When I was learning to be a good writer way back in the day, my English teachers had me reading, conjugate and outlining 'till I was blue in the face. In fact, to this day, I really think I'd rather visit a dentist than conjugate anything ever again.
Outlining, however, I've developed a greater appreciation for these days. And, mainly I think, is because I no longer look at outlining as the tedious task, I remember as a kid, instead viewing it simply as a means by which to create a plan for writing success.
And a plan is good, right? Gotta' know where you're going and how you're going to get there, right?
The truth is, if you ever want to become a proficient writer, whether your goal is to create masterful web copy a publishing house will notice and sign you to a book deal, or if your goal is to create web content that drives tons of visitors to your site in search of the latest and greatest whiz-bang you're selling, you're going to need a plan.
I know, it's a pain in the butt. "It's an outline!", you say. . .Well, yes, it is, but it's an outline that will drive your success.
Think for a second of your favorite magazine. Every magazine you ever read, or ever will read, is produced by outline. Except in the magazine industry, they just call 'em "editorial calendars."
This editorial calendar is created at least once a year -- often a year in advance -- to guide the editors and publishers, as well as each staff and freelance writer in the process of putting out a successful issue, each and every release date.
This calendar of sorts, forces the team to do the research required to learn what trends are coming up in the marketplace, what events they want to cover, and which advertisers might be interested in advertising in those specific issues.
In other words, it prevents the publishing team from going insane by "winging-it" at the last minute -- and perhaps most important for readers of this site -- it allows them to actually PLAN how they're going to make MONEY for the year.
Editorial calendars are outlines that allow you to make money. Create a plan. . .an editorial calendar, if you will.
So, if you have to stop reading now to cook dinner or something like that, you'll leave with one idea that'll definitely earn you greater income. Then, again, you'd miss numbers 2 & 3, which might just help you earn you even more money.
Now I'm sure this might might seem obvious to most, but, trust me, it's not. In my experience helping companies write and re-write content for their websites, this single concept is fully entwined in one of the most common reasons firms ring us up: the registers are . . . NOT ringing.
And, they're not ringing because instead of being written in a way that drives eyeballs to a site, keeps them there, and then asks them to buy, most websites are too firm-centric. In other words, they talk about the company, to the company, for the company. Even outside the B to C marketplace where we do a lot of work, there is a disconnect between what a company thinks is important to highlight on its website, and what the business visitor expects to find when they're there. And yet this obstacle is simple to overcome, if we always keep in mind to remember the buyer.
So how do we do that? Well, first off. . .and this is especially relevant when trying to come up with spider-friendly keywords and phrases that'll help increase your online rank and bring in more eyeballs . .think of what a visitor to your site would actually type into Google if they were looking for whatever it is you sell, pitch, move, or produce. What exactly would they search for? And HOW would they search for it?
Now, of course, there are a multitude of tools out there that might be able to provide a lot of hard data as to search terms that folks use to land on your site, or that of a competitor, but (at least for now), they're not able to tell you how that person thinks. . in other words, the psychology of the person looking to get what it is you sell. And therein lies the secret. You've gotta' walk in their shoes in order to learn what it is they like and don't like, what it is that turns them on or off about your site. . .call it usability if you will. . .I'll call it plain 'ol common sense, like the kind your mother taught you when you were a kid.
But alas, this isn't as easy as it seems for most individuals and companies alike because we've become so attached to our own businesses that we miss things. . .we can't think like them, because we're too busy thinking of us. How do "we" sell more. . .how do "we" like the look of the site. . how do "we" describe these. . .things!?!? If you're blessed with a marketing communications person on-staff, you're halfway home. By interviewing subject-matter experts in-house, they'll be able to get you the kind of information you just might not be able to come up with because you either don't possess the knowledge, or don't have the time to conduct such interviews. If you're not so blessed as to have a marcom person, then find someone who can conduct a fairly casual interview with such folks. . .perhaps an HR person. . .an administrative assistant. . .anyone, really who knows how to have a really good talk with someone. . .after all that's really what conducting an "interview" is all about. . .learning what someone is about, what they do, and how they do it. It's not really that hard. . it just takes time and commitment (there's that plan again!).
