3 Big Content Writing Myths Spread By Other Writers

Myths have many purposes. They tell us how things came to be, and why they are the way they are. Myths give people a sense of belonging, and you better believe they’re entertaining.

It’s why I’m not surprised that there are so many myths about content writing spread by other writers.

Content marketing has been around for years, but it’s still the new kid on the block. So writers have to create stories about the purpose (or lack of purpose) of content writing and what it means to be a content writer versus a “real” writer.

If you’re considering a career in content writing, or you’re currently building one, let me tell you why you should totally dismiss these myths.

Myth #1: Content Writing Means Pumping Out a Lot of Trash Blog Posts

We don’t set fire to the romance genre just because of a few published pieces of fanfic, do we? No. So why drag content writing just because some people don’t understand the difference between frequency and consistency?

What do I mean by the difference between frequency and consistency? Consider the cases of these two made-up business owners, Bill and Sakina.

Bill hears that putting out regular blog posts increases your number of site visitors and raises your SEO ranking. So he hastily publishes a blog post every single day. These blog posts are poorly edited, redundant, and not very enjoyable to read. And chances are, he’s going to burn out after a week and give up. Bill prioritized frequency.

Sakina hears that producing regular blog posts increases your number of site visitors and raises your search engine ranking. Unlike Bill, Sakina takes her time. She thinks about what her customers often ask and writes quality blog posts that address those questions. She commits time to writing two articles each week. Because she didn’t overwhelm herself she can stick to this schedule and make sure they are well-written and relevant. Sakina prioritized consistency.

So what’s my point? Well, people can execute content marketing poorly, but that doesn’t mean there’s something inherently inferior about content marketing.

Myth #2: Content Writing is Hack Work

Literary, artistic, or professional work done on order usually according to formula and in conformity with commercial standards. (via Merriam-Webster)

The supposedly shameful parts of this definition are “on order” and “according to formula and in conformity”.

For starters, something done on order doesn’t reduce its status as “art”. Very few people would deny that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a marvellous piece of art. Yet Pope Julius II commissioned it from Michelangelo.

It may not have been through Upwork, but he still ordered it.

How about the literary side of things? If someone works a day job, writes their book in the evening, and then after a limited print run receives glowing reviews by literary critics, you better believe their publisher is going to “order” another book.

Now, a blog post isn’t equivalent to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but you get my point. Just because someone requests a piece of work, doesn’t mean your work isn’t valuable.

And what about this issue of conformity? Rather than launch into how even iconoclastic artists or writers have to respect certain norms (so their work can be relatively understood) let’s just leave it at this: Writing on a topic and including a call to action doesn’t mean you can’t be creative.

In fact, I’d argue that someone who can find a compelling way to tell stories about HVAC equipment is just as – if not more – creative than someone who can write about anything they please.

If you can keep people glued to articles about furnace repairs, you are doing more than hack work, my friend.

Myth #3: Content Writing is Fake Journalism

Right off the bat, I should say that content writing is not journalism for several reasons, so if you think this I do agree. But the people who lob this criticism aren’t looking for a debate on the philosophy of journalism. What they usually mean by this is: Content writing is unhelpful and untrustworthy.

To which I say this: Content writers write for potential customers and current customers. That is an audience of some very, very, very judgemental people. People who will not hesitate to leave comment like, “This article is irresponsible. You’ve lost my business” or “I was ready to make a purchase until I saw this” or “Why do you keep posting bullshit like this? Unfollowing”.

To avoid comments like this you have to produce stuff that’s useful, enjoyable, and trustworthy. The stats better be legit, that infographic better have something useful, and that article better not put someone to sleep. While a blog post may not go through the same layers of approval that a news article does, a content writer is still thinking about audience, angle, relevance, and readability.

Above all, branded content can still tell a good story. If you understand your brand, you know what sorts of stories your audience will enjoy. Allstate partnered with The Atlantic to launch The Renewal Project, a two-year editorial and marketing project publishing stories on social innovation in the U.S. Technically, this is content writing, but it reads more like journalism or storytelling.

Don’t Shy Away From a Career in Content Writing

Perhaps the biggest problem is the name: content writing. “Content” feels like a lazy word. Once you say content writing enough it starts to sound like you’re saying “stuff writing” or “thing writing”.

