A Survival Guide for Non-Writers Who Have to Write for the Web
Taking the pain out of writing
Computer Notebook Typing by Thomas Lefebvre is licensed under Creative Commons Zero
So you have a day job, and it isn’t writing. Maybe you’re a coder, a marketer, or salesperson, and you were hired to do just do the basic functions of the job. But at some point, someone expects you to write something for public consumption, probably as part of a content marketing effort.
This is hard. You don’t want to write something; you want to have written something, but you don’t want to actually face that blank page. You also don’t want to face the feedback, because what if it’s not good?
It’s ok. Just breathe. I’m here to help.
Now, there’s plenty of good advice on writing out there. With a simple Google search, you’ll come across tips like, “don’t write – revise,” and other such advice. This is all fine, and you should read it, but the purpose of this piece is not to reproduce any of that popular advice. Rather, I want to tell you how to survive writing for the web when writing for the web isn’t your main gig. This isn’t about producing the next award-winning, viral masterpiece that we all clicked on and then forgot about 48 hours later. This is about grinding out a steady stream of content for some commercial purpose, in a way that adds value and, most importantly, doesn’t leave you a mental and physical wreck.
You don't have to be a good writer to write something good
I have friends who are professional photographers – they go by Paco and Betty – and over the years we’ve hired them to take family photos for us. We do this despite the fact that with my iPhone 6+’s very forgiving camera and some filters, so I can definitely take some quality photos. But my spectacular photos are mostly accidents – the stars align, and the picture is so perfect that it looks like Paco and Betty did it.
The thing about hiring professionals instead of using my iPhone, is that, in an hour they will take a higher number of spectacular pictures than I will in a lifetime.
Good writing works the same way – it’s partly a numbers game. The primary difference between a good writer and someone who’s capable of writing something good is that the good writer has better odds of success in any given writing session. Her hit rate is higher because she has more training and practice.
My point is that the more you write for the web, the better your odds of writing something good. So don’t treat everything you write as if it’s going to be printed up and hung in the Louvre – treat each piece like a quick Instagram photo, and just keep grinding them out in order to increase your odds of producing something that gets a few likes and maybe a new follower.
If something you publish is bad, everyone will stop reading partway through and then forget about it immediately after they close the tab, so who cares. And if it’s good, or even great, everyone will forget about it immediately after they’ve shared it on social media for their friends to click on. Here’s the bonus though. Those people will also form a slight association in their brain between your profile photo and/or byline and “good writing.”
You need an editor
There’s a phrase in the above section that I was very careful with. I didn’t say “the difference between a good writer and a bad writer” but rather “the difference between a good writer and someone who’s capable of writing something good.”
Some people aren’t capable of just sitting down and writing something good. At least not without a lot more training and practice that they’re likely to get in any capacity outside of a full-time writing gig. You may be one of those people, and that’s ok because you can still have a piece of good writing go out under your name.
If you’re a bad writer, then you need two things to produce good writing:
1) Some bit of knowledge or perspective that your audience doesn’t have, but will appreciate,
2) An editor who can help turn your mangled, disorganized prose into a coherent presentation of the aforementioned bit of knowledge or perspective.
Writing with an editor is like rock-climbing with a partner and a rope – the editor isn’t there to haul you up the rock face so much as he’s there to keep you from falling to your death. In a non-professional writing situation, such as a company blog, an editor’s job isn’t to check your facts, or make your argument correct – it’s to protect the company’s brand and your byline by ensuring that you at least make sense and sound smart.
Don't sound stupid
A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Wired that starts out as follows:
I’ve spent the past thirteen years writing about technology, and over the years I’ve gotten the impression from talking to my readers that many of them think that the job of a tech pundit is to be “right”—to scrupulously prepare a first draft of history, to accurately report what’s really going on, to correctly predict what’s about to happen. All of this may, in fact be part of the job description of “tech pundit,” but this is not at all what the marketplace of ideas rewards you for. Tech pundits don’t have to be right, and audiences don’t reward them for being right. In fact, they don’t even have to sound right. The number one rule of successful tech punditry is that you have to sound smart.
Now, this probably only partially applies to you, since you’re likely not doing tech punditry. The odds are that you’re writing in a situation where you do need to have your facts straight, because your audience will know if you don’t. The quote above is still relevant for most of the content you’ll be producing as a non-professional writer, insofar as the most important thing about writing for the Internet is that you do not sound stupid.
Sounding dumb is way worse than being wrong, regardless of the type of content you’re writing (unless you’re writing actionable investment advice). I would much rather be wrong in a smart way than right in a dumb way, every time. Why? Because “dumb” is a lot worse for whatever brand you’re promoting than “wrong.” To be wrong is to be human, but to sound stupid is to be radioactive – people will run the other way.
