How To Write Impactful Travel Blog Posts That Get Noticed

Every so often, I will feature guest posts from writers who actually have important and interesting things to say. Joel Syder is a freelance and travel blog writer, a topic which is near and dear to my heart. So I wanted to feature his article on travel blog writing.

Writing travel blog posts involves so much more than simply stating ‘Hey, I’m here!’ In fact, with so much noise in the travel blogging niche, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get noticed. Yet to those who pen their travel blog posts in the right way, there are ample means to get impactful results, be that a following, or click-throughs if you are supporting a product or service. With that in mind, here are some tips to producing travel blog posts that actually get results:

Use an interesting title

It all starts from the beginning, which in this case is your title. This is a one-off chance to hook the reader into your travel blog post. Make it unique, interesting and quirky if possible. Entice them to read more.

“Sometimes choosing the right title can take almost as long as the blog post itself. It’s essential that it reflects your post but that it reels the reader in. You want them to think ‘What’s this all about?’” remarks Trudy Carlton, a travel blogger at Writemyx and Brit student.

Find a different angle

Joel Syder is a freelance and travel blog writer.

Joel Syder

It can be tough to do, but your post also needs to pitch something slightly different too. In a crowded space this may seem overwhelming, but often it entails simply looking at things from a different perspective, i.e. the local people, for example. The great thing about travel is that it involves so many things: sights, people, culture, food, music, language and so on. It doesn’t have to be a huge innovation at all, just look at things through a new set of eyes, and there’s your angle.

Write engaging content

In this day and age of SEO, keyword placements, link building and so on, what can be overlooked is the fact that something still needs to be well written. In fact, this is probably truer than ever with all of the options that are available, and with audiences’ patience on the wane. Start strongly, and never let off, using clear, concise language that is proofread for mistakes. And let your personality shine through – no one wants a robotic piece that could have been written by bots! Tell a story that people want to hear, and to do that, put yourself in the shoes of the reader.

Take your own pictures

Pepper you piece with unique shots you have personally taken on your travels. Stock photos are easy to spot a mile off, so use personal shots with all their inherent flaws (no one is looking for professional pics) and this adds charm and a genuine reality to your piece: ‘this person has actually been there!’

“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to take tons and tons of pictures. And take them of absolutely everything: the food, the landscape, the people (with permission of course), and get yourself in there too, although refrain from the cheesy selfies!,” advises Robbie Wainscroft, a cruise ship worker at 1day2write and Nextcoursework.

Look for niches within the niche

It’s important to find a niche too. Of course, travel writing is a niche itself, but as already stated, within this field there are so many sub-categories that the list is almost endless. So, think about exactly what you are aiming for before you start, and who it would appeal too. As an example, organic food production is already a popular topic, but told within the confines of a trip to Southeast Asia, it takes on a whole new angle. When you look at it like this, the possibilities are limitless.

Jot down everything when you’re traveling

Remember that everything can give inspiration, but if you are sitting on your sofa trying to recall it, the whole experience becomes a lot more difficult. With that in mind, just keep writing down stuff as you are in the middle of things, or use a dictaphone to make remarks. No matter how mundane they may seem at the time, just having these words as a reference will inspire memories, smells and sounds and a later stage.

Consider SEO

Writing well is the key, but if this can be performed in conjunction with SEO principles, then you really are on to a winner. Research keywords and think about synonyms and related phrases. Gone are the days of stuffing, but natural placement of a few integral words will certainly boost the piece on those all-important search engine rankings. But the difference is, nowadays it doesn’t need to come at the expense of quality, which is great news for serious writers.

International travel agent and travel writer Joel Syder loves nothing more than sharing his experiences and the things that excite him in the world of travel at Academic Brits and Phd Kingdom. He is a regular contributor of articles to Originwritings.

How to Work With a Ghostwriter

I’ve been a ghostwriter for over 10 years, working on blog articles and even books with people who have a story to tell. I’ve worked with dozens of clients and have written over 3,500 articles in that time, as well as eight books, including my new novel, Mackinac Island Nation.

My clients have ranged from CEOs of Fortune 500 companies to entrepreneurs running one-person operations, both in the United States and overseas, in a staggering variety of industries. I’ve been able to learn from all of them, and — I hope — they’ve been able to learn from me.

For those of you who are thinking about working with a ghostwriter, whether it’s for corporate blog articles or even your own memoirs, there are a few things you need to realize before you start.

It’s going to cost money.

A photo of hands over an old Compaq keyboard, like a ghostwriter.

You can tell this is an old photo (from 2004) just by the Compaq logo in the bottom corner.

Writers need to eat. We have to pay our mortgages. We have to take care of our families. We don’t write for the promise of royalties or the exposure. This is not a hobby, this is our job. And just like any skilled position, the better the writer is, the more it’s going to cost. Things will get done faster and they’ll be done better than if you go with the less expensive option.

So while many people who want to write a book have a fascinating story to tell, a good writer is not going to want to spend 3 – 6 months working on your book in the hopes that they’ll get something from your efforts. It’s impolite to even ask, so if this is your plan for paying them, either save up your money or start writing it yourself.

Typically, a ghostwriter will ask for half up front and half at the end, but my practice has been to ask for half of the fee up front, one-fourth when we reach the halfway mark, and the remaining fourth when the final chapter is delivered and/or the manuscript has gone through one or two rounds of edits. For corporate ghost blogging clients, I typically work on a retainer basis where there will be a set number of articles written each month, and the client is invoiced on the 1st.

Be prepared for some give and take.

This is a collaborative process, and the manuscript will be evolving and changing. When the ghostwriter gives you the first draft, that’s so you can make the big changes, like rearranging sections, clarifying details, and rewriting problem sentences. This isn’t the finished product, so don’t get upset that your writer just handed you a pile of garbage. Your job now is to go back and read it and make sure everything is correct and you’re satisfied with the direction this is going.

That first stage is also not the time for fixing typos and punctuation or spelling errors. That will come later. Like I tell my clients, there’s no point in polishing a turd, let’s make it a not-turd first. Make all the major revisions and changes before you start fixing the tiny errors.

Similarly, you will have to call it done at some point. Yes, you want this to be perfect, and you want it to be polished to a high sheen, but that’s not always going to be your ghostwriter’s strong suit. Their job is to write the manuscript, make some revisions, and get it to a reasonable state where a copyeditor could take it over.

So be sure to work out in advance how many revisions and changes you can ask for. No writer wants to spend 12 months polishing and changing your manuscript, so save your revisions for one major passthrough rather than trickling them in. Typically, you should be able to get to the copyediting stage with no more than two revisions. If you’re not getting there, then one or both of you are the problem.

Leave the mechanics to your writer

There’s a very good chance that you’re good at punctuation and grammar, but there’s a very good chance that your ghostwriter is a nerd about it. That means that they know whether the grammar rules we learned in school are totally bogus..

For example, I was working with a client who tried — rather smugly, I thought — to correct me on a preposition I had used at the end of a sentence. So I explained to him:

This is a rule that should never have been in existence in the first place, but it had been created by an 18th-century Latin scholar named Robert Lowth in his book, A Short Guide to English Grammar. Lowth had read a similar admonition in a commentary by a 17th-century poet and scholar named John Dryden.

The problem was Dryden and Lowth were applying Latin rules to English, even though English didn’t actually need a few of those particular rules. It has been unnecessary for centuries, and most grammar nerds will never expect someone to contort their sentences just to follow that rule.

I could tell by the reaction from the client that he hadn’t expected any of that.

“Oh,” was all he said, and he never brought up grammar issues again.

The moral of the story: When someone starts spouting 400-year-old grammar history knowledge, he probably knows when you can break the rules.

