James Parsons is the founder and CEO of Content Powered, a content creation company. He’s been a content marketer for over 10 years and writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc, and many other publications on blogging and website strategy.
Content Writing Tips for Beginners: A Step-by-Step Guide
Everyone has to start somewhere. With content writing, the place to start is with writing. While many content writers go to school for English or Marketing, or even a Writing-specific degree, it’s certainly not necessary. There are plenty of successful content writers out there who have never had a day of writing-focused education, and many whose first language isn’t English besides.
It’s possible to be a successful content writer without training and certification, but it requires one thing: experience.
I consider myself a fairly proficient content writer, though I don’t know that I’m among the best of the best. I’m knowledgable enough to distill some tips for you, though, and I can help you become a better content writer. Here are my tips!
Read, Read, Read
You aren’t alone. You aren’t writing in a vacuum. Every writer, and indeed virtually every creator of any kind of content, will tell you that the number one thing they do to keep themselves going is consuming media. Authors read. Video producers watch movies, TV, web videos, and streams. Illustrators take the time to consume art.
It’s important to read with a critical eye, but also to read for pleasure. Read because you’re interested in the topic, and read with an eye for the intricacies of writing. What perspective does the writer use? What tone have they adopted? How long are their sentences, their paragraphs, their sections, and their posts? How natural is their language? You can learn a lot just from reading.
Reading also gives you useful insights you can use in your own writing later. You accumulate facts, which you can pull out and use as citations later. You learn clever wordplay, new words you can use to spice up your own writing, and terminology common amongst professionals in your industry. You gain insight. So: read!
Know What You Want to Write
Depending on why you want to write, you may already have a goal in mind. I generally see people in a few categories.
- The people who want to start a blog because it’s a way to make money, but have no guidance or goal in mind.
- The people who have a passion for a topic, and want to start a blog to turn that passion into something more.
- The people who have the ability or talent for writing (and have been told as much through their schooling years) and figure they might as well make a career out of it.
The first group is difficult because they have to spend time developing a niche, a topic, an interest that interests them. Choosing what to make a site about is very difficult, and it’s even more difficult when you have to learn every aspect of the craft along the way.
The second group is people who already know their stuff and just might need help putting their thoughts into writing. This is the kind of group most of my article here is aimed at, but everyone can get some use out of it.
The third group doesn’t generally need help with the technical aspects of writing, but transitioning from the stuffy world of academic writing to the free-flowing world of content writing can be a shift that not everyone is equipped to deal with.
In any case, you need to know in a broad sense what you want to write about for your site, and in a narrow sense what you want to write about for a given article. I often start with some keyword research to develop a topic idea, write a killer title for that topic, and then create my outline for the article based on those search phrases and that topic. It’s worked well enough for me so far – writing articles that match real searches and catering to those searches is a great roadmap to getting your articles found.
Write, Write, Write
Believe it or not, I didn’t start out writing great content. I spent years writing some pretty mediocre content, and I only stood out because a lot of the people also writing content in the same arena were so, so much worse. Like, you’d be surprised just how bad some of the people out there writing content are. Go to Textbroker and spend a few bucks on some 3-star articles and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a wasteland out there.
Part of successful content writing is just practice. The more time you spend writing, the more familiar you’ll be with the process. The more details you’ll be able to stick in your mind as you write. The better you’ll be able to formulate posts as you go along. A post that might have taken me two or three hours to write a few years ago, I could write better in less time today.
Writing a lot and writing consistently is often cited as a key factor for blogging success. I’m not sure it’s 100% necessary from a marketing standpoint, but I can tell you that it’s extremely beneficial from a technical standpoint. They say that practice makes perfect, and while there’s no such thing as perfect, practice is always important.
Keep Tone, Voice, and Perspective Consistent
One thing I often see novice writers struggling with is perspective, tense, tone, voice, and all of those other subtle technical elements of grammar that come naturally with practice.
Here are some examples:
- Shifting between “I”, “We”, and “The Company” as self-referential signifiers. Know who you’re representing when you write. If I write something for a client, I’ll use a different voice than when I write something for myself.
- Shifting between the personal and the impersonal, as in going from “we recommend X” to “X is generally recommended.” There’s a time for different levels of formality; know which one you want to use.
- Referencing industry terms incorrectly. I see this a lot with freelancers who have to write for multiple industries; using terminology incorrectly makes people who know what they’re talking about recognizing that you don’t.
It doesn’t really matter which perspective, which tone, which voice you use. What matters is that you keep it consistent throughout any piece you write.
Care About Keywords
A huge part of successful content writing online is caring about keywords. Keyword research is the core of every good blog post, most paid advertising, and a whole lot else besides. That’s just how powerful Google is these days.
I’m not going to go extremely deep into keyword research here. It’s a very detailed topic, and there are a lot of great guides out there already written to help people of all skill levels get started.
Suffice it to say that, in my mind and in my experience, keyword research is an essential part of good content writing. Knowing how Google interacts with keywords, how to use keywords appropriately, and how to write around awkward keywords is essential.
Don’t Care About Keywords
Look, I know what I just said, and I know what I’m saying now.
