Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org

How to Use a Fiction Throughline in Your Content Marketing

In novel writing, there are certain elements or themes that run through the book like a thread. You can find this thread in movies as well. They’re common themes like “Debbie is afraid of commitment,” “William wants Scotland to be free,” or “Captain America hates bullies.”

This is the throughline.

It’s the running theme, a character’s reason for being, a plot or sub-plot, or even the language that’s used in the story.

Every few scenes, we’re reminded of the throughline once again, though only a touch, as the author or screenwriter tugs on it once in a while to remind us it’s there.

When scrawny Steve Rogers stands up to the bully. When he dives on a hand grenade during basic training to save his squadron. When he ignores Colonel Tommy Lee Jones and rescues his best friend, Bucky.

As Chuck Wendig of Terrible Minds says:

The throughline is an invisible thread that binds your story together. It comprises those elements that are critical to the very heart of your tale — these elements needn’t be the same for every story you tell but should remain the same throughout a given story.

Basically, Chuck says, it’s “the rope that the audience will use to pull itself through the story.”

Find Your Throughlines

What is the thing your company wants to be known for?

Not your mission statement. Nobody talks like that. Besides, most mission statements suck. Hard.

We will operationalize bleeding-edge strategies in order to maximize our core competencies to that we may holistically leverage best-of-breed solutions.

That’s not a throughline. That’s complete crap. (I sure hope that’s not someone’s actual mission statement. I made it up, and I had to shower afterward.)

Every kind of content marketing should use a throughline. Even solar panel manufacturers.

Instead, what do your salespeople and marketing staff brag about? What excites you about what your work? Why does your company do what it does?

That’s your throughline. If you’re a pharmaceutical company, your throughline is saving lives. (Or helping old men get erections. I’m not judging.) If you make solar panels, your throughline is saving the earth and reducing our dependence on coal. If you’re a business improvement consultant, like my friend Robby, your throughline is helping others be more efficient.

Once you know your throughlines, you’re ready to weave them into your story.

What Do Throughlines Have to Do With Content Marketing?

In content marketing, your throughline runs through your company’s overall story.

Your story is made up of chapters — blog articles, white papers, videos, podcasts — and your throughline should pull potential customers through on their buyer’s journey.

Your company’s throughline are those things you stand for and can truly deliver. If you know your company’s USP, a unique selling proposition, that’s your throughline. It’s the top benefit you offer your customers.

For Chick-fil-A, their throughline is chicken-not-beef. Their advertising is all about the cows telling us to eat more chicken. For Apple computers, it’s thinking different(ly). Their computer ads are about doing great things with the right side of your brain. For Pro Blog Service, it’s about providing high-level professional writing. So I write articles about advanced writing skills.

Not everything Chick-fil-A does is about their cows. Not everything Apple promotes is about being a creative professional. And at Pro Blog Service, we write about things other than writing.

But every so often, you’ll find that theme, that element, that throughline to pull you through their stories, on to the next chapter.

For our solar panel manufacturer, they can spend most of their time talking about the quality of their panels, their low cost, available financing, ease of use, money saved, and benefits over wind power.

But every so often, they need to tug on their throughline to remind us it’s there: “if we can use more solar power, we use less coal to create electricity. And less coal means a cleaner tomorrow.”

Content marketers like to call themselves storytellers, so here’s a real story element they can use. Novelists and screenwriters use them all the time, and so can you.

If you can weave your throughline into your content marketing, it will tell you what comes next, and it will move your customer down the right path. You can more easily plan your content schedule if you can follow the golden thread that’s waiting for you to wrap a story around it.

Photo credit: Gray Watson (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Skip the Fancy Apps: You Don’t Need Special Tools to be a Writer

I love to hassle my artist friends about the cost of producing their art versus mine:

“Do you ever think about how you need a $1000 camera to make your art, but I can do mine with a pencil stub and back of an envelope.”

And then I get escorted from their exhibition, and they don’t speak to me for months.