Over time, you’ll learn how to position yourself. For example, I call myself a “storyteller for startups” while networking because it rolls off the tongue and starts a conversation.

The important message here is that you can absolutely do relevant, useful, and creative work as a CONTENT writer.  

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How Upwork Success Porn Fuels My Work Ethic

About once a month, I’ll have a day where I feel completely unexcited about my work.

Does the world really need another blog post about digital marketing? Am I undercharging? Will I get carpal tunnel before freelancing even makes a dent in my student loans?

Being in a funk is a waste of time. So when I have money, I’ll go to Caffé Demtre and get a waffle. When I’m broke (or feeling frugal) I’ll find some candy, put on a random TV show in the background, and spend an hour looking at what I call “Upwork Success Porn”.

What is Upwork Success Porn?

Top-rated profiles. High earning profiles. Profiles that say the freelancer worked a thousand hours. I love that shit. It gets me so motivated to work and sometimes, it gives me pointers on how to improve my own profile.

Upwork Success Porn-min
This is where the journey starts. Right on Upwork’s home page. (Source)

I go down a rabbit hole of profiles. I’ll click on a freelancer’s past clients and then see what other freelancers that client worked with and then see what other clients those freelancers worked with. It gets out of hand.

Successful Upwork Profiles-min
Danielle bringing in that money and kicking out those typos. (Source)

But doing this helps me in two ways.

One, I’m eager to get back to work, so I can get on their level.

Two, I’m motivated to find jobs on the platform. Upwork is no longer my primary source of work. I do like the platform and you can find great clients, but there are so many posts with asks like, “10,000 words for $20” that separating the wheat from the chaff is irritating and inefficient.

The few times I go on an Upwork pitching spree is when I’ve done some serious “Top Rated” profile creeping.

I’ve linked to everyone’s Upwork profiles underneath the screenshots. I’d be over the moon if you hired ME, but I’m a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due so may the best freelancer win.

I promise I don’t know any of these people. Hustle just recognizes hustle.

 

Upwork Success Porn Profile-min
Go on with your bad self, Philip! Get that money. (Source)
Enviable Upwork Profiles-min
Ashley hitting the $100K mark like it’s nothing. (Source)
Good Upwork Profiles-min
Fellow Canadian Ryan writing copy that converts. (Source)
Great Upwork Profiles-min
NICK C. MEANS BUSINESS! (Source)
Successful Profiles on Upwork-min
“God damn copy genius” Stefan. (Source)

It is officially time for me to get back to work.

I Often Tell Myself My Writing Sucks

I often tell myself my writing sucks.

Hear me out.

I regularly call myself out on my own bullshit whether it’s how I act towards my family or how much I’ve been slacking on a project.

Now, I can’t say for certain whether this habit has made me a better person. What it has done is made me a better writer and freelancer.

Not the best. Just better.

Before I’ve hit send on a blog post, I’ve already thought of half a dozen criticisms the client will have and you can bet your typing fingers that that list of six was whittled down from a list of sixty before I decided to shut the critical voices up and just hit “send”.

“This is boring.”

“There are a hundred other blog posts like this out there.”

“This entire article is too simple.”

“These sentences are too wordy.”

There is usually much more cursing involved.

With the exception of minor revisions, most clients have been happy, but this doesn’t make me any less critical. In fact, it makes me convinced that since I dodged the bullet this time I’m that much closer to the day I get verbally assassinated.

So what do I do?

I read. I read as much as possible about how to write better and how to come up with better ideas and what other content writers do.

Last night, I spent an hour reading about how to write better sentences. My most recent source of self-consciousness has been how basic my sentences seem. Or, on the other end of the spectrum – but just as cringe-worthy – is the fear that they sound too pretentious.

(Related, but unrelated: Last night, Douglas Preston of the Pendergast series writing duo Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child followed me back on Instagram while I was reading that article about writing better sentences. I wish I had been quick enough to get a screenshot of the banner notification, but I was too stunned.)

I am always improving and learning new skills because of this tendency to pick my work apart. It also helps me confirm when I’m doing things right. 

