A client was searching for a writer who is a parent to write for them about children’s screen time. I was commissioned to write a sample post. They wanted the post to be friendly and engaging and factual but not laden with research. (My initial more serious paragraphs clarified that for the client.) Most of all they wanted something real.
If You Have a Question About Screen Time, Ask A Kid
If I have a question that’s teen-related I ask Amy*. No, not that Amy. We’ve got our own Amy at home. She’s my straight-talking source if I catch her at the right moment. As a parent, and even as a person, of the 21st century, one of the greatest challenges of our times is screen time. ‘Tell me about it,’ sighs every parent to whom I say those words. l frequently warn Amy to get off her screen ready to sleep, and yet realized the other day, I’ve never asked her what she thinks about screen time.
Veteran Reporter Fails To Interview Own Daughter. Shock!
Luckily, Amy was in the mood to speak and I seized the moment. ‘Is screen time an issue at school?’ I asked. Her answer surprised me…
That’s just a taste.
Outcome: I enjoyed writing the story and it stirred my interest in writing more about the topic.
The client loved the story, and said it captured the tone they were after and looks forward to starting working together in the not too distant future :).
If you’d like to see how an international journalist would cover your content, seriously or chattily, write to me today.
Content connects us to our desires. Pic: Matt Nelson
If This Search was Fruitless, They Would All become Very, Very ‘Hangry’
On a long-ago holiday Monday road trip, a family confined in a car, was tetchy. Their emotions were being driven by the gnawing in their bellies. Deep in the countryside, they had a long way to go. It was lunchtime already.
Then they saw a sign. LUNCH BEING SERVED in faded paint overlaying a shadowy image of mountains, and a glass of wine. Was the sign really there? They talked about doubling back.
Arriving at the next town, the only town on a hundred mile drive, they saw another sign. Erm! It meant venturing off the B road and through the town and down a side road. Maybe it was too far. Maybe it was closed, or lunch was finished. The town looked like it might the best bet for a feed but even the burger joint was closed. There was no one to ask unless they knocked on the door of a home, lived in by hell knows whom. What about a cell phone? Well, they would have used a mobile device but no one had one, and this was no one in the world, except for a few tech geeks in cities over the seas who carried a brick of a device. There was no inkling yet that one day everyone would carry a phone.
So they drove on, and on, until they reached a new sign.
How much further? And besides has ANYONE found that you or your business even exists?
How long before we get there does it seem when you are going somewhere new? Thirty or 40 percent further? In time, a long time, they saw another sign pointing down a lane. They passed a giant-gated homestead buttressed by water tanks, then they wove around several bends passing modest places too.
Then they saw it! A contemporary building atop a ridge amid a field of lavender
There were even one or two other cars. Had they teleported into Napa? Or was it a post-modern Dordogne? They didn’t care. They went in as quickly as they could to see if it was real.
Inside was a tasting area, shelves stacked with wine bottles to the vaulted ceiling.
They were assured there was time for a tasting. They sniffed, sipped and spat, then selected the grape that would accompany their lunch, which was superb, succulent and fresh, and more so because of the surprise of finding it at all. Gazing across the purple fields to the mountains, they drank their pick of the vines and gave thanks for the place, and the content strategy that pointed the way and gave them faith to reach this place of magic.
This is the difference content makes. Without signs, your desire is not stirred or shaken and you have no belief something truly great is there for you. That’s why if you offer something marvellous that helps people or gives them pleasure, write and share your story so you will be found by the people who truly want you.
Keep writing to learn and reach your goal. Image: Marian Edmunds on Notegraphy
Comments must fit the purpose of the writing
I have reviewed and revised much journalism, content and creative writing over the years and there is one comment I won’t make. I will never say nothing can be salvaged here. A piece of writing can be improved or it can be a helpful learning exercise, or both.
It’s not easy to judge how to deliver comments. One of the most effective yet encouraging ways to give feedback is to say, ‘Not there yet’. Those three words convey that you should carry on, that you can there and that you have got a lot of things right.
