Good Writers Read Good Books

Whenever I attend a networking event, I like to ask questions usually not asked at one of these things.

What’s your favorite sports team? Who was your idol growing up? What’s the last book you read?

I can always spot the sales alpha dogs in any networking crowd. When I ask about the last book they read, or their favorite book, it’s always the same thing.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie,” someone will say.

“Zig Ziglar’s Born To Win,'” says another.

The Art of War,” says a guy with slicked-back hair and a power tie.

How to Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women,” says an unusually-muscled guy with a funny accent.

And I can spot the content marketers too.

“Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes!” someone will say.

The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing,” says another.

“I don’t read books, I only read Copyblogger,” says a third.

My bookshelf at home. I've whittled my books down to favorite authors and books by friends.

My home bookshelf. I’ve had to limit my books to favorite authors and books by friends.

But the writers — the good writers — will tell me about the books they love. The books they read over and over again, not because it will help them get ahead in life, but because it stirs something within them.

Those are the writers who are more concerned with their craft than with their content. Those are the writers who will produce some of the most interesting work, regardless of their employer. (What’s sad is their employer has no idea how lucky they are to have this wordsmith in their corner, and will wonder why the sales funnel got a little emptier after they left.)

Content marketers, as writers you should understand and build your craft as much as, if not more than, you understand your product, or understanding big data, SEO, the right number of items in a listicle, or A/B testing.

Good writers are good content marketers, but the reverse is not true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leading expert in your particular industry, if you can’t make people want to learn more about it, you’ve failed.

If you can’t make people care about your product, they won’t buy it. If you can’t stir basic human emotions, they won’t care. And if you can’t move people to read your next blog article, or even your next paragraph, it doesn’t matter how much you know.

You will have failed as a marketer and as a writer.

The best thing you can do is focus on improving your writing skills.

That all starts with reading.

Stop Reading Business Books

Content marketers — at least the writers — need to stop reading business books and content marketing blogs. They’re no good for you. At best, you don’t learn anything new. At worst, they teach you bad habits.

As British mystery writer P. D. James said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Read for pleasure instead. Read outside the nonfiction business genre. Read books from your favorite writers. Read mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction. Read history, biographies, creative nonfiction, or collections of old newspaper columns.

But. Don’t. Read. Business books.

This is input. This is how you become a better writer. You read the writers who are better than you, and you skip the writers who aren’t.

That means business books. As a business book author and reader, I can tell you there are plenty of business books that will never be accused of being “well written.” They’ll teach you plenty about the subject, but they won’t teach you about the craft of writing. Sure, you need to study the science of content marketing, but that should be a small portion of your total reading, not the majority of it.

So you study the best creative writers who are considered masters of the craft, and practice some of the techniques you see them doing.

This is why professional football players watch game film, not only of their opponents, but of players who came before them.

This is why actors watch old movies by the stars and directors from 50, 60, 70 years ago.

It’s why musicians not only listen to their idols, but their idols’ idols, and even their idols’ idols’ idols.

And this is why good writers constantly read the masters of the craft. This is why several writers have must read books and authors they recommend to everyone.

My friend, Cathy Day, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, and author of The Circus In Winter told me once,

Reading a lot teaches you what good sentences sound like, feel like, look like. If you don’t know what good sentences are, you will not be successful as a writer of words.

Stephen King, who is not a friend of mine, said something similar: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

What’s In Your Bookshelf?

There are only so many effective headlines you can write, so reading the 87th article on “Five Effective Headlines You Need To Use RIGHT NOW” is a waste of time.

There are only so many ways of creating buyer personas that yet another “How to Build Your Buyer Personas” isn’t going to make a difference.

Erik Deckers and Jay Baer at Blog Indiana 2012

Jay Baer and me. This dude’s a rockstar no matter what.

And when you really get down to it, Jay Baer is channeling Harvey Mackay who’s channeling Zig Ziglar who’s channeling Dale Carnegie. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to business books and content marketing blogs. (Although I love Jay Baer’s bravery when it comes to wearing those sport coats! And he’s one of the few good business writers I admire.)

