The tech world is currently undervaluing an absolutely crucial skill: writing. As a result, your average content writing sample is kind of a snore.
Most B2B tech jobs involve some form of writing. Content marketing roles obviously require mad writing skills, but so do emails, presentations, PowerPoints, messaging, etc. And yet, our industry tends to neglect the key ingredients for good writing.
Writing-heavy jobs are even monetarily undervalued. (To be fair, that’s not unique to the tech industry.) According to PayScale, marketing assistants in the U.S. earn an average salary of $35,880 a year and marketing managers earn an average salary of $62,128 a year. Until you hit the director level, you’re unlikely to be pulling in a lot of dough, and even then, your earning potential is highly dependent on your company.
It may be falsely considered a soft skill, but don’t make your writing soft.
Writing is powerful. Or did I mistake the importance of the Declaration of Independence, Letter From a Birmingham Jail, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Hunger Games craze, the Harry Potter global phenomenon, etc.? Gone wrong, writing can have potentially dire consequences, as with this awful example and the rest of that particular Twitter account. Or Mein Kampf.
My point here is that words have power. Use them wisely. And don’t waste them.
There are far too many marketing fluff pieces filled with indecipherable buzzwords and no discernable meaning. Out-of-the-box is now in the box. With the lid closed. Don’t pretend like your work day isn’t filled with sentences like these: “Going forward, it’s time to act with value-added face time and monetize our team enterprise.” That came from the Wall Street Journal’s Business Buzzwords Generator. Uncanny, isn’t it?
Everybody, let’s strive to write better than a bot.
Dredge up some passion. Make it worth the read. Sharpen the blade of your metaphorical pen and make every word count. Here are some suggestions for anyone writing anything in the tech world.
If you have a point, make it.
Don’t subject your audience to stream-of-consciousness business blogging.
You need a thesis. You do.
Ask yourself, is the point of what you’re writing to demonstrate that you know some jargon and are up on the trendiest marketing buzzwords? Or is it that you have something important to say about the B2B tech world? Hopefully, it’s the latter.
Lead with the point you’re trying to make. Open with your controversial claim, your revelatory insight, your unique observation.
Spend the rest of the piece supporting that point. You’ll probably even get to draw some jargon in, except, this time, it will mean something.
Stream-of-consciousness writing works if you’re Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, but I suspect that drug-fueled journeys to find oneself probably aren’t what most people seek out business blogs for. You’re at work. Your office-life musings just don’t work in the gonzo genre. Remember where you are, and set the appropriate tone for your message. Your business readers want your expertise, not your disconnected musings.
- Have a point. Put it in your thesis.
- Give arguments to back up that point.
- Get to the point in a timely fashion. Don’t derail your piece by following tangents unrelated to your thesis.
- Let your readers know why the point you’re making matters. What should they do with this new insight that you have so kindly bestowed upon them?
Start a fire.
The typical content writing sample should not put you to sleep.
Your passion, or lack thereof, shows in your writing.
If it’s boring to write it, it’s boring to read it.
Content marketers especially, if the topic of your piece bores you, don’t write it. Find something you care about in the business to write about.
Here at Cascade Insights, we just killed my content baby. It was the first series that felt like it was semi-mine at this job. At first, we had fun making it, even though it took a lot of effort to produce. Then, that effort became tedious and we weren’t having fun with it anymore. Engagement statistics reflected that a reader or two may have noticed. You can’t fake fun. So, we killed it. It was a crime of lack-of-passion.
No remorse though. Now we have more time to focus on pieces we are really enthused about. My boss just schooled B2B tech for getting sales all wrong. We have a devious scheme to reinvent the case study with a social justice flair. With projects as cool as these, I’m actually quite excited to sit in front of a computer to write for hours on end each day. Generally, I assume, that’s how most companies would prefer their writers to feel.
Use fewer words.
Don’t send the reader on a wild goose chase looking for your point.
You all work in B2B tech. You’re smart. That has already been firmly established. Don’t feel like you need to prove your massive IQ every time you write a thing.
This common but ill-advised pursuit often leads to a plethora of excessively verbose verbiage in which the essence of the composition, the raison d’être of the text, if you will, drowns in the depths of a word sea as deep as the Mariana Trench. (Don’t do this.)
Too many words and your point gets lost.
Back when I was a reporter, the best writing lesson I learned was to say what I meant in as few words as possible. As a writer, this principle forces you to:
- Know exactly what you’re trying to say.
- Carefully select words to communicate clearly.
- Keep the reader from getting sidetracked with excessive gobbledygook.
I get it, tech is complicated. B2B is complicated. Writing crisp, catchy sentences about complex business issues isn’t easy.
How do you enthrall while writing about a new processor? How do you keep it short and sweet when explaining a network load balancing service without ditching any relevant detail?
It’s hard, yes, but worth the effort. No one likes reading a page-long sentence packed with obscure references, asides, and unnecessary qualifiers.
The point you’re trying to make should be effortlessly easy for your reader to grasp.
Otherwise, you’ll fall into the TL;DR trap, or just the “didn’t read” one.
You’re most convincing as yourself.
As we’ve just covered, trying to sound smart often leads to being ridiculously wordy. Similarly, trying to be funny appears awkward and forced. Trying to look cool comes off as pretentious.
Write with your natural voice. If you’re naturally smart, funny, or cool, it will come through. If you’re not, that’s okay too. There are less sung qualities that make for equally good reading. I promise you, there is something worthwhile in your unique voice. Maybe you make excellent observations and can find patterns other people wouldn’t normally see. Perhaps you’ve been in the industry for decades and can bring valuable context to the table.