The fact is, keywords are a lot less important than they were five or ten years ago. Back then, you needed to figure out exact, specific keywords and write posts with specific levels of keyword density to make sure your content thrived. Pick the wrong keyword and your content never shows up for high volume web searches. Use the keyword too little and Google doesn’t think the post is relevant. Use it too often and you get dinged for keyword stuffing. It’s a fine line to walk.
At least, it was. Then Google introduced a bunch of machine learning and semantic indexing features to their index. These days, Google will show you search results that don’t even include a phrase you used when searching but are still relevant. They understand things like synonyms, variations on keywords, and so on.
That’s why these days, I don’t worry too much about specific keyword usage – at least, not within the context of my articles. I use keyword research to guide the topics I choose to write about, and I might sprinkle in a specific keyword here and there when I find a way to work it in, but I’m not going to double over backward to include specific long-tail keywords in every post I write. Over-optimizing your posts like that can have the opposite effect:
“The idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. All of those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, ‘over-optimization’ or ‘overly’ doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.”
Heck, here’s an example. This blog post uses “start content writing online” as its primary keyword. You can tell this because they use the phrase a couple of times throughout the piece when it’s awkward to type the whole thing. You can also tell it because it’s in a different font than the rest of their content, though I’m not sure that’s intentional. Just… don’t be that awkward and obvious about it, right?
When In Doubt, Add More Formatting
One key insight that most content writers have at some point is that web readers don’t actually read the content. You might notice this behavior in yourself, or you might have it pointed out to you by a marketer, but it’s pretty true. People who see posts on social media, half the time they don’t even click through, they just read the title and the snippet and make assumptions based on that.
For people who click through and see content, they still skim. They read the first paragraph or two, then they skip through it looking for value. It’s up to you as a content writer to provide that value. You just have to know how to do it.
The easiest way, beyond making sure your writing is, you know, valuable, is to add formatting.
Add subheadings as much as possible. This helps break up your content into digestible chunks. Add formatting like bold and italics to emphasize certain points. Add gaps in between paragraphs and sentences to emphasize points. Add bulleted or numbered lists to build up, well, lists.
Formatting enhances the user’s ability to skim and extract value from content. Even if there are better resources out there, if yours is the most readable, it’s the most useful.
Strive to One-Up the Competition
A lot of content writers, when they first get started, find it very hard to figure out their place in the world. They come up with an idea, then they see that there are 10,000,000 Google search results for that idea already and that the top five results are all that idea done better than they would do. It’s easy to get discouraged looking for that one unique piece of content.
I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be unique to be valuable. This article you’re reading right now? Dozens of other people have written other articles on the same topic, some of the same points, and some with other tips and hints as well:
Here’s what you do. You find something that already exists, and you do it better.
There are three main ways you can out-do existing content.
- Take content that is broad but shallow, and add depth to it. This involves more research, more data sources, and more critical thinking to find conclusions the data leads you to.
- Take content that is narrow but deep, and add breadth to it. A deep dive into one subject in one industry is narrow, but it’s an opportunity to tie another related subject or another industry into it.
- Take content that is old and make it up to date. A lot of old content these days is kept up to date by the initial author, but if it’s left abandoned, you can try to supersede it by writing the same basic content with newer information.
Keep in mind that when I say “do what they do” and “you don’t have to be unique”, I absolutely do NOT mean you can just copy their content. You still have to write unique and original content, but you can cover the same topics and similar points.
Don’t Be Afraid of Tools
I’ve known a lot of writers over the years who pride themselves on their precise knowledge of technical grammar, and who end up focusing more on their grammatical accuracy than on the quality of their content.
To me, this is hilarious. You’re priding yourself on a skill that is easily replaced by a free online tool.
Don’t be afraid to use the tools you have at your disposal. Use a spelling and grammar check. Crank up the settings in MS Word. Use keyword research and topic ideation tools. There are tons of tools out there to help you be a better content writer, and there’s absolutely no shame in using them.
Finish With a Proofread
When you finish any given piece of writing, go through it with a fine-toothed comb looking for errors. I know I just told you that tools can do a lot of that for you, and that’s true. I make a lot of typos and minor grammatical errors as I type, and you know what? I have a few different autocorrect rules in place to fix them for me. Until you develop your own library or process, make sure you’re proofreading everything.
Now and then an error will slip through. That’s fine. If you notice it, fix it. If someone else notices it, fix it. If no one notices it, it’s not really going to do you any harm. Even still, it’s important to get a proofread in on your content before you finalize it and publish it.
Develop a Style
Over time, as you write, you can develop a style. That style will develop naturally, as you find your voice. You find the way you like to express your ideas. The way you like to use lists and formatting. The perspective you use to cover various topics and make analogies. Your style is built up over the years and it comes about from experience.
Your style will also change over time. After you’ve been writing content for a year or two, if you go back and look at the early content you’ve written, it will read like something written by someone else entirely. Don’t worry; an evolving style is perfectly fine. Developing a style that’s unique to you is the important part.
Keep at it. Content writing is a long-term investment, and it’s a skill that never stops improving. The more you keep going, the better you’ll become.