But there’s a whole world of books out there that have nothing to do with business, nothing to do with marketing, and will make you a better writer than any business book ever will.

Read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn how to write with punch, using a simple vocabulary.

Read Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Ballpark to learn how to make people passionate about the thing you love.

Read Agatha Christie And Then There Were None to learn how to hook people at the start of a story, and keep them until the very end.

Identify three of your favorite authors, or at least authors you’ve heard good things about, and read one of their books. Identify passages, sentences, and techniques that move you and make you go “I wish I could do that.” Write them down in a notebook, and then practice doing them in your everyday writing — emails, blog articles, notes to friends, special reports, everything.

Once you finished those three books, read three more books. And then three more. And then three more.

When you run out of an author’s work, find a new author. When you run out of authors, ask a bookstore employee or librarian for recommendations. Or join Goodreads and ask your friends about the books they love.

Content marketing is facing an avalanche of mediocre content in the coming years, and the only way you’re going to stand out is if you can be better than the avalanche. That means being better at your craft, not producing more and more mediocre content.

It means reading more stuff by great writers and less by average writers. It means realizing you’re better off reading another mystery novel than yet another article that promises “Five Content Marketing Secrets.”

It means focusing on your craft and becoming a master of language and stories. And it all starts by reading the work of the artists who came before you.

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

“Write Good Content” is Bad Advice

If you tell people to write good content, you’re part of the problem

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen “write good content” in yet another Five “Secrets” of Content Marketing article. I saw it again recently from someone who ought to know better — someone who claimed to be a content marketer specializing in a particular industry.

First, these aren’t secrets. Stop calling them secrets. Natives in the Amazon rainforest who have never met outsiders know them. Call them tips. Call them ideas. Call them blindingly-obvious-insights-that-even-a-five-year-old-understands. But don’t call them secrets.

Second, this so-called secret isn’t even making it to the top of the list. This is The Most Fundamental principle of content marketing, and you put it third on a five item list? When you’re building a house, you don’t put up the doors and windows first. You lay the foundation. You create a strong base that will support the rest of the house. Writing well needs to be the foundation of all your content marketing.

At the Start/Finish line of the Indy 500 2016; telling people to write good content is like telling race car drivers to drive fast

Remember, if you ain’t first, you’re last.

Third, stop telling people to do things they should be doing anyway. These are the fundamental principles people build their entire profession on. Telling them to do it, and then calling it a secret, is an insult to the professionals who actually do that work.

If you’re a writer, you should write well anyway.

If you’re a race car driver, you should drive fast anyway.

If you’re an accountant, you should balance your accounts well anyway.

No one tells an accountant, “Secret #3: Be sure to balance the books.” No one tells a plumber “Super Duper Plumbing Secret #19: Make sure your pipes don’t leak.”

So why would you tell someone to write well?

Writing well is not an option. It’s not an item on a checklist. It’s not something that, had you not mentioned it, they would have purposely half-assed it.

Basically, if you’re telling people to “write good content,” you’re part of the problem. You’re part of the ruination and downfall of the content marketing industry

Shiny New Marketing Automation Tools Can’t Fix Sucky Content

In the content marketing world, you can’t swing a big stick without whacking some marketing automation tool that promised to not only drive prospects through your sales funnel, it will lovingly nurture your leads, walk your dog, and make handfuls and handfuls of fries.

People look at these new tools like a teenager gaping open-mouthed at a motorcycle, thinking, “Man, if I owned this, my life would be awesome!”

Ducati Supersport 620

I’m going to ride this to my 30th high school reunion.

That’s what it’s like with marketing automation. Marketers look at the shiny new tools, and dream of all the customers they’ll get, wind blowing in their hair, and Sarah staring after me, wishing she never dumped me.

Unlike the teenagers, marketers have the budget to bring their shiny tool home, where they promptly leave it in the driveway. They don’t have any fuel to put in it, and they don’t have anywhere to go.

Every morning, the marketer goes outside, sits on their new purchase, and says, “Okay, now GO!” And never moves an inch.

It sits, unmoving, from lack of content. No blog posts, no white papers, no videos, no podcasts.

Oh sure, they had the best of intentions. They got their entire mailing list uploaded into the CRM, and they even sent out content fairly regularly. For two weeks.