This habit does have its downsides. I spend much longer than I should on a project with a scope and budget that simply doesn’t justify it. I’ve even put off sending a simple email because I obsess over the tone.

Constructive criticism that mutates into analysis paralysis will do you absolutely no favours.

One thing that proved helpful over the last year is blogging. Committing to a certain number of blog posts pushes you to hit “publish”. It also serves as writing cardio that forces you to practice in a low-stakes environment where you don’t have to maniacally edit and proofread.

Another helpful habit has been remembering the purpose of a piece of writing:

  • Does the email respectfully and clearly get your message across? Yes? Stop wasting time and hit send. 
  • Does the 500 word article meet the project requirements? Yes? Proofread and hit send. 
  • Is your friend really going to screenshot this boring conversation about what time to meet up and share your typo with the world? No? Stop being a paranoid narcissist and hit send.

Here are a couple things I read and watched this weekend about improving your writing:

5 Ways to Write a Damn Good Sentence via Copyblogger

Declaring War on Bland: Copywriting as Fresh Literature via TEDx Talks

Do you have any recommendations for educational books, blogs, or videos? I’m always learning and I’d love to hear what’s helped you become a better writer, marketer, or business owner. Comment below 🙂

P.S. Don’t worry. I spend way more time gassing myself up, but that’s a blog post for another time.

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5 Ways I Improved My Freelance Writing Career (That Didn’t Involve Writing)

The best thing you can do to improve yourself as a writer is to write. Like Nike says, “Just do it!”

But over the last year of working from home, there have been a few non-writing related activities that have helped me become a better freelancer and grow my business.

Regularly Stretching

I suffer from intense pain in my right shoulder that, when left untreated, makes working at my computer for longer than 20 minutes unbearable.

Buying a new desk and chair simply wasn’t an option, so I obsessively started following stretching videos on YouTube and eating turmeric to reduce the inflammation.

By taking preventative measures like stretching, exercising, and sitting properly in your chair, you can reduce your chances of damaging your muscles.

Pain will get in the way of a lot of things and growing your business is one of them.

Doing Chores

Writers don’t just deal with writer’s block. Anxiety, self-doubt, stress, and more are all regular houseguests.

When these became a constant thorn in my productivity, I started breaking up my workday with manual chores. I’d work for fifteen minutes, fold a pile of clothes, work for another fifteen minutes, and then wash dishes.

It may sound like an unproductive, interrupted day of work, but it actually makes me more focused.

When my thoughts are racing and I can’t focus on the task at hand because I’m obsessing over something unrelated to the work, I can focus on what I’m doing knowing that at the end of the fifteen minutes I have some time for guilt-free stressing.

What makes it guilt-free? Two things.

One: the fact that it is scheduled time.

Two: the fact that I’m doing manual labour, which makes me feel productive. Since it’s impossible for me to do client work when my mind is elsewhere, I can wash a stack of dishes while stressing. (So long as I snap back to attention while washing the knives.)

Flipping Through a PHYSICAL Thesaurus

Before I started writing professionally, I thought I was one wordy motherfucker. Once I had to produce blog post after blog post I started rolling my eyes at the words I kept repeating.

Clients obviously wouldn’t notice this meta-pattern, but I saw the repetition between pieces.

If I find a word boring while writing I’ll quickly click over to an online thesaurus and look for alternatives. But as part of my general professional development, I’ll take the time to flip through my paperback thesaurus in the morning or before bed.

Pursuing a Specialization

Pursue designations or certifications if you can. Carving out a niche for your writing makes you extra valuable to clients who are desperate for a writer who can make their dense, uninviting topic enticing to readers.

I stumbled into writing content for tech start-ups, but I haven’t taken that fortunate entry point for granted. I’m aggressively reading as much as I can about the industry as well as looking for affordable coding for beginners resources to make myself more knowledgable.

Surrounding Myself With Other Writers

Go to networking events. Talk to friends who are also writers. And if you’re not a fan of networking or you don’t have a lot of friends who are going down the same career path, read the blogs and watch the videos of other freelancers.

I’m sociable, but I find networking exhausting and I always leave those events feeling low, so I’ve started to avoid them. My substitute has been using social media to create a digital network of people who inspire and influence me.