So let him.

Don’t feel guilty that you’re working with a ghostwriter

Look, if you could write, you’d be a writer. If you had the time, you could do this yourself. But chances are, you’re working with a ghostwriter because either writing is not your forte or you just don’t have the hours and hours to put in the work.

This is the same reason you don’t change your own oil, fix your own leaky plumbing, re-roof your own house, or do your own taxes. You want a professional who’s good at what they do so you can look great at what you do.

Once, when I was ghostwriting a speech for a client, they felt embarrassed to have someone writing for them, like they weren’t important enough to need a speechwriter. I told them it wasn’t a question of being important, it was a question not having the time.

“Do you have four hours to devote to this project?” I asked.

“No, I barely have four hours to do anything,” said the client.

“Well, I do,” I said. “This doesn’t make you too big for your britches, it keeps you from looking unprepared when you give this speech.”

This is true whether you need a speechwriter, blog writer, or book writer. It’s not a question of whether you’re too important or have more money than sense. It’s a matter of helping you present your best story, whether it’s in a book, your company blog, or even a speech.

You need a professional who understands the subtleties and nuances of language, can tell your story in a clear and compelling way, and can do it in a timely manner.

So if you ever need to work with a ghostwriter, be clear and upfront with your expectations, and ask your ghostwriter to do the same with you. Don’t get bogged down in the process and let them do their job, while you do yours.

Photo credit: hobvias sudoneighm (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Building Authority Through Guest Posting

Every so often, I will feature guest posts from writers who actually have important and interesting things to say. And since this is a guest post about guest posting, I liked the whole meta vibe, and decided to publish it, especially since she’s a fellow word nerd.

Ellan DineenEllan Dineen is the Marketing Associate at Design Wizard. When she’s not hard at work in the Marketing Department, Ellan can be found en route to foreign lands with a book in her hand and a podcast in her ear. With a Master’s in English and Diploma in Social Media Marketing, she knows the importance of staying up-to-date with the industry’s latest trends and insights and is keen to pass these tips on to her readers.

Want to establish your online presence? Want to be the “go-to” expert in your niche?

It’s time you finessed this thing called guest posting.

Guest posting allows you to reach a wider audience by posting your articles on related authoritative websites. It strengthens your brand and gives you a massive boost in credibility.

Like with anything when it comes to digital marketing, however, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

In this article, we take a look at what you should do, what you should not do, and what kind of quality content you need to be posting.

Identify Your Value

You won’t be able to build authority if you don’t bring any value to the table. The only reason a website will allow you to publish an article on their website is because it offers both them and their audience a massive amount of value.

No value = no guest post.

There’s another reason why value is important. As well as educating audiences, solving their problems and positioning yourself as their go-to expert, the Google algorithm also prefers valuable content.

According to research, long form content gets more traffic than any other type. This is content that contains more than 1,000 words, and which offers in-depth, valuable and actionable information to the reader.

Each time you pitch an article to another website, identify your value first. This will make it so much easier for the blogger to say yes to you.

Don’t focus too much on your ‘tips and tricks.’ Show them how your valuable content is going to benefit their audience.

Ask yourself:

  • How is your content is going to benefit people?
  • What issues are you addressing and solving?
  • Are these issues that people care about?

Solid content by itself won’t work if no one can see where the value is.

Research The Websites You’re Targeting

You can’t build authority if you don’t do your research. Unless you know enough about the websites you’re targeting, as well as their audiences, your content might miss the spot.

Take a look at your target website’s audience and ask yourself some questions:

  1. Will they benefit from a link to my web page?
  2. Will my infographics be of use to this audience?
  3. Will this audience buy from me?

Find out who is engaging with a particular website and whether or not this is an audience who will appreciate your article and advice.

To build authority via guest posting, it’s also a good idea to take a look at the content a website has already published and stick to the format. For example, do they capitalize their subheadings, do they use images in their content and if so, how do they credit the images?

