You read about it everywhere, see tons of online ads for writing jobs doing it, and it’s all the buzz of the online-marketing world. But what is content writing, anyway?
If you’re new to freelance writing, you may be baffled by all the talk about ‘content marketing.’
You hear there’s lots of opportunity for content writers, but you hesitate to pitch or apply for content writing jobs, because you’re not sure you know exactly what people mean. That makes you worry you could get a content writing assignment, and then you won’t be able to pull it off.
Well, good news: This post is your content-writing primer. You should be able to go out and get content writing gigs — and confidently complete them — once you’ve read this post.
More good news: Content writing is easy, enjoyable, and can pay great. It can also be a good source of regular, ongoing writing jobs. So it’s well worth learning about the world of content marketing, and where you fit into it as a freelance writer.
Ready to learn all about it? Great!
I’m going to pull this term apart — content marketing — and train you up on each piece. So we’ll talk about content creation first, and then about the marketing side. (P.S. this post contains NO affiliate links.)
Content writing and marketing 101
If you’re in a hurry, here’s the big picture: First, you write something for a client that provides information useful to its target clients — that’s content writing. This piece of content appears online. Then, that piece of info gets promoted to bring it the largest possible readership — that’s the content marketing part.
In some cases, people might need to give up their email address and ‘opt in’ to receive your content, thereby becoming possible sales leads for that company.
With luck, people read your piece of content. Getting free, useful info makes readers like and prefer your client, and more people buy from them.
If they succeed in using this non-salesy mode of attracting more customers, the business will often pay you to create more content, to get even more customers. The cycle begins again.
That’s content marketing.
To break it down in detail, let me walk you through the whole world of content writing and marketing. I’ll explain the lingo as I go.
What is ‘content’?
To begin at the very beginning, content is basically anything informational you see online.
Think of ‘content’ as another word for ‘information.’
That useful information could take the form of explainer videos — visual content.
Or a podcast — audio content.
There’s work in writing for both those kinds of content, but the vast majority of the content writing work out there is for writing text-based informational pieces. This is also known as ‘written content.’
What is not content?
Is anything not part of the world of content? Actually, yes.
All sales-focused writing — sales pages, marketing emails, video sales letters. These things don’t simply provide information. Their main job is to make a sale. These are considered marketing materials, rather than content.
Remember, content is information. (Usually, free information.) It enlightens, informs, teaches.
If there’s an overt effort to sell a product or service, that falls into the category of sales materials (or ‘marketing collateral,’ in agency-speak). Generally, they’re not referred to as ‘content.’
Why content marketing is hot
Simply put, people hate being sold in the 21st Century — ugh! So there’s a huge emphasis now on building reputation and customer loyalty by providing useful information, rather than by flat-out selling.
That useful content might have an ad banner at the bottom, or a link inside it to a sales page. But the piece itself focuses on providing useful information.
Think of a magazine article with beauty tips, surrounded by ads for lipstick and mascara. That article allows the magazine to create a good environment for its advertisers to make sales. (Sometimes, that piece even mentions one of those nearby products, no?)
In the same way, your online content writing may provide a venue for the business to win customers over to their brand, gain leads and make sales.
Customers prefer helpful info to being told what to buy, so informational content has become the biggest opportunity in writing online today. But sales materials still exist, and writers who specialize in them still earn well creating them.
If you hate selling and don’t want to write sales materials, content writing is your jam.
What is content writing?
Content writing is the act of creating all the useful written information companies use to inform, delight, impress, and bond with customers.
It’s a task fairly similar to writing an article for a newspaper or magazine. To create content, you gather facts, possibly conduct interviews, do research online or elsewhere. Then, you organize your materials into a logical, easily digested order.
Finally, you write your piece of content. You create it to conform to the style and format of the type of content you’re creating.
Popular types of content explained
Content can take any form a company likes — it could be a single paragraph, really. But the bulk of the content writing you’ll encounter as a freelance writer falls into roughly seven categories.
