5 Ways to Introduce Structure and Discipline to Your Content Writing Style

Content writers are savvy professionals who play the role of storyteller, copywriter, and lead generator all at once. We’re constantly learning about the latest content strategy trends and technology – not to mention conducting research on several industries for our clients – that we forget writing itself requires continuous learning.

It’s more important than ever to brush up on writing techniques and strategies. Today, the highest paying content writing gigs are in niche spaces like blockchain, cybersecurity, manufacturing automation, supply chain digitization, and more. Knowing how to organize and synthesize large quantities of information is a must for tackling these projects.

  • Understand a Content Project’s Purpose and Writing Style
  • Introduce More Verbs Into Your Writing Vocabulary
  • Keep Your Writing Simple
  • Take a Refresher Course on the Anatomy of a Paragraph
  • Study Different Sentence Styles To Add Variety

Understand A Content Project’s Purpose and Writing Style 

An effective piece of content has a clear purpose. Most content writers are familiar with the Inbound Methodology, so they know to ask clients whether a given assignment falls into the Awareness, Consideration, or Decision stage. Once you’ve got this direction, identifying the appropriate writing style helps guide your writing. 

There are four main styles of writing:

  • Expository: Focuses on facts or explains how to do something in a systematic way
  • Descriptive: Uses sensory language (sight, smell, touch, taste, sound) to describe a situation, place, thing, person, and feelings.
  • Persuasive: Attempts to convince the reader to change their mind or take action.
  • Narrative: Tells a compelling story about connected events and people

When you’re used to banging out three blog posts a day, it’s easy to go through the motions and accidentally apply the wrong method. 

For instance, a blog post in the Awareness stage is meant to help readers understand a problem. In some cases, the reader may need help identifying and naming the problem in the first place! So it wouldn’t make sense to write a blog post persuading them to take action using a given solution. Rather, an expository approach would focus on facts and statistics to help them understand their problem. 

In some cases, a how-to article is the right approach in which the article provides a step-by-step solution to a problem (e.g. how to create an inventory management spreadsheet) before gently pushing the reader towards the Consideration and Decision stages where persuasive writing is more appropriate.

Of course, a single piece of content can adopt several writing styles. Incorporating customer stories using the narrative writing style might bring an otherwise dull expository how-to piece to life. 

Identifying a piece’s writing style is not meant to be a restrictive exercise. On the other hand, it’s a focusing mechanism that empowers you to plow ahead secure in the knowledge that you’re on the right track. 

Introduce More Verbs Into Your Writing Vocabulary

Verbs power your writing. Replace standbys like “be”, “have”, or “get” to provide a more satisfying reading experience.

For example:

“Amazon is the most impressive e-commerce company today” is fine, but we can do better. 

“Amazon routinely outspends and outsmarts its competition in the e-commerce space” is a more engaging sentence, even in expository writing. 

Both sentences are, presumably, based in fact, but the first is like bland chicken that lies limp in your mouth while the second brings a little spice and drama.

Drama isn’t always necessary. In fact, you may just need to vacuum up a few unnecessary verbs. 

Case in point: “have”. Writers routinely use “have” as a way to quickly plop their ideas on the page. With a little extra time set aside for editing, they can easily sweep this word away and tweak sentences. 

“We have seen what happens when companies fail to invest in employee engagement” can easily transform into “We know what happens when companies fail to invest in employee engagement”

What’s more, verbs enhance every writing style. 

In expository articles, they keep your writing clear and straightforward. Verbs serve you especially well when you’re writing a how-to piece and attempting to convey a technique or several steps. 

In descriptive writing, it’s easy to overuse adjectives. While adjectives play their role, verbs are particularly important in descriptive writing. Verbs pull the reader in and allows the reader to imagine owning and using a product or benefiting from a service.

A critical component of persuasive writing – the call to action – relies on verbs. An effective piece of persuasive writing encourages the reader to “schedule a demo”, “earn money in their sleep” by signing up for a robo-investing app, “receive daily tips and tricks for runners” by signing up for an email list, and so on.

When it comes to narrative writing, verbs invite readers to play a role in the action. They aren’t an outside observer. Rather they inhabit the spaces in the story. And this doesn’t just apply to novels. For example, narrative-style case studies make for good reading. 

