On Content: Semicolons are Important; Compelling Copy is More Important

Posted by Matthew Cook

Dec 13, 2013 9:00:00 AM

semicolons are importantThere are a lot of bad writers out there. One of the most frequent concerns my agency hears from businesses when we try to sell them our inbound marketing services—which includes content creation—is that they’ve worked with so-called “professional” writers in the past and the results were less than extraordinary. Occasionally, we’ll hear that the writing was sloppy, rife with grammatical, punctuation, and even spelling errors. More frequently, we’ll hear that the writing was ok in a technical sense, but lacked energy and a strong voice—in a word, boring. Most often, however, we’ll hear from our prospective clients that their previous writers “just didn’t get it.”

“Just didn’t get it,” to me, is a code for, “The writer failed to demonstrate even a basic understanding of our business, what we do, and what we think. If we were to publish this drivel, it would confuse our customers and embarrass us in front of our entire industry.” I don’t blame these businesses for not seeing the value in professional writing services, not when they find themselves editing content so heavily they might as well have written it themselves.

I’ve written before about a client’s responsibility for providing direction and ideas to the writing the process. Writers-for-hire can’t churn out great content on their own. But, writers, that doesn’t get you off the hook.

We’re All Impressed You Can Spell; What Else You Got?

If the rise of content marketing has exposed anything about the business world it’s the atrocious level of grammar, punctuation, and even spelling skills demonstrated by the majority of businesspeople who attempt to write content. While I heartily applaud any business professional who writes his or her own blog content (in fact, I think it should be a job requirement for many positions), I do think most of them could stand to run their articles by an editorial eye before publishing. Some of them do. Others admit they’re out of their depth and turn to professional content writing services.

But, while it’s true you might have been hired to write content because your client can’t tell their “there” from “they’re” or can’t connect two independent clauses without creating a run-on sentence, if you really want to make a career out of professional content writing, you’ve got to bring more to the table than perfect grammar and impeccable punctuation.

Grammar mistakes can be fixed. Spelling errors are annoying, by it doesn’t take much time to fix them, either. That’s what the little red squiggly lines in Word are for. Boring, unfocussed, uninformed content is much harder to clean up.

When I look at a piece of content filed by one of the freelance writers with which I work, I try to put myself in the mind of a reader and I judge it by five criteria:

  1. If I didn’t know who wrote this, would I think it was written by someone who knows what they’re talking about? (In other words, an industry expert or, at least, someone who has done his research.)
  2. Does this article seem like it was written by a human being, with real experiences, real ideas, and real opinions? Or, is this article just content for content’s sake? (By which I mean, do I feel suckered in by click bait or empty SEO?)
  3. Is the article a compelling read? Do I have to slog from sentence to sentence or does each sentence actually make me want to read the one after it?
  4. Is this article clear and understandable? How hard do I have to try to understand it?
  5. Does this article answer the question it set out to answer?

These are the factors that make up the difference between good and bad content. Bad grammar is a turnoff, of course, and anyone who calls themselves a professional writer shouldn’t be filing error-ridden copy. But that’s just basic skills; you need to aim higher. Your job as a professional content writer is to turn your clients’ raw material into content gold: interesting, informative, and useful articles that will impress your clients’ prospective customers and help establish your clients as leaders in their industry. (If your clients aren’t giving you the right raw material, you can start by asking the right questions.)

There are a lot of bad writers out there, but if you can master these skills—and it will take time and practice and a lot of reading—you can become one of the good ones. The good ones get paid more.


Topics: Blogging, Content Marketing

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