After talking with the folks in the bowels of your company that make your company run, it's off to the customers to find out what they can teach you. And, boy will they make your head spin. Our customers are in such a wonderful place to help us learn what goes on in the mind of our buyers. . .yet we often never ask them for their opinion? Hmm....this seems rather odd!
Ask, and ye shall receive, grasshopper!
After walking in the shoes of your ideal buyer, you'll know not only what to say to them, but HOW to say it, and THAT, my friends, you'll never find in a Google Analytics report! Now write!
Done reading? Think again! There is one more tip you've gotta' know now before you run away because its the most important of all. . .I know, I saved the BEST for last, contrary to what every PR practicioner will ever teach you about writing. . .
So where does that lead me then? You got it.
The first rule you have to remember when writing great web copy and succeeding in the SEO arena, is that there are no rules. This is the wild west, folks. Most of what we can learn about how to create great web content worthy of being called "King," is changing every day. . .every hour even. The rules say writing for the web is hard. They say, you need a guru to help you. They say you need to know some insane sort of algorythimic code to figure out what people want to read. They say you don't know enough. The rules say, you'll never win the battle, and can never learn enough. With the exception of only the last one, the rules are wrong, and you should break them. Daily. With the last rule, if you do try to learn everything, not only will you drive yourself batty, but you'll also never have time for steps 1 and 2 above, and if you know everything there is to know, but never complete steps 1 & 2, you'll never get anywhere, and you'll look kinda' like Wile E. Coyote trying to run away from the Road Runner.
Here are a few ABC's that help you shift your mindset from the idea that you have to be following any rules, and allow you to not only succeed in more ways than you thought possible, but also enjoy life and business a bit more along the way.
A: Writing for the web isn't as hard as it seems
It requires concentration and energy, just like any writing task. If you're not the biggest fan of writing, hire it out to someone either internally or externally who can help you and your company grow. Otherwise, if you're handling it on your own, write what you know. Write from the heart, and interview your customers and employees. Work on your headlines. . .again, think about what would get your audience to click and respond.
B: Some gurus are more interested in your money, not in teaching you how to succeed
When you find those individuals who ARE genuinely interested in seeing you succeed, hold on to them for dear life, and thank them for their help as often as you possibly can.
C: A genuine guru is smart. Seriously. Absorb what makes sense, toss the rest.
D: Read. Read. Read.
Gurus get smart by reading what everyone else is saying. Read enough and you'll become a Guru too. Then remember steps B & C! Study direct mail. There are so many parallels between direct mail and writing for the web, it's just silly. Bob Bly is a brilliant copywriter. Check his books out at the library.
E: Just write
Really, stop hanging out in Google Analytics and in the Warrior Forum trying to find every trick in the book that will get people to click on your stuff. Just write about what people want to read, and they'll come to you. . .I promise. If you don't beleive me, just look at what Gary Vaynerchuk has done for himself over the past few years, writing and talking about what he cares about, and what all his fans care about: wine! It's a beautiful thing!
F: You know enough.
What you might not know, or might struggle with, is how to apply it. You being here is proof of this fact. Seek someone with the skills you do not have, pair up, or hire that person, and watch the sparks fly. You can't possibly know everything. Read Tim Ferriss' Four Hour Blog, or Leo Babauta's Zen Habits for more insight on the capacity of our brains and spirits to handle more that we can really handle.
G: Rinse, Lather, Repeat.
This is my mantra, really. When you find something that works, stick to it. Don't be like the poor architect who never finishes the home because he/she is always tweaking ad infinitum. Just get the darn thing done already.
H: Work hard, but get some rest. Unplug. Be well.
Doc Kane is the owner of Roscommon, a Chicago-based professional writing services firm that helps companies create stories that sell. His firm has had the privilege of writing for some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Abbott Laboratories and Aon Corporation, as well as a good number of small businesses and experts making a lot of noise in their own backyards.