespeare's Richard the Third, "Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before [its] time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up."

Marketers write quickly for a specific reason: They have an enormous amount to accomplish. They are burdened with so many tasks—regular tweeting and blogging responsibilities, making sense of analytics reports, crunching numbers to prove ROI to Sales, writing copy for a new print ad, and making sure the printers get the right colors on that cursed brochure—that they can certainly be forgiven if they don't devote hours to their prose. Right?

Not really.

Take. Your. Time. Too often, we launch content into cyberspace before it's ready for the journey. In this superb video monologue, Ira Glass talks about This American Life's extremely long gestation process: "Often, the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story."

Don't just blog about your company's latest hire or newest promotion. Take the time to find interesting and relevant stories. Every company has something unique to offer. Put some effort into figuring out what makes your firm special.

2. Be a reviser

First-draft excellence is what we call, in the writing business, an accident. As novelist William Styron once wrote, "I get a fine warm feeling when I'm doing pretty well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by getting started each day. Let's face it, writing is hell."

In the real world, one must write and revise, write again and revise again, to produce anything of quality. Note: This process applies to everyone who aspires to excellence. Even Robert Pinsky, former Poet Laureate of the United States, depends on it. Watch as he types, erases, and retypes a poem about jazz great Charlie Parker.

You must always ask yourself, "Is my content as good as it can be?" As Dr. Seuss once told his biographer, "Whenever things go a bit sour in a job I'm doing, I always tell myself, 'You can do better than this.'"

3. Be purposeful

Look carefully at your content. If, on honest reflection, it doesn't serve your audience's needs, rework it. If after rewriting your article (or redoing your podcast or video) it still doesn't provide true value, into the trash it goes.

Mastering your content also means understanding your constituents. You might think, for example, they want just a laugh, but in fact they may be seeking something deeper. "Viral videos aren't just about being funny," the CEO of College Humor recently told New York magazine. "They're about identity creation. You send the video to your friends to say something about yourself. You're saying, 'I get this. Do you get it?'"

Learn to identify the value your content should provide (a software company might want to give readers a sense of online security, whereas a solar-energy provider might want to help readers live "greener" lives), then ensure that your content truly achieves its goal. If it's hard for you to keep this tenet in mind while creating content, write it out. Before you begin your blog post, identify not just the topic you're working on but precisely how this piece will help your readers. Then, compose your piece and reread the thing—paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence—to see whether you've truly achieved your goal.

It's more work, but it will pay off if your goal in content marketing is an authentic relationship with an audience. But if you simply want to produce five blog posts per week, regardless of how many comments or tweets or "likes" you get, just keep grinding it out.

4. Be clear

Let's not talk about the ugly, jargon-strewn landscape of business writing: You know all about that. Instead, strive to make everything you write crystal clear.

One of the greatest how-to articles ever written is "Politics and the English Language," by George Orwell, and it's also the best guide to writing clear prose. If you want to write well, read it and adhere to Orwell's instructions. Here are Orwell's points amplified and put into context for content marketers...

  • Clichés. When you talk, for instance, about letting the cat out of the bag, one sees neither the sack nor the frightened pet fleeing for her life. Stamp out your clichés as though they were cockroaches.
  • Passive construction. Your writing should feature strong active verbs and subjects. Passive verbs weaken your points, your prose, and your Web presence. Instead of writing "The lousy Web copy was written by the dude with the fauxhawk," try this: "The dude with that moronic fauxhawk wrote the lousy Web copy."
  • Wordiness. Orwell said it best: "If it is possible to cut a word, always cut it out." Look at the copy on your website and identify every word you can cut. You may be surprised at how many wasted words we employ.

5. Be yourself

In the Content Wars, authenticity always wins. People love to talk about the importance of differentiating one's product in the traditional marketplace—it's no different in the content marketplace.

If your website sounds like every other robotic piece of Web copy and cliché-encrusted press release, few will listen. But if you learn to write the way you speak to your living, breathing customers, you have a chance of creating great content.

Look at Gary Vaynerchuk. Listen to that guy talk! He may shout a little much, but the man is smart, passionate, original, and people dig him. He's got the right idea: He's selling his services as a wine expert in his own voice.

Does your company have its own voice?

It sure does. Your business speaks to customers in its own way. A successful company acts as a professional problem-solver—some take the tone of doctors, others that of plumbers, shrinks, or IT geeks—and their communications should have a similar tone. Look to your salespeople or customer-service reps, and notice what it sounds like when they successfully engage customers. (It might be worth your while to eavesdrop on a sales or customer-service call.) Isolate that particular tone and import it in your content. Do your customers appreciate your sense of humor? Bring some laughs into your content. Do they feel comforted that you're as solemn as an undertaker? Then wipe off every trace of smile in your stuff.

Cultivate your authentic business voice, and import it into your content. Very important point: Avoid mimicry or gimmickry. As English Department favorite Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Imitation is suicide." Whatever you do, be yourself.


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Ken Gordon is the social-media manager for the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. If you liked this article—or you happen to care about excellence in Jewish education—please Like the PEJE Facebook page.