FINE: “Westside Developments had a lot of different processes and steps. The project manager had to deal with change orders, schedule changes, and more.”

GREAT: “As Senior Project Manager, Madison Yuen juggled several tasks and responsibilities. While working on site, managing change orders and communicating with contractors proved immensely difficult thanks to all the moving parts. On any given day, Yuen would adjust schedules, manage incoming bids, answer customer questions, and prepare status reports for the executive team.”

The first paragraph relies on weak verbs like “to have” and “to be” while the second paragraph uses verbs to paint a picture.

Keep Your Writing Simple

Don’t circle the block just to cross the street. Write only what’s needed to convey your point. Streamline your writing, and remember that simple doesn’t mean stupid. 

Using effective words is a great way to keep things sweet without minimizing impact and engagement. Another approach is to avoid unnecessarily long words that make your writing sound pretentious. Finally, consider conducting more research. Confusing concepts breed clunky, awkward sentences even among experts. 

Finally: EDIT! Many writers despise the editing process, and here’s the thing: You don’t have to be a writer and editor. It often pays to hire someone else to revise your work. That said, it’s important to understand the fundamentals of editing and if you’re short on time, money, or both, polishing your work on your own is an important skill to learn.

Take a Refresher Course on the Anatomy of a Paragraph

Reminding yourself that writing has structure and technique helps relieve some of the anxiety that comes with feeling like you’re rambling, missing the point, or “winging” it. Paragraphs are not arbitrary chunks of text. They function as a tool for expressing ideas in a structured, coherent manner. 

While your blog post has an overarching idea or thesis (much like a high school paper), your paragraphs tackle those ideas in different ways. We usually manage these nuances unconsciously, but when you’re writing longer form content, like a whitepaper or an e-book, outlining what you’ll address may be helpful. 

A great paragraph consists of the following features:

  • Controlling idea: This is how you’ll address a topic in this paragraph. If you’re writing about real estate technology, your controlling idea may be about the current “proptech” landscape.
  • Explanation of the controlling idea: What are you trying to say about the current proptech landscape? You may want to talk about the fact that currently most proptech companies focus on listings, but new entrants are branching into areas like retail development and project management. 
  • Support for your idea: Introduce facts, statistics, and expert quotes to legitimize your points. For instance, this proptech article we’re drafting might reference the fact that the proptech industry in Canada and the U.S. jumped from US$4.6 billion in 2016 to US$7.3 billion in 2018.
  • Explain why your evidence matters: This is the “so what” content marketing gurus always talk about. Yeah, the proptech industry jumped by a few billion. Impressive, but why should I care? Well, you might point out that investors want to create or invest in the next big industry disruption in the way that early Uber investors cashed in on the taxi industry’s disruption. 
  • Wrap it up and transition: Conclude and, if possible, offer a smooth ride into the next paragraph. Your paragraph on proptech might hint at the fact that despite investors’ enthusiasm, disruption is not always easily achieved, which can segue into the traditional roadblocks to innovation in legacy businesses.

This looks like a lot, but for those in-depth pieces, it’ll save you time both during writing and during revisions. Rather than receiving a marked up draft with notes like “where’s the proof?” or “why should the reader care?” you’ll have a robust, well thought-out piece that requires few re-writes.

Quick note: You may be squinting at this and wondering about readability. Wasn’t this process designed for academic writing where chunky paragraphs abound? Isn’t that a big no-no for online writing? 

You’re right. You don’t want a paragraph seven-lines deep in a blog post, particularly when many readers consume content on their phones. Use this framework to organize and support your ideas and then break up paragraphs for readability. 

Study Different Sentence Styles to Add Variety

Content with similar sentence styles bores readers, but it’s often difficult to notice when it happens. Trying to transform them during the editing stage is also a tedious exercise. That said, if you have a technical understanding of the different sentence styles, identifying these issues and making changes is easier. Examples of quick fixes include:

  • Varying Sentence Length: Your paragraph may have sentences that are all the same length. Diversifying it may be as simple as cutting one down or making another longer.
  • Varying Word Choice at the Start of the Sentence: Do all of your sentences start with “I” or “My”? Consider changing things up. One way to do this is to build sentences that start with dependent clauses. Instead of “Nancy started using our product in 2018. She loves the payments feature” consider “Nancy started using our product in 2018. As a busy project manager who pays dozens of subcontractors and vendors each month, she was particularly impressed with the easy payment tool.”
  • Throw in Parallel Sentences: This paragraph style adds rhythm to your writing. Using this approach, the writer repeats grammatical elements in the same sentence. For example, “Developers must assess legislative changes, predict market trends, and manage interest rates.” 

