Content marketing involves driving sales and traffic through creating valuable content and sharing it with a relevant target audience.
The “content” can take many forms, including images, gifs, videos and infographics; but in this post we will focus on written content.
A high standard of writing is essential for effective content marketing. Why? Because people want to read well-written, informative, and useful content. If they like it well enough, they might even decide to share it with their friends.
If their friends like it well enough, they might then decide to share it with their friends. And so on. And so on.
The good news is that, with sufficient practice and extensive revisions, most anyone can develop a compelling and engaging writing style.
But what if you have absolutely no writing experience to speak of? Where exactly does one begin in developing a style?
Well, we look to the experts.
Writing Tips From The Experts
Who are these “experts” I speak of?
Essentially, I’m not looking for successful marketers or influential bloggers. For good writing, it is better to start by studying the techniques of those for whom good communication is paramount.
There are some writers out there whose work represents an internationally renowned beacon of high-standards and integrity. There are others for whom good writing might actually be a matter of life or death.
I’m referring to the in-house writers of major institutions and organisations. For these writers, the slightest error can have devastating consequences. As such, they are often provided with exhaustive style guides.
These style guides have usually been painstakingly written over a period of years, or even decades. They are intended to act as a definitive guide for writing in a way that is clear, concise and transparent.
The American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is tasked with gathering intelligence for the United States government, so obviously they are going to value clear and concise written communication.
It’s ironic, then, that their in-house style guide should have such a leaden name as the Directorate of Intelligence Style Manual & Writer’s Guide for Intelligence Publication.
This document recently leaked. For anyone who takes an interest in grammar, it was like Christmas.
Reading their style guide, it soon becomes clear that the CIA want their operatives to write in a way that is calm, measured and, above all, careful.
Mental Floss recently posted 11 valuable lessons from the CIA style guide. It’s a most informative and entertaining read, but the various lessons can be summed up as DON’T BE PRETENTIOUS.
Pretentious writing is essentially thoughtless writing. Never load your sentences with superfluous words without really knowing what they mean. You might do this in an attempt to aggrandise your writing, or you might do it purely out of habit.
What makes for pretentious writing? According to the CIA, it’s fake analysis (non-statements such as “anything can happen”); hackneyed phrases (“heightened tensions”, “geared up for action”); and, best of all, redundancy.
In fact, the CIA style guide is worth reading for the redundancy list alone. It’s such terms as “mutual cooperation” and “accidentally misfired”, usually using two words where one would suffice.
The CIA are opposed to redundant phrases because they “expose bad habits or, worse, carelessness”. For the CIA, carelessness really could cost lives.
Whilst redundant phrases are hardly going to get anyone killed in the world of content marketing, they could make your content appear dull and clichéd. This means that you will struggle to engage with your target audience, and your marketing outreach will likely fail.
The Guardian & Observer Style Guide
The Guardian & Observer style guide should be required reading for all bloggers and content marketers.
With scores of entries for every letter of the alphabet, it essentially tells you everything you need to know about form and propriety.
If you’ve ever stumbled over the correct way to abbreviate, or the correct spelling of a common yet complex word, the chances are that the answer you’re looking for is contained within the Guardian & Observer style guide.
This guide was mainly developed because the editors wish for high standards and consistency in spelling, punctuation, grammar and style. Yet I believe that it can also be an invaluable resource for all bloggers and content marketers who wish to come across as accessible yet professional.
The guide defines itself by a most telling Aristotle quote:
“Style to be good must be clear. Clearness is secured by using words that are current and ordinary.”
This philosophy will prove invaluable when it comes to content marketing. Why confuse your audience with complex or redundant words when you can communicate effectively with “words that are current and ordinary”?
Reading these style guides (and this blog post), you might conclude that language is only “correct” if it is studied and considered.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m not saying that the secret to successful content marketing is to write in a stripped-down, economical fashion that’s devoid of all human feeling. However, good content marketing depends on good communication, and few things are more effective at communicating key information than language that has been stripped of all unnecessary flourishes and pretensions.
The lessons from these guides are neither definitive nor exhaustive. Rather, they are the foundations upon which all effective writing is built,
Once the fundamentals of writing have been taken into consideration, with sufficient practice, anyone can develop the engaging and human voice that is essential for success in this field.
Think of it this way: when learning the piano, before you master Chopin, you first have to learn Chopsticks.
Before enjoying success, you must first learn to value simplicity.