12 Content-Writing Secrects of Professional Writers

The Advanced Guide to Content Marketing

Written by Neil Patel & Kathryn Aragon

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Since most content starts with written words, it doesn't matter what type of content you produce, you can benefit from knowing the secrets of professional writers.

One of the biggest struggles content marketers have is producing enough content and simultaneously keeping the quality high. That's something professional writers must work through on a daily basis.

So in this chapter, you'll learn 12 secrets of professional writers: the tips and tricks that help them consistently produce a steady stream of high-quality content.

Stay in research mode at all times.

In order to keep your queue filled with great content ideas, you need to stay in research mode at all times.

Research shouldn't be reserved for planning or writing sessions only. The quality of your content will increase substantially if you do it on an ongoing basis, as ideas pop into your head.

  1. As soon as you get an idea,
    begin jotting down ways you could develop it.

    You can wait until it's time to produce your content to think about what you want to say. But it's often easier to begin developing your ideas before it's time to write. To do that, as soon as you get the idea, begin looking for:

    • Major points you'd like to make about the topic
    • URLs for sites that provide additional information
    • URLs for Web pages that illustrate your points

    By stepping into research mode every time you browse the Web, you can often have your entire outline finished before it's time to sit down and write.

    • Example #1

      Stay in research mode at all times #1

      When you get an idea, you often have a few ideas of what you'd say in those articles — an example you could give or a point you'd like to make.

      Don't just write down your content idea. Write down every thought you have about it, no matter how rough or undefined.

    • Example #2

      Stay in research mode at all times #2

      The idea for this post began with a simple idea, "6 types of leads."

      To create a rough outline, the writer entered the types of leads she was considering (in red). Then as she browsed the Web, if she found a good example of one of them, she entered the URL under the subhead.

      That way, when it was time to write the post, she could easily find the Web pages again — and most of the research was already done.

  2. As you read/browse the Web,
    gather resources to use as reference material.

    Stay in research mode at all times #3

    Don't just browse the Web. Research the Web. Whenever you're online, be on the lookout for material that could help you tell your stories.

    If you see a social media post or article that relates to a topic, grab the URL and paste it into the cell where you've listed your idea. Add notes so you know why you wanted to use the material, and when you finally sit down to write, you have much of your research already done.

  3. Use Google+ and Evernote to file your research

    Sometimes you don't have an idea yet. But you see a Web page or report that has valuable information you know you can use.

    When you see posts that have great research or fresh ideas, or if you simple want to keep it as a sample of what works, be sure to save those Web pages.

    There are three ways to do that, and we've listed them in order, from simplest to most advanced.

    1. Use Google's +1 feature

      When you +1 a Web page, Google keeps a record or it.

      To see the pages you've +1'd, go to your Google+ profile, and click on the tab below your cover banner called "+1's."

      Stay in research mode at all times #4

      You'll see a list of the Web pages you've +1'd, with the most recent ones on top.

      Stay in research mode at all times #5

      This creates a simple log of the pages you want to be able to find again later. But it doesn't give you a way to add notes or categorize your pages.

      If you'd like to save notes with your ideas, you'll need to use the technique we talk about next.

    2. Create a Google+ circle with no one in it.

      Here's how it works:

      Create a new Google+ circle called "Ideas," but don't put any people in it.

      Then, when you find a Web page you want to remember, you can "share" it with your Ideas circle. Since no one is in that circle, you'll be the only one who can see it.

      It's a simple way to keep track of Web pages you want to be able to find later. Here's how to set it up:

      1. First, create your "Ideas" circle:
        1. Stay in research mode at all times #6

          Go to your Google+ profile and click on the "Find People" link in the left sidebar.

        2. Across the top of the page are three tabs. Click on "Your circles."

          Stay in research mode at all times #7
        3. At the bottom of the screen will be a row of blue circles.

          Stay in research mode at all times #8

          Click on the first one, which says "Drop here to create a circle."
          A pop-up will appear.

