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To be a successful content writer, you MUST have this skill

Since most readers of this blog are communications pros who create marketing content, let me ask: what do you think is a content writer’s most important asset?

An encyclopedic vocabulary? Sure, that’s helpful, but not entirely necessary. Since marketing content for general readers should aim for a Flesch-Kincaid writing level between grades 7 and 9, many of those fancy multisyllabic words we picked up in college can probably stay nestled between Webster’s covers.

An inside-out knowledge of grammar? Yes, good writers know how to construct a sentence and the difference between “effect” and “affect.” They can sniff out a passive sentence faster than a bloodhound. They might even know when to use the Oxford comma. Grammatical knowledge is great, but there are plenty of guides where anyone can look this stuff up.

Maybe power of observation? Well, people who don’t pay attention to their topic can’t write about it very well. But there are plenty of good observers who don’t know how to convert their notes into compelling reading material.

While there’s no doubt all of these skills are important to writing well, none of them hit the No. 1 spot.

Author, lecturer and historian David McCullough identified the critical writing skill in an article published in the July/August 2002 issue of “Humanities:”

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

The best writing, in any form, is the product of forethought, multiple drafts and precise editing. If you’re not invested in these actions with clear, purposeful thinking, then nothing else matters. Not your large vocabulary, commanding knowledge of grammar or keen observation skills.

Some people think the ability to write well comes naturally, as if it were an easy, off-the-cuff activity. They believe writers can turn that skill on like a faucet—the words simply flow magically and effortlessly from the mind to the page. And the first draft is always perfect.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. I can just about guarantee that any piece of writing completed in one sitting will be garbage. That’s because the writer didn’t put much thought put into the work.

The best-written pieces are almost always impeccably constructed. When picking one apart for close analysis, it’s obvious the writer put a great deal of purposeful thought into the piece. There’s no sloppy, haphazard structure; no disjointed thoughts; no unnecessary words.

As McCullough says, writing is hard.

The good news is there are strategies and tactics to employ that can help you achieve clarity as you begin the writing process:

  • Create a mind map of your ideas before writing. Mind maps are not the same as outlines, which usually serve only as a stumbling block to creativity. A mind map is more organic and allows you to place your initial ideas on a page.
  • Write a quick, rough first draft. The idea is to quickly place all your thoughts on the page in sentences and paragraphs (using your mind map as a guide) to see what you have for raw material. Don’t pay any attention to spelling or grammar. Avoid the temptation to edit while writing—this draft won’t be perfect. Besides, most writers don’t know exactly what they want to say until they complete a first draft.
  • Edit. Put the piece away. Then edit some more. The hard work begins here. As author Stephen King says, “To write is human, to edit is divine.” Now’s the time to closely examine your work and systematically organize and clarify your thoughts. Invest time in moving sentences and paragraphs around, deleting copy, re-writing, and checking grammar and spelling. Consider your work from the viewpoint of your readers. Put the piece away for a day to gain some distance and clear your head. Then return to it and edit again. Check your Flesch-Kincaid scores and complete any needed edits before declaring the piece “finished.”

There’s really no magic to writing well. It’s a matter of understanding the writing process and working purposefully (what McCullough calls “thinking clearly”). Master the process, work the process, and you’ll be on your way to producing solid, engaging content.

What other skills are essential to being a successful content writer? Please share your thoughts below.

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