When you follow the format of a website blog you are giving the editor less work, and that is very hard for them to say no to.

A big no-no when it comes to guest posting is to fail to do your research. If you identify 30 blogs and send them generic emails with your pitch before doing any research, you’ll be wasting your time.

Always take your time to learn more about who you’ll be pitching to. Then, you can adjust your content and send out hyper-personalized emails accordingly.

Top tip: Avoid spelling and grammar errors in your emails. Use Grammarly and other tools to catch these mistakes before you click send.

Produce Your Best Content

It goes without saying that if you want to position yourself as an expert, your content has to be brilliant. Each time you produce a guest post, ask yourself “is this my best piece of content?”

To this end, you need to produce long-form content (1,000 words minimum) that offers unique insights to the reader. Your advice needs to be actionable, as different as possible to what has come before, and it needs to be of use to the target audience.

A huge no-no is to spend most of the article discussing things the reader already knows. The key here is understanding who your target audience is and what stage they are at in their journey. For example, if you’re writing an article about the do’s and don’ts of digital marketing to an advanced reader, don’t waste people’s time discussing what digital marketing is. They already know.

Your content needs to be readable, shareable and it needs to be as up-to-date and relevant as possible. This means understanding the latest trends and including links to recent stats and research (as opposed to information from 2014).

It’s also a good idea to write from personal experience. After all, you’re the expert here. If you’re writing about a subject you know intimately, don’t be afraid to write from your personal experience while making sure that your personal examples are relatable to others.

Your best content will need quality images and graphics, too. If you’re not sure where to source images from, you can use a tool like Pik Wizard. To spice up your graphics so that your content is as professional, engaging and eye-catching as possible, meanwhile, Design Wizard is your friend.

Absolutely do not go into this thinking that you can get away with posting below par content. Impressive content that educates, informs and engages people is the best way to establishing your authority and boosting conversions. The ultimate aim of guest posting is to grab more traffic from other sources and you can only do this by producing your best content.

Don’t hold back on the value factor. Yes, you’re doing this for free in the sense that you don’t get paid for a guest post. But the ROI will be worth it when you start to build your authority.

Moreover, the more awesome content you produce, the more chance you’ll have of securing a guest post with a super high domain website, such as Forbes or the Huffington Post.

Conclusion

All in all, building authority through guest posting comes down to identifying your value, identifying a related website’s audience – before producing as much valuable, usable content as possible that the audience can take action on. Focus on quality, not quantity, do your research and don’t hold back when it comes to value. Educate, inform but also engage.

What a Beef Stroganoff Recipe Teaches About Bad Blogger Outreach

One of the problems with having a blog about content marketing is that people want to constantly post guest articles on my website. And just like the spam connections I get on LinkedIn, these all follow a certain formula.

Dear NAME,

I enjoyed reading your blog post at URL, and thought you might be interested in an article about TOPIC.

We just wrote an article about SIMILAR TOPIC and thought you might want to post it on your blog.

And don’t forget to include the backlink that will boost our skeezy client’s Google search ranking and possibly help affiliate sales. [I’m paraphrasing that last part a bit. — Erik]

And no, I’m not exaggerating. I get two or three of these messages per month. They all follow the same formula, they all want to publish something that is sort of tangentially related to what I write about (content marketing and writing), and they all praise an article they never actually read.

But I got an email last week that may qualify as Worst Email Ever. I could tell that not only was the entire process automated, the author hadn’t actually read any of the information he purports to have read. This is what I got.

Dear Editor, [My name is literally all over my website. —Erik]

My name is [J—] and I’m the Editor at [Unnamed Website]. I was doing research on beef stroganoff recipes and just finished reading your wonderful blog post: https://problogservice.com/tag/content-marketing/

In that article, I noticed that you cited a solid post that I’ve read in the past: http://beefandboards.com/

We just published a delicious beef stroganoff recipe complete with step-by-step pictures and detailed instructions. You can find it here:  [URL that I will not dignify with a backlink]

If you like the recipe we’d be humbled if you cited us in your article. Of course, we will also share your article with our 50k newsletter subscribers and followers across our social platforms.

