Someone set the strategy. The content is scheduled. The brief arrived. Now comes the “fun” part – creating something.
I put fun in quotation marks because every content creator recognizes the struggle to find the right word, craft the right phrase, or just get the darn thing done.
I know this from long experience. And I infer that this experience is nearly universal from watching what visitors read on the CMI blog.
People can’t get enough content creation tips. I’m going to make it easy for everyone and load this post with helpful reminders and ideas from the most popular articles in this category (plus links to many more).
I’ll start with two tips from the most-visited post (in any category) published in 2019 and 2020. After that, the ideas are in an order that made sense to me. (I’ve noted each post’s popularity rank for anyone who is curious.)
1. When it comes to length, context matters
Popularity rank: 1
How many times have you heard bromides about how long or short a piece of content (blog post, subject line, video) should or should not be? Take that advice with a grain of salt except this observation: Let context be your guide.
How long should that blog post be? There’s no simple answer. As Mike Murray writes in the piece, “Odds are that your agency or company will have policies that control length. But there should be exceptions. Editors and writers should agree on whether the article is the right length.” (Emphasis is mine.)
Sorry, there’s no magic word count or time length. You can’t call it quits just because you’ve hit some arbitrary length. I know you know this, but it’s easy to forget when clickbait headlines claim there’s a magic length that will help you rank better in search, get more email opens, or increase your social click-throughs.
What matters is how interesting, relevant, useful, or entertaining the content is.
Our Content Marketing Institute blog guidelines don’t even suggest a word count, we simply ask writers to cover the topic thoroughly and include prescriptive takeaways (and, of course, the topic itself must be relevant to our readers and cover a new idea or fresh angle on an evergreen topic).
If the content piece is long, make sure it merits your audience’s consumption. Even though the 8-second attention span myth has been busted, your audience will notice (and may flee) when you go off topic or worse, artificially extend the length to stuff in more keywords.
Mike offers advice here, too, along with an encouraging upside. “(D)iscard information that doesn’t quite fit,” he writes, “but consider opportunities to use some portions of the deleted text for future content (with additions or modifications).”
Sometimes shorter really is better
Mike’s post includes so many good ideas, I struggled to pick just one. So here’s one more content creation tip: “You don’t need to write long sentences to make your point. Short ones can work in your favor. It’s the same with words.”
And he offers these examples:
- Indicate = show
- Utilize = use
- In order to = to
- Facilitate = help
- Obtain = get
This advice comes in a section on making content scannable. But it’s a long-held (and long-ignored) guideline for good writing. Here’s how George Orwell put it in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”
2. Fight filler and fluff
Popularity rank: 2
You can replace every long word with a short one and still slow down or bore your audience. The culprit? Words that add nothing to the meaning, writes Julia McCoy.
She shares examples I find in my own and others’ work:
- When it comes to
Do you have to cut every instance of these words? No (though cut any used incorrectly). Try this advice from that genius Orwell essay: “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
Your readers might not know why your prose works so well, but your editors will thank you.
3. Don’t shy away from the indirect
Popularity rank: 4
Don’t assume you understand Ann Gynn’s advice on this topic from my “indirect” heading. She’s not giving you blanket permission to use euphemisms or passive voice freely.
The indirectness she writes about applies to quotations. Writers, Ann says, tend to “regurgitate what a person said word for word.”
Isn’t that what writers are supposed to do? Not always. Ann points out, “(F)ew people speak in a way that conveys their thoughts clearly and succinctly.”
Serve your readers by paraphrasing when it clarifies the point of the person’s response or eases transitions that would be awkward. Make it clear the paraphrased idea came from the interviewee, but save the direct quote – the part you’ll put between the quotation marks – for times “when only the speaker’s language, sentiment, or explanation will do.”
4. Sweat the headline
Popularity rank: 3
You poured hours of effort into your content. Give it the best chance by topping it with a great headline.
By “great,” I don’t mean clever, funny, or sensationalized. They can be elements of a great headline – if someone clicks and feels satisfied the article fulfilled the headline’s promise.
In other words, dazzling wordplay and clickbait titles won’t work in the long run. The former might confuse readers and the latter might disappoint.
Sadly, there isn’t a formula that works for every purpose. But Barry Feldman offers a great list of ideas to consider in this article and infographic.
One of my favorite formulas is the teaser. Here’s how Barry describes it: “The curiosity gap is an age-old and proven headline technique. Simply write a headline that teases the reader into a state of ‘I must know where this is going.’”
Here’s an example of that teaser formula from the CMI site: The One Thing Killing Your Most Creative Content Ideas (and How to Stop It).
Keep in mind: Though the writer’s headline is a draft (unless they’re the headline decision-maker), put in the effort to write one anyway. If you submit a piece to an external publication, it can help you stand out (again, as long as the content fulfills the promise). If you write for an internal or external client, they’ll love you for making their headline-writing job easier (even if they tweak your idea).
5. Block yourself in
Popularity rank: 5
I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t want to write faster. I’m surprised this article doesn’t rank as the most popular.
Ann Gynn is the fastest writer at CMI, and she shares a process to help anyone speed up.
One useful tip takes familiar advice – block out uninterrupted time on your calendar to write – and then adds an element of pressure: Schedule something important at the end of your writing block.
“If you know you must stop writing,” Ann explains, “you’re more likely to stop agonizing and get it done.”
I’d love to hear what you struggle with and what you do well when it comes to writing articles, social posts, video or podcast scripts, and the like. Share your tips (or your favorite from these tips) in the comments.
A heartfelt thanks to the CMI website visitors who read these articles (and the writers who toil diligently over them). We’ll keep counting up your “votes” and sharing the most popular by category this summer.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute