The internet is full of bad content — to the point that we could count the varieties of “bad” if we wanted to. There’s clickbait, headlines that over-promise and under-deliver, and even content that comes across as judgmental of the very people it’s meant to help.
As a reader, it’s frustrating to stumble over bad content constantly. As a writer, it’s infuriating. How dare the people churning out this content forget the most important thing to their work, the readers?
The result is that the bar to write good content is shockingly low, but this isn’t a very motivating thought to writers who care about the actions their content can provoke.
What’s more, being paid to write means we often have to become somewhat formulaic in how we write, making it that much more important not to take quality for granted in our own work. Below are a few of the things I try to keep in mind to make sure my content never falls into the “bad” categories, no matter how many words I’m required to deliver by the end of the week.
1. Tell the Truth
This is perhaps one of the first things we’re told as writers: “Tell the truth.” Sounds simple enough — don’t lie, don’t plagiarize, right? But there’s a lot more to it than that.
We can get writer’s block easily when we’re not sure how to approach a topic. Most topics have multiple approaches that could be taken and avenues to go down, so how can we tell where to start?
Just tell the truth.
Why are you writing about this particular topic? What gap in knowledge exists in the world that you’re trying to fill? What are people not saying when they write about the same topic?
Simply put, what’s true about the thing you want to communicate? Write it down in a sentence or two, or talk to a friend about it. Once you’re able to grasp that easily, the story will write itself.
2. Be Responsible
No matter what we’re writing about, there’s always more to a story than meets the eye. This is true even of boring and straightforward topics, like personal finance, which is what I get paid to write about. It’s easy enough to skim the surface and call it a day, but it’s not good enough.
After you’re finished outlining an article, ask yourself what you might not have considered yet. Think about places that might leave a hole for the reader that would require them to do even more research. Can you address those topics and still meet your word count?
Here’s an example from my work. I often write about how balance transfer credit cards are a good tool for paying off debt. And they are! It would be easy enough for me to write a blog post that tells you what they are, how they work, and how to get one. Here’s an example outline I could easily get away with:
What are balance transfer credit cards
How you can use a balance transfer credit card to pay off debt
How to find a balance transfer credit card
But if I don’t also address a few important caveats, and the person going to get the card doesn’t do more research, here’s what they might miss:
Once the initial offer of a balance transfer credit card expires, any remaining balance will be charged the new interest rate. That first month after the introductory period can see a massive increase in the balance because of this.
Paying the minimum payment only on a balance transfer credit card pretty much guarantees that you’ll have a remaining balance when the introductory period is over.
Because of these two things, it’s important to create a plan to pay the balance off while the interest is still at zero percent, or obtain a new balance transfer credit card right before the interest goes up.
I’m not required to tell you these things. But if I don’t, the reader who utilizes these tools could end up in an expensive situation later.
We have to remember that it’s important to be responsible in our writing.
We can always skim the surface and get paid for it. In fact, depending on how you get paid, you might get paid more for it, since you can then produce more content in less time. But if you want to level-up your content, remember that there are going to be people reading what you write. They might even take action in their lives after reading what you write. Take care in your work. Remember that your work can drive others’ behavior.
3. Start With Specificity
It’s a lot easier to take this kind of care when we start with specificity. Starting with specificity enables us to dive deep without feeling like we have to write an entire encyclopedia to cover a topic properly. But that’s not the only benefit.
Very often the work we do impacts people not because it tells them what to do with their lives, but because it validates their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. There’s nothing more powerful than showing them that they are seen and heard. This lets them know that they matter.
Challenges in life are made more difficult by feelings of isolation. If we’re not aware that what we’re feeling about something is common, then we start to wonder if we’re the only ones, or even if there’s something wrong with us.
But when you give voice to a topic by writing about it, the reader can realize that they’re not alone — that their feelings are normal, even. This is a thousand times more impactful than telling people what to do about their feelings. More often than not, people know what to do. They just need to start with the understanding that what they’re going through is real, and that their feelings are valid.
Specificity makes it easier to do this because it shows the reader that you truly understand what they’re dealing with. Consider the popularity of Buzzfeed articles with titles such as, “20 Signs You Went to an All-Girls Catholic High School.” Why would something like that go viral?
Because those who went to an all-girls Catholic high school (*cough* me *cough*) went through something so specific that it can be comforting to have those memories validated by someone else who went through them.
We all just want to be seen and heard. Get specific about what you know and believe so your readers can feel that way, too.
4. Frame It Around Your Experience
It’s common to think we need to show our expertise when writing about a topic by remaining perfectly objective. And that’s true if you’re a writer for The New York Times. But we’re talking about your personal work here, so let’s get personal, shall we?
The more you frame your writing around your experience, the more the reader can feel that they understand you and that you understand them. The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to be objective. Words have connotations that show how we really feel about something. Even when we think we’re writing objectively, our word choice betrays our true feelings.
Knowing that, go ahead and frame your story around your experience if you feel comfortable doing so. You don’t have to hide your story because you don’t think it matters or because the work isn’t about you. The work doesn’t have to be about you to share your story, anyway. Instead, your story can be a vehicle for whatever you’re trying to communicate.
They say “write what you know,” after all. What do you know better than your own experience?
I’m not saying every piece you write has to be a mini-memoir. All I’m saying is you can start with your story to introduce a topic if you’d like, or you can say something like, “here’s how I’ve experienced this myself,” in the article. You could even do it while giving advice by saying, “here’s what has worked for me … and a few things that haven’t, and why.”
You might even notice me doing that here. I don’t share my experiences to make the story about me. I share them to illustrate what I’m trying to communicate. Ideally, it shows you, the reader, that I understand the implications of what I’m advising and that I understand the challenges you face.
When the reader hears you and sees you, they’ll find themselves in your story. When you remain distant and dole out advice, the reader might take it and might not, but it won’t move them the same way. And we all know that it takes a movement in the heart to create action in the feet.
5. Write With Clarity, Purpose, and Focus
All writers want to write well. We all dream about that Pulitzer Prize or writing something so beautiful and so moving that it drives people to laugh, to cry, to share with their friends. Quite frankly, it’s a lot of pressure — and we’re the ones putting it on ourselves.
Remember that your only job, whether it’s for your paid or personal writing, is to convey a message. Service the message first. Make sure you’re clear about what you have to say, understand the purpose of saying it, and let that focus drive the work.
You can always polish the words in the second draft. But the first draft needs to be all about conveying the message. And if you catch yourself going for the thesaurus to find a better word, ask yourself if the simple word you already chose might be the best one. When we try too hard, we fail to achieve good writing. It’s not about choosing the most obscure or interesting word so we can sound smart, it’s about saying what we have to say.
Just tell the truth, and tell it with care in your voice.