I’ve had several discussions with photographer friends — all professionals who make their living behind the lens — about whether they could produce high quality work with a cheap point-and-shoot camera or needed expensive equipment. They all agreed, good equipment made life easier, but their (breathtaking) skills let them overcome the shortcomings of the cheap equipment.

And so it goes with painters, sculptors, potters, jewelers, and furniture makers. Professionals can do a lot with cheap tools, but they really shine with high-quality tools and equipment. (Conversely, an amateur armed with the best tools doesn’t have the skill to match the professional using poor tools.)

Writers Don’t Need Special Equipment

Erik Deckers' Smith-Corona TypewriterThat’s the great thing about writing. Our work doesn’t improve with our tools. We don’t need hand-crafted pencils made from reclaimed barn beams and carbon fiber bicycle wrecks. Or pens with comfort grips and high-tech synthetic ink. Or frictionless paper that glides under our hands. (Although this Ogami stone paper is unbelievably smooth!)

A writer really can get by with a golf pencil and the back of an envelope. A writer writes; everything they do happens in their brain, and gets translated onto paper.

It’s the same on the digital front. There are no special apps that make us better writers. No apps that make our words shine or turn them into magical ideas.

Sure, there are plenty of tools that claim to be writers’ apps. Tools that shut off Facebook and tools that hide your entire laptop screen. But what can they do that a simple “I’m not going to use Facebook for the next two hours” self-promise cannot?

(Said the guy who checked Twitter three times in the last hour.)

There are minimalist writing apps that strip out all the bells and whistles of Apple Pages or Word. But you can also get TextWrangler for Mac or Microsoft Works for free, or just plain old Google Docs.

There’s even Scrivener, but that’s more of a workflow/information management tool. It’s great for large bodies of work, like a master’s thesis, novel, or screenplay, but for anything less than 1,000 words, it’s like taking a moving van on a quick run to the grocery store.

There are other tools, like RhymeZone.com and Thesaurus.com, but they’re not writer-specific. And don’t get me started about Evernote. I love Evernote, and have the pro version, but you can’t swing a dead cat/mouser/tomcat/grimalkin without hitting an article that lists Evernote as a “must-have writing app.”

What CAN Writers Use?

Don’t get me wrong. These are all fine apps, and I use several of them. But these aren’t must-haves like a photographer and his camera, or a painter and her brushes.

If you want special writing tools, get a basic notebook and a decent pen, and just start writing. Or pick the word processor and laptop you’re most comfortable with. Whether you handwrite everything, or you have a 21″ HD computer monitor and bluetooth keyboard, you’re going to get your best work done with the tools you feel comfortable with.

I’ve written in small grid-lined Moleskine notebooks with a Pilot G-2 gel pen for 12 years. I’ve pounded on a 60 year old Smith-Corona Silent Super typewriter, and an 80 year old L.C. Smith & Corona Silent. I’ve used Apple’s word processor (AppleWorks, ClarisWorks, and now Pages) since I was 20. I’ve played with different writing apps, including Facebook blockers, minimalist writers, and even Scrivener.

But none of these made me a better writer. None of these improved my writing or my efforts. Sure, some of them were more efficient, but you measure good writing in results, not efforts. No one cares about the process, just the finished product.

In the end, no tool will make you a better writer. Apps can improve the process, but they don’t improve your skills. While we can argue that better tools make better paintings/photographs/sculptures/tables, a better word processor doesn’t make a better story. Focus less on the tools you use, and more on your process, and everything will fall into place.

The Seven Mudas (Wastes) of Content Marketing

Lean Manufacturing, which spawned America’s Agile business movement, is based on a Japanese management philosophy. It was further developed by Taiichi Ohno as part of the Toyota Production System. Ohno identified seven different areas of waste, and said that if companies could solve these problems, they could improve profits and productivity.

One of the tenets of the Lean Philosophy is to avoid mudas, or wastes. In manufacturing terms, these are the different pinch points that have an impact on the manufacturing process. For example, Inventory means you’ve tied up a lot of capital in having extra raw materials or finished products on hand, which crunches your cash flow. Over-processing means you’re putting more time and energy into each unit than you will see in profits.