        4. Stay in research mode at all times #9

          Enter the name of the circle: "Ideas"

        5. Write in a description of the circle: "Research and ideas for content"
        6. Click "Create empty circle."
      2. Now, whenever you come across a piece of content that you want to save for future reference,
        here's what you do:
        Stay in research mode at all times #10
        1. Hit the +1 button on that Web page (or copy the URL and manually paste it into your Google+ stream)
        2. Write your ideas into the post.
        3. Remove the circles you have showing, then click in the empty space to see a list of your circles. Scroll down to "Ideas" and click on it.
        4. Click "Share."
      3. When you need to find a Web page that you saved, simply review the posts in your Ideas circle.
        Here's how:
        1. When you are on your Home page, select "More" at the top of the page.
        2. The circles you have created will appear in a drop-down box. Select the "Ideas" circle to populate your stream. You will see all your Ideas in your stream.

          Stay in research mode at all times #11
        3. When you're done reviewing them and you want to return to your normal stream, select "All" from the options at the top of your Home page. You will see posts from the people you follow, including any recent Ideas you have created.

      One caveat: Your posts to the Ideas circle won't populate anyone's Google+ stream, but they could show up in a Google search if they contain the keyword being searched for.

      Here's a post we made for the sole purpose of capturing screen shots. It ranked on page 1 of Google!

      Stay in research mode at all times #12
    3. Use Evernote.

      Stay in research mode at all times #13

      Evernote allows you to save Web pages to a cloud-based file system. You create the folders and tags, and you include notes that help you find that information when you need it later.

      This is the most advanced technique for saving Web pages for future reference. And the nice thing is, you can customize the experience to your own needs.

      • Create a folder for each writing project.
      • Create a folder for each category you create content for.
      • Create a folder for each client or department you create content for.
      1. Organize your saved Web pages in whatever way that works for you. Here's how to set it up:
        1. In the upper left corner, beside "Notebooks," click the small caret. A link to "New Notebook" will appear. Click it.

          Stay in research mode at all times #14
        2. In the "Create a New Notebook" pop-up, write your project name or the category of the information you want to save.

          Stay in research mode at all times #15

          For instance, if you write blog posts for several categories on your website, create a folder for each. When you find research that applies to one of those categories, save it in the appropriate folder. (We'll talk more about that in a minute.)

          Or if you create content for several departments in your organization, create a folder for each. Then when you find research that applies to one of those departments, save it in the folder labeled with that department's name.

        3. After you've created folders to store your research, set up the Evernote Web Clipper on your desktop.

          From Google, search for "Evernote Web Clipper" and select the appropriate search result depending on your Web browser.

          For instance, if you have Firefox, select the first option. If you have Chrome, select the second.

          Stay in research mode at all times #16 Stay in research mode at all times #17

          Evernote will add an icon to your search bar at the top of your browser.

      2. Now you're ready to use Evernote to file your research:
        1. When you are searching the Web and find a page you want to save, click the Clipper icon at the top of your browser.
        2. The Web page darkens and Evernote highlights the part of the page being saved. A pop-up also appears asking you to fill in the notebook you want this page saved in, the tags you want to assign it, and any comments you may have.

          Stay in research mode at all times #18
        3. Enter the appropriate information and click "Clip Article."

          That's it. Your article is saved in Evernote in the file folder you specified.

      3. Then when you're writing and need to find a statistic, here's how you find it in Evernote:
        1. When you are writing a blog post or writing a video script and you need a statistic or other fact, go to Evernote.com and log in to your account.
        2. Stay in research mode at all times #19

          In the search bar at the top of the page, type in your keyword and click "Search."

        3. All the Web pages that you tagged with that keyword will populate the Notes panel below the Search bar. Each page is labeled with the page title and the date you saved it to Evernote.

          Stay in research mode at all times #20
        4. Click on any of the search results, and it will appear in the reading panel on the right.

          Stay in research mode at all times #21

          Of the three options for saving your research, Evernote takes the most up-front time. That's because, in order to be able to find information later, you must add tags to the pages you save.

          But Evernote is your most efficient way to find your information later.

Write in your own unique voice.

Don't try to copy someone else. Your content should have an individual style that is unique to your personality or brand.

Once you develop your own voice, you aren't done. (Writers never stop working on their writing skills. As a content writer, you need to continually hone your skills too.)

Style is your most prized possession as a writer, and it should continue to evolve over the lifetime of your career.

