November 3, 2015 | Emily Winsauer

The Best (and Worst) Writing Advice I've Ever Received

Like many marketers of my generation, I started as a journalist. When I went to work at the newspaper, I daydreamed of being like the savvy, sarcastic reporters in my favorite old movies (His Girl Friday is far and away the best), spitting pithy one-liners and swilling scotch.

The hard-boiled editor is an essential character in that fantasy, and mine was no disappointment (though also no Cary Grant). I learned a lot from him, but best of all was this piece of advice taped over his desk: "Writing is nothing to be ashamed of; just do it in private and wash your hands afterward."

 As a relatively naive 19-year-old, I was thrilled to find a dirty joke hanging where everyone could see it. After all these years, I still think it's funny, but I've found layers of good advice within it as well.

When I was younger, I was ashamed that I wanted to be a writer. Awed by the authors I loved—people like Wharton, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Harper Lee—I felt like I had no right to think of myself in their company. I hadn't learned yet that writing is like anything else: you may have the gift, but you only get good by working your ass off.

Writing is hard work, whether it's The Old Man and the Sea or a blog post targeting potential customers. Given the amount of cursing that comes from my desk when I'm struggling with a difficult assignment, it's also safe to say that it's best done in private. I think Kurt Vonnegut probably felt the same way, because he once said, "When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." I can relate.

My old editor isn't the only one handing out tips. Here are a few more pieces of writing advice that I've learned from over the years.

Advice You Should Follow

Write What'd You'd Like to Read
This is particularly important for content marketers, in my opinion. You're still writing for your buyer persona, but if you find your content boring, your readers will too. Find an interesting angle and communicate it in a way that connects with your ideal buyer.

Outline Everything
We're taught to outline in grade school, but it's the kind of thing most people stop doing as soon as no one's watching (like using turn signals).

I love outlines, though. I use them for nearly every piece of writing that I produce, including important emails. Structure is non-negotiable if you're aiming for quality. If you don't believe me, listen to Ernest Hemingway: "Prose is architecture, not interior decoration."

Tighten It Up
What quote do I have taped above my desk? This insight from William Strunk Jr.'s The Elements of Style:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

Enough said, right?

Advice You Should Actively Ignore

The Harbrace Is a Writer's Bible
Have you ever noticed how some people are proud of being "Grammar Nazis"? Cultural sensitivity issues aside, I have no problem with people who are obsessed with spelling and grammar. Mastery of both is essential to a career as a professional writer, but insistence on following archaic rules is stifling when the modes of communication are changing so rapidly. It's one of those "you have to know the rules to break them" situations, but I will say this: make sure you break them well. An astute reader can tell the difference between ignorance and stylistic choice.

People Are Dumb, So Write to a Fifth-Grade Level
Here's some tough love, guys. It's your own fault if people don't understand you.

The idea of writing for the lowest common denominator has no place in inbound marketing, because you're writing for someone specific: your ideal buyer. While you should use language your persona will understand and connect with, there's no need to talk down to them. In a way, blaming your audience is just lazy. If they "just won't get it," then you won't have to take the time to carefully research, write, and edit it in a way that connects with them, will you?

It Doesn't Matter What I Think; What Do You Think?
One of my creative writing professors said this to me when I came to him for feedback. I kept asking for his opinion, but he wouldn't budge. It was incredibly frustrating, and 10 years later, I still think I would have improved more if he had offered specifics.

There's a lot of terrible writing in the world. It's usually bad for the same set of reasons, which can be studied and discussed. Sure, you need to find your voice, but you also need to practice your craft. Neil Gaiman struck a good balance regarding other people's input when he wrote,

"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

I hope the lessons of my misspent youth as a journalist-turned-wannabe-novelist-turned-content-marketer help you create top-notch content for your business! And if, years from now, I end up on your own "bad advice" list...sorry.

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Emily Winsauer

Emily Winsauer

As VIEO's content director, Emily Winsauer was responsible for content strategy for VIEO and our clients for over 5 years. She recently moved to Seattle where she's still creating compelling content in her new role.

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