While the Seven Mudas are applied primarily to manufacturing, they can be equally applied to content marketing. They are Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-Processing, Over-Production, and Defects; they spell TIMWOOD.

Transportation

Transportation is one of the Seven Wastes of Content Marketing as well as Manufacturing.

This is an example of the Transportation muda. Products can get damaged during transportation, which wastes time and money.

What it means: Every time you move raw materials or a finished product, it can be damaged or lost. You also have to pay for each time you move it with labor and equipment costs, but those don’t add to the value of the product.

How it applies to content marketing: If you edit your content by committee, if you have layers upon layers of approvals, if you have a system that does not trust two grown adults to write and edit a piece of content, you’re wasting everyone’s time and energy. The Transportation muda is the time and resources wasted by passing a piece of content between three or more people who need to approve before it can be published.

How to solve it: Set up a system where one person writes, one person edits, and then it gets published. If you require a third person’s approval, these are symptoms of a bigger inefficiency. You presumably hired intelligent, responsible adults, and if you can’t trust them to make intelligent, responsible decisions, that’s a management problem, not an employee problem. Before you ever start a content management program, create an understanding of what you can and cannot discuss on your blog or social networks.

Inventory

What it means: Storing up raw materials or completed products. They don’t make you any money, and won’t until you sell it, which is wasted capital and labor. This is the problem that just-in-time inventory systems usually fix.

How it applies to content marketing: Storing up a lot of articles in advance can cause publishing problems because you either have to pay your writers up front (tying up capital), or you could lose the content because other issues and industry changes arise. You’ve paid for all of this great content, only to bump it further down the publishing queue until it’s out of date or completely forgotten.

How to solve it: Don’t store more than one month’s content in your inventory, because you never know when your editorial calendar is going to change. Instead, revisit your editorial calendar once a month, and make sure you’re still on track.

Motion

What it means: Similar to Transportation, Motion is about the movement of workers and machines. Too much motion makes people prone to injury, and machines are prone to damage from wear-and-tear through continual motion.

How it applies to content marketing: I’m going to reverse this one. The problem with a lot of content is over-automation. It’s a lack of motion. People look for the shortcuts and easy way out. But you’re sitting on a comfy chair, typing on a computer, and the only thing that actually moves are your fingers and wrists. What kind of shortcuts in life do you actually need for this job?

How to solve it: If you want good content, it’s going to take some effort on your part. You’re going to have to read, research, edit, and practice. You’re going to have to be creative, and come up with new ideas. You can’t automate this, and you can’t take shortcuts. Don’t copy-and-paste tweets into Facebook status updates. Write something different for each channel, and take advantage of its uniqueness.

Waiting

What it means: The opposite of Motion is Waiting. If products are not being transported or made, it causes delays in the line. Delays mean employees are Waiting, which means you’re paying for non-performing labor.

How it applies to content marketing: Waiting is often caused by a bottleneck in your creation process. Either your writer is too slow, or your editor is taking too long. Maybe they have too many projects, or they don’t have enough work. Or you have way too many meetings. (Or you completely ignored me on the Transportation thing, and your compliance department is taking their own sweet time.)

How to solve it: Look at your content staff’s typical productivity, and see what they can normally handle on a good day. If they have less work than that, you need more clients/projects. If they have more work, you need to more people. But don’t create busy work just so they have something to do. Focus on high quality first.

Over-processing

What it means: Doing more work than is actually needed. This not only has the problem of extra Motion, but it also adds additional labor costs.

How it applies to content marketing: Any. Committee. Ever. Do not assign content creation to a committee. The fewer people involved, the better.

How to solve it: Content creation should be between the writer and the editor. (Of course, dont’ forget the client, if you have one.)

Over-production

What it means: Sometimes called the worst muda, because it creates so many other problems. If you work ahead, you have a problem of Inventory. You have to move the product to its Waiting place, which means more Transportation. More production means more Motion. Plus, you run the risk of creating more Defects.