The next time your sentences feel a little bland, you can strategically revise them by changing up your sentence styles. 

Just Because We’re Creatives, Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Need a Little Structure

Studying the technical side of writing adds rigour to the writing process. When you’ve got deadlines and multiple client requirements to juggle, you can’t afford the luxury of hoping the sentences flow. You need to bang out quality work day after day without losing steam. Understanding writing strategies and techniques can help you whip up fantastic blog articles, e-books, and white papers every time. 

Need a freelancer who asks the right questions, adopts your brand voice, and whips up the articles and e-books your business needs? Let’s chat

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5 Things To Clarify Up Front With Your Freelance Content Writer on Upwork

Want to vibe with your freelancer as quickly as possible? You’ll need to practice good communication and ask the right questions up front.

  • What do you charge and what’s included in this cost?
  • How do you define credited and ghostwritten terms?
  • How do you manage revisions?
  • What do you need from me in order to complete this job?
  • What’s your preferred communication channel?

What do you charge and what’s included in this cost?

Pricing models vary, but freelance content writers typically use one of the following:

  • Fixed article rate
  • Fixed word rate
  • Hourly rate

Nothing strains a relationship faster than misunderstandings about money. Discuss the nitty gritty up front and get it out of the way, so you can get to work. An experienced freelancer won’t have any qualms discussing rates, and in most cases, they’ll initiate the conversation themselves. 

Here are additional questions to ask based on each pricing model. 

Fixed Article Rate

  • What’s the minimum and maximum number of words this article will include?
  • Does this rate include stock photos, captions, and a meta description?
  • How many free rounds of revisions do I get?
  • Is this article rate on credited or ghostwritten terms?

Fixed Word Rate

  • Is this fixed word rate based on the final word count at the first draft stage or at the final draft stage (after revisions are made)?
  • How many free rounds of revisions do I get?
  • Is this article rate on credited or ghostwritten terms?

Hourly Rate

  • What’s the maximum number of hours this article should take?
  • Will you alert me if you think you will surpass a certain number of hours?
  • Do I get a free round of revisions?
  • If I don’t get a free round of revisions, are revisions charged at the same hourly rate or at a different editing rate?
  • Is this per hour rate on credited or ghostwritten terms?

How do you define credited and ghostwritten terms?

When you’re sourcing thought leadership articles for your exec team, those pieces will be published under their name. It’s awkward if that same piece pops up in your freelancer’s online portfolio.

In scenarios like this, it’s important to be clear about how this work will be treated after publication. 

In most cases, writers give up ownership of the work but they retain the writer credit, and rightfully so. This means that while the client can post the article across various platforms like the company blog, Medium, or LinkedIn Pulse, the freelance writer can include it on their online portfolio. 

For my own clients, I use the following distinction. You can use this as a starting point when clarifying the terms with your freelancer. It’s common for freelance content writers to charge double the standard rate for ghostwritten material. This is compensation for the fact that they can’t use it to win future work.

Credited Ghostwritten
  • Under the freelancer’s name or under a general name like “Blog” or the company’s name but not an individual employee’s name
  • The freelancer includes this project in their online portfolio
  • If published under the company’s name (not an individual employee’s name) the client agrees to confirm that the freelancer wrote the piece, if required
  • Under an individual employee’s name or a general name like “Blog” or the company’s name
  • The freelancer does not include this project in their online portfolio
  • The freelancer does not reference this project as a sample of their work in offline discussions with prospects
  • The client is not expected to provide a testimonial or confirmation that the freelancer wrote the piece (unless they wish to)

How do you manage revisions?

Every content relationships has a “get to know each other” phase. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a top-notch writer. They’ll need time to understand your business and style. 

Ask your freelancer what their revision rules are. 

  • How many free rounds of revisions do you offer?
  • Do you offer extra free rounds for the first couple of projects?
  • Is there a deadline on when revisions must be received in order to qualify for the free round? 
  • Can you work collaboratively  in Google Docs, or do you only work through MS Word attachments and tracked documents?

It’s also important to think about your revision needs. Will an internal subject matter expert review more technical posts? This impacts your timeline and relationship with your freelancer.

The thing is: Most freelance content writers understand that multiple eyes might look at the piece, and they welcome this. An accurate piece means a happy client and feedback  to apply to future projects. But it’s important to remember that your freelance writer is not an employee.

With a direct report, it’s acceptable to circle back a month later and ask for revisions. Doing so with a freelancer, even with a free round of revisions, will likely incur additional charges.

Discuss the revision process at the outset of the project and document this in your Summary of Requirements.

What do you need from me in order to complete this job?

Successful marketing directors understand that good direction equals great deliverables. A freelance content writer is a writer. Their skill set is bringing together information to tell a compelling story. They’re not a consultant in your field, so it’s unrealistic to expect them to have in-depth knowledge of your company and industry. 

A great marketing leader provides his or her freelancer with:

  • A content brief outlining the project’s specifications
  • Temporary credentials to any academic content subscriptions 
  • Collateral detailing the company’s products and services

Content Brief

Even if you find a content writer who specializes in your niche, they don’t automatically know your business, its unique value proposition, or its competitors. Provide them with a detailed content brief that outlines the project requirements including the piece’s tone, audience, and objective. 

Temporary Credentials to Academic Content Subscription

If your piece requires academic content, consider sharing temporary credentials with your freelancer. Google Scholar is a treasure trove of content waiting to be converted into layman’s terms. If you’ve got a writer with the chops to tackle dense articles, give them the tools they need. They certainly won’t pay for this on their own. A single article can cost upwards of $50!

Company Collateral on Products and Services

Provide clear information on your products and services. No one’s saying you’ve got to shoot over an internal deck detailing how the sausage gets made, but if you want decent content, your writer will need something more than a few lines of vague text about your “proprietary algorithm”. 

And look – if they don’t need to get into the thick of things with your product (perhaps this is just a lead nurturing white paper on the industry itself) let them know! This way they won’t take time to parse your landing page copy. 

What’s your preferred communication channel?

Some freelancers prefer to communicate exclusively through Upwork while others are fine with email. Just be sure not to offer payment off the platform unless you’ve met the platform’s conditions. Sure, you may get away with it for a while, but you risk getting both yourself and your freelancer kicked off the site. In fact, your freelancer may report you themselves.

In any case, if you use email, be sure to re-send key communications related to the project deliverable and revisions through Upwork. Hopefully, everything’s smooth sailing, but if there are any disputes, it’s important to have a record.

Clear Communication Leads to A Productive Client-Freelancer Working Relationship

Clear communication is as much about retaining great freelancers as it is about steering clear of poor ones. In demand freelancers have the luxury of avoiding bad clients. In other words, they’re interviewing you, too. Great content writers gauge whether a specific client is worth their time. If you seem disorganized, uncertain of what you want, or sketchy, they’ll make a polite excuse and move on to the next project. By asking the right questions upfront, you can build a strong relationship with a great freelancer and amp up your marketing efforts with fabulous content. 

Need a freelancer who asks the right questions, adopts your brand voice, and whips up the articles and e-books your business needs? Let’s chat

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Digital transformation - Five suspended lightbulbs in a row with the fifth lightbulb set away from the rest against a blue backdrop.

Are Credit Unions Too Far Behind for Digital Transformation Projects? | Financial Content Writing

People prefer banking with credit unions. They are owned by members, value community, and put people over profits by only offering services people need. Nevertheless, credit unions still struggle to gain new members, convince existing members to use more products and services, and attract a younger demographic.

How can this be? Consumers report that customer service at a credit union is superior to that at a big bank. Presumably, this would help attract and  retain members. What’s more, young adults want a bank to understand their needs and provide a personalized service, needs that are compatible with the core offering of a credit union. In theory, one would expect credit unions to be smashing all three objectives. The reality is a little different.

While customers want their bank to treat them like people and build relationships, they also want convenience. At the end of the day, a financial institutions safeguards money, facilitates its movement, and manages the associated information. That’s it. The companies that do this with the most accuracy, efficiency, and painlessness will win.

