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Friday, September 21, 2012

Content writing is…

SEO Search Engine Optimization, bot, robot, social media, search enging page rank, website, frequency, density, white hat, content writing, links, key words,

While some argue that written, textual content on websites is becoming obsolete, none can deny that even in this modern age that looks ahead to man’s pursuit of destiny among the stars and galaxies of the universe, the written word holds sway. Yet, with more intricate advancements in technology that are aiding the visual interaction between tangible objects and people in the real world and their virtual counterparts online, there is an undeniable trend towards images, perhaps one day replacing the written word and bringing us full circle to the origins of Chinese ideograms, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and going back further still, the cave paintings of Lascaux. Being in this interim period, one that has witnessed an unprecedented expansion of knowledge and of technology, we find ourselves at a crossroads where we are unable to leave the road we have taken this far, and anxiously await the arrival of the future and all its promise, in a ‘neither here nor there’ stalemate. So where does that really leave “content writers” like me? If I had to answer this honestly, I would say that this is the time to make hay while the sun shines, not because the need for information will have ceased to exist, but because as we struggle to rehash the same concepts and ideas in an effort to create “new” content, we will ultimately realize the vanity of our civilization and the need to keep a permanent record of a fleeting existence. Once we reach this point, we will be able to deal with information in a manner that is beneficial and easily absorbed by all, instead of the current systems of education that largely promote those who “keep up” with the information overload. As a content writer, it is my job to make my content as unique as I can, at to make it sound like I said it first, or at least, with the most authority. More importantly, good content writing follows the basics of “good writing” in general, namely, being organized, having a “readable” style, and keep it short.

So, how do I do this? Well, thankfully for me, in spite of many years spent hating English classes, I can clearly recall the benefits of writing an essay in an organized fashion, as drilled into our heads. This “organization” will involve identifying what you want to talk about, talking about it, and briefly recollecting why you talked about it. We can then break this down into more detail and talk about topic sentences for one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs and a concluding paragraph, and really, when you get to this level of granularity for a piece of writing that isn’t going to be more than 500 words long, you are already into “keyword” territory, the hallowed ground in today’s search engine optimization (SEO) race. Having mentioned SEO briefly, I’d just like to say that from all the reading I’ve done, and all the bits of info, and the odd training session that my friends and colleagues have been so fortunate to provide me with, getting your content to show up higher up the chain of search results by doing “on-page SEO” is to have an outline of what you’re going to write. If need be, we can, at this point, see if we need to try and work in more different-but-associated keywords into the proposed piece of content, or if we are targeting the right ones in the first place, when it comes to measuring their “effectiveness”. But back to organizing content for the sake of better content writing practices, there is an advantage that comes from being able to write in an organized manner, so much so that have self-contained intro, body and concluding paragraphs can allow you to rehash content in a more plausible and less revolting manner, but more on that in just a second. As far as good writing goes, content writing or otherwise, organization is key, and the benefits it brings even with today’s requirements for writing online to be found by search engines, it still holds a lot of weight.

The “style” of writing is often an area of great dispute, mostly because it means that a whole coterie of writers would rather claim their own idiosyncrasies as a “style” than spend time agreeing upon the best way to use elements of “style” to suit a cause or purpose. Taking the virtual world as our example, it is safe to say that, in spite of potential protest from various corners, the Internet prefers a short, sweet, and to-the-point kind of written content. Not only is it easier for human beings with shrinking attention spans to read and digest, but it also helps the spiders that crawl through online content to easily identify what the writing is about. If you revisit the “keyword” concept and apply it rather loosely in this context, then the fewer words you write, the more “keyword density” your writing is said to have, omitting the obvious articles, prepositions and conjunctions, because each word that remains is of priceless value in telling people, and search engines, what it is that you do as a business or other kind of professional. As far as your competitors go, the constant struggle to get on top of the search engine page rankings has just begun the moment you publish content about you, if you’re the producer/supplier of a good or service. All the rest of the opinions online seem to come from customers/users who seem to have the time and the willingness to take the trouble to post their comments online, or even participate in an online survey, and those who are paid to provide their opinions, content writers like me, or “words” as the case may be.  However, the issue of style itself is easily dealt with by establishing a “writing guide” of some kind. Ideally, a writing guide holds sway over specific items and characteristics of a particular kind of writing, such as in the case of magazines and other periodicals. At the end of the day, the “style” that works best is the one that facilitates easy consumption for the reader.