How it applies to content marketing: Don’t confuse this one with Inventory, although they’re two sides of the same coin. Inventory has its own problems, but Over-production is the process of getting to that point. Are you adding bells and whistles to every piece of content? Are you repurposing old content to the point that you’re just copying-and-pasting, and slapping a different title on it? I see this when a marketer turns a blog post into a podcast into a movie into an infographic into an ebook into a one-woman show at their local fringe theatre festival. It’s tiresome and more than a little lazy.

How to solve it: Figure out what your readers want, and give it to them. Focus on creating original ideas, backed by original research, and make everything the best it can be. Rather than recycling and repurposing that content into 17 different forms, pick one or two and stick with it. Repurposing only contributes to the content shock.

Defects

What it means: In manufacturing terms, Defects are broken products that result from bad materials, poor employees, and even problems of Transportation and Motion. Remember, it’s not just poorly-made products; it’s also a unit you stuck a forklift through during Transportation.

How it applies to content marketing: These are your typos, your grammatical errors, misused punctuation, and so on. While a misplaced apostrophe won’t waste a blog post, it can affect your credibility. I’ve seen articles on websites that claim to have strict editorial controls, and they demand excellence from their writers. And yet, I’ve seen misspelled and missing words in their work. So much for “excellence.” These are also articles with bad information, poor research, poor logical arguments, etc. And don’t even get me started on just plain old terrible writing.

How to solve it: Work with professionals. Hire professional writers and editors. Don’t just pass it off to the younger staff because it’s “that new-fangled online stuff.” Pass it off to them because they love to write. Pay for training for your staff, give them opportunities to develop further, and help them get better at their jobs. Or, just outsource the work to the pros.

Did I miss anything? Any descriptions you would agree or disagree with? Any interesting stories you’d like to share? Leave them in the comments below, and let me know how you would describe your own Mudas of Content Marketing.

Photo credit: Astrid Groeneveld (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)

Should You Publish on LinkedIn, Medium, and Other Publishing Sites?

Marketers seem to suffer from the Shiny Object syndrome more than most. They’re distracted by the newest, shiniest toy dangled in front of them. Seriously, my dog gets less distracted when I jangle my keys.

Content marketers are just as bad. I’ve seen people jump on Medium, LinkedIn, Ello, This, Inc, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and the Huffington Post, only to jump back off weeks later.

They’re all looking for that elusive publisher, that one tool, that will solve all of their marketing and publishing problems.

If I publish on LinkedIn, people will read my stuff.

If I publish on Ello, people will buy from me.

If I publish on Medium, I’ll be a star.

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful ThingsHere’s the secret none of those publishers will share: they’re not doing anything special.

They don’t do anything more than any other publisher is doing.

Oh sure, Medium created an app for people who like to think deep thoughts over soy lattes, while LinkedIn is reaching a huge business audience because Richard Branson and Gary Vaynerchuk publish there. But Medium is not the message.

These are still just publishers. They don’t have Magical Publishing Fairy Dust that makes people read your work. You do.

Don’t Build on Rented Land

For years, I’ve said you need your own place to be the central hub of your social media and personal branding. You need some place to send people, some place that is yours and yours alone. Some place that you control, aren’t at anyone’s mercy, and aren’t subjected to the fickle winds of the market.

That’s your blog.

That’s not a spot on Blogger or WordPress.com. (I had a client blog get shut down years ago without warning, because Blogger didn’t like our outbound links. Two years’ of content, gone in an instant.)

That’s not your Facebook business page. (Facebook pleaded with everyone to launch a business page, only to shut down their reach unless you pay up.)

That’s not This.cm. (They shut completely down on July 31.)

That’s not LinkedIn, Medium, or Ello. (Read the previous three paragraphs.)

It’s your blog on your server with your version of WordPress. (Or, God help you, Joomla or Drupal.)

You have no control of your content when it’s on someone else’s site. You can’t stop them from deleting your content, limiting its reach, or shutting down completely.

But if it’s on your blog, you’re in control. It’s your site, it’s your content, and you get to say what you want.