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  • by Inheritance Planning Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    All good morsels of food for thought. Obvious, until one realises there is no such thing as obvious. My favourite is point 4.

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    @Inheritance Planning: You can't do much better than Mr. Orwell. Thanks for the note. --KG

  • by Bob Brothers, Market-Intel Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Successful communication begins with an understanding of the needs, expectations and preferences of the audience you're trying to reach. Then, tailor the content and the look-and-feel of your message, and the media you select to convey it, to best catch the attention and interest of the people you wish to reach.

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Nicely put, Bob.

  • by Richard Furlong Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Well said Ken.

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    I thank you, Richard.

  • by Sara Stein, Association of National Advertisers Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Trenchant article!

    Let me add a couple of concrete suggestions about wordiness:

    - Never start a sentence with "There are." It's dull, it's flabby, and it's lame.

    - "In order to" can be edited out of almost every sentence in which it occurs. "To" is nearly always sufficient.

    - Don't "be able to." Instead, "can."

    If I had $1 for every marketing piece I've seen that contained one of these examples of sloppy writing, I could retire.

    In addition to Orwell, check out Strunk & White's classic, The Elements of Style.

  • by Srini Kumar Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    We've just released an iPhone app that could help ! Modelled on a microcassette recorder, TinyVox lets you talk out your ideas with a very familiar interface, which you then can transcribe into text at your leisure :) Would love to see writers using it like I do - it's the bee's knees !

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    @Sara: I do like the word "trenchant." Thanks for using it, and for reminding us about "Elements." Ann Handley would surely appreciate it: http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/marketing/article/why-charlottes-w...

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    @Srini: Thanks for the note, --K.

  • by Sara Stein, Association of National Advertisers Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Thanks for the link, Ken. Another great read.

    Ann Handley's lampoon of marketer-speak in the next-to-last paragraph is dead-on:

    "Of course, if I hadn't read The Elements of Style when I was an underclassman at Simmons College, I might be telling you that EB White would inspire 'best-of-breed thought leadership that will help your customers and clients track to true north.'"

    My employer, the Association of National Advertisers, has a brief, funny video from its 2010 annual conference, titled "Say NO to Marketing Buzzwords!" in which marketers (and some agency folks) offer examples of words and phrases that rankle them the most. http://www.ana.net/miccontent/showvideo/id/anc2010-buzzwords

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Thanks for the clip, Sara.

  • by Jef Menguin Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Great advice. Thank you for sharing these tips. I like number two particularly. Be a reviser. I don't and I think I should be.

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Jef: Awesome! We ALL need to spend more time revising. Great that you recognize this. --K.

  • by Ann Handley Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Great article, Ken.

    And Sara: LOVE that video! LOL "Why can't we talk like normal people?" It's so tough, though... even I have a tendency to slip into Frankenspeak.

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Many thanks, Ann.

    And as for your (our) tendency to slip into Frankenspeak, I defer to Orwell, who says: "modern writing at its worst... consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

  • by Jerry Fraeyman Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Orwell and Strunk and White are great writing models. Hemmingway, too, in his most direct subject-verb-object prose. If you have a good story to tell, straight-ahead writing is all you need.

  • by Ken Gordon Wed Jan 5, 2011 via web

    Nice note, Jerry. Any fan of Hemingway, Orwell, and Strunk and White us a friend of mine.

    Speaking of E.B. White... in the book "The Second Tree from the Corner," is a little essay called "Readerhood." It includes the following:

    "The relationship between reader and magazine is so tenuous, so delicately poised, sometimes so purely spiteful and crotchety, that we feel we should preserve, at all costs, the indispensible boon of complete physical separation. Absence is the very essence of readership. Destroy that, and you destroy all. Readers must remain, for editors, a misty though rather laudable group, somewhere out there in the great beyond—like the audience to the actor, a dark, swimming mass of half-people, honored, respected, distant, and inviolate."

    Any opinions on this? It seems like a major instance of anti-social media.

    You can't just chalk it up to White's status as a New Yorker writer... his old-school ideas that author and reader should not talk to each other is a deeply held belief of writers of every stripe.

    We're always talking about the benefits of social media, all the great gains it has brought us, all the VALUE it has added to our organizations, but my question is: What have we lost? Has our focus on online conversations somehow altered--negatively altered--the overall quality of our content? Does White have a legitimate point? Or is he just being a snobby New Yorker writer? MarketingProfs: let me hear what you think! Ann H: surely you have an opinion here...

  • by Bob Brothers, Market-Intel Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    Succinct-ness and brevity are always virtues, but like any, they can be taken too far. Some ideas are just too complex to encapsulate in 140 characters, or 250 words.
    The benefits, I suspect,of e-communications far outweigh the negatives, but I fear they (and cable TV news!) have lowered our attention span and our tolerance for complexity.
    Thanks, Ken - interesting article and great discussion.

  • by Ken Gordon Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    You're right, Bob: we have become intolerant of complexity. And the best way for us to fight it: reading books. Good, complex books. --KG

  • by Bob Brothers, Market-Intel Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    Great Advice! Hemingway and Orwell are hard to beat, but I haven't read much of EB White. I'm re-reading MOBY DICK just now, a delightful book that's wasted on high schoolers.

