50 Tips From the Writers Room: Advice for Content Strategy and Copywriting

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Written by James Dowd,
• 13 min read

Improve your writing skills with some common, but much-debated tips, insight, and advice from the copywriters, content strategists, technologists, bloggers, creative directors, and PHDs working in the Digital Surgeons writers’ room.

1) Do Your Research: Content rarely exists in isolation. It exists instead in dialogue with other ideas. The more research you do, the more ideas will come to mind. These ideas will inspire and inform your writing. Lean on tools like SEMRush, Moz.com, and BuzzSumo to research your topic and uncover high demand, low supply topics.

2) Read Literature: Homer, Shakespeare, Edward Gibbon, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson were all masters of the craft of language expression, all with very different styles. Reading authors from different cultures and times will expose you to different rhythms and patterns. Absorb their words. You, as a writer, will benefit.

3) Assume Your Audience Doesn’t Give a Shit: Don’t commit the “me fallacy,” which goes as follows: “I find this interesting. Therefore everyone else does as well.” False. The onus is on you to make them care about what you care about.

4) Size Matters: Articles over 2,000 words are seen by search engines as “evergreen” content and are seen by search algorithms as more valuable. If you’re able to write more than 2,000 words on a topic that is in high demand, but low supply — do it.

5) But, Sometimes Less Is More: Though not a hard rule of thumb, if you can write something in a 1,000 words, instead of 1,500, do it. There’s no reward for writing more when you don’t have to.

6) Find Your One Thing: What's the one thing you absolutely want to get across, say, or ask? Write that down, work from there, build on it. It's that simple.

7) Explain it to Yourself Like You're an Idiot: Whatever you're trying to write, first write it out to yourself, in great detail, like you have no clue what you're talking about. Don't worry about grammar, punctuation, or spelling, for now. Explain it as in-depth as possible, clearly laying it all out from an empowered position — someone who knows versus someone who doesn’t — without any fear, since no one but you will read it. You’ll probably write a good portion of your goal in the process.

8) Don't Get it Right, Get it Written: Writers struggle most to put words on the page when they obsess over crafting the most finely crafted linguistic masterpiece ever to have been written. They try to write it all in their head. Don’t do that. There’s too much to remember and filter. Draft & craft. Fill the page, fix it later. It all starts with the words on the screen.

9) Lede the Way: Horrible pun intended. Web writers have seconds to catch someone’s attention — make them count. Take a cue from newspaper writers who use ledes, or strong introductory paragraphs, to grab attention.

10) Use the Inverted Pyramid: A popular structure in journalism, the inverted pyramid actually goes well beyond newspaper articles. From landing pages to videos on Facebook, assume you’re going to lose your audience fast and make sure they get what they need early with your lede. Be sure to incorporate however you’re measuring success of conversion. Then, feed them the next most important piece of supporting information, and continue throughout.

11) Create a Dump Sheet: Notes, ideas, quotes, song lyrics, competitor copy, whatever. Start a Google Doc and dump anything and everything that can inspire your writing. Use different fonts and colors to help process all the words (and to prevent plagiarism). Then, start structuring your crap into something usable. Sometimes, editing is easier than writing.

12) Balance Your Words: Use your words, your colleagues’ words, your client's’ words, famous words, made-up words, and mix them all together. If anyone else knew what to actually write for whatever you’re writing, they would have written it already. But, by capturing everyone’s thoughts and words, you can expand your own thinking, go deeper into the work, and get a lot closer to “done,” especially when people recognize their involvement.

13) Choose Your Words Wisely: When writing for businesses and brands, look at the first line of every competitor’s site. Note key words and phrases, and avoid them at all costs. They belong to them. Sounding like the competition is a great way to play “me too” but a bad way to build businesses.

14) Don’t Fear the Quote: A lot of writers are afraid to quote other authors, speakers, etc. Don’t be afraid to leverage the expertise of others by quoting them directly (with attribution) in your writing. Not only does it make you sound smarter, but it gives you a great excuse to @mention the person you quoted when you share your article on Twitter. If the article is good, you might earn yourself a retweet from someone with a large follower base — sending an even larger pool of readers flocking to your work.