All these types of content share the same goals: To build the company’s position as the go-to info source in its industry that cares deeply about its customers — and ultimately, to help readers decide to buy more. (For a look at pay rates for these writing jobs, see my recent pay survey.)
1. Blog post
This one you probably know, since you’re reading a blog post right now. Blog posts can be long or short, though they’re trending longer, because Google is rewarding longer content with better rankings in its all-powerful search engine.
Blog posts range from 500-word shorties to 3,000 words and more. Some, like this one, include a ‘content download’ option. This is an opportunity to give up your email to get a permanent copy of the post or of more in-depth, related information. Writing longer-form posts and content downloads can be a lucrative writing job, because of how directly this content helps generate new leads for your client.
One of the most notable features about successful blog posts is that they are highly scannable, since many online readers are skimmers. Bullets, subheads, and images are all commonly used to break up the text.
It’s the nature of blogs to need fresh posts regularly, so blogging for clients is one of the most reliable ongoing writing jobs around.
Beyond posting for a client’s blog, there’s also plenty of work in guest posting for clients on popular blogs in their industry.
- For more tips and advice about blogging, go here.
These days, companies often publish articles on their websites to build authority — some even run online magazines. For instance, here’s a tasty-looking quarterly from consulting firm McKinsey.
There’s also big business in ghostwriting ‘thought leadership‘ articles for CEOs, CMOs, founders, philanthropists, college presidents and other bigwigs. These frequently appear on sites including HuffPo, Medium, LinkedIn and Forbes, as well as in print publications such as local journals of commerce, business journals, and industry trade magazines.
Writing articles for businesses is a terrific opportunity for trained journalists to use their skills and earn more.
- Learn more about writing articles here.
3. Checklists, worksheets, quizzes, resource lists and templates
These popular resources are often just 1-2 pages, but they’re highly valuable content. For instance, if you subscribe to this blog (and you should), you might get a list of free resources for finding good clients, a quiz to assess your freelance-writing aptitude, or a set of templates for pitching clients, depending on where you’re at in your freelance journey.
Content-writing customers love these short pieces of content because they’re both relatively low-cost to create, and highly popular with readers. Who doesn’t want to grab a quick checklist or set of templates to help them with a key task? These items tend to help drive high signups and generate nice, fat lead lists.
4. Special report
A special report examines an issue in-depth, and usually provides valuable resources to the reader. Unlike a blog post, special reports have more leeway to consider various issues.
Along with the checklists and such noted above, special reports are another common type of opt-in product for blog subscribers. Length could be short or long, 3 pages or 100.
For instance, here’s a 19-page special report I wrote a while back on how to get money for your small business. Its job was to get subscribers for a small-business lending company’s blog.
Typically, a special report delves into a topic that would be of high interest to your client’s target customer. Often, the information will lead them to learn more about the company’s solution or to see how it’s the best option.
For instance, in my special report, readers learned the drawbacks of many types of lending small-business loans. Then, they learned about the advantages of using my client’s borrowing method, which was unsecured small-business lines of credit.
- Learn more about writing special reports here.
5. Case study
Case studies are another short, 1-2 page content piece that packs a big punch. A case study tells the story of one happy customer and how they’ve used your client’s product or service.
It’s often a single-interview story, though you might also interview the company contact the customer worked with or other stakeholders. It reads like a magazine article, but has an agenda: To impress the reader that your client’s solution is the best one, so they’ll buy.
Case studies have a strong track record of accomplishing that goal, and most companies that sell anything expensive or complex — especially to businesses — rely on case studies to help them get sales.
A good case study follows the entire customer journey, from when they first started considering options. Key points usually include:
- Why this solution was chosen above others
- How customer implemented the solution
- What the solution helped them accomplish
- How problems encountered along the way got resolved
- Whether they would buy it again in hindsight
- If they plan to make additional purchases
If you love storytelling, case studies are for you.
- You’ll find more info, resources, and examples about writing case studies here.