Regarding the “length” of the piece of content to be written, and this is an area that I still continue to struggle with, I tend to err on the side of excess, unless specifically requested not to do so. Letting the words fall freely onto the paper or computer screen in front of me, I like to get a feel for what I am going to say, either before or during when I am saying it. More and more these days, owners of websites want “catchy tag lines” and “one or two words that say it all”, to which my usual response is, “You seem to have a very good idea of what you want, so why don’t you give me a few examples I can work with.” Of course, this is treated as condescending behavior, but as a writer, I know when to accept feedback and when to ask a critic to stick it where the sun don’t shine. I find it annoying to receive more than 200 words of feedback for every two that I write, and to my mind, this tells me that rather than put the time in to attempt some content yourself, you’re going to use the power of management, a degree, some money, and copious amounts of time in the back-and-forth before your content is “perfect”. I believe that there is definitely some kind of ratio that makes sense because if you end up spending more time getting feedback than you do writing, either you have a really long way to go, or you should try something else. So, I start lengthy, and have to cut things down to size when requested. Funnily enough, I seem to find that while I prefer to write longer lengths of text, I am equally at ease starting off with a couple of sentences and then expanding it to a full-fledged piece of content (preferably an outline than a couple of sentences because it will give me an overall perspective of what the piece of content is and where it is headed) as I am writing a longer piece and having to cut it down later. Still, the trend seems to be towards shorter, more succinct bits of content online, more like “bites” that are easily consumed instead of a heap of key and other words to go through.

Before I finish, I would like to come back to an earlier thought about writing self-contained pieces of text, such as intro and concluding paragraphs. This “template” approach to content writing is one way in which even owners of websites selling the most finite and singular pieces of merchandise can have content to last them a few years, at which point they can go back and repeat the process all over again. The process in question is writing largely generic intros that touch upon a single theme, and at least for the time being, matching them up with similar sounding concluding paragraphs. For each of the three body paragraphs, use a single point that doesn’t feature in any of the other paragraphs, so as to denote any kind of link. To avoid further confusion at this point, let me use an example. Let’s say that Matrix Builders (any resemblance to an existing company is unintentional, sorry) only constructs doghouses. That’s their specialty, and while they can construct doghouses that are no bigger than the average cardboard box to those that are a couple of stories tall, they only build doghouses. Now, imagine a 5-paragraph essay on what Matrix Builders does. Let’s say that the three main points that we would like to write about are their “Eco-friendly” focus, the “supreme quality” of construction, and that they guarantee a “10-yr product life” with a warranty period that is as long. Highly unlikely, that last bit, but stick with me for a little longer. Now, rather than put Eco-friendliness, quality and product life in a single sentence towards the end of the introductory paragraph like most of us were trained to do, I will make the introduction generic, talking generally about how Matrix Builders are unique in the services that they provide, as well as how they continue to specialize in their chosen area of expertise and what else they plan to introduce in the near future. Then, I use one idea per body paragraph, making each one a self-contained entity that can sit alone or be used in a piece of writing with minor modifications. Once I’m done, I can write another version of each of the five paragraphs by focusing on something else. For example, in the second version of the intro I can talk about how Matrix Builders has pioneered and led the way in doghouse construction, how they put dogs at the center of everything they do, and how their staff comes with their many years of working with animals and knowing what they like and how they behave. With a conclusion to match, I could just re-use the body paragraphs and potentially create another piece of writing. If anyone screamed “plagiarism”, I’d probably laugh because I am not sure I have heard the rule be applied to the creator of the content her or himself. In case you’re wondering, yes, I have done this before with some success, although the “circumstances” surrounding my doing this were questionable to begin with. I have a ready-made template for website content, which I might share in the near future, or sooner if there is enough demand, just so you can get a feel for what “content writing” has turned into. Do I mind being able to write so much BS to make an oil tanker sink? I used to, but now I just take it in my stride.

So, to answer the question from yesterday, although I wasn’t really asking anything, good content writing involves the basics of writing, which are being organizes, maintaining a readable style, and keeping it short. As in my case, two-out-of-three isn’t so bad, considering that I don’t try to excuse my wordiness on paper. To be sure, the characteristics of “good content writing” seem to change quite frequently, but as long as you follow what you learned in school, or college in English 101, you will find that your writing works for your website because it shows up in searches a lot more, assisting with the SEO challenge as well. Obviously, you’re better off doing as I say, and not writing as I do, as is painfully obvious.
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