  • by Ken Gordon Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    Take notes as you read. Maybe you could one day be the author of "Marketing Lessons from 'Moby Dick'"....

    ;)

  • by Bob Brothers, Market-Intel Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    Intriguing idea - Plenty of keen insights there about the quirks of human nature.
    My current project is wrapping up a whitepaper on Branding. Not sure whether I - or the marketing professionals community - have the stamina or attention span for a whole book.

  • by Sara Stein, Association of National Advertisers Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    FYI: Serendipitously, today MediaBizBloggers posted "Monoculture of the Mind: How Social Media Makes Us Dumber" by (all-around good guy) Tom Cunniff. http://www.mediabizbloggers.com/tom-cunniff/112938174.html. Tom expands on many of the points made in the discussion above.

  • by Ken Gordon Thu Jan 6, 2011 via web

    Thanks, Sara. I'll take a look.

  • by Ann Handley Fri Jan 7, 2011 via web

    I kinda love the discussion here.

    As for White's expressed belief that the author and reader should not talk to each other: I guess I'd say that that's up to the writer or the publication, isn't it?

    Certainly there's no requirement that writers and editors must interact with their audience; and I suppose there are authors out there who would feel their work sullied and themselves distracted by such mingling. Seth Godin's decision to opt out of blog comments for his site and not participate in Twitter is a modern-day example of that. Clearly his book sales and speaking career haven't suffered from his decision.

    That said, in the marketing space, Seth is in a whole different category. I think for most companies, opting out of the socially driven feedback loop is just nuts. For those companies publishing content to connect with customers, the benefits of social media far outweigh any possible negatives. And what's more, for the company-as-publisher, listening is as important as talking.

  • by Alexander Prisant Fri Jan 7, 2011 via web

    This article again proves why writers are born, not "made". Reading this will not get a poor writer very far.

    And some of it is downright wrong:
    1. Most people hate to write? The crush of new writers globally provoked by this Depression has sent writing rates down by 90% and freelance writing sites are mushrooming. When confronted with a need to find something new to do today, the world overwhelmingly chooses writing.

    5. Be yourself? Authenticity is not about your personality. It's about your grasp of the subject matter--the facts and your analysis of them. Whether you're shy, athletic or love sending text messages has nothing to do with a well-researched, well-thought out piece of content , written by a person with born writing skills.

    Given that this subject has been covered endlessly for years, this article, sadly adds nothing useful to the conversation. Whatsoever.

    A S Prisant/Prism Ltd.
    www.wordsmithwars.blogspot.com

  • by Ken Gordon Fri Jan 7, 2011 via web

    Alexander: I think you may be correct about the "crush of new writers globally provoked by this Depression"--but I was talking about the people who dislike, or simply don't understand, the real work of writing: revision.

  • by Ken Gordon Fri Jan 7, 2011 via web

    Ann:

    I kinda love it, too.

    I'm very interested in the example of Seth Godin. WHY is he acting like E.B. White at The New Yorker? And how come the social-media world has not raised a ruckus about his "opting out of the socially driven feedback loop"? What's your take on this move?

    Cheers,

    Ken

  • by Ann Handley Fri Jan 7, 2011 via web

    It has. But when you are Seth, you can create your own rules, because you're in his own category. Seth is, I mean.

    Anyway, it's kinda old news:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/06/why_i_dont_have.html

  • by Ken Gordon Fri Jan 7, 2011 via web

    Old news indeed. Thanks for catching me up!

  • by Jef Menguin Tue Jan 11, 2011 via web

    Great advice. Thank you for sharing.

  • by Ken Gordon Tue Jan 11, 2011 via web

    You bet, Jef.

  • by Cathy Burrell Thu Jan 13, 2011 via web

    I completely agree. I have noticed myself writing 2 or 3 blog posts in one day...and then writing nothing for a week. The pressure to PRODUCE, does seem to suck the creativity out of writing. Thanks for the inspiration. I keep trying to remember that creative writing is a pleasure, not a burden.

  • by Ken Gordon Fri Jan 14, 2011 via web

    You have the right attitude, Cathy!

  • by Bob Brothers, market-Intel.com Tue Jan 18, 2011 via web

    I do exactly the same, Cathy. I expect many of us started writing to exercise an inspiration, but most of us find that flame of inspiration soon flickers low.

    I've read that many folks who write for a living find it more drudgery and torture than uplifting. Success, one guy said (Larry McMurtry, perhaps?) come from the habit of forcing himself to write 10 pages every day, whether he likes it or not, whether it's good or not.

    I suppose the self-discipline to sit down and just do it - every day, even when it's not fun - is a major element of becoming successful.

  • by Ingrid de Jong Tue Apr 5, 2011 via web

    Great read Ken. I agreed with the comment about knowing your audience and using that as a starting point. When I am struggling at the start, i'll either create a quick 5-point outline with my main points or even just talk out loud as if I were explaining it to someone. That is always helpful to kick start my more challenging writing projects.

  • by Ken Gordon Tue Apr 5, 2011 via web

    Sounds about right to me, Ingrid.

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