But then life got in the way, meetings popped up, and they stopped writing and producing content. They never had a chance to open the throttle and see how fast they could go.

You Need to Feed the Beast

The problem with marketing automation is that it always needs fuel. It always has to be fed. On top of that, it needs premium fuel. Your prospects expect great content. Not good content. Not even pretty good content.

It has to be stellar. Otherwise, they’re going to get bored and go away.

Which means you’re only as good as your content, not your tools. It doesn’t matter which tool you have, or that you paid for the platinum package, with all the bells and whistles and handlebar tassels that wave in the wind. If your content sucks, it will suck expensively.

But at least you’ll be able to track all the unsubscribes and put them all in a colorful report your boss can easily understand.

As content marketing grows and matures as an industry, and people rave about big data, customer journeys, and buyer personas, it’s still about the quality of your content.

If you can’t tell a story, still confuse features and benefits, and use enough marketing jargon to make the Harvard Business Review editors smile in their sleep, no tool will save you.

Focus first on the quality of your content before you start kicking the tires of a new marketing automation tool. Because once you make that big expensive purchase, you’re the one responsible for making it go. And if your shiny new tool can’t bring in the leads and convert them to customers, the fault isn’t with the tool.

It’s an operator error.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Don’t Let Data Drive Your Content Marketing

Too many people are bragging about doing “data driven content marketing,” and they’re missing out on the most important aspect, the human element.

There are times you have to throw the data out, and make decisions based on your gut feeling. Rather than being driven by data, why not let random chance and serendipity do its thing once in a while.

People who are driven by data will never make a decision without consulting the analytics oracle, and as a result, will miss great opportunities because the data didn’t give them permission.

Data should measure what you’re doing and tell you if you’re doing it right or not. Data should not make your decisions for you. You don’t work for data, it works for you. If you’re one of those people who consults spreadsheets about where to go for lunch, let alone what kind of content to publish, unclench a little and try something new.

Content Marketing Starts With Small Blocks

My son at the Lego Store in Orlando. There are all kinds of Lego statues throughout the store.

My son at the Lego Store in Orlando. There are all kinds of Lego statues throughout the store.

First of all, content creation is not hard. It starts with small building blocks — a blog post, a tweet, a photo, or a two-minute video. It’s not just 30 page white papers or 2 hour webinars.

Any 12-year-old Lego builder can show you amazing creations built with the smallest of blocks. Eventually, they’ll all combine for some epic large-scale creations that were pieced together one block at a time.

This is as true for Legos as it is for that single piece of content you’ve agonized over — tested, revised, A/B tested, subjected to committee review — for the last three weeks. You can build a great campaign with a lot of little blocks in a way that you can’t with five giant slabs.

When it comes to the small content blocks, there’s no time for the data to tell you what every single post and tweet should say. If you do, you’re overcomplicating things.

Your data should influence the overall theme those content blocks will become, but human intuition should be the driving force. The data should tell you whether it’s working.

Sometimes You Just Have to Ignore the Data

A few years ago, I was working with a client whose SEO specialist had created an editorial calendar based on SEO data and predictions. We decided to ignore writing about their product and cars for the umpteenth time. One of their dealers did a lot of work with boats, so we thought we’d see what happened if we wrote about that for a change.

“No one visits our site about boats,” said the SEO specialist, citing the data.

“That’s because we’ve never written about boats,” I said.

Two months later, our boats post was the second-most visited page on the entire blog, behind the main page. And the total traffic for the next three posts didn’t even equal that of the boats post.

Had we listened to the data, we never would have written about boats. Had we let the data do all the driving, we would have missed a great opportunity. As far as we can tell, the client has been one of the only companies talking about this particular issue, and it’s benefitted them greatly.

When you let data drive your content, you’re just one short step away from “we’ve always done it this way.” That’s when things get super boring, and your audience leaves or dies in their sleep.

For years, the data told web editors wanted shorter and shorter blog posts, until the #longreads movement began. Now people are digging into 2,000 – 10,000 word stories and sticking with them until the bitter end. “The data” told us people didn’t want long stories, but now “the data” is showing us how wrong it was.

