Writing Actionable Content

photo credit: striatic via photopin cc

photo credit: striatic via photopin cc

(Caveat: This one is mostly for freelance writers and those developing content aimed at professionals.)

Writing actionable content is a radically different thing than writing informational or narrative content. Narrative content can be languid and take its time getting where it’s going. Often, it is the slower pace and length that gives narrative its extraordinary power. Informational content is often, though not always by necessity, dry and slow. It aims to inform, to teach, to explicate and, mostly, to get factual content from the page to your brain. Actionable content, if it followed either of those approaches would fail spectacularly.

Tell Them to Do Something

If you’re writing for an online audience, you get exactly two paragraphs worth of tolerance. Your introductory paragraph and your conclusion can…note that I only say CAN…lack in a thing that the reader can do. After that, you must forgo narrative and pure information and tell the reader to do X, Y or Z. You notice that I just followed my own rule of actionable content. In the second paragraph, I tell you to tell your reader something they can do.

Make the Action Explicit

It’s not enough for you to just put a link into a sentence and assume the reader will click on it. Some will and some won’t. The link is an implicit call to action. If you want your reader to do something, make the call to action explicit. Say, “Click on this link to Basecamp  to learn about their project management software,” or “Write out your top ten concerns on a piece of paper in order of importance.” The difference here is the same difference as your spouse saying, “Remember that the kids have practice after school tomorrow,” and “You need to pick the kids up from practice after school tomorrow.”

Keep It Simple

Unless you’re writing a tutorial for something, keep the actions simple. Giving someone 47 steps to follow is generally pointless, because odds are they won’t ever get past step five. Remember, you don’t need to detail everything and can’t ever really cover everything in a blog post or article that only runs 400-700 words. If you’re talking about complex processes, give the first step and then point them to a resource that details the more complex process or at least expands on it. For example, if you want more information about writing actionable content, you should read Amanda Gallucci’s excellent blog post – “Transforming Content from Lifeless to Actionable.”


5 Ways to Not Suck at Writing

Image courtesy of anankkml/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of anankkml/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Some new writers buy into the idea that, if they just sit down and start, inspiration will somehow lead to great writing. Wrong! That might happen one time out of every 100 attempts you make at writing, if you’re lucky. If you’re not lucky, inspired writing might happen one time out of every 1000 attempts. The “sit down and let inspiration lead” approach almost always ends with one thing: writing that sucks. Good writing, on the other hand, takes a combination of work and skills. Here are five ways for you not to suck at writing.

Organize Your Thoughts!

That idea you have for an essay, article or story isn’t enough. You need to take that idea and break it down into pieces. Spend some time and figure out what things you must talk about to make your final draft coherent. Some people favor outlines for this process and, for new writers in particular, this probably should be your approach. Outlining forces you to really look at how much effort and space you’ll need to complete your piece as you first envisioned it.

Pro tip: Your initial idea is almost always too big. Cutting the idea down lets you talk about specifics, which leads to better writing.

Don’t Fall in Love with Your First Idea

Your first idea is just that: your first idea. Unlike races, being the first idea doesn’t come with a prize. Ideas can be bad. They can be impossible to follow through on. They can be the wrong idea for what you need to write. Don’t quit on trying to come up with ideas after you get that first one. Think of the first idea as a trial run or a way to warm up your imagination before you get down to the serious business of generating ideas.

Pro tip: Looking at the way other people have handled a similar topic can help to spark your own thinking, but make sure you don’t unintentionally steal their idea.

Stop Editing While You Write Your First Draft

Writing your first draft has one, and only one, purpose. Its purpose is to get the big ideas down on paper. Editing while you write your first draft does nothing but tack on extra writing time. No matter how much editing you do while you write that first draft, you will always need to revise and edit it. You will. Accept it. No one gets it right the first time.

Pro tip: Stopping to revise also leads to stilted writing because it disrupts the flow of your thinking. Writing that flows well is better writing.

Stop Guessing about Grammar and Punctuation

Remember when that elementary or middle school teacher told you to put a comma into a sentence wherever you would pause? It was bad advice then and it’s bad advice now, because it means you’re guessing. If you don’t know when it’s appropriate to use a comma, or a colon, or you scratch your head every time people talk about subordinate and independent clauses, it’s time to learn. Get a style guide. They explain those rules, at great length and in sometimes excruciating detail. If you’re a student, go and talk to the English department staff. Ask questions. You can also make use of the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which offers extremely comprehensive guidance on most things writing-related.

Pro tip: I write for a living and I still consult style guides and ask experts to clarify usages I’m not clear on. Knowing the rules makes your writing better. Period.

Don’t Use Blogs as Your Examples for Good Writing

Blog posts and, in point of fact, much of the writing you find on the Internet is writing that sucks. Blog posts, in particular, offer very poor examples because blog writing has its own conventions and some of those conventions violate the normal rules of good writing. Of course, some bloggers break those rules on purpose and with a goal in mind, like making the post easier to read on screen, and other bloggers never knew the rules of good writing in the first place. In either case, don’t look to blogs to show you how to write well.

Pro tip: You should read high quality newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times and The Atlantic, and high quality books, such as the ones found in this Salon.com “The Best Books of the Decade” article, to find your examples of good writing.

It’s easy to produce writing that sucks. People do it every day in online forums, comment sections and amateur articles. Good writing isn’t easy to produce. It takes time and effort. You need to be willing to organize your thoughts, reject bad ideas, and learn the basics of grammar and punctuation. If you are willing to put in the time, read good writing and accept the reality that you’ll need more than one draft, good writing is within your reach.

Note: This post may be used in educational settings without seeking permission, as long as it is properly attributed to me.

Being a Professional Writer When Christmas is Coming

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The grand tradition of Thanksgiving has come and gone. If you’re like me, you probably ate about three times as much as was healthy. After which, you stared around in a gluttony stupor and vaguely wondered why you couldn’t find the energy to do anything. It’s been a few days, though, and most of us have probably shaken off the aftereffects of our collective gorging. Now we find ourselves at an interesting time of year.

Despite what retailers would have us think, Christmas isn’t here yet. This is that awkward, pre-Christmas period where everything seems to be on hold while we wait for the arrival of the holiday. As a writer, it can be easy to get a little lazy at this time of year.

You’re surrounded by food of a decidedly sugary persuasion. You’ve got a house or an apartment that needs decorating and maybe some kids who are lobbing Christmas lists at you; lists that they filled with this year’s must have (read deathmatch in the aisles) items. Your family starts calling you and visits must be planned or avoided.

It’s hectic.

It’s time consuming.

It seems more immediately important.

Bu the truth is…

It’s not more important than your writing, especially for those of you who write for a living.

This time of year is often a barren stretch for professional writers. Clients are going out of town. Budgets for things like buying freelance content are starting to wear thin. The people you work for are just plain distracted.

What that means for a professional writer is that early-mid December is a stretch where you need to be devoting more time and energy to writing and business, not less. You’re probably going to have put in extra time to pin down clients on work, send extra reminders about unpaid invoices, and work twice as hard to drum up new business.

This doesn’t mean you can neglect obligations to family and friends, but it does mean you’ll need to manage your time more efficiently and stick to your guns about your hours. Tell your extended family when you’re available to talk and make it clear that calls during working hours need to be emergencies/highly important. Remember, this is your job and the people around you should respect that fact as much as you respect the fact that they have working hours.

Why should you do all of this? While Christmas might be fun and festive, January is right around the corner. The last thing you want to be doing in early January is trying to drum up work or, worse, killing yourself trying to do all the work you flaked on in December.