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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How to Apply the Inbound Methodology Across Business Units: Attracting, Engaging, and Delighting Customers Across Marketing, Sales, and Operations

I’m in the process of renewing my Inbound Certification. Here’s what I’ve learned from the first module “Understanding the Fundamentals of Inbound”.

Your marketing team thinks your salespeople are short sighted. Your sales team thinks marketing is a group of glamorous bureaucrats who plan, but never execute. And your operations team can’t be bothered to form an opinion on either team, but they’re convinced they do all the work.

At the end of the day, everyone within an organization is on the same team. Marketing needs to grow market share, sales needs to close the deals, and operations needs to make sure the organization can fulfil what it sells. In dysfunctional organizations, these business units work against each other instead of working with each other.

Why?

It’s because there is no unifying framework through which they can conduct their day-to-day activities and work towards their goals.

The Three Stages of the Inbound Methodology

The Inbound Methodology, famous for its focus on engaging with prospects as opposed to interrupting prospects, (e.g. blog posts versus banner ads) focuses on aligning all of these functions. It fancies itself as more of a business growth philosophy rather than a marketing paradigm.

According to the Inbound Marketing methodology, customers move through three stages:

  1. Attract
  2. Engage
  3. Delight

The proponents of the Inbound Methodology, Hubspot, portray these stages as a flywheel and understandably so. A flywheel efficiently stores rotational energy. When the inbound methodology works correctly, each stage powers the next, producing more energy and therefore fueling growth. This movement is initiated by three key business units that interact with customers.

  1. Marketing
  2. Sales
  3. Operations

What happens in each stage?

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 1.09.08 PM

The Cross-Functional Utility of the Inbound Stages

As Hubspot points out in their Inbound course, attracting isn’t just the job of marketing, engaging isn’t just the job of sales, and delighting isn’t just the job of operations. It is a framework that can be applied across business units. The chart below illustrates how.

Screen Shot 2019-03-03 at 1.10.24 PM

In other words, ever business aims to become an expert and every expert aims to turn every role into a knowledge broker.

The information in this blog post is from the Hubspot Inbound Certification Course.

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