A plate of beef stroganoff. I looked and looked at it, but it teaches me nothing about blogger outreach.

Besides, my mom made the best beef stroganoff!

Four issues told me that J— hadn’t read anything.

  1. The “article” he supposedly read is a Tags link on my blog. You can click a tag on any blog and read all the articles that have been tagged with that keyword. So it’s not an article, it’s a whole list of articles. He would know that if he had even briefly skimmed that page.
  2. The “solid post” he’s read in the past? It’s a URL for Beef & Boards Dinner Theater. Beef & Boards used to be a national chain of dinner theaters that closed down. The only one left is in Indianapolis, Indiana. The URL is to an entire website, not a single blog post.
  3. The article he wanted me to link to was about how to make beef stroganoff. And why? Because I wrote an article about a place called Beef & Boards. Again, if he had read my blog, he would see there are no recipes; if he had read the actual article I wrote, he would have seen there’s no mention of food.
  4. This was the first and only article I ever wrote on this blog where I mentioned Beef & Boards, and it was based on an interview I did with an actor in a show at that theater. I was a travel writer for several years, and I wrote about Beef & Boards shows on other blogs, but I never did a theater review on my work blog. J— would have known that if he had read other articles; he clearly didn’t.

So I wrote back to J— and said that while I was not interested in publishing a beef stroganoff recipe on a blog about writing and content marketing, I would make sure his request appeared on my blog rather soon.

And now it has.

A Plea to All PR Flacks and Content Marketers

To those of you doing blogger outreach, please please PLEASE write individual letters to your contacts, not form email.

Don’t find a way to automate this so you can do more faster. This is not something where you want to pump out hundreds and thousands of emails every week. If you’re only going to get a 1% success rate, the trick is not to send out more spam, it’s to give your efforts a more personalized touch. Reduce the number of people you contact, and don’t waste the energy and effort on contacting people who aren’t a good fit for what you do.

Look, you already have a job where you sit down all day and the only things you move are your fingers. Don’t find a way to be more lazy about it.

Instead, just try these simple steps:

  • If you say you read an article, make sure you actually read it. Quote something from it. And not just the opening sentence. Talk about why that article is important to you.
  • If you’re going to send any links, copy and paste them into your browser and then test them. Make sure you grabbed the right link, and that it actually works.
  • Tell the other person why you think your article would make a good fit on their blog. It shows that you read more than one, which means you’re actually interested in them. They’re more likely to accept your request that way.

Blogger outreach is tough because you’re writing to people who aren’t likely to write you back. But that doesn’t mean you should take shortcuts or automate the process to make it easier. I’d be willing to wager that you’d get a better response if you wrote 10 individual emails per day than sent out 100 automated messages.

Photo credit: JeffreyW (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Encourage Your Employees to Become Rock Stars

Over the last 20 years, I have worked for (and known people who worked for) bosses who did not want their employees to become prominent names in their industry. Whether they felt threatened, thought it distracted them from their “real” work, or thought it was a waste of time and resources, these managers didn’t like employees who had name recognition

Lindsay Manfredi plays bass. She's one of the true rock stars in music AND personal branding.

Lindsay Manfredi. My good friend and bassist for the band Cold. She really IS a rock star, both in music and personal branding.

One friend — let’s call him Burt O’Higgins — went to work for a software company after spending years developing his own personal brand, becoming one of his industry’s top thought leaders. The company considered it a real coup to get my friend to work there. “But,” they said, “you can’t speak at any more conference events as yourself. You can’t be “Burt O’Higgins from Big Software,” you have to be “I’m from Big Software, my name is Burt.”

