Writing for a Living: How We Feed the Content Machine

by Gabriella Sannino March 22nd, 2012 

content

It's 7 in the morning on Monday. I'm working on a pot of coffee and tapping the end of my pencil against a growing to-do-list for the day and the week. For the past two hours I've gone through my daily routine of checking email, responding to blog comments and so on. My Skype is up, and I've been dropping links into a non-responsive conversation box. By the time 8am rolls around, I'm ready.

At 8, my Skype starts dinging as the Level343 team gathers and starts looking over the links. I can't help but feel a sense of satisfaction when the company comes alive. As the "good mornings" get over, I quickly type what I've been waiting to say since I got up. "It's time to feed the beast."

The beast, the company, the jealous creature that's never satisfied, Level343 requires a never-ending supply of content. Content for clients, content for us, occasionally content for friends when we're feeling magnanimous just for ourselves, we put out over 20 pieces of copy fit for public consumption a month, and that number is growing. When you add in client work, well it's a good thing we love writing.

Brainstorming Sessions On The Search For Fruit

Whether we're writing for us or writing for clients, our process is still the same. The very first thing is always a brainstorming session.

Although we sometimes have three or four people at the brainstorming sessions, it's normally Jahnelle and I. For the past five years, we've met every Monday morning to plan the content of the week (if not the month). With the inevitable typos for the times we're typing instead of chatting on Skype, we've even developed our own language. One misspelling, which was supposed to be "dude" has been incorporated into the Level343 language as "fufe". It works. It's fun. We dig it.

Brainstorming is always entertaining. We're not looking for anything specific. Over the years, we've found that searching for ideas often causes them to be elusive. Together, we dig at each other's minds, picking at potential fruit. It's unstructured chatter, which often includes things like, "Check this out. I like how this person wrote about this topic." Some days, we already have topics beating at our brains that we want to share and discuss.

No matter how the session goes, somewhere at about a half hour, the magic happens. "Ooo," one of us will say. "You know, this all ties in to… "or "You know, we could do a series on"

Selling A Red Brick " The Key Is The Vision

There's something fascinating about writing. For one, it's completely creative. Every piece of copy " even if it's written to inform " has to tell a story. It has to take the reader from beginning to end without losing their attention, so it has to be interesting to the target market. Especially in today's scanning society, that's a challenge.

Another thing about writing, especially for clients, is that we have to tell that story as an authority. For that authority to be believed, we have to learn about the company and what they're selling. We have to learn about the target market, and what the consumer wants to buy. What pain does this company's service or product fill for the buyer?

It's amazing how many "useless facts" you can pick up along the way. For instance, when you're selling your house, you'll have better results if you paint your home in neutral colors. Why? Because it's easier for the buyer to see themselves in the house.

Writing content has the same purpose as painting a home in neutral colors. We have to create a vision that the reader can easily see. Our job is to put you, the reader, in our vision. We have to convince you that the product is something you really need.

For example, a client may come to us, and the only product they have is a red brick. There's nothing that makes that red brick anymore enticing than any other brick, red or otherwise. We have to answer the question, "What does this red brick have that others don't?"

We have to dig in. "What are we going to give the reader here?" As my team can attest, one of my favorite questions is, "Where's the meat? What are we feeding them?" We don't do fluff pieces if we can at all help it.

So we research:

  • We dig into the company. Does it have a strong background? Is it well known for the quality of its bricks? How long has it been around? What do previous customers have to say?
  • We dig into competitors. How do they stack up? Can you build more with one brick than you can with another? What does our client have or offer that the competition doesn't?
  • We dig into the target market. What are they using brick for? Where are the selling points for them? What would the benefit be if they bought this brick?
  • We dig into the process of brick making. Why is it red? What's the history behind brick making? What are red bricks used for? Do they have any specific purposes?

We do all this because the content has a very major job to do. It has to:

  • Convince the reader they need this red brick
  • Convince the reader that this brick, compared to other bricks, is the best one out there
  • We have to draw them into our vision of a perfect world filled with red bricks

And at the end of the day, when they have bought that brick, they still have to believe it. If the reader can't see themselves with that red brick in their hands, we've failed to do our job.

It's Music

Once the research is done and we've gathered as much knowledge as possible to become a "believable" authority, it comes down to the defining moment. It's just us, the screen, and the gathered knowledge we have in our heads.

Writing, when the creative juices flow and the Muses dance around you, is music. It's harmonious beats in a staccato rhythm of type. Your ideas turn from hums to a full blow orchestra there on the page. When you're really in the zone, there's no unharmonious discord, because the story's already there " you just have to write it. Those are the days when a 1,000 word article takes a half hour and blog posts are brief forays into language.

When the juices aren't flowing, which happens to the best of us, it's just noise. There's no rhythm, rhyme or reason. Sometimes, that noise can turn into music. Most times, you finish the article with a feeling of distaste. More often than not, if you're perfectionists like we are, the article gets tossed.

Dealing With Rejection

I can't count how many bloggers I've talked to that had to struggle with fears of rejection before they could get out there and publish. I can empathize and sympathize. Although I can happily say it doesn't happen often, there are times when a client isn't happy. Most often, it's because we missed something important in the research, and came to the wrong conclusions.

The big thing we've all had to remind ourselves of, at least once, is that it isn't personal. It's not a rejection of self; it's a rejection of the content we've provided. We automatically get clarity from the client so we can get about the business of fulfilling our contracts.

You Have To Love It

For writing to work as a job – for you to make a good living at it " you can't just be a good writer. It takes a lot of work to turn vision into reality, as well as a lot of research to make it believable and have that vision last. You have to be willing to put in that work.

It takes dedication to "the cause". It's extremely important that you're willing to go out of your way to learn about more than the product itself. Writing copy and content that sells isn't the same as writing product descriptions.

It takes discipline. Once we've gone to a client and said they'll have a certain number of articles per month, we'd better be able to fulfill that number. It doesn't matter if the creative juices aren't flowing "you'd better be able to beat them into submission.

In other words, it's a work of love. Love of the art that is writing. You don't have to be passionate about the topic (although it helps), but you do have to be passionate about the words you write.

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Gabriella Sannino

For the past twenty years Gabriella has held positions as a consultant, web developer and creative director until she decided it was time to open Level 343, an SEO and copywriting company. She fancies herself an Italian rocker, rebel and SEO geek. She loves singing in the shower and keeps a notepad next to her bed.

Level343 Blog

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6 Responses to “Writing for a Living: How We Feed the Content Machine”

  1. I've found I need to read twice as much as I write to get a good base of ideas to work on and expound upon. If I really get stumped, but need to post something, I do article swapping with other blogs.

    • Hey Guy, we've come up with a few ideas on how to keep the "content machine" filled. We've been calling this "feeding the beast" :) as a matter of fact, it's linked via the CommentLuv plug-in. (How to Build Content for SEO Without Bombarding Readers) We've included a wonderful infographic we think is helpful. Thanks for your input.

  2. Re: "Writing copy and content that sells isn't the same as writing product descriptions."

    Couldn't agree more with this statement.

  3. Ahmad says:

    Beautiful post! Agree with every word that's been said there, a lot of which I can personally relate to as well. 'Selling a brick' and 'vision' reminds me of Steve Jobs and what someone once said about him: 'Steve prose and presentation is so good, he could sell you a brick and you'd still pay to buy it'!

    That's what writing is, isn't it!

    In the end, like you said, you have to love it, in order to be able to sell it. Well said!