This means that customers expect excellent customer experiences from other B2C industries to appear in their banking. A teller who knows your name is wonderful, but a cheque deposited through your phone from the comfort of your home is even better. Today, consumers expect services like mobile banking apps, chatbots for questions, budgeting tools, and more. And the more time passes, the more the lack of these services seems unacceptable and potentially damaging to a financial institution’s brand.

The Present Challenge

Credit unions fight the digital transformation battle on several fronts.

Compliance

Credit unions face internal resistance, like most companies do when undergoing change, but theirs is a unique resistance. Financial institutions face tougher regulations and must consider compliance requirements carefully during a transition. While this sounds like a tough barrier, digital transformation projects often strengthen a credit union’s safety and adherence to regulations.

Competition

A credit union’s biggest competition isn’t other credit unions. It’s those big banks we keep mentioning. National banks have the war chest to fund pilot projects, incubators, and accelerators to safely test new technology without running afoul of customers or regulators. Credit unions don’t have this same luxury.

War for Talent

The world’s companies are fighting a global war for talent, and financial institutions are no exception. Banks are scrambling to recruit candidates with skills in machine learning, data analysis, and cybersecurity before they are lured to Silicon Valley. Even hedge funds, traditionally secretive companies, have had to put themselves out there to attract tech talent that already has its sights set on flashier financial technology companies out west. These banks have the budget to offer high base salaries and workplace perks, while credit unions don’t have these same advantages. Moreover, banks can back incubators and accelerators in global hot spots to recruit there while regional credit unions don’t have this same flexibility.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

It isn’t all doom and gloom. While competing with bigger, stronger, richer banks sounds like an exhausting proposition, credit unions should not lose hope. Rather than trying to outspend the competition, they should focus on outsmarting the competition by making strategic plays that focus on their core value proposition: people-based banking.

IT Companies Know Credit Unions Have a Unique Need

There are IT companies who understand the unique challenges credit unions face. This means they understand budget limits and the need for a tool that will work not one that might work. They understand the inherent risks that come with modernizing your core banking system. For one, there’s the business continuity considerations of a failing platform. For another, there are the procedural changes that accompany a new platform and the impact this has on staff who may be resistant to change. Fortunately, they have experience addressing these requirements and executing on tried and tested procedures. In fact, one IT company in Canada converted over 110 credit unions to one banking platform.

There is a Clear Starting Point

While deep pockets help, an astronomical budget isn’t necessary for digital transformation. It just means you can’t afford to make many mistakes. This means that so long as credit unions design a carefully considered strategy, they execute on a digital transformation project albeit in a much more thoughtful way than their big bank competitors.

For instance, credit unions should focus on digitization before progressing to digitilization.

What’s the difference?

Well, companies often confuse digital transformation for activities like scanning a paper form. In other words, going from analog to digital. This is an example of digitization, but it’s not an example of digitilization (or digital transformation) which is specifically “the use of digital technologies to change a business model and provide new revenue and value-producing opportunities”.

But in order to achieve digitilization, companies need to go through the process of digitizing their entire business. Let’s return to that example of a scanned form. Yes, you now have that paper available in digital format, but the information within that form is not available in a way that can feed into other tools. In other words, you need to take all of your business’s existing analog information and ensure you can tag, search, and manage that information.

This is the place to start. Once credit unions go through this process, this digital organization of information allows them to analyze information to identify potential opportunities for efficiency and set the course for their transformation initiatives.

Credit Unions Are Not The Only Companies Behind

According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, most companies are not approaching digital transformation with urgency. About 20 percent of firms barely leverage digital technology while two-thirds of firms only generate about 10 to 15 percent of revenue through digital.

Figure 1: Digital transformation in today’s companies (Chart generated with data from Harvard Business Review)

“So what?” you may reply. “Why does this matter?”

It matters because there are still resources and strategies geared towards helping those who have “fallen behind” so to speak. For instance, Harvard Business Review outlines three strategies such companies can pursue that focus on:

  • Agility
  • Conducting digital M&As
  • Cooperating with digital natives

Take digital M&As for example. Companies who’ve lost time can acquire digital native companies (an offensive M&A approach) rather than taking a defensive M&A approach in which they join forces with other analog companies.

Credit Unions Can Realize Faster Results with Hyper-Focused Efforts

Oftentimes, credit unions think digital transformations are mainly for their customers. But digital transformation can happen in other areas of the business and still generate revenue. Credit unions can initiate digital transformation in the following areas:

  • Member engagement
  • Workplace
  • Operations
  • Products
  • Compliance

Such initiatives can help employees “do more with less”, experience omnichannel engagement, and streamline operations using captured data.