Writing and reading are both vital ways to improve your freelance writing career, but if you’re in the industry, you already knew that. Sometimes, activities totally unrelated to creating can help unlock your potential and boost your motivation.

Happy hustling!

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A Quick Introduction to Buyer Personas

As a kid, I always ate my veggies before the meat and potatoes. In drama class, I insisted on learning the lines before looking for costumes.

Not because I’m disciplined, but because I like to enjoy my steak and my box full of fun outfits without a bunch of boring obligations. I’m still like this as an adult.

Currently, I’m trying to introduce some structure to my piecemeal knowledge of content strategy.

Enter Hubspot Academy.

Their blogs helped me a lot when I started freelance content writing and they have a great blog post that outlines how to create an effective content strategy. The very first item on their list of what to do? Create a buyer persona.

In this scenario, the chance to create a pretty content calendar in a colourful spreadsheet is my meat and potatoes. My vegetable is the buyer persona.

Making one of these doesn’t sound like a lot of fun to me, but I like to do things right and the thought of creating an entire content strategy only to realize I’m targeting the wrong people is exhausting.

I mean, you gotta know whose attention you’re trying to get instead of shouting into a loudspeaker and hoping the right people don’t cover their ears.

This chore makes a lot of sense.

What’s a buyer persona?

A buyer persona identifies who your ideal customer is. Making one is a combination of creative writing and market research where you put together a profile of your ideal customer.

Hubspot helpfully outlines what your buyer persona should look like and what it should include:

  • Semi-fictional character (i.e. small business owner, talent acquisition specialist)
  • Description of a day in their life including everyday challenges
  • Demographic and biographic behaviour
  • Goals and aspirations
  • Pain points and obstacles
  • Preferred method of contact

You can find several buyer persona templates online.

So how do you get the information for your buyer persona?

The best way is to speak to existing customers.

And if you don’t yet have any customers to speak to, Trent over at Bright Ideas shares a method called “audience jacking” where you do a little sleuthing to analyze your competitor’s customers. Trent’s not playing around.

At present, this audience jacking method is what I’m going to focus on because I don’t have access to the content information of customers anywhere.

Down the road it’ll be interesting to take a look at how you develop customer surveys and which questions are important to ask.

Currently, I’m practicing by creating buyer personas for companies that I’ve written content for.

If it helps me come up with on-point blog ideas to present to them, that’s more writing projects.

And if they’re like, “That’s cute, but we have someone making these for us already” it’s just more practice for me.

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From Student to Content Writer to (Hopefully) Content Strategist

It was only in my last year of university that I finally realized I wouldn’t be happy unless I was writing.

Fuck being practical. I’d avoided pursuing English, writing, or marketing because like some kind of masochist I thought pursuing what I wanted was self-indulgent.

I eventually realized that I’d be happier writing take-out menus for crappy pay instead of earning six figures elsewhere so long as I was writing.

(This is a hypothetical. I have never earned six figures, so there’s a possibility I would have liked that better. But I digress.)

So there I was in my final year of International Studies at York University and I had come to three key conclusions:

  • I was not gonna be a diplomat
  • I hate bureaucracy, so there’s no way I was going to work in government despite the benefits and security (suuuuuuuure) and blah blah blah
  • A law school would “looooool” for days at my transcript

I didn’t really feel like writing a novel, so I explored content writing and sponsored content jobs. I started applying to stuff: no luck. But some noteworthy things happened that got me started:

  • A fantastic woman who worked in the office where I was a work/study told me to grow a spine (in more professional terms) and start putting my writing out there
  • I enrolled in a phenomenal professional development program at Ryerson University called Adapt that was geared towards helping university students acquire the skills they need for the workforce (i.e. coding, Excel)
  • I couldn’t get a job anywhere, even as an admin assistant, despite my over 5 years working in offices and call centres

So I went on Upwork, starting pitching to prospective clients, and thanks to the business writing skills I learned at Adapt improved my pitches and instantly saw a spike in my response rates.

A year later, I’ve significantly increased my freelance rates, but I’m ready for a transition. You see, I started off willing to take anything so long as the client seemed like they would respect my time and communicate effectively. My first gig? 800 word articles for $7 a pop.

But I’m far from stable and I have definitely hit a wall. Right now, I refuse to enroll in any graduate programs, certificate programs — anything with tuition!!! – until I have paid off my current student debt.

My mind may change, but right now the thought of paying for school feels stupid.

Now I’d like to have a better understanding of how to develop successful content strategies. I believe I have the intuition for it, but not the skill.

So last April was about landing any writing gig that would pay me. Now that some people are paying me, here’s the new goal:

BECOME THE MOST KICKASS CONTENT STRATEGIST POSSIBLE

How do I do that? Well, I’m not really sure. And I hate diving into things without a plan. I’m the type of person who looks up what things you’re allowed to bring in to Canada’s Wonderland before even packing a bottled water.

So I’m currently at the present stage:

  • Identify the skills required to be a fantastic content strategist
  • Gain a high level understanding of digital marketing and content strategy
  • Improve my writing and analytical skills
  • Figure out how colour schemes work because my Instagram game is weak and content is becoming more and more visual
  • Develop at least a basic understanding of the world of tech and how it intersects with content

Are you trying to develop your career in digital marketing and content strategy? I’m a firm believer that you learn a lot through conversation so please share any tips, comments, or resources below!

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Students Can Create a Budget In Less Than 10 Minutes

Student sits on bed and makes a budget on her laptop.

By: Neya Abdi | @neyaabdi 

Budgeting is the simplest proactive measure we can take to guarantee our financial security, but we don’t take it as seriously as we should.

A big reason for this is the lack of personal financial education in schools. Many of us simply aren’t taught how to handle our money by our parents. Unfortunately, our parents may not know what they’re doing either – the average Canadian has $21,348 in consumer debt, according to TransUnion. And about 56 percent of Canadians say they have less than $10,000 stored away in an emergency fund. Forty-four percent have less than $5,000 and 21 percent have less than a grand. Financial experts recommend having at least three months of expenses (the ideal is six months) tucked away to touch only in an emergency.

Making a budget doesn’t just allow you to save up for a trip; it allows you to save up for the unexpected as well. So why are a lot of us hesitant to create one?

It’s Not As Complicated As You Think

For people I’ve spoken to, the biggest reason they don’t make a budget is because they simply don’t know where to start. They don’t know whether they should be aggressively paying down their debt, stockpiling money to paying off their student loans, or living on only bread and water. So they abandon the process before they’ve even started. If you’re just starting out, here are two key pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t be extreme.
  2. Just get started.

Your budget is a flexible tool that you can adjust periodically to meet your financial changes. Create a budget that gives you room to buy the things you like and do what you enjoy. Your budget shouldn’t be a financial straitjacket. Prioritize so that you are giving up things you care less about in order to spend on the things that you enjoy.

On that note, just get started! Your first budget will not be perfect, and it will likely be a reflection of how idealistic and ambitious you are about saving money. Following a budget takes practice, so just start off simple.

Implement the 50/30/20 Rule to Quickly Make Your Budget

Uncertain about:

  • What to start saving for?
  • Whether you should tackle your debt first?
  • How much you should put towards discretionary expenses or “fun money”?

Start off with the 50/30/20 rule. It’s the budgeting rule of thumb. Only 50 percent of your income should be spent on needs (this includes rent, hydro, metropass), 30 percent on your wants, and 20 percent should go towards savings and debt repayment.

If you do not have to worry about rent because you live at home, then throw a couple of fixed “wants” in there like your phone bill. If you have the extra money, maybe start contributing a couple hundred dollars a month to your parents just to get into the habit of paying “rent”. But try not to consider your fortunate situation a free for all to allocate 80% towards wants instead of just 30%. You can even put some of that leftover money towards your savings.

It’s as simple as striking two lines across your paper and making three categories: Wants, Needs, Future. And then fill in the sectons accordingly. It’s a quick and simple process.

If you are spending too much on your needs, moving may not be an immediate option, so see where else you can shift your budget. The 50/30/20 rule serves as a no-brainer starting point that you can organically adjust to fit your personal situation.

Should I Pay Down My Debt or Build Up An Emergency Savings?

This depends on your current situation.

If you can only depend on yourself in case of an emergency (you can’t pay rent one month, you need a repair) work on building your emergency fund up first and once you have about three months, start chipping away at your debt.