6. White paper
White papers go in-depth on an industry issue (they’re called ‘white papers’ because long ago, they lacked graphics and were simply all text.) A white paper might delve into an emerging industry issue or technology, discuss a recent controversy, or compare solutions (usually leading to the conclusion that the company’s is best).
The goal is to help a company establish a reputation as the leader in the industry — and ultimately, lead prospects to hire or buy from your client.
Back in the day, a white paper might commonly be 10-50 pages long. In this era of short attention spans, many white papers are more in the 7-12 page range. White papers usually require multiple interviews and an ability to organize complex information.
Because of their in-depth nature, white papers are great lead-gathering tools. Many prospects are willing to give up their email address to get a free copy.
There are plentiful examples of white papers online, if you’d like to learn more about this lucrative content-writing format. Google ‘best white paper examples’ + the industry you write about, and enjoy.
- Want to learn more about writing white papers and how to find clients? Start here.
7. Books and e-books
When a company or CEO gets dead-serious about building their authority, they commission a ghostwritten book or e-book. Print books give experts something to sell after public speeches or presentations, give them the cachet of being an ‘author,’ and could even hit the bestseller lists and dramatically raise their profile.
These are often interview-heavy projects, so if you love talking to people, you’ll enjoy writing e-books and books. These projects also should pay in the four- to five-figure range (so don’t do them for $100 or some other outrageous pittance).
While some e-books you find online are almost ludicrously short and sort of an insult to the word ‘book,’ longer and more informative e-books are a proven tool to capture emails.
For instance, here’s a 100-page e-book I wrote for a division of Shopify, on crowdfunding for entrepreneurs. They crank these e-books out on a regular basis, hoping to get more business owners to check out their online purchasing solutions. You can imagine the customer loyalty that’s built by regularly offering 100 pages of free, useful info.
If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of writing a book or e-book for a client, just think of each chapter as a long blog post. You string a group of those together, and boom: You’ve got a book or e-book.
- Ready to write and publish an e-book or go the traditional route with a publisher? Here’s what you need to know.
When clients are confused
One reason content writing can be confusing is that many marketers toss around the project descriptions above without knowing what they mean.
They’ll tell you they want a ‘white paper,’ but it’s 3 pages long, and more like an ad for one of their products. For instance.
If this happens to you, you’ve got two options: Explain what that form of content writing really is, and figure out what type of content they really want. OR: If they’re pricing it like a white paper but it’s really something that would pay less, just play along. <wink>
Content writing that isn’t marketed
While all the types of content described above are proven content marketing tools, there’s one popular type of content writing that doesn’t see a lot of marketing action: Informational, static web pages.
If you love explaining things simply and clearly, don’t overlook this opportunity. Static web content tends to be low-glamour, but there’s a lot of work in this niche.
Types of pages include ‘About’ pages, team bios, product and service descriptions, user guides, and more. At one point, I earned $1 a word writing dozens of 100-word definitions of legal issues, for a startup attorney-finding portal.
Large companies with complex products or services may have hundreds of pages of informational content on their website. Creating or updating them can pay well.
While these pages don’t get much active promotion, they wait at the end of the road of other content marketing that brings leads to a company website. Once on the company site, clients read info pages to learn more.
In this way, these content pages help close sales. Smart companies understand the key role info pages play, and pay well for strong, clear web writing.
7 Simple rules of content writing
Now that you’ve had an overview of all the opportunity in content marketing, you’re probably wondering how to be a successful content writer. Here are some basic tips for good content writing:
1. Understand the goal.
Before you start writing, be sure you know why this content is being commissioned. What are we hoping to accomplish? Knowing the goal will help you develop topic ideas and written content that’s spot-on, instead of just lukewarm.
2. Focus on a single topic.
It’s not a book about 11 things. The blog post doesn’t wander through 3 topics. That case study is about one customer. Good content is always tightly focused.
Prune off all side trails, no matter how fascinating you think they are. Think of them as possible topics for additional content pieces.
3. Present fresh information or insights.
Recycling a few things you quickly researched online and spinning up a new piece of content out of them was a viable strategy — about 15 years ago. It’s not anymore.
To keep your content writing clients, you’ll need to develop unique content. How you do that may vary, but might include:
- Use or create fresh data
- Analyze existing data in a new way
- Interview experts or company executives
- Read a new book on the topic
- Bring together facts that haven’t been put together before
- Curate information into a more valuable roundup
You get the idea. Somehow, some way, your piece of content is different than the 100 million other pieces of content online about this topic. It contains some new insights. If it doesn’t, your client doesn’t stand out and build authority — and that’s why they hired you to write content.
4. Headlines are everything.
Seriously, 80% of the success of your piece relies on the headline you choose. If the headline doesn’t fascinate, nobody clicks and reads, no authority is built, and soon, your writing job ends. Learn to write great headlines — it’s important.
5. Deliver on promises.
While you’re writing those headlines, remember not to lie. Writing stupid clickbait just to get people onto your content page will backfire and hurt your client’s credibility. Whatever you say you’ve got in the headline, it needs to be delivered in the written content.
6. It’s not journalism.
The rules of reporting don’t apply in content marketing. Quotes can be rewritten (as long as the source is OK with it), key facts omitted, only one point of view presented. We’re not writing in service of the public good here or strictly following grammar rules. We’re creating low-key marketing pieces for a company.
7. Keywords matter.
Every piece of content online is supposed to help your client attract more customers. So it’s important to use keywords in your content that those customers would likely use if they needed your client’s thing.
Some companies will tell you the keywords they want, while others will ask you to research good keyword phrases. If you’re new to using keywords, this post can help.
Tone and style in content writing
Now that I’ve got you all excited about content writing, you may be wondering how to write well in this vein. Glad you asked! Good written content generally follows a few basic rules:
Though our mode is informational, all of the content mentioned above is secretly a sales tool. That means grammar rules don’t necessarily apply. Sentences can be fragments. Yes. They. Can.
It also means short and punchy wins every time over long and blathery. If you notice your sentence is rambling on for 3-4 lines, it’s time to chop it in two.
Paragraphs are short.
It’s hard to parse long paragraphs online. Two to three sentences is a good online paragraph, and single-line paragraphs definitely work, too.
Increasingly, it’s casual Friday every day, in business writing. Write like people talk, and you’ll get more readers and more writing clients.
Scannability is important.
Keep breaking up what you write and make it easy to skim through. Many readers will absorb the info without reading every line.
Study company materials.
The secret to repeat business in content writing is creating pieces that fit seamlessly into your client’s existing marketing materials.
The role of content writing
Now that you have a rundown of what content is, you may be wondering: Why create all this stuff? How, exactly, does it get out in the marketplace and help companies make sales?
Think of it like this: You are a craftsman, and you have forged a nail.
Now, the nail is sitting on the shelf. It’s a good, strong nail — better than junky 2-penny nails. But to fulfill its purpose and share its strength with the world, it needs help.
It needs a hammer.
Marketing is your content’s hammer, the thing that pushes it out into the world to get read.
Now that you understand the fundamentals of content writing, let’s look at the key second half of this process. Marketing is what makes your content successful, and makes clients keep paying you to write content.
Content marketing made simple
Boggled by content marketing? Simply put, content marketing is the process of taking a piece of content and actively promoting it, in hopes of finding a bigger audience for it.
Sure, if your client just left your content sitting on their site, some people would likely find it. But the idea is to get a LOT of people to find it, and soon. That’s where marketing comes in, spinning that wheel faster to get more results with your content.
Once clients have paid for a piece of content writing, they want to get all the mileage out of it they can. Marketing gets the content more readers, and sends the company more opt-ins, and ultimately, sales.
If you feel squeamish about marketing — perhaps because you’ve never done it — try to embrace it, as a content writer.
