Writing well-structured articles that inform, educate, and entertain is not as easy as it looks.
There are billions of webpages out there that contain poorly written, unimaginative, boring content.
But those aren’t the descriptions you want associated with the media you produce, right?
As all content marketers who want to grow their digital media platforms know, audiences reward websites that offer special resources, whether they’re up-to-date blogs, in-depth ebooks, smart podcasts, or evergreen whitepapers.
There is, of course, a definite knack to writing well, especially about a newsy topic. And the print industry is particularly adept at understanding how to tell this kind of story.
Journalists are trained to write content that will hook readers from the first sentence and make them want to read on.
These journalistic principles can be adopted by content marketers to help engage their audiences.
Below are ten rules for writing a captivating story on a hot topic, whether in print or online:
- Begin with the most important facts first. The intro to every article needs to grab the reader’s attention instantly and summarize the story with around 25 to 30 words.
- Make your text thorough but succinct. The first few sentences need to include “who, what, where, when, why, and how.” Remember most people will not read more than 250 words before they start to skim. You should try to give them all the information they need as quickly as possible.
- Use the active tense. It is faster and uses fewer words. For example, “Argentina was beaten by Germany in last night’s World Cup final …” takes longer to read than “Germany beat Argentina …”
- Communicate what’s new or different. Why would the reader care about what you have to say? Why is it relevant to them? Is there a trend happening in pop culture or the world that you can incorporate? What are people talking about right now, and how does this tie in with what you do?
- Focus on human interest. While people may be interested in the latest political polls, a new cancer treatment, a food or product recall, or what the weather will be like tomorrow, if you can put a human face to the story, you will create an emotional connection that will draw readers in and keep them engaged.
- Avoid jargon. Every industry has its own language, including journalism. For example, do you know what a byline is? (The name of the author included in a box at the beginning or end of a story.) How about a NIB? (News in brief: short snippets of news, which run down the outer edge of a newspaper page.) Or a splash? (The lead story.) Think about the language you use — keep it clear, concise, and to the point.
- Write acronyms out in full in the first reference. Consider the following acronyms: ROI, ASBO, PCT, SATs, and FTSE. What do they stand for? Answers, respectively: Return on investment, Anti-social behavior order, Primary care trust, Standard Assessment Tests, and Financial Times Stock Exchange.
- Use quotes. It’s powerful to convey important thoughts with someone else’s words. However, when you quote others, make sure to get it right. Double check the spelling of your interviewee’s name, and make sure you don’t take quotes out of context in a way that distorts the person’s intentions.
- Keep it real. Although journalists often joke about never letting the truth get in the way of a good story, you should never, ever write something you know is untrue. We all make mistakes, but a mistake is very different from a lie.
- Have someone else proofread your work. Very few people can spot their own mistakes, so it’s wise to have a colleague double-check your work before you publish. Remember that the human brain reads words rather than letters, so if the first and last letter of a word are correct, we will often read it correctly, even if the others are jumbled up.
So, how can digital marketers apply these rules when they write a piece of content or break an industry-related news story?
Let’s take the subject of self-publishing as an example.
Lead into the story with 25 intriguing words
Can you hear the death knell echo over the world of traditional publishing? It’s making way for a new dawn — the rise of self-publishing.
Answer pressing questions immediately
Online businesses, such as Amazon, Google, and Apple, have made a huge impact on the traditional publishing market by increasing competition among self-published authors.
These changes may have flung open the door of opportunity — allowing more writers to share their stories and giving readers access to more books than ever before — but they also signify that the traditional publishing industry is in turmoil.
The 2013 merger of two of the world’s largest publishing houses — Penguin and Random House — is additional proof.
In the past, the path to a book deal for an aspiring author entailed writing a book proposal and sample chapters. With or without the help of an agent, these materials would then be sent to a publisher.
If the publisher was not interested, the author would either get no response or, after a long wait, the transcript would be sent back unopened or accompanied by a letter of rejection.
Since writers have become millionaires by publishing their own ebooks, traditional publishers now fight for popular writers, instead of the other way around.
Quote a source to establish authority and support claims
One such author is Holly Ward, who publishes under the name H.M. Ward. She self-published her first book, Damaged, as an ebook on Amazon and became a number one bestseller in the new adult genre.
Speaking about her success and why she chose to go down the self-publishing route, Holly said:
“The literary market is in a state of flux, and [self-publishing] allows me to try new things that aren’t really conducive to publishing traditionally. It also gave me freedom from a system that’s in the ‘adapt or die’ phase of life. With ebooks on the rise and brick-and-mortar stores such as Borders closing, self-publishing is a good place for me to be.”
So what does the future hold for traditional publishing?
According to Nielsen BookScan, most publishers report an average of 2,100 submissions per year, totaling 132 million submissions, but they accept less than one percent of them for publication.
Out of the 1.2 million titles tracked by BookScan in 2006, almost 80 percent sold fewer than 100 copies, 16 percent sold fewer than 1,000 copies, and only two percent sold over 5,000 copies. Due to this trend, the mega-publishers now select fewer debut authors and less fiction.
Craft a satisfying conclusion
Substantial discounting by online stores and supermarket chains has had a significant effect on traditional publishing too, forcing many specialist book chains and independent booksellers to close up shop. Consequently, traditional publishers have less outlets to sell their wares.
It would, therefore, appear it won’t be long before the final nail will be firmly hammered into the traditional-publishing coffin — making self-publishing the future for aspiring writers.
Put on your press hat
The print industry may be dying, but journalism certainly is not.
Journalistic principles can be applied to digital marketing to help you stand out as an authority.
I truly believe the art of storytelling is as relevant today as it has ever been; the platforms may have changed, but the delivery is the same.
What tactics do you follow to create compelling stories with your content?
Let’s continue to sharpen our journalistic skills by discussing additional tips over on Google+ …
Editor’s note: To see additional examples of journalistic skills applied to content marketing, read Demian Farnworth’s series on native advertising, starting with this post: 5 Ways to Rankle an Old School Journalist.
Flickr Creative Commons Image via Philippe Moreau Chevrolet.