If your basic needs are met and you don’t have to worry about your food or shelter, prioritize paying off your credit card debt. Interest rates on credit cards are very high and whatever interest you earn in a savings account will never outpace the money you lose paying interest on your credit card. Beat that down as soon as you can, and allocate a smaller portion towards savings.

Whichever option you choose make sure you ALWAYS MAKE YOUR CREDIT CARD MINIMUM PAYMENTS ON TIME!!! You can live with carrying a balance, but missing your minimum payments can very negatively impact your credit score.

Respect the Effort It Took To Make Your Money – You Earned It!

Setting aside a specific amount of money for eating out or shopping quickly teaches you the value of a dollar. You’ll quickly learn the price of that pre-made salad you casually buy and wonder whether it’s worth it when you can put a bit towards that dress you wanted to buy. And you’ll become much more aware of the hard work that went into earning that cash and be less willing to give it away.

To keep up with the latest articles about budgeting and personal finance, like our Facebook page or follow @todiscursive on Twitter & Instagram

Networking in the City: It’s About Who You Are, Not Who You Know

Every post-secondary program is served with a side of advice to network aggressively.

“It’s about who you know, not what you know,” we’re told, “so you’d better start marathon shaking hands”.

Well, not so fast. Sure, people with an extensive network boast a unique advantage when it comes to landing jobs. They can save time by sending resumes to people they know will look at them. But for the most part, if a hiring manager or executive doesn’t believe you’ll vibe with their company, chances are you’re not getting the job.

Don’t believe me? Consider this: according to 67 percent of consultants surveyed by Workopolis, the top reason people don’t get the jobs they want is because they fail to set themselves apart from the competition. 

Let that sink in for a moment. The top reason isn’t lack of experience or a company insider’s referral: it’s a compatibility problem.

The Importance of Values in the Startup Scene

But what exactly does this mean? Differentiating yourself isn’t about standing out by any means necessary. If this were the case, we’d all be showing up to interviews drunk, toting a karaoke machine with every intention of using it in the name of making an impression. Clearly, companies are looking for something specific. And that something specific is:

Whether your values are aligned with theirs.

Nowhere is the urgency about values stronger than in the startup scene, particularly in Toronto’s flourishing tech ecosystem. Ninety percent of startups are expected to fail. With a fun statistic like that, startup founders are more interested in working towards their vision than convincing new recruits that their vision is great. Teaching you company policy takes the work of a week. Teaching you to share a company’s convictions, while not impossible, can take forever and even after that investment there’s no guarantee you’ll care. Consequently, who you are and what you value is very important to companies.

Companies Are On the Lookout for People Who “Get It”

The recent TechToronto Meetup powerfully drove this point home. The beauty of this monthly meetup hosted by TechToronto is the mini-presentations given by members of the tech community – just enough variety to leave you satisfied, but short enough to keep you engaged. The most recent event was a veritable smorgasbord of speakers ranging from a marketing manager in a biotech company to the married co-founders of a beauty review site to the hilariously straight-talking, potty mouthed CEO of a healthcare tech startup. While on the surface they could not be more different, what they all shared in common was a strong belief in the importance of people with shared values for the success of an organization. In each presentation, the speakers emphasized the importance of company culture and building solid teams.

Of course, a shared passion for eating is not going to overcome the fact that you don’t know how to code if you are applying for a developer position at a food delivery startup. On the other hand, if you have the necessary hard skills and demonstrate a commitment to creativity, user experience, and healthy eating, it’s clear to the person doing the hiring that you get what the organization is trying to accomplish.

At the end of the day, everyone’s just looking for people who “get it”. It’s why couples with seemingly opposite interests can work so well: they likely share core values about communication and personal growth. And it’s why an organization with teammates who fill different roles – technical, public relations, sales – can come together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

The TechToronto Meetup and afterparty takes place every month for those looking for a job, those looking to hire, and those who just love learning about tech. The next event takes place December 5. Early bird tickets are $12, regular tickets are $20, and you can buy them at the door for $25.

To keep up with the latest articles on networking and student life, like our Facebook page or follow @todiscursive on Twitter & Instagram

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