Sometimes healing writing is all you need
Teaching one of my first workshops, I had to extract meaning from a participant’s extraordinary stream of consciousness. It would have failed every English grammar test and been challenging to edit. I focused on the mood which was powerful and asked if it felt good to write this way. Yes it did, she said.
The feedback I gave one of my students in a prestigious journalism program was to strip back her writing and rebuild. She admitted loading her writing with big words to get more marks in school English assessments. I believed she was young enough to transform her writing. A feeling of liberation passed over her face as I sat beside her and showed in one paragraph the words that could be cut out.
For clients, I have unravelled and rebuilt stories. In newspapers, I’ve edited stories to a precise length, ensuring nothing is fake — in almost no time on deadline. This is no comment on the writer or journalist. If you are out covering a breaking story that’s dangerous or complicated, you will be doing your best.
Feedback is not a personality assessment
While coming to understand people’s personalities is informative, particularly for ourselves and in team efforts, effective feedback is not a comment on the personality of the writer. Feedback is intended as a sign of belief in them and their potential to progress in their work.
I admire people who have the courage to receive feedback on their writing
It is best to seek this after a full draft and a revision or two. It is foolish to avoid feedback until the pieces appears on the printed or digital page.
Even when people have worked hard on a piece and carefully considered structure, tone, content, pace and refined it, many still have doubts about their work. It’s normal.
I too am nervous before pressing the send button. Every time.
At the end of workshops, or mentoring sessions, or client meetings where we have worked through a piece of writing people ask one question more than any other.
But is it [my writing] any good?
In giving feedback, I tell the person that the reason is not because I think their work is unworthy. It is the opposite! They have begun something that I believe it to be in their interest and their ability to complete and to learn from.
Sometimes the comments may help find a new way to write the piece.
It might only be a matter of rearrangement.
Or I might identify a missing element or two.
In fiction or memoir, it might be a shortfall or a surplus of action, description or dialogue.
Or if it’s content, you might need a switch in tone and voice, from passive to active voice.
It might be doing too much ‘telling’ rather than showing.
It may be laden with adjectives.
One thing is certain
When the ‘is it any good question?’ is asked, it is usually too soon to know what the work will be.
The cake needs to stay in the oven until ready.
I believe in encouraging and believing in the ability to complete.
What your clients need should be obvious in your content.
Are you keeping in your content lane? Image: Alex Wong, Unsplash
If you can answer the questions on people’s minds you will reduce fears, and you will build trust. People will remember you as a great source of information. They will return.
A content strategy could save your business. This is exactly the approach Marcus Sheridan took when in the recession of 2008, the fortunes of the fibreglass pool company he worked with plunged. Sheridan listed the hundreds of questions potential purchasers then answered then via content. The business site became the most popular site in his niche, globally!
If you have a production method or a niche that’s specialised, people will have questions. If you don’t anticipate those questions someone else will capture your corner.
Business is an ocean, you can own your corner. Do you need help to get your content in lane and to make a splash?
Shower for your best ideas Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash
I have my best ideas while in the sea or the shower. Persuasive, flowing stories like no other has written channel through me lighting my soul And then with soapy water they rotate down the plughole.
It happened to me today.
Has anyone invented a waterproof voice recorder?
By recalling the event here, I hope that the fragments in my memory form a coherent replica. They were words for a client. I usually don’t think about my dear clients while in the shower but you can’t halt inspiration.
Could the waterproof recorder work like an underwater camera? Or, how about a spray to retains your finger writing on a foggy shower screen until you capture the notes.
Send Ideas on a postcard please but try not to be in the shower when writing them.
A couple or so years ago I signed up to an online fitness program that overcame a lifetime of excuses that I am not a gym person. I was tennis and a beach person and at various phases a hockey, windsurfing, dragon boating, cricket, squash and cycling person. The gym program was tough but brilliant. The word badass came up in the videos a lot. I had never used the word.