15) Tame Your Titles: Keep your article titles shorter than 70 characters so they are SERP and Twitter friendly. Anything longer is likely to get truncated by the search engines and make sharing your article on social media more painful for your readers.

16) Don’t Write Articles About Tweets: Seriously, don’t.

17) Steal Shamelessly: As Picasso said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Don’t plagiarize, but like great art, great writing is often an amalgamation of everything that’s come before it.

18) Give Your Stories Shape: Kurt Vonnegut recognized the shapes of the stories that our culture repeats over and over and over. Use these shapes, people love them. 

19) Use the Active Voice: There’s a time and place for the passive voice, but it’s almost always better to let your subject action the verb. “He was murdered by Mark” is much weaker than “Mark murdered him.”

20) Eliminate Adverbs: He didn’t speak loudly. He shouted.  

21) Notice Notorious Mistakes: Watch the simple stuff that can have a huge impact. They're, their, or there? Your or you're? It's or its? Me, myself, or I? Who or whom? If you're unsure which to use, just write it another way. It's better to play it safe than make the glaring error.

22) Give Your Writing Rhythm: Sometimes write long verbose sentences with beautiful points, punctuation, and perspective. Sometimes write short ones. You’re the maestro.

23) Make it Timeless: It’s annoying AF when bae uses 2 much current slang to throw shade. Please don’t cater your writing to what the cool kids are saying on Twitter.

24) Ing Words Suck: Whether it’s a noun that ends in ing (a gerund) or an adjective (participle), you should avoid it. They are the culprit that causes many a clunky sentence.

25) Say One Thing Per Sentence: If your sentence is trying to make more than one point, it’s most likely bloated or confusing to the reader.  

26) Show, Don’t Tell: an oldie, but a goodie. Whenever possible, avoid simply telling your audience what is so, and instead demonstrate it to them with an anecdote, story, or statistic. Don’t write that John is depressed. Write that John stayed in on a Saturday night and ate an entire pizza in his bathrobe.

27) Don’t Overwrite: There is nothing that screams amateur like “purple prose.” Adjectives and metaphors are important tools, but don’t overuse them.  

28) Punctuate Properly: Know the difference between em dashes, hyphens, colons, commas, and semicolons. Each has a specific correct usage and each is often misused.

29 Don’t Use Exclamation Points! OR ALL CAPS: Let the importance of your writing speak for itself.

30: Use Oxford Commas: Don’t argue. You’re wrong.

31: It’s Not What You Write, It’s What They Read: Know your reader. Keep their perspective in mind and how they can translate your writing to mean something else entirely. Look for multiple meanings in your words and idioms. What might sound clever to you might be downright insulting to someone else. Treat them like they're stupid, your writing will be stupid, and they're gone.

32: Forget English Class: Focus less on rules and more on the best reading experience. As long as it's a simple yet engaging read, you can break some rules now and then. Though, it's likely the things you remember from class are actually outdated and no longer followed.

33: Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say: Don’t use words that lessen your impact. Weasel words like “very,” “just,” “mostly,” “slightly,” “seems,” “sort of,” “pretty,” and “somewhat” signal to the reader you mean what you say … but not really. Never pull your punches, unless it’s part of your plan. Eesh, lots of alliteration there.

34: Attempt Alliteration: Try repeating consonant sounds to make your writing a bit more poetic and memorable. Sometimes it’s not annoying.

35: Write Like a Human: Businesses and brands do not have emotion — people do. That's why natural, conversational, non-robotic language ensures the reader can connect, understand, take what they need, and act appropriately. Use short sentences and words people know. Be yourself, have empathy, be a human — warm, inviting, and personable. Use contractions. Use humor. Use puns, sparingly, please. Hell, use emojis.

36: Do Not Rely on Puns: Unless you want to PUNish the reader. Get it? (Sorry)

37: Go On With the Run-On: Run-on sentences are quite apparent, and exhausting, when read out loud. But, our brains don’t silently read them the same way. We read with punctuation but our brains never have to stop for a breath. Mix short, choppy sentences with long, flowing ones to control the reader’s attention. Don’t use terribly obvious run-ons, but be daring in using them where they work for you. Always aiming for short sentences means it’s easier for the reader to walk away. A lot of periods are a lot of stop signs. Use your run-ons like a water slide, carrying readers where you want them to go.