You want your content projects to be successful so your contract gets renewed, and that takes marketing. And you like to be read, right?
Also, content marketing can be another earning opportunity, writing some of the marketing-side promos. When you move from being ‘just a blogger’ to more of a content marketer, pay will improve.
How does content marketing happen? Let me count the ways…
7 Ways to do content marketing
There are many possible methods for marketing your content. Popular modes of content marketing include:
1. Social media
Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and the like are hands-down the most popular way to promote a piece of content. That’s because it’s quick, free, and your audience helps you do it, especially if you have easy social-share buttons near your content.
A subset of social-media marketing involves marketing automation, where you can pre-program a set of tweets, Facebook status updates and such to go out for weeks or months to come. There are many tools for this, but around here we use Missinglettr and Hootsuite.
2. Guest posting
A guest post on a popular blog provides a chance to link to your piece of content writing in the tagline or bio. It also gives you another site that will help promote that post, and send leads to your content.
Smart blog marketers have many blog-marketing friends, who can be tapped to share out your guest post and help you get traffic. You return the favor when they put out a guest post.
3. Email marketing
Your client may email their list with a link to your piece, to help build loyalty and help move prospects along the road to buying. Your piece may also be a freebie given out in the course of an email marketing funnel that’s trying to educate prospects and get them to buy.
In any case, someone’s got to write those emails — and since you already know exactly what’s in the content piece, it’s an easy sale to become the person who also writes the marketing emails.
4. Video marketing
Your client may create a free Webinar, or video and offer your content as a freebie download link. They may need a landing page written that promotes that Webinar, or even a script for that Webinar, which could be breaking down the very same info in your content piece. So you’re a natural to write it!
5. Podcast/broadcast guest
Company exec appears on a podcast (or in rare cases, streaming-channel or network TV shows) and offers your piece of content as a freebie to the listening/viewing audience.
If you think podcasts aren’t scripted, you’d be wrong. Guests often submit questions they want to be asked, and have talking points or a fully fleshed-out script ready with answers. Yet another writing opportunity you could bundle into the package with your content.
Creating shareable GIFs, memes, infographics and such catch viewers’ eyes and encourage them to share your content more, on a variety of platforms.
7. Public speaking
A bigwig at your client company may give live presentations, TED Talks or speeches that feature your book for sale in the back of the room. If they post that online, a link to where to buy your book or e-book may appear.
Many entire books have been written about best practices for executing each of these types of content marketing. When it comes to social-media marketing, those winning strategies seem to change almost weekly — so read widely to stay on top of trends (I can recommend Social Media Examiner).
Start studying how sites and companies you admire are doing content marketing, particularly in a way you’d like to do as a freelance writer. For instance, if you’re interested in writing marketing emails, subscribe to the email newsletters of a few sites you admire. Read and learn.
Writing the marketing — or not
As I’ve detailed above, there are writing needs tied to many of these forms of content marketing. You could earn more if you both write a case study and the email marketing sequence that promote it, or the Facebook posts, or the Webinar script.
You can be just a content writer, and stay focused on the info-content creation part of this. I spent many years just turning in my blog posts or special reports and saying, “Mmmkay, bye!”
But you can earn more by positioning yourself as someone more valuable: A writer who understands both content creation and its marketing.
The next phase: content strategy
Once you do some successful content creation and content marketing, something else is likely to happen: You’ll start to have opinions about how it should be done.
Put more bluntly: You’ll notice ways your client is sucking at content marketing.
Around the time this happens, you’re ready to move to the next phase of your life as a content writer: Promoting yourself as a content strategist.
A content strategist shares those marketing opinions, and gets involved in planning content creation and marketing.
You become the person who has the over-arching vision of what the company is trying to accomplish with their content marketing. You lay a plan for how to reach those goals, week by week.
Want to learn how to become a better-paid content strategist? Subscribe to this blog — I’ve got a followup post planned that will break down how to get into this lucrative field.
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Are you a content writer? Share your experience in the comments.