Industry experts suggest credit unions survey their members to understand which digital transformation projects are most important to them. This may help avoid analysis paralysis in which credit union leaders struggle to pick between chatbots or a better app with fewer clicks on a limited budget. By understanding customer needs and frustrations, leaders can put resources towards more effective projects.

There’s Time Still For Credit Unions

There’s certainly still time for credit unions to conduct digital transformation projects. The overwhelming counsel in most literature on the topic is to be strategic, be proactive, accept the fact that the future is changing, and above all, just get started.

Need a freelancer who asks the right questions, adopts your brand voice, and whips up the articles and e-books your business needs? Let’s chat

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The Freelancer Balancing Act Between Committed and Stressed

I’m so extra.

One of my bookmarks is an article on the six natural resources that’ll run out. I do mental exercises so my mind is prepared for the pain if ever I’m a victim of anaesthesia awareness.

I don’t plagiarize, but I’ll take an article I wrote my damn self and run it through Copyscape just to be sure.

So it’s no surprise that I make content writing way more stressful than it needs to be.

The job I’ve created for myself since graduating is straightforward. A startup says, “We’re a startup that makes buttons. Can you write an article about fall fashion trends?”

Cool. I bang out an article. They’re happy. They pay me.

This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to move on with my life.

But I get overcome with guilt and intense pride, even if it was ghostwritten. How did the blog post do? Did it do what you wanted it to do? What are your content goals?

I get that a blog article is high up on the marketing and sales funnel and won’t have a high conversion rate.

I know I did the job I was paid for, and thank you very much for paying me on time.

But I’m still curious:

Was it good for you?

So I follow-up. I make suggestions. I get fidgety. Like someone who got attached after one date, I have to keep checking their social media channels, their blog, to see what they’re up to content-wise.

How are you doing? How are you DOING? HOW ARE YOU DOING?

Give away too much and you’ll have a nervous breakdown

It’s a delicate balancing act though.

When you write for a larger company, they have a very clear role carved out for you as their freelancer.

“You write this, you submit it on this date, we pay you. We literally do not need your opinion about anything else we’re doing. There is someone whose job title is that specific sliver of advice you think you’re blessing us with.”

But with startups it’s different. In most instances, so long as you aren’t obnoxious about it, they welcome your suggestions. Not because they aren’t capable of figuring things out for themselves, but because they have no time to think about it. They’re trying to keep the lights on and convince people to give them money so they can stop stressing about keeping the lights on.

They can barely breathe, let alone think about a data-driven content strategy.

But here’s where the balancing act comes in. You end up giving away more than you should, and if you aren’t careful it leads to exhaustion, resentment, or even irritation on the part of the client who never asked for all this extra effort and now feels burdened by your overcommitment.

New freelancers walk a fine line between adding value and stressing for no pay when no one asked them to.

I think I’ve struck a balance, but it took some time.

Add value but demonstrate your worth with informational invoices

I’m not entirely opposed to free work, so long as it’s work that’s building value on top of a piece of paid work and the person you’re providing it for respects your time. But you have to communicate that it’s a complimentary offer very clearly.

The best way to do this is by sending informational invoices. If you throw in a brief summary they can use when they share the article on Facebook, include how much it would have cost and just apply a discount on the subtotal. Another option is to simply point out how much this would have been worth when you send it along.

No matter what, make your worth crystal clear, baby. And a pox on anyone who belittles you for doing that.

Above all, if it gets exhausting, remind yourself that this extra thought is not paid thought and you can take a break guilt-free. This is easier said than done: Freelancers have autonomy and control over their schedule, but most find it difficult to “turn off”.

For me, I think the easy answer is that I should be working full-time for one company. I take a lot of pride in my work, and I don’t like a set-it-and-forget-it approach even if it’s just a teensy, tiny project.

But then I’d have to work on someone else’s terms. I’d have to “be the brand”. I’d have to look presentable every day, and I’m quite comfortable with my ragamuffin freelancer look, thank you very much.

Also: Fuck office politics.

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 Demetre 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.

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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.

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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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Featured image via Pexels

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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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!

Featured image via Pexels