They couldn’t give any logical reason why they didn’t like it, but the message was clear: you’re more popular than us and we don’t like it.

So Burt left, started his own company, and worked for Big Software as a freelance contractor, charging more than his old salary and working fewer hours. And he got to speak at as many conferences as he wanted, which boosted his own popularity and increased his client base.

Big Software might have benefited more if they had just let Burt be Burt, do his thing under his own name, and still attract plenty of attention for his employer.

There’s nothing wrong with letting your employees be industry rock stars, becoming one of the popular thought leaders that others look to for new ways of thinking. In fact, there are a few benefits your company will see by helping your employees become those leaders.

1) It makes them effective communicators

Every job description I see requires “effective oral and written communication skills.” Speaking at 4 – 6 conferences a year is going to build up effective oral communication skills. Writing articles for trade journals and blogs is going to develop effective written communication skills.

And if your people don’t have those skills, send them to Toastmasters. Pay for books and training courses. Send them on seminars where they can hone those skills. Pay for memberships in professional associations. And give them an outlet to express all this newfound knowledge.

Then unleash them on industry and allied conferences. Encourage them to write articles for trade journals or the company blog. Ask them to speak at conferences. Make sure people see your rock stars at different industry happenings, so they know your company is serious about thought leadership in that field.

But best of all, think about how much better your rock stars will be at communicating fpr your company as well. Not only will they be better at communicating internally, but they’ll be doing some great marketing and brand awareness building for your company too.

2) Your company looks like a great company for hiring them

One thing GE was known for during the Jack Welch years was for turning out great CEOs for other corporations. Partly because Jack wasn’t going to leave short of a military coup, but also because when GE executives reached the VP level, they were so good at their jobs that other corporations wanted them to run their own companies.

The same thing happened to the Oakland A’s in the early 2000s. (Read Moneyball by Michael Lewis. It’s not just a baseball book, it’s a primer on unorthodox-but-effective corporate management.) The A’s scooped up baseball players who didn’t fit the traditional baseball mode, helped them develop their best skills, and turned them into the kinds of ballplayers that other teams wanted badly. And the Oakland A’s became a stellar baseball team to boot, because they built the team around their players’ strengths.

So how cool will your company look when you start churning out superstar after superstar? How many CMOs can you create? Or HR directors? Or CFOs? Or national sales managers? Your company can be seen as an incubator for some of your industry’s leading talent if you just help them develop.

3) It’s free marketing

My friend Burt would go to 6 –10 conferences every year and share his knowledge. He used his clients as case studies, but he never made sales pitches. Instead, he just shared stories and ideas with a rapt audience for an hour — an audience filled with people who hired experts like him.

Now, imagine your sales and marketing people speaking at conferences, demonstrating their knowledge and skills about the problems your company solves. Imagine a water filter company educating coffee shop managers and brewers about pure water at a national coffee or craft brewery conference. You can educate people about the importance of pure water without ever talking about your product, but when people read the name in the bio, they can put two and two together.

When I speak at conferences, I talk about how to improve your writing, or the future of content marketing, or how to use novel writing techniques in business writing. I never do a sales pitch, but my expertise clearly speaks for itself. And I’ve gotten clients just by speaking at industry conferences.

So what happens if your marketing director speaks at an industry conference, or your HR director, or your operations manager, or even your CEO? You can have a big influence on hundreds of people without once mentioning your product or company just by sharing your knowledge. Now, what if you could unleash 10 rock stars on the different conferences of the industries you serve.

4) You’re creating rock stars for your company

“But people will improve their skills and they’ll want to leave our company,” is a common refrain among managers.

Seriously? You don’t want people to improve their skills? You’d be happy that average people with average skills are staying at your company for ten or fifteen years? That’s the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.

Let’s face two facts. First, people are going to leave your company. No one stays at a company very long anymore. That’s how employment works these days. So train them, help them develop, and wish them well when they leave, knowing you taught them enough that someone else wants them. And you’ll get their best work out of them while they’re there.