If you still want to use those other sites, go ahead. Just post to your blog first, wait a day or two, and then post to those other sites.

That’s because you want your content to get all the Google juice. If it’s published first, Google will see it as the canonical material. If it’s not first, Google won’t even notice it.

It’ll be like me at my high school dances all over again.

(Secondary publishing: the high school band nerd of content marketing.)

But, even that won’t sprinkle the Magical Publishing Fairy Dust on it.

IT’S STILL ABOUT YOUR SOCIAL NETWORK!

Social media is the thing that separates average writers with huge networks from great writers with small networks.

If you don’t push your content on social media, people won’t see it. If you don’t promote your work, no one will read it. If you don’t tell people, they won’t care!

Regardless of where you publish, you need to tell as many people you can about your work. They don’t care where you’re published, they just want to see it.

Social media, not some hyped-up blogging software, is your Magical Publishing Fairy Dust.

Do you want to be widely read on LinkedIn? Share your LinkedIn posts on Twitter and Facebook a few times a day. People aren’t always on Twitter or Facebook when you post your messages the first time.

Want your Medium post to reach a larger audience of like-minded readers? Follow your favorite authors, leave smart, personalized comments, and share their work. They’ll check you out, and if they like what you’ve done, they’ll share your work in return.

We’ve been saying this since 2007, when we first started telling people how to reach a wider audience. And it hasn’t changed. The tools may have changed, but the techniques have not. People will read your stuff if you a) have something worth reading, and b) tell them about it.

Bottom line: I’m not saying don’t publish on LinkedIn, Medium, or other places. Publish there second, publish on your blog first. Don’t give up final control of your work to someone else’s so-called magic.

Photo credit: Sophie Anderson, Take the Fair Face of Woman (Wikimedia Commons, painting, public domain)

How Long Should You Spend Writing a Blog Post?

When I worked for the Indiana State Department of Health, I could write a press release in 30 minutes. A colleague who used to work in newspapers could do it in 20. Meanwhile, another colleague, with an English degree, took three hours.

My pocket watch - It should take 1 hour of writing per 300 words of a blog post.The secret was to know the formula, and to know your source material. Boilerplate language was also a huge time saver and space waster. For the most part, the releases were news-y, generic, and unremarkable, but they got the job done. It didn’t matter how long it took, as long as they read like a proper newspaper article.

Writing is as individual an activity as cooking or walking. We all do it at different speeds, and with different levels of efficiency and skill.

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, said on “The Business of Story” podcast, she spends up to eight hours on a single post. I spend three to four hours on a post here or for one of my own newspaper columns (which are republished on my humor blog). And I’ll spend one to two hours on a client blog post. (Of course, I cheat a bit: I interview the client, and type like mad to get it all down.)

Just Give Us The Secret Formula!

One of the secrets about blog writing is that you don’t do this all at once. Ann will spread her 8 hour blog post over two or three days. My four hour newspaper columns will take all day. And my client blog posts even cover an entire day.

There’s no magic number for how long it takes to write a blog post, but you should plan on one hour per 300 words.

That’s assuming you follow a good writing and editing process. For example, my typical process is:

  1. This is the Hemingway App score for this blog post.

    This is the Hemingway App score for this blog post.

    Write a (shitty) first draft. Anne Lamott gave us permission to write a shitty first draft, so take this time to just vomit everything onto the page. This should take 30 minutes per 300 words, assuming you can type at least 50 words per minute. You should have also previously put some thought into the structure of the article, before you even sat down to write. Then, set it aside for at least 4 – 6 hours; 24 hours is even better. This time away from the work lets you see it with new and fresh eyes, so you can more easily spot problems.

  2. Heavily revise the previous draft. Fix major flaws, remove unwanted sentences, and move paragraphs around. This should take another 20 minutes per 300 words. Then, set it aside for another 4 – 6 hours. Again, more time away from the piece is better.
  3. If you’re a beginning or intermediate writer, repeat Step #2. That includes the 4 – 6 hour waiting period.
  4. Polish it for punctuation and spelling errors. For your last 10 minutes, read the piece through a couple of times, but focus more on fixing errors than rewriting. Read it backward, word by word, to spot spelling errors, missing or extra words, and so on. You may even want to run it through a separate spell checker or the Hemingway App for a final polish.