I realize that definitive language like “smart” and “stupid” sound harsh, but this is the reality of the Internet. I’m just trying to protect and prepare you for what’s coming. The web is brutal, and commenters – whether on your blog or on social media – are out for blood. So try to avoid sounding stupid or they’ll eat you alive.
Also, remember what I said about needing an editor? The editor’s main job, above all else, is to keep you from sounding dumb. In this respect, the more smart people who read your work before it goes public, the better.
Take care in selecting pre-readers
Your pre-readers should be people who can and will give you honest, thorough feedback. They’re doing you no favors if they try to protect your ego and end up throwing you naked to the wolves. So make sure that they’re capable of giving it to you straight.
Also, try to select people lateral to you in the organization. You don’t want people who are directly beneath you to pre-read your copy because they may not feel comfortable telling you what’s what. You also don’t want to rely on people directly above you either, because if things go pear-shaped you’re going to have to step up and blame them for it. More on that later, though.
Read the comments
I really hate to tell you this, but here it is: you’re going to have to read the comments when your blog post gets them. All of them.
Even worse, your colleagues will have to read the comments, too.
If you don’t read the comments, then you’re not going to be able to build a mental model of your audience in your head. That mental model you build every time you lay your ego aside and wade into the comments with both eyes open is what will save you the next time you write. You have to do it; there’s no way around it.
If your colleagues don’t read the comments, then they’re not going to be able to properly protect you from the wolves by pre-reading your work, because they’ll also lack a mental model of your audience.
So yes, while the number one rule of the Internet is “don’t read the comments,” that rule is suspended when it comes to your own work.
Know who to blame
Let’s say that the absolute worst-case scenario happens, and you publish something that’s both wrong and dumb-sounding, and you get butchered for it.
Do not, under any circumstances, take all the blame.
Yes, you’re mostly to blame for the “wrong” part of the equation, but that’s ok because everyone is wrong sometimes. You’ve been wrong before, and you’ll be wrong again. It’s no big deal.
But the fact that you sounded stupid and your audience hated the piece? That’s your editor’s fault and the fault of any pre-readers. This is all on them. Your hold slipped in our rock-climbing scenario, and they let you fall to your death, screaming. They did not protect you from yourself and your audience, which means they did not do their jobs. Whoever is the boss of those that let you down needs to have a talk with them. That’s not acceptable – not for your own byline and not for whatever brand you’re representing. If your audience is roasting you, then the superiors of those that let you down should be roasting them.
Don’t be shy about this, either. You may have to have a private talk with someone higher up about what happened. For both career reasons and your basic mental health, you can’t take the blame for the fact that there’s a mob of angry readers with pitchforks ready.
Know what the criteria for success are
Throughout this piece, I’ve been talking about “good writing,” but the only guidance I’ve given about what constitutes “good” is “something that doesn’t sound stupid.”
Beyond that general criterion, the specifics of what makes up “good” depends entirely on the commercial purposes for which you’re writing.
If you’re trying to generate leads, then “good” means “the piece generated some leads.”
If you’re writing for SEO reasons, then “good” means “it got lots of links in the right places.”
For growing a regular audience, “good” means “lots of new users read it and liked it, and they’ll be back.”
In other words, you’re not handing in a college essay, where some grad student is going to read it and give you a grade based on how they felt about various aspects of your argument and style. “Good” on the web is strictly about performance – does the piece do its job in the overall context of your employer’s content strategy. If it does, then no matter what’s in it or how it’s written, it is objectively good. If it does not do its job, then even if it’s the smartest thing since Infinite Jest, it’s objectively bad.
There are a few corollaries to this that are worth noting:
First, when editors and pre-readers say that something is “good,” that should mean “it is our estimation that this will perform well, but we don’t really know that for sure.” In other words, it’s impossible to know if something is good before it’s published and has had some time to perform (or not). You can know if the argument is coherent, or if the facts are straight, or if it sounds smart, but you cannot predict if it’s good on a functional level.
Second, if whoever is running your content strategy doesn’t have a list of success metrics and/or isn’t tracking those metrics to check how your work is doing, then the definition of “good” changes to “the person who’s responsible for content at my company liked my piece, and it made them happy, which means good things for my continued employment. It also means they’re going to get off my back for a bit so I can go back to my real job.”
I’ve painted a grim picture of writing for the web, and by and large, it is thankless and soul-killing if it’s your full-time job, but it can be great if it’s something you only need to do every now and then. Indeed, the risk/reward ratio for intermittent web writing is actually pretty decent: putting out a steady stream of unremarkable content with a few stinkers thrown in now and again isn’t fatal, whereas the recognition you get when a single well-done piece goes viral can be a huge rush and can do wonders for your personal brand. So buck up, and keep writing, and don’t let the commenters grind you down.