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

Ernest Hemingway

If you haven't found your voice yet, try this exercise:

How to find your voice

No matter what content you produce, it needs to be in your own voice, or style. It should never seem like a copycat of someone else. That said, it's only by copying skilled writers that you'll find your own unique voice.

Typically, creative professionals go through three stages of development: imitation, mastery and, finally, innovation.

You start out reading and studying the styles of writers you admire. Then you use what you learn to develop your own style.

Here's an exercise that can walk you through the process:

  1. Find 5 content writers whose style you enjoy reading

  2. Select one piece from each that is representative of their work, or that you enjoy reading.

  3. Select your favorite of the five writing samples, and read it slowly, word-for-word, out loud if necessary.

  4. Study how that writer does it:

    1. What the first sentence looks like.
    2. Format of introduction.
    3. How the article is structured.
    4. How the topic is developed and ideas presented.
    5. How the article is drawn to a close.
    6. What the call to action was.
  5. Now you try.

    Write an article or blog post for your own brand that's similar to the one you just studied. Try to format your article the same, and imitate the style of your chosen writer.

  6. Do this for each writer.

    Repeat this exercise for the remaining four articles. When you're done, you'll have five articles of your own, each written in a style similar to one of your favorite writers.

  7. Review these articles.

    Select the one that was easiest to write and sounds most "like you." It should sound or feel a bit like your own (or your brand's) personality and style.

  8. Write a sixth article in this same style, making one small change to make it sound more like your own natural voice

    Let your personality come through, your own way of talking, your individual way of seeing the world. You may keep the structure of your chosen writer. Or you may continue to use some of the writer's style. But begin to make it your own.

  9. With each article you write, tweak this adopted style a little more until it begins to sound unique to you.

    Your goal is for someone to say, "When I read your posts, I can hear you talking." That's voice. And it should be as unique as you are.

Talk about one thing only.

Each piece of content should have one point. Only one.

The first thing you should do when you sit down to write is to figure out what your bottom-line point is.

After you write, the first round of edits is to make sure your writing stays on point.

You need to be ruthless. As William Faulkner said, "kill your darlings." Any word, sentence or paragraph that breaks this one rule must be deleted — no matter how much you like it.

Depth and length should match.

There are two things that make writing difficult to read. One is not giving enough detail and giving only a spotty coverage of an idea. The other is to try to give too much detail for the space allowed.

Whether you want your content to be long or short, make sure you only go as deep as your length allows.

  • Short articles should only provide a high-level discussion of your topic or in-depth coverage of one aspect of it.
  • Longer content has the space to provide more details.

Any length is acceptable. Seth Godin and ZAGG write as few as 100 words per post, while KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg blog posts range from 800 to 1,500+ words.

Depth and length should match #1

For example, this one on ZAGG is just 36 words.

Yes, this is the entire article.

Depth and length should match #2

Whereas this one on the Daily Egg is 2,100 words. It's far too long to include here, but you can read it at http://blog.crazyegg.com/2013/02/12/how-to-write-a-landing-page/.

The idea is to know what your readers want and provide the depth and length that gets them engaged.

Find a unique angle to cover your topic

Every piece of content has a TOPIC, a POINT, and a SLANT.

Topic
a subject of discussion or conversation
Point
a major idea
Slant
a specific point of view

You may cover a trending topic that other content marketers are also writing about — but only if you add to the conversation, not repeat it. Try to make a new point or find a unique angle for talking about the topic. Otherwise, find something else to talk about.

Spend as much time on your title as you do writing

Spend as much time on your title as you do writing

Even the most valuable, interesting content will be ignored if the title doesn't connect with readers. Your title should create interest and forecast the information people will find when they click through.

10 types of titles that tend to perform well are:

  1. # of [Something Useful or Interesting]
  2. Top # [List]
  3. How to [Do Something Useful or Interesting]
  4. How [Brand Name or Celebrity] [Does Something the Reader Wants to Do]
  5. Best of [Category or Type]
  6. Why [Something] Is [the Way It Is]
  7. Interview with [Celebrity]: [Interesting Topic or Title]
  8. Newsjacking
  9. Breaking News
  10. Secrets of [Something We're Dying to Know]

Make the first sentence your best

You have about three seconds to hook your readers and get them reading. After your headline, it's up to your first sentence to do the job.