If people had listened to “the data” the first time, the art of long-form writing could have disappeared for many people. Instead, by trying something new — by letting humans do the driving — we now have the chance to read long read stories from BuzzFeed, LongReads.com, and Grantland.com, ESPN’s website created to meet the growing demand for long stories.

If you’ve ever abandoned a story idea because the data didn’t support it, ignore the data, publish the story, and see what happens. The worst thing that will happen is “nothing.”

Nothing will change, nothing will move. No one will abandon your brand because you wrote a single blog post that deviated from the data-driven editorial calendar. But you may find a whole new rich vein of ideas and topics that you can mine for weeks and months.

If you’re letting your data drive your content calendar, the wrong person is in the driver’s seat. You have creative people for a reason. Take the keys away from the bean counters, and let the creatives go to work, and then measure their results. Let’s see what happens if you put data second and ideas, and people, first.

Content, not SEO, Should Rule Owned Media (Guest Post)

Sean Sullivan is a digital marketer in Indianapolis, specializing in content marketing and analytics. He’s also a good friend. Sean is publishing guest posts in several places, and I’m going to start contributing to his site. This is his latest submission.

Writing should be storytelling. The Internet should throw papers on your door step every morning. Writers should expect their paper articles read. Since the Internet, content overload diminishes what the public can see. Readers want information now. And businesses scramble to publish where readers are.

Old News

Marketing is not an instant solution. Marketing takes a lot of trial and error. Companies need a balanced media approach. This would include owned, paid, shared, and earned media strategies. Since you can’t control earned media, and paid media gets expensive, let’s focus on owned media.

What is owned media?

Owned media includes content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). As the publishing company/entrepreneur, you “own” these medias forms because it’s your website and your content. Many industry experts are saying SEO is in the past, and content marketing is the future. That is not true. All media forms are important, and SEO sometimes means not doing certain things as much as it means using certain tricks. (SEO is not dead yet.)

For the last 15+ years, Google still makes the rules. And you have to follow those rules. Google created the sandbox. And we all have to play nicely. Or we get put in time out. Here are a few ways to play.

View Google Traffic as a Bonus, Not the End Goal. SEO has taken such a beating, and it’s such hard, ongoing work, that it’s not an effective long-term strategy any more. Don’t play old SEO tricks either, because Google will drop the ban hammer on your site. Instead, figure out how to build on online business by connecting with people. Look at Google traffic from inbound marketing as a bonus. You can build your business on SEO, but it can be hard if you don’t have the time to dedicate to always changing and adapting to Google’s new algorithms.

SEO Depends on Content. SSEO is a competition between people finding the best tactics and using them better than anyone else. Content has the potential to go viral and be shared by people who like it, but monkeying with SEO might prevent it from going viral, because Google can penalize your efforts. SEO can help, but your best content — your “hero” content — takes a whole lot more work to create than the actual SEO. It’s your hero content that people want to share and talk about, and that will always be more powerful than traditional SEO.

For Converge Street, I get much better organic traffic when writing about a name or a concept, but that doesn’t help SEO. Writing more quality content and sharing that with my networks is what wins traffic.

Editorial Writing and Tracking. Write in a news/editorial style while linking credible outbound links — link to help with editorial content, not because SEO says you need X number of links. Track results to expand your focus — check page views and time on site. Figure out who likes your writing (i.e. who reads and shares the most) — count social shares, social networks, and even regular sharers. This way you know what people and search engines like. Then, give them more of what they want.

Having good content and using SEO does’t mean readers will flock to your website. Those are just two legs of the three-legged stool. Understanding the different media channels will definitely help. Know where your audience is, write the things they want, and share it on the places where they’re found.

SEO impacts inbound marketing but it’s not main the reason people come to your website. SEO, analytics, and social media lands your paper on people’s doorstep. But good content compels them to pick it up and read.

Photo Credit: @Doug88888 via Compfight cc

How to Get Discovered by Brands (GUEST POST)

This is a guest post written by Tamar Weinberg, VP of Customer Success of influencer marketing platform The Shelf, a tool that ensures that brands connect with the most relevant influencers. The Shelf’s technology includes patent pending brand and ecommerce indicators.