Second, the people who leave will become decision makers and influencers in other companies. What if your marketing manager leaves to become a VP of Marketing at one of your clients? What do you think she’ll tell her new colleagues if she leaves with bad feelings? Conversely, what will she tell her new colleagues if she leaves with your full support and gratitude?

(This is also why it’s not a bad idea to hire people in their 50s and 60s. Rather than turning them down because “they’re only going to be here for a few years,” recognize that no one says in their same position for 30 years anymore. Hire older workers and get some of the very best, most experienced people you’ll ever find. But that’s for another article.)

Developing rock stars for your company has many upsides and very few downsides. You’ll create top talent for your company, which means they’ll do their best work for you. They’ll be out promoting themselves (and thus, your company) with their speaking and writing. And they’ll moving up to positions of influence and decision making, which means you’ll have allies in other companies.

The only downside is that you may have people who are more well-known than you. But you can turn that around and become known as the company (or manager) who produces rock star after rock star. So start writing and speaking about how to create rock stars within your company, and guess what you can become. . .

Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

A Simple Content Strategy for People Who Hate Content Strategy

There’s a great scene in John Cusack’s Better Off Dead where he gets skiing advice from Curtis Armstrong: “Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”

I can think of no better advice to give someone who wants to do content marketing, but hates content strategy: “Create content for your customers. If something unexpected comes up, deal with it.”

For one thing, too many people put a lot of stock into developing complex content strategy. They draw up battle plans and strategies that would make military planners weep with envy. They overanalyze, overplan, and create year-long calendars of what they want to say on a particular day at a particular hour when Venus is in Gemini.

It’s quite a sight to see a spreadsheet with 500 or more tweets scheduled over a 12 month period.

It’s heartbreaking to see someone’s look of emotional devastation when the entire calendar has to be deleted because of a fairly minor change to the business, their industry, or industry regulations.

(You could hear the screams two counties over.)

A content strategy shouldn't look like a military strategyOver at Contently.com, Joe Lauzakas wrote about the importance of content strategy in Ask a Content Strategist: My Boss Wants Me to Write Blog Posts Without a Strategy. What Do I Do?

He cites all kinds of important statistics like, “According to a 2017 Contently survey, 98 percent of marketers believe that “having and following a content marketing strategy is important for content marketing success.” and “Per CMI’s 2018 B2B Content Marketing Trends survey, 62 percent of content marketers who rated themselves as very successful or extremely successful have a documented content strategy.

And he’s not wrong. But those strategies don’t need battlefield maps and years-long spreadsheets. You should be able to articulate your strategy in less than 30 seconds or on a single piece of paper.

Here’s a quick and dirty content strategy that should see you through an entire year, never need revising, and cover nearly every contingency.

1. Pick 2–3 main benefits of your product.

Or 2–3 services you provide, or 2–3 verticals you serve. These are the three things you’re going to write about the most. In fiction writing terms, this is your A story, B story, and C story. That is, you’re going to write about your main point (A story) the most, second main point (B story) second most, and so on.

Think of a sitcom: the A story takes around 13 – 14 minutes of a 22-minute episode, the B story is going to get 4 – 6 minutes, and the C story is going to get the remainder.

Your content should get this same kind of attention. The thing you’re known for the most should get two-thirds of your attention, and so on.

And if you focus on the services or verticals, you should still write about the 2 – 3 main benefits you offer each service/vertical. For example, if your main clients are lawyers, mystery shoppers, and dachshund wranglers (a dachshund literally just walked by as I wrote this), then you need to talk about the 2 – 3 benefits that lawyers, mystery shoppers, and dachshund wranglers will get from your products. Now you’ve got anywhere from 6 – 9 running topics for blog articles.