Badass doctors and lawyers
The fitness program has closed but still going is the private online group where members exchange gym selfies, compliments and encouragement. The word badass came up a lot there but rarely about me. I did not self-identify as badass. Yet the doctors, dentists, lawyers, executives, designers, and pilots in the program did. The feeling was forged by achieving seemingly impossible goals that changed their body shapes. While I made my own modest transformation, I started to feel badass. The gym I attended then had a weights room in the basement, and when I went there and lifted my (admittedly small) weights among serious mostly male lifters, I felt badass being seen as just another person lifting. It’s time I did again.
Is being badass really you?
The word badass appears on a lot of sites of copywriters and other creatives. There are some I really dig too. Pia Silva! But it can seem like everyone is so badass. I can’t pull off the badass image in branding. It fails first at the photo shoot (especially if the aim is to attract business) and then in my semantics. I am old school-ish. Other words entice me.
But I can be badass any time I want. All it takes is lifting weights and a vocabulary transplant.
Readers are entering forts and pulling up the drawbridge to escape modern content
The success of content is about keywords, low bounce rates, the average time of page view, shares and rankings, conversion. But is that all? Even if you get the metrics correct, many readers are entering forts and pulling up the drawbridge to escape modern content.
A gazillion links make people save articles often to never return
A 23-minute post with a gazillion links might be helpful and awesome, but it’s tiring to read, and impersonal. You lose the point… So you save the article and say you will come back later, but you probably don’t. Yes?
I like to read content shaped by a beginning, middle and end — a story. And yes, before you ask, more content is being generated through Artificial Intelligence never mind content mills. We will be talking about that here another day soon.
Follow business journalists for concise, insightful writing
Business journalism feature writing techniques have a lot to offer content marketing. I have written hundreds of business features on everything from architectural design to dredging, BRIC finance to regional development, CRM, customer loyalty, dentistry, industrial hemp, banana skin recycling, tropical medicine, infrastructure to IT, power, property and (my long-time specialism) the global travel and tourism sectors including hospitality management, booking technology, travel loyalty, airline security and destination management. That list was not meant to bore you. It is to say how it’s possible for you to write about your topic, whatever it is. And yes, you will have preferences just like you do for dinners or weights versus cardio.
Write about (almost) any topic using feature writer tricks
Adopt a clear feature structure for preparing and writing content:
When you are commissioned by an editor or yourself, research past published stories, study these, list all of the key points that may need to be covered, list the names of all the key people involved in the topic or whom lead discussions, and note who is most affected.
Refine to choose one question and central theme, and 1-2 sub-themes
Identify the top 3-4 talents for interview. (Yes, interview, I said, the magical extra that feature writing has over most content) Choose talent from diverse perspectives and experience
From the talent identify someone who could give you a great overview. Sometimes that might be someone who you may not mention in the story. Approach the talent. If they can’t help, ask if they know someone else who can. Sometimes this Step No. 4 goes before Step No.3.
Arrange interviews. Remember it is usually the talent doing you a good turn so you need to fit in with their schedules. Send a brief list of questions prior to the interview so they are prepared. (This is not an expose where you are seeking to catch them out! However, you can be encouraging them through your questions to think in new ways about their topic.)
Put the talent’s answer through your personal BS checker. If it doesn’t sound quite right reframe or read back to them the answer they have given.
Write the story starting with the fascinating question but don’t reveal the answer or the latest development there. Start with the challenge faced by the company or sector.
One of the most effective ways is to start with colour, i.e from the viewpoint of an individual directly impacted by this story.
Interweave the anecdotes and facts gathered from each source making contrasting points through the story. Don’t state the contrast. Simply state the facts. Let them speak. The truth will show. Trust the reader’s intelligence and your own writing that the reader will go along with you.
Write an ending that brings the streams and themes of the story together and that also reveals where the individual or group you started the story about is at now. What’s changed for them? Like good fiction, the most interesting stories show progress.
Take a break from editing your story or better yet, have it edited by an experienced features editor.
Want to build authority through your writing?
Do you need more tips or help so you can write content just like a professional journalist? Email! The aim is that your reader — a client or prospect — has gained insight and trusted.
P.S. Your aim is to be the trusted authority. Are you?
Marian Edmunds is a writer, editor & mentor helping writers and non-writers.