All over the world right now, there are marketing teams saying: “Let’s get our subject matter experts to write this blog or article for us! It’ll mean we can give expert insight to our audiences. (It’ll help us spread our workload too.)”
Those marketing teams are right. Getting input from subject matter experts is a great way to create valuable, useful content.
But what if you’re the subject matter expert who’s already got enough to do without having to do marketing’s job as well?
This guide is here to help.
It’s a few tips from a seasoned professional on what to do when writing’s not your main job, but you still find yourself having to do it. It’s designed to help you get your blog or article right first time so you can get on with other things.
Before you start writing
If you need to write something in a hurry, it’s natural to want to run to the keyboard and immediately start typing. But how many times have you started typing – and then had to start again because the way you started first time wasn’t right?
If you want to be efficient, it’s vital to take stock before you start.
Here’s what you need to know.
The most important thing to know is who’ll be reading your piece.
If you’ve been tasked to write something by someone else and the audience isn’t clear, check in with them before you start – don’t try to second guess or assume. (It’s something I’ve done in the past and it’s frustrating when you guess wrong.)
When I train subject matter experts, they often say that anyone could be reading it. They’re right, but what we really mean in this context is, ‘who’ll spend money with us as a result of reading this?’
Let’s say you’ve been tasked with writing a blog for your website about a recent project you completed. It *could* be read by customers or prospective customers, other professionals in your field, students in your field researching a topic, and so on.
But the groups of people that really matters here are customers and prospective customers. They’re the people who’ll spend money with you when they read about the good job you did on this project.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re writing about the project for an industry journal. This time, your audience is other professionals in your field. They’re the people who’ll refer work your way because they know you’ve got a track record in your field or will ask you to speak at an event they’re holding, and so on.
The information you need to get across
Once you know your audience, start to think about what you need to tell them.
You’ll find plenty of advice online suggesting that your first draft of anything should be about ‘going with the flow’ and just getting everything down before editing it later. If this works for you, great.
But I think there are two problems with it, especially when time is of the essence:
- it’s frustrating and de-motivating because you spend ages explaining something that you realise later isn’t really relevant
- it’s time-consuming because you find yourself needing to edit 2,500 words down to 500.
There is a better way: spend a few minutes now brainstorming the content of the piece.
Keep your audience in mind and think about what matters to them when you do this.
For example, let’s take the example of the recent project again. Your customers and prospective customers are looking for someone to solve a problem they’re experiencing. So they’ll be particularly interested in the problems your client was facing before you arrived. They’ll also be particularly interested to know the difference your solution made.
On other hand, when you’re writing the article for the industry journal, your readers will be more interested in how you overcame common problems in the implementation – information that teaches your readers something and shows you’re an expert in your field.
How you’re going to structure your piece
Once you’ve done this thinking, pull an outline together. This need only be a handful of bullet points, just enough to give you a framework to write to.
If your piece has a word count, it’s worthwhile checking in on whether it’s feasible before you start. For example, if you’ve got 500 words and you want to make 20 points, ask yourself whether it’s really feasible that you can make each point in around 25 words. Assuming it’s not, here are some questions to help you:
- Rather than trying to cover the entire topic, could you focus on one element of it?
- Does the audience really need to know all these points? If you were telling this story in a lift, what are the headlines you’d cover?
- Are you explaining too much? Are you telling your audience things you could safely assume they’ll know?
Once you’ve got the foundations in place, everything else will become quicker and easier. But there are still a few good practice tips to bear in mind.
Write for a single person
Your piece might be read by hundreds or even thousands of people. But remember that reading is a solitary activity – it’s one person reading another person’s writing. So don’t write as if you were writing to thousands of people. Instead, focus on a single person that represents your target market. Write your piece to them.
It will remove any nagging sense of ‘stage fright’ that makes you scared to commit anything to paper. It will also make your writing much warmer and friendlier because you’ll be imagining yourself having a conversation with another person, not standing on a stage in front of a vast crowd.
Whenever I’m procrastinating about writing, I turn off all my notifications and put my phone away. The quicker you get ‘in the zone’, the quicker you’ll get it done. Alternatively, use an app such as Forest.
Set aside time for it
Give yourself a window to get it written. You could:
- Block an hour out in your calendar (set your status to ‘busy’ so if other people have access to your calendar they can’t book anything in for that time)
- Set a timer (there’s a nice one at io if you want something a bit slicker than your phone)
Write first, edit later
Now you’ve got a structure to work to, there’s less chance of you going completely off on a tangent that you have to delete later. So now’s the time to just write until you have got a first draft. You can edit the finer points later.
Focus on being clear, not being clever
If you think back to your English lessons at school, you were rewarded for using long words, clever puns or pretty turns of phrase. In the real world, these are overrated. Your job as a writer is to get information across, not show off. There are no points for artistic merit.
This is especially true when it comes to the headline. Don’t get caught up in trying to write a clever, pun-laden headline. Your marketing team can add this later if they really want (but nine times out of ten, you’ll probably find that in they delete the clever headline you wrote and replace it with something much more straightforward).
Try to use shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs, especially when writing for the web. These are easier for people to read, so people will find it easier to follow what you’re saying.
Once you’ve got a first draft written, it’s time to edit it.
Step away from it (if you can)
If your deadline allows, close the document and come back to it later. A couple of hours is better than a couple of minutes. Overnight is better than a couple of hours. Doing this helps in a couple of ways:
- it gives you time to get rid of some of the ‘baggage’ of drafting and writing, so you’re more likely to spot the gaping hole in your argument or the fact you’ve spent too much time explaining something in too much detail
- it helps you read what you actually wrote rather than what you thought you wrote (we’ll often miss out words, for example).
Read it for structure
Your first step when editing is to look at the big picture. Imagine you’re the one reader you were writing for. Now read your piece from their perspective. Does it all make sense and flow logically from one point to the next? Is it interesting and useful?
Read it for detail
Next, read it for detail, checking for typos and grammar.
Grammarly is a good resource. The Microsoft Read Aloud facility is great for helping you spot the missing words.
Get someone else to read it
If you can, get someone else to read it because they’ll spot things you might have missed. If you have several non-marketers writing marketing content in your business, consider setting up a partnership arrangement (i.e. I’ll read yours if you’ll read mine).
Before they read it, give them some background information and some guidelines (it will help save both your sanities). Tell them who the article is aimed at and the sort of feedback you’re expecting – i.e. you want them to tell you about a typo they spotted or a point they didn’t understand. What you don’t want is for them to rewrite the piece or suggest different (but not necessarily better) ways to phrase something).
Once you’re happy with your piece, it’s time to send it on to the marketing department. I hope that these tips mean you’ll have fewer difficult conversations or painful rewrites from now on!
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