Nearly everything you write about should stick to one of these three benefits. You can occasionally deviate from it, writing about company history, special awards, or notable events. But otherwise, everything needs to focus on your 2 – 3 regular topics.

2. Pick 3 or 4 THEMES for your content strategy.

These are the kinds of articles you’re going to write; they’re going to fit into one of these themes, but still focus on one of the categories mentioned above.

Let’s say you own an IT consulting firm, providing computer networking and troubleshooting to small businesses. You could pick a theme-based calendar as follows:

  • Week 1: Write a how-to article.
  • Week 2: Write a client case study.
  • Week 3: Write about computer security.
  • Week 4: Write about IT industry news.
  • Or if you’re a dachshund wrangler, your content calendar would look like this:

    • Week 1: Write a training article.
    • Week 2: Write a story about your own experiences and adventures (a personal case study).
    • Week 3: Write about dachshund health and diet.
    • Week 4: Write about the dachshund wrangling industry.

    Next, come up with a Twitter schedule to tweet about these four themes on a rotating basis. Or you’re going to skip the case studies, and tweet curated articles about topics 1, 3, and 4 once per day (Don’t forget to tweet and post updates about your own blogs too.)

    Just keep it loose and flexible. If you have some breaking industry news that has to publish in week 2, swap it out with the case study that month. And if you ever have a major emergency or important announcement (like a product launch), that supersedes everything. You don’t have to make up the missed days, just pick it up the next time it comes around.

    Or publish two articles that week. There are no rules to this!

    Don’t forget to connect to people who have IT or dachshund wrangling questions (item #4). Communicate with them like real people, and answer their questions. Don’t pepper them with an all-news format. That’s boring and people hate it.

    3. Commit to using all content

    Lauzakas’ article also said, “According to SiriusDecisions, 65 percent of all content that brands produce goes unused. There are a few big reasons for why: content is hard to find, unknown to users, irrelevant, and low quality.”

    First, I’m not going to say “produce high quality content” because that’s stupid advice. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. It’s like telling you to “drive safely” because I think you’re going to go careening all over the road. (You’re not, so the advice is pointless. You’re not going to intentionally produce shitty content, so telling you to write good stuff is pointless.)

    But I will say that it’s absolutely necessary that you commit to using any piece of content you produce. If you write an article, publish it. If you write a tweet, post it. If you produce a video, put it on YouTube. And then promote it.

    If you don’t use it because it wasn’t good enough, then that’s on you. That’s not a lack of a strategy, that’s because you’re not willing or able to, well, produce high-quality content.

    4. Create a basic human-centered social media promotion strategy

    This isn’t that hard either. As Jason Falls is fond of saying, “Share good shit.”

    These days, social media seems to be more about blasting out one-way marketing messages that don’t engage anyone. But you need to rethink that, since it’s clearly not working.

    Think about your TV viewing habits. Do you fast forward through all TV commercials? Of course! We all do! We hate ads. And that’s how people feel about your marketing blasts.

    Stop treating Twitter and other social channels like an advertising medium. Stop posting “hey, read this!” messages over and over. There are Twitter bots that do nothing but post article after article after article, sending over three dozen tweets in a single day that aren’t engaging or interesting. (And if it’s real people doing this, they should be ashamed of themselves.)

    Instead, communicate with people. Talk with them. Have conversations. Ask and answer questions. Share their posts. Treat people like people, not like advertising viewers. Then, when you do occasionally have something of your own to promote, they’re more likely to read it and share it themselves.

    Guidelines, Not Strategies

    To be honest, this is the kind of content marketing strategy I use for all my clients. We focus on a few recurring topics and themes, we use all blog posts that we write, and we promote everything. We even have a basic calendar that says “we’ll write X number of articles about this topic, and Y number about that topic.”

    Other than that, there’s no need to create a complex content strategy. Remember, if you can’t articulate your strategy in less than 30 seconds, or on a single page, it’s too complicated.

    Photo credit: Ipankonin (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)