10 Lessons from 10 Interviews with Content Experts
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
How They Found A Way
Since launching our Q&A series last fall, we’ve talked to content marketers, freelance writers, and even best-selling author Seth Godin. They’ve graciously shared insights on the challenges they’ve overcome, the books they’ve read, and the craft and business strategies that have worked for them. It’s felt like a master class in storytelling or running a successful business, and there’s plenty to learn for both writers and marketers.
My top 10 takeaways:
1. Don’t wait for permission
Best-selling author Seth Godin stresses that you can bring a project or change to fruition even when you don’t feel ready. “My whole mantra is for too long we've been brainwashed into thinking it's not our turn, into thinking we don't have a permit, or a license, or authority to make things better,” Godin says. “So if I can encourage people to leap, and to make things better, even for a few people, it'll be a project well worth doing.”
2. You do you
Content marketing maven Jennifer Goforth Gregory stresses that freelancing isn’t one-size-fits-all. “There's no right way to build your freelance business,” she says. “You need to see a want that's authentic to you, your personality, your goals, your family, and it needs to be a business that you love. Your name is on it, and just because something works for other writers, doesn't mean it has to work for you.” (Finding what works for you was a common theme of several other Q&As.)
3. Write with your audience in mind
Great writers – and especially those who write for brands – understand exactly who they’re writing for and what will resonate with that audience. If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll likely appeal to no one, because that goal is too broad. Diane Harris, former Editor-in-Chief of Money Magazine and current Editorial Director at Considerable, mentioned the importance of audience in her Q&A. “Great storytelling is what best serves your audience, and serves it in a way they will want to read what you're writing or view the content that you're putting in front of them,” Harris says. “That means you have to really understand who they are and what their needs and interests are.”
4. Don’t take your work too seriously
In her Q&A, humorist Wendi Aarons reminds us that wit and levity can liven otherwise lifeless subjects. “If there’s any way to put humor in a boring topic, and it’s allowed, why not try it? Humor opens doors, it’s relatable and it puts the audience in the palm of your hand so they’re ready to hear the boring stuff.”
5. Balance art and business mindsets
International freelance writer Mridu Khullar Relph talks about switching between artist and business person. “When I'm working on something, it is the sole reason for my existence,” she says. “I feel like when I'm done with it, I'm very pragmatic. I have this thing where I say, ‘be an artist in the studio and then be a business person outside of the studio.’” The business person might not write the most inspiring copy, while the artist might not negotiate a contract or pursue higher-paying clients, so both roles are important – just at different steps of the process.
6. Don’t get mired in the details
Instead of trying to shoehorn all her reporting into a story, Suzanne Barnecut, editor of Zendesk’s Relate, asks herself: “What is necessary to the story that I’m telling?” This helps her whittle the piece down to its essentials. “One of my personal struggles is that I want to pack everything in,” she says. “A mentor once picked up a piece of paper, dangled it in front of me, and said, ‘With your work, we just have to shake a little out. Once you've told the story, you're done.’” Harris shares a similar strategy in her Q&A, by the way: Before sitting down to write, she asks, “What's the single most important takeaway that I want readers to get from this story? Everything should be crafted around that simple thought.”
7. Read outside your genre
Even though our Q&As focused on nonfiction writing, several of the experts we interviewed mentioned how reading fiction helps fuel their storytelling abilities. For instance, freelance content writer Linsey Knerl mentioned she’s reading classics, including the lesser-known works of Mark Twain, an author legendary for his use of humor and understated style. “Everything you read gives you a new vocabulary to work with and everything you read gives you a new idea for how to frame something,” Knerl says.
8. Focus on storytelling, not products
Authenticity gets thrown around as a content marketing buzzword because it contains a kernel of truth: People want what’s real. Marketer Danny Greer has worked on successful campaigns for brands like Premium Beat and Shutterstock, and says authentic, useful content has been the common thread in those successes. “Nobody cares about your product as much as you care about your product,” he says. “I think where a lot of companies go astray is that they start over-promoting products and using their blog as just a PR tool.”
9. Let the words marinate
Few of us produce flawless first drafts, and Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl, highlighted the importance of giving yourself time to review the writing with a fresh set of eyes. “The best advice I have ever gotten is once you write something set it aside for awhile and revisit it again,” Fogarty says. “Sometimes you don't have the time to do that. But if you can give yourself a couple of days to set something, aside and then go back and edit it, it's always going to be better than if you tried to do it right away.”
10. Find your tribe
Freelance journalist and writing coach Rebecca L. Weber urges writers to “find other people, other writers, who are supportive of the kind of work that you're doing, who can be role models for you, and who can be supportive peers who are either at your level or what you're aspiring to do. That can be super useful in those times where you're hearing those clichés about how there's no money in freelancing and you can't make a living off writing. There are so many people who are. Surround yourself with positive people who are actually doing it.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves!