All of us who work in the business of content writing are merely players on the global marketing stage. The seemingly infinite amount of marketing content produced every day by writers churns like the ocean of information it is. And like an ocean, it has a common sea level. That is, the vast majority of content writing found on the Internet is, to put it mildly, mediocre. The trick is to rise above this level of commonality to get the attention of readers, guests, clients, customers, and to give them something more than they find elsewhere on the vast, featureless waves of digital content. This is where the science of diction, grammar, and search engine optimization meet the art of content writing.
We Have Our Exits and Our Entrances
What endeavor better represents the gig economy than content writing? With the rare exception of the lucky few who stumble into a coveted full-time position, content writing consists, for the rest of us groundlings, of a post here, an article there, and if we’re fortunate, a steady part-time gig with a company who treats us well and sends a consistent trickle of work our way. Hopefully, it’s enough to be worthwhile as a supplement to our day jobs, but it’s a select few who ever have the opportunity to pick up consistent work. So, one writer plays many parts on the content writing stage. Their acts in the great production consist of various stages in the process of learning the arcane alchemy of melding the art and the science of content writing that transforms leaden advertising propaganda into gold. Yes, it’s those few who master this who rise above the mundane level of digital content that seems to make up the majority of what we see on the world wide web. Let’s talk about the stages of copy writing expertise.
At First, the Infant
We all have to start somewhere. We all have to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous editors. This is how we learn not to mix metaphors, properly use idioms, and get out of our training pants. If someone in the wide, cruel world gives you a chance to write content for them before you have proven your worth, thank them. If they take the time to edit your stuff and give you feedback without simply firing you, thank them. The best thing to do in the infant stage is to get some training. Find a mentor. Buy them a donut.
Then the Whining Schoolboy (or Schoolgirl, if You Are One)
Learning is hard. Once the training wheels are off the keyboard, the real work begins. You might actually be given some responsibility for completing projects. The feedback you receive in this stage of your writing career won’t always be flattering. Facepalming is often involved. But don’t be discouraged. You’re learning. You’re maturing. You might learn to like copy writing someday. More importantly, you might get paid. One of my favorite quotes, and there are many, by Stephen King is,
“If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”
And Then the Lover
“I love this job! I’ve finally mastered this thing, and life is going to be perfect!” There may come a time when, after some years of struggling, you feel that you have learned all there is to know. You may decide that you are a gift to the profession of copy writing, that no one can teach you anything more, and that high-paying gigs will begin to drift down, landing at your stylishly shod feet like roses tossed onto the stage after a brilliant performance.
Snap out of it.
You will lose gigs. You will find others. The world is full of copy writing gigs, each more attractive than the last. Play the field. Savor them all. But there is hard work ahead. Winter is always coming.
Then a Soldier
After the honeymoon is over, and we realize this is a marathon, not a sprint, we settle in. We dig our foxhole, we watch our sector, and we do what we do with discipline and determination. It’s this stoic approach that will allow us to hone our skills and truly master the alchemy that is content writing. The content writing soldier puts their head down and goes to work, every day. They read and study. They take care of themselves. But most of all they write. Like anything worth doing, content writing takes practice. “Practice makes better,” my high school chorus director was once fond of saying. Read everything. Write anything. Show it to people. Get feedback. The soldier soldiers on. And so, he plays his part.
Lean and Mean
One need not soldier forever. Content writing tends to wear out those who find they aren’t willing or able to put the effort into becoming the best they can be. This leaves the veterans who’ve spent years in the trenches of the gig economy, slugging it out with blogs, magazines, ad agencies, and maybe even their own websites or businesses.
Veteran content writers know the delicate balance between getting your keywords right for search engine optimization and not cramming a clunky title at the end of a sentence where it doesn’t sound like a human wrote it. Content writing isn’t for robots, it’s for people. Those people read, and those people buy things based on whether what they read engages their minds and, yes, their hearts.
Eventually, we get pretty good at this content writing thing. We memorize the formula for turning content writing into something people actually enjoy reading, and we can crank it out with high-speed, low-drag efficiency. We turn the lead of facts and statistics and supply and demand into the gold of living, breathing humans taking action to purchase something that makes their lives better. We go to work, whether it’s at home or at the office, spectacles on nose and favorite cup in hand, and we do it. We make art.
How do we do it? Since we humans huddled together around campfires shivering at the glowing eyes of feral editors–er…predators, just beyond the safety of the circle of light, we’ve told stories. If you can find a way to tell a story, no matter for what purpose, people will come. They will listen. They will read. They will heed the call to adventure! (This high, trumpeting call is also known as the “Call To Action” around copy writing campfires everywhere.)
The Last Scene of All
Thespians, alchemists, writers–nothing last forever. Eventually we enter that “second childishness” which is, as Billy Shakespeare once wrote,
“…mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
For those who think content writing is a thing anyone who can operate a computer and type 45 words per minute can handle, it’s inevitable. Most content writers will settle for robotic-sounding text that conveys the message to the customer, but it’s a select few who won’t settle for manufacturing more cardboard content to eject into the vortex of nonsense that sucks most copy writing into oblivion. These few successful writers will make a name for themselves. Editors and managers will notice, and will call them again and again for gig after gig. Sometimes, these intrepid warriors of the interwebs are offered an actual job. I’m talking job job, the kind that can lead to a career in writing, editing, publishing, etc.
(Stoke the fire. Here it comes…)
Will You Heed the Call to Adventure?!?
This is a call to action, brave writers! Whatever your current role on the copy writing stage, from baby scribbler to veteran ink slinger, there is room for improvement. If you’re not writing, you should be reading. Learn what beautiful prose sounds like, and you’re more likely to write some. You might even take a couple creative writing classes. The point is that effort pays off in the way your writing looks and sounds when you read it out loud. No, really. If you’re not reading your work out loud, at least in your own mind, you won’t know whether it sounds like natural human interaction.
So, get to work, writers. It’s never too late to hone your skills. And toss a bone into the darkness now and then. The editors are hungry too.
A copywriter is a person who writes the words that accompany marketing materials and advertisements.