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3 Things I Learned by Writing 3 Million Words in 3 Years

By Dan Shewan April 02, 2014 Posted In: Blogging Comments: 4

My first SEO copywriting job (which is what most content marketing used to be called before “web content” was a thing) was working as a freelancer for a national British travel agency. Although the work itself amounted to little more than stuffing awkward long-tail keywords into flowery copy about tourist hotspots across the Mediterranean, it was an invaluable learning experience and set me on an exciting and rewarding career path.

Since that fateful freelance gig, I’ve written millions of words (literally) – most of them during the past three years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about what separates the great content from the bad, how to hit deadlines on time every time, and why measuring your coffee intake in pots is a warning sign that you should probably take it easy.

In today’s post, I’m going to share three web content lessons I learned by writing 3 million words in three years – so you don’t have to.

First, Some Background

I realize that saying I wrote 3 million words in three years is a bold claim, so first I’ll explain how I arrived at this figure.

  • I used to work for a “content marketing” agency (which, for the sake of professionalism, shall remain nameless).
  • The web content writers had daily production quotas of around 4,000 words a day. Every. Single. Day.
  • BONUS ROUND: If the average novel is between 60,000 and 80,000 words in length, I somehow managed to write the equivalent of around 36 books and survive.

Now that we have a baseline figure to work with, let’s do some math!

Now, I can hear your objections already. “Dan, you only wrote 2.8 million words in three years. Big deal.” However, as I said, this is a baseline figure; this doesn’t include any of the additional freelance or personal work I wrote during this time, which actually probably accounts for a great deal more than the 120,000 words I’m “missing.”

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to those web content lessons I promised you!

1. Produce Less Content

If I alone managed to produce this much web content in the past three years, imagine how much is being produced all over the world, every single day. That’s right – a towering tsunami of useless, poorly-written garbage, most of which is destined to go unread, and rightly so.

Unfortunately, things are getting worse:

  • According to Velocity Partners, 9 out of every 10 B2B marketers plan to produce significantly more content than they did last year.
  • Mark Schaefer claims that the amount of freely available content on the web doubles every 9 to 24 months.
  • Estimates from IBM suggest that 90% of all the data in the world – including all that worthless, instantly forgettable “content” – has been produced in the last two years alone.

Saying that you should produce less content when everyone else is hell-bent on making more may sound counterintuitive. However, just because you can produce ten blog posts per day doesn’t mean you should.

Good web content is valuable; you should be producing blog posts that people can’t wait to read, newsletters they check their inboxes compulsively for, or videos they simply have to watch right now.

Even large teams of skilled content producers working 24/7 can only produce so much useful, engaging content before the quality begins to diminish, or your audience becomes desensitized to your content due to the sheer volume you’re publishing. When this happens – and it will, if you insist on adhering to Herculean production schedules – your brand will be left in ruins, and your audience will forget about you.

Yes, it’s important to be consistent (by sticking to a regular posting schedule, for example), but quality and consistency is what will set your content apart from the competition. It’s better to publish one or two excellent posts per week than several crappy posts every day. Set the bar high, and meet (or exceed) it consistently.

Protip: Consider your own media consumption habits when establishing a web content production schedule. How many articles do you read every day from a single publisher? Do you read every last word, or just skim them? What types of content do you find yourself drawn to, and how frequently do your favorite sites publish them?

TL;DR – Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Make sure that every single piece of content you create is as good as it possibly can be. This is impossible if you’re producing the equivalent of the Library of Congress every month. “Good” trumps “more” every time. Resist the temptation to bombard your audience with mediocre content – instead, deliver consistently excellent content your readers or viewers can’t live without.

2. Be Authentic

Few things ruin web content (and brands) more effectively than a lack of authenticity.

For whatever reason, many sites attempt to project an image that’s completely fictional. This isn’t big or clever – it’s stupid, and if you try and deceive your audience, they’ll hate you for it.

One mistake I see time and again is blogs trying to fake authority by using an artificially sterile voice and tone. A classic example of this is writing in the third-person in a misguided attempt to sound “official” and create the illusion (read: deception) that a business is larger than it actually is.

People want to deal with other people, not faceless corporations. This is why the term “H2H”, or “human-to-human”, has become such a hot marketing buzzword lately; B2B marketers are slowly beginning to realize that “humanizing” their web content is far more effective than using a cold, soulless voice and littering their posts with ridiculous jargon.

So, how do you write authentic content?

  • Be yourself.
  • Author blog posts using your actual name, not “Admin” or something equally distant.
  • Write conversationally – but don’t overlook the importance of grammar.
  • Use a style and tone that are suitable and appropriate for your target audience and industry.
  • Back up any claims you make – don’t resort to trickery or “white lies” to promote your brand. Remember the golden rule from your creative writing classes in school – show, don’t tell.

Protip: Ask a few people you know (who don’t work in your industry) to read your content and tell you what they think. Can they “hear” your voice in the content? How does the content make them feel?

TL;DR – Authenticity is Crucial

Nothing will alienate your audience and harm your brand faster than inauthentic web content. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Don’t use overly complicated language to try and sound knowledgeable. There’s no shortage of fakers, phonies and hacks on the web – don’t be one of them.

3. Have an Actual Content Strategy

Again, this sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how many clients I’ve worked with over the years who didn’t have the slightest idea what they wanted their content to actually accomplish. This, in turn, made it much harder to quantify their results or make suggestions for improvements.

Content strategy is a complicated topic, but you don’t need to hire a hit squad of expensive consultants to make sure your content is doing what you want it to.

Simply put, the concept of content strategy can be summed up as:

  • Content – everything you have on your site (blog posts, landing pages, whitepapers, videos etc.)
  • Strategy – what you want this content to accomplish (drive sales, raise brand awareness, generate leads etc.)

So what does this mean for you? Before you start writing blog posts or making videos, you should know exactly what you want your content to do for your business. I’ve lost count of the number of clients I’ve worked with whose sole objective was “to rank highly in Google News” (or some other equally vague, nebulous goal) without the slightest idea why. If you don’t know what you want your content to do, you’re doomed to fail. It’s fine if you really do want to rank in Google News, but this objective should be directly aligned with a clearly defined business goal.

Protip: To learn more about this important topic, read “Content Strategy for the Web” by Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach. This excellent book explains virtually everything you need to know about why content strategy is so important and how you can start doing it – all in an entertaining, informative and easily understood way (see lesson 2).

TL;DR – Have a Plan for Your Content in Place BEFORE You Start Producing It

Even if your web content is consistently excellent and authentic, it won’t do you much good if you don’t apply it to a larger content strategy. Throwing content at a site and hoping something sticks is a waste of time, money and effort. Have a predetermined goal for each and every piece of content you produce, and never lose sight of what you want it to accomplish. If your business goals change, so should your content strategy.

Well, that just about wraps it up for this post. What tips do you have for creating kick-ass content? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments

Saturday April 05, 2014

Anonymous (not verified) Said:

Great post Dan. I can honestly say it sounded quite familiar. The advice is on the nose too; you can produce as much content as you wan but without a purpose it starts to become questionable. 

Tuesday April 08, 2014

Dan Shewan Said:

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Wednesday April 16, 2014

Lawer Doe (not verified) Said:

Thanks for sharing your experience as a copywriter. 3 million pieces of material is a hard task, and I understand you need to drink so many coffee.

I agree that less is better than more. But If you work in the reference content industry you should have at least several hundreds of articles to be serious.

Friday April 18, 2014

Dan Shewan Said:

Thanks for reading, Lawer. An interesting point regarding the reference content industry - I imagine that's going to become a even tougher arena in the coming months and years than it is already.  

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