You have a natural voice no matter what. Own it. It’s the only way to sound like you mean what you’re saying.
Destroy your crutch word.
You know you have one.
If you spend a lot of time writing and editing, you probably have a fall back word that you use frequently for tone or transitions. It’s a little busy-body of a bad habit that inserts itself into all the paragraphs where it has no business being.
Many people get annoyed with us millennials throwing “like” all over our speech. Check your writing for a similarly obnoxious repetition, you probably have one.
Right now, my crutch word is “obviously.” I have to do an “obviously” check for every piece we publish to make sure it’s not in there more than once or twice. My boss likes “frankly.”
In general, content marketing brethren, I think these are also crutches:
- Thinking outside-the-box.
Banish them from this realm. Avoid anything that shows up on the Business Buzzwords Generator.
Crutch words frequently appear disguised as pleasant transitions. I am here to tell you that you are better than “thus.” You are better than “hence.” (I’m still trying to convince myself that I’m better than “however.”)
These words are kind of a cop out. If you’re struggling to make a smooth transition to the next section of your piece, reread your thesis. Connect the new section back to the overall point of the piece.
The thesis is the great unifying purpose for why you’re writing at all. Let it be your literary north star.
Fight for a byline.
Credit where credit is due.
Entry-level marketers, demand a byline. Marketing supervisors, hand out bylines like candy.
Abolish Mad Men era relics of females ghostwriting for male superiors! (Sorry, my politics crept in. Because I’m writing about something I’m passionate about. See what I did there? Okay, off my soapbox.)
I promise you times a zillion that people are more likely to care about the quality of their work when it has their name on it.
Credit is a pretty good motivational factor too.
Stare at something long enough, and it will lose all meaning. That’s not the best brain space to produce riveting writing.
Taking the breaks you need will actually help you make your piece better. Sometimes you just need to go outside. Do something else. Have a non-productive chat with a co-worker. Get a sudden flash of inspiration while playing with your dog, dancing around your apartment, or driving to work the next day. That’s how creativity works. The muse isn’t at your beck and call. She’s there when there is room in your head for her.
Curiously, I’ve encountered several professionals who think sitting and staring at a problem is the “work ethic” thing to do. Beating yourself up for not solving the problem is just as unproductive as going for a walk or spending some time in line at the best taco truck in town.
Procrastination and creativity are friends. For more on this topic check out our review of Adam Grant’s “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” There is also a great NPR TED Radio Hour on the subject.
Of course, deadlines often remove the possibility of taking a break and coming back to the piece. Sometimes, sure, it’s just tough cookies and you gotta push through.
However, if it’s a big, important, or controversial piece, you have to ask, “What’s more important, deadline or quality?” Yeah, you and your boss may disagree on this question a time or two. On the other hand, I’m sure your boss doesn’t want to put false, incomplete, or embarrassing content out there for the world to mock. Using that angle may buy you some time.
Edit. Edit. Then Edit Some More.
Once is not enough.
Most successful writers I know assume their first draft will be terrible. They’re pretty zen about that too. A terrible first draft is the raw material for sculpting a great draft or even a masterpiece.
The way I see it, the point of a first draft is to get your ideas out on paper. Get em’ all out there so that you have something to work with. Think of it like potters’ clay before it becomes a bowl. It’s just a lump of gunky brown stuff at first.
So, for the first draft, just write it. Your next drafts are for molding, honing, and polishing.
This is often a great time to procrastinate. Editing is much more effective after a mental separation from your initial creation. You need fresh eyes. Your eyes can be fresh if you build breaks and time away from the piece into your editing process. It’s also great to have actually fresh eyes, as in another person or two, to give the piece a read as well.
Unfortunately, there will be times when you have to work on a deadline that is way too tight to afford ideal writing and editing conditions. The stranglehold of the ticking clock will probably squeeze out some quality, but you can still produce something good.
Remember that your writing will never be perfect, even in the best circumstances. At some point, you just have to declare it “done!” and move on. Sure, no matter when you submit, there is always going to be a little something you could have done to make it better. You just have to learn to recognize when it’s good enough.
For those blasted times when you are racing the clock to turn in a piece, I have a few suggestions for streamlining your process:
- Write the thesis you think you want.
- Get your terrible first draft done.
- Double, triple, super check that you have a fantastic thesis. Maybe it changed in the course of fleshing out the piece.
- Clarify your thesis if necessary.
- Editing Session 1: Make sure everything is relevant to your thesis. Anything not related or meaningful gets the chopping block.
- Editing Session 2: Read it out loud. This should give you a good clue for when you’ve become too wordy. Also, it will give you a sense of the flow of the piece. If you get lost in the middle of a sentence, rewrite it so the point is clear and easy to grasp.
- Editing Session 3: Scan for crutch words and bad transitions. Get rid of them. A thesaurus is your friend here.
If there’s time, I recommend taking a break somewhere in there and adding on a few more read-throughs. In a pinch, the three editing sessions above should suffice for a short piece, though more editing, especially after some time away from the piece, is ideal.
You’re Welcome, Readers.
Conclude With Confidence.
With your conclusion, convince your audience that they just got something valuable out of sticking with your piece through to the end. Their time was an investment. Remind them of what you’ve given them to make that investment worthwhile.
Rekindle your thesis. Demonstrate why your point matters to your reader. Let your reader come away feeling smarter, inspired, or like they just got a fantastic new set of tools. Give them something they can use, and they will be grateful to you. They’ll want to read more from you. They may even want to hire you. Writing can be just that powerful.
This blog is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Got a B2B tech sector question? We can help.