Never mislead. Your headline and first sentence should take the reader smoothly to your main point. But do say something that makes people pay attention.

  • In business, it's important to learn from your mistakes.

    Babar Suleman

    As a reader, I think, "Mistakes? What mistakes? Maybe I'm making one…"
    That little bit of doubt creates curiosity.

  • So you noticed, eh?

    Russ Henneberry

    The tone is casual and fun. I think, "Noticed what?" And I'm into the article.

  • Want better results on your landing pages?

    Kathryn Aragon

    You'll hear that you should never ask a yes/no question. Readers might say no and move on. But in this case, everyone wants better sales results, so it's a safe question.

Craft an irresistible lead (introduction)

The lead (or as journalists call it, the “lede”) is what writers call the introduction to your content.

For very short articles, it could be the first paragraph or two. For books, it could be the first chapter. But for most content, it’s the first 100-600 words: the intro and your point.

Your lead must be compelling without being overly long. It must be tease about what's to come without giving away the gold.

Types of leads that perform well in content:

  • Fascinating story
  • Little-known fact
  • Contrarian viewpoint
  • Promise of information available nowhere else
  • Breaking news

Kill the hype. Keep it believable

Your readers don't want to waste time on content that isn't accurate and trustworthy. So the rules are: no hype and no stretching the truth.

No hype.

Hype tends to make people feel like they're being manipulated — and no one likes that.

So tone it down. Write content to help people and add value to their lives. Use content to inform and entertain. Use sales copy to sell.

No stretching the truth.

People will only see you as a resource if they can trust you. That's why it's so important to research your topics.

If you present a surprising fact or figure, you need to back it up. Provide your source. If you quote someone or reference a book or report, link to it.

Make it easy for people to believe you — or they'll stop reading and move on.

The Close is as important as the lead

Good content tells who, what, where, when and why. Great content also tells "so what."

Don't let your content lose steam just because you ran out of ideas.

At the close of every piece of content, summarize your main point, then tell your readers how they'll benefit from the information you provided.

If at all possible, go full circle by tying it back to the main point you made in the lead.

Plain writing is best

Short paragraphs, short sentences, and easy words are the most readable. So don't try to win any writing awards.

Digital content is not what you learned to write in English class.

Shorter and simpler is your mantra for better readability.

Paragrah
6 lines max
Sentences
25 word max
Syllables
1-2 syllable

Edit. Edit. Edit.

Great writing never happens in the first draft.

The first draft is usually a good effort at figuring out how to put your ideas into words. As a result, they're almost always badly written. For all writers.

Great writing happens in the editing stage. So when you write:

  1. Just get your ideas down.
  2. Write fast so you can keep up with your ideas.
  3. Then put your best effort into your editing.

And don't just settle for one round of edits. For high quality writing, you'll need to go through several rounds of review.

Translating "written" content into "new media"

We live in an exciting age. There was once a day when nearly all content was written: physical books, magazine articles, glossy brochures, and the like. Some marketers included recordings or videos in their arsenal of content, but for the most part, "content" implied "written."

We realize the last few chapters seem to follow that same assumption. But nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, all media starts with an idea that is expressed in words. So even if the narrative is delivered in a podcast or video, the material must be well organized and logical. They still must rely on the basic architectural structures used by writers.

So how do you transform your words into new media instead of a written piece of content? Here's the process:

  1. Define your topic and big idea.

  2. Select the structure you'll use to present your ideas.

    (You'll learn 12 structures in Chapter 6.)

    Translating 'written' content into 'new media' #1
  3. Research, outline, and flesh out your presentation.

    Translating 'written' content into 'new media' #2
  4. Decide on the best media for delivering your information.

  5. Set up the technology for creating your content

  6. Create your content

  7. Edit, refine, improve

See how similar it is to the Creative Process for writing?

The point is not to worry about whether you should write or make a video. The point is to start creating content — in whatever format works for you.

So get creative. Tell your stories. Talk about your products and services. Engage your readers.

That's ultimately what content marketing is about.

In the next chapter, you'll learn 12 templates for presenting your content. These templates are the same structures used by the finest writers for decades — updated for digital publishing. They will give you a framework for telling your stories through content, which will save you tons of time organizing your ideas.

Ready? Let's do it!