How Long Should It NOT Take?

A good blog post should not take less than 30 minutes to write. Unless you’re working on a 100-word piece, or a haiku, you should not finish a single blog post in 30 minutes.

That’s because you’re not a good first draft writer. How do I know? Because no one is a good first draft writer. I’ve been writing for 29 years, and I’m still not a good first draft writer.

I know plenty of daily bloggers who say they create their entire week’s worth of blog posts in a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t know if they’re bragging, or warning us.

First, not only is that time you should be spending with your family, this means you’re only spending 24 minutes on a single post. (120 minutes ÷ 5 posts = 24 minutes per post.)

Second, I’ve read those blog posts, and I’ll tell you a little secret:

It shows.

We can tell you only wrote that blog post in 24 minutes, and gave it a cursory editing pass before you published it the next morning. Words are misspelled, punctuation is missing, and you forgot the ending to

(See what I did there?)

I’m fast, but I’m not 24-minutes-while-the-game-is-on fast.

But, if you’re able to write your posts that fast, please make sure you edit your draft before you publish. That includes major rewrites and polishing. Publish it later in the afternoon, after you’ve gone through it in the morning.

Writing is a basic skill we all learned in school, but it’s not like riding a bike. We definitely need some practice and time to be able to do it well. But your goal should not be to see how fast you can do it. The Internet is full of content that people tried to do quickly. It’s that stuff no one likes to read.

If you want to write high quality content, take as much time as you need to do the best possible job on it. That’s the only way your work is going to shine through the muck.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers

Birds Sing from the Heart: How Bob James Writes

Bob James is the Chief Storyteller and owner at Goodly, a writing and communications agency in Washington D.C. Bob is a graduate of Georgetown University, and holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, while I only have a mere Bachelor’s of Science. (That is, I have a B.S. in BS from BSU; even Bob can’t say that!)

Erik recently invited me to discuss “My Writing Process,” a dead-horse topic if there ever were one.

But I’ll beat that horse anyway, just because Erik asked. Here you go:

Bob James on how he writes and his writing processWhere I find ideas. The wellsprings of ideas are many and inexhaustible. The ones I return to again and again are:

  • Other writers—from the sublime (e.g., Emerson, Faulkner, Sartre, Updike) to the ridiculous (names withheld)
  • Pop culture (songs, movies, TV shows, blogs, etc.)
  • Current events (AKA La Comédie humaine)
  • Memories, dreams, reflections 
  • Other people’s observations (Take my wife’s. Please.)

How I write the ideas down. My secret sauce is no secret. Writing isn’t thinking. It isn’t even writing. “Writing is revision,” as Tracy Kidder says. “Write once, edit five times,” David Ogilvy urged office mates.” Priceless advice. Your fifth draft may not excel, but it will beat your first by a long shot. And, as you edit five times, be like the birds. An ornithologist mentioned during a recent NPR interview that birds’ voice boxes are lodged deep within their chests. “Birds sing from the heart,” she said. You should, too. Readers like it and will respond accordingly.

How I assure quality. Copy’s never error free, but I try hard to check my facts. In fact, I often spend more time fact-checking sources than writing and editing. (Don’t hem and haw: fact-checking is enlightening.) And I proofread, both twice before I hit publish and twice afterwards. Boring task, but my reputation’s on the line.

How I spread ideas. Outposting has helped aggrandize my scribblings more than any of my other activities. Adman Gary Slack advises clients to invest in “other people’s audiences” more than their own. He’s 100% on the money.

For more advice about writing. If you’re hungry for sound advice, listen to Paul Simon and Chuck Close discuss the creative process in a podcast for The Atlantic. You’ll learn more than you will by reading 50 how-to books, with these four noteworthy exceptions:

Oh yeah, don’t forget No Bullshit Social Media.