38: Figures of Speech Are Powerful Tools in the Writer’s Toolkit: Metaphor, anaphora (repetition of words in successive clauses), asyndeton (omission of conjunctions), are powerful tools that are scientifically proven to appeal to parts of the human brain. Use them. Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga is a solid introduction on the science of figures of speech.

39: Examples Are Loud: Whatever point you’re trying to make, use examples to hammer it home. Micro-stories, for example. Our brains remember them far better than simply a list of information. Our brains are constantly in search of stories, so give the reader what they want.

40) Aim to Express, Not to Impress: Focus on expressing yourself clearly. Jargon and complicated language might wow readers but they will be far less likely to remember your content. Rich, original ideas will stick with an audience. Jargon builds walls. Avoid it. Keep in mind the timeless advice that Denzel Washington gives in the film Philadelphia: “Explain this to me like I’m a two year old.”

41) Check Your Ego, Make the Sale: Your writing has a purpose, and it’s usually to convert in some way. Unfortunately, a lot of writers don’t like to identify as salespeople. They see it as a conflict to their craft. Suck it up. Use your skills to make the sale. That’s why you’re here. How you infuse your craft is what will determine if you’re any good.

42) When You Are Stuck on Your Own Stuff, Go Read Someone Else’s: We all experience writer’s block at some point. Instead of beating your head against a wall, take a break to read an article or book on some related topic. This is an easy way to discover inspiration that will help you circumvent the block.

43) Stay in Your 3-Foot World: Like in rock climbing, nothing matters but what's next on the rock. Work doesn't matter. The guy at the base watching you doesn't matter. Looking stupid doesn't matter. Because, no one can help you but yourself. You are there, and all that matters is your next move. If you start becoming fearful, doubtful, or distracted, you fall. If you start thinking ahead to feedback or failure, you've already fallen. All that matters is your next move on the screen. Writing takes focus and courage.

44) Less Critiquing, More Creating: Don't edit until it's ready. Write long, and then cut. Never critique when you should be filling the page. All good writing begins with terrible first efforts, but you need to start somewhere. When you are writing, you're creating, and the prefrontal cortex of your brain is suppressed, which is linked to conscious self monitoring. One turns on, and the other turns off. What that means is if you allow yourself to self edit while being creative, the creative part of your brain is turning off. Actively trying to prevent yourself from making a mistake or come up with “dumb” ideas means no longer creating something new.

45) Write in 3 Rooms: A popular method of Walt Disney, you write in the 1st room, edit in the 2nd, and give a thoughtful eye in the 3rd. The 1st is pixie dust, anything can be, anything can happen. The 2nd is molding your creations, bringing them closer to earth. The 3rd is a major gut-check where questions should be asked and some beautiful things should probably die. Never overlap these rooms. Do one, and then the next, and then the next. Clear, mindful steps in your process.

46) Design Your Writing: The greatest sin you can commit is to create a confusing read. That’s why you must design your writing for easy reading at every stage of the journey. If there’s an easier way to say it, or a cleaner, more poetic structure, use it. If you can cut words, cut. If you feel you’re overusing punctuation but it helps make the sentence more clear, get over it and drop in that damn comma. Like it or not, writing is a visual game.

47) Slaughter Your Darlings with Fire: Good writing is just good editing. You may think it’s clever, but if it doesn’t add anything to the story, it’s gotta go.

48) Get Eyes on It: Ask people to proof what you’ve written. Having other people read what you’ve written is key to ensuring that your writing is as readable as possible. Even if you’re not done, tell them it’s coming to give yourself a deadline driven by peer pressure.

49) This is Your Cockpit: You’re the writer here. You’re in control, no one else. Do not wait for anyone else to inspire you, or to give you the answers. Stop reading blogs. Put words on the page. Do it now. Just write and Write with Blood!

50) Break All the Rules


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