Get Discovered By Brands

Are you a blogger looking to be discovered by a brand for collaboration opportunities? We totally understand the challenges you’re facing.

I’ve worked with a sizable number of bloggers in the past, having written a book on social media marketing with an entire chapter dedicated to blogging. Many people start their blog and come to me immediately after two or three posts, thinking that money and recognition will come immediately.

It won’t.

There are over 200 million blogs—and that’s just one platform. However, even though the space is extremely competitive, there’s a lot of noise and not enough signal. For you as a blogger, that’s a great thing. Discovery will take time but it is doable.

My key piece of advice for all people trying to start a blog: keep at it. Work really hard and post consistently.

But more so, network! Let other people discover you by engaging on their content. And above all, keep your attitude positive and your head held up high. These days, engagement on blog posts is low. Blogs in 2015 don’t get as many comments as blogs in 2010. However, as you keep up on blogging, your social proof as a personal brand will go up. Your Twitter follower numbers will rise. Your Facebook Likes will increase. You will be recognized by people who will be interested in who you are and what you do.

Now you have an established following and brands are taking notice. A few have reached out to you and want to work with you–but you may want to work with others. One of the biggest challenges you will have is how to effectively pitch and collaborate with brands. I totally recommend making the first move.

As long as you have the social proof, you’re in a position to effectively pitch and build upon these brand relationships that benefit both you and your brand. Here’s how we suggest that you build the relationships:

Do Your Research

Look at what other bloggers in your niche are covering. Are they working with other brands that may be interested in your audience as well? If so, take a look at how they’re collaborating with these other brands and feel them out. Was it a giveaway? Affiliate offer? Sponsored post? Once you have a solid understanding of what type of collaboration they are working with, you’ll have a solid foundation for formulating your pitch.

Take a look into the brand’s marketing initiatives. Are they working on any existing campaigns it may be helpful to align with? It may help to check out the brand’s social media channels where you may find promotional materials that help you learn about current campaigns that are worth participating in.

Develop Your Pitch

On top of your research, you may already have a few brands in mind that you want to work with. They could be products/services that totally jive with your audience and your interest level. By now, with both of these, you should have a pretty solid understanding of the types of collaborations that have been done before with the brand and other bloggers, if at all. (And if not, just make the first move and ask!)

Why does your blog align so well with their brand personality? It’s helpful to communicate this particular point in your pitch. To stand above the crowd, you may wish to get creative and offer some other ideas on other types of collaborations.

After you’ve jotted down your thoughts, create the pitch: include a short overview of who you are, how the campaign benefits the brand, and any deliverables you’ll give them. Make your email short and sweet, and if you’d like, include a media kit so that the brand knows about your audience, your social followings, and your positioning in the marketplace.

Be in constant contact

Assuming your pitch is good, those brands should be able to get in touch with you quickly. If they schedule a meeting or phone call to discuss the scope of the project further, take it. Be open to hearing as much as possible from them so that you fully understand their objectives so you know exactly what they’d expect from you and how you could realistically help them. By having this meeting, you should be able to get all the information you need to craft a formal proposal with requested compensation.

If they didn’t get back to you, try again. I hate to say how many times I’ve dealt with people who are good people but are just bad at responding to emails. Maybe they were reading your initial contact while under the covers at 11pm. Maybe they were in a meeting. (Maybe they suck.) But don’t be afraid to try again and be politely persistent until they respond. In fact, if you’re passionate about them, show them you’re already engaged with the content. Feature their brand in an article. Tag them on social media. Engage with their posts and show them your love of the product.

And if you’re already in communications with them, that’s a tipping point! Your blog has now become a professional medium, and it is important to be professional with your communications with these brands to keep these collaborations coming. This is the best step toward a long term relationship that benefits everyone and puts you in a great light.

Initially, it will feel like quite an intimidating process to be involved in this next step with brands. But at the end of the day, the brand gets visibility and you get some benefit through product, payment, and affiliation as well. After all, you’re an influencer. It would be silly not to interact with people who had the If you don’t have the courage to reach out, the opportunity may never present itself.