Writers’ Workshop: Exercise Three


Buried in this article you will find some good advice. Please rewrite it so that others may see it.

1) Please ruthlessly excise the bad advice, clichés, jargon, flab, self-pity, vulgarity, arrogance, and self-involvement.

2) Please correct all errors of grammar and punctuation.

3) Please delete the boring parts. All of them.

4) Please write an entirely new first paragraph. (A good first paragraph encourages curiosity about the next paragraph.)

5) Condense the rest to no more than three paragraphs.


I do appreciate that the digital economy has broken down barriers, but for the love of prose, let’s please put those barriers back up.

Content writing has become one of those professions that people believe anyone can do, and so they do something else instead.

Oh, you mean like write some stuff out on a Google doc and get money for it? Yea, I’m a writer.

The most brilliant writers and clearest thinkers I personally know have gone on to become lawyers, web developers, and even doctors. They wouldn’t be caught dead as content writers.

That’s a shame, because writing and developing great content is an incredibly valuable profession — and it requires a unique sensibility that is just as difficult and worthwhile to pursue. It doesn’t come easy.

But I don’t think everyone sees it that way — I’ve come across hundreds of writers who think they’re qualified to opine on behalf of my company just because they speak English.

Content writing still suffers from a lack of prideskill, and craft.

How do we change that?

Mediocre content everywhere

As an editor, I’ve stayed up at night dealing with freelance writers who submit pieces like this:

You try your best to deliver great service to your customers, but the bigger your company gets, the easier it is to make mistakes, especially as our technology gets complicated. One simple mistake in a line your engineers’ code easily leads to negative experiences that can destroy relationships. Handle that situation wrong and you can lose even your most valuable and loyal customers. With social media it doesn’t take many loud complaints for your company’s otherwise sterling reputation will be gone.

So what can you do to quickly cool down a hot situation before it erupts into a disaster?

This tired introduction could have been written by an 8-year old or Thomas Friedman. A good content writer would know that this is too general, too boring and too full of poor phrasing for anyone to bother reading.

(BTW: If you don’t spot at least 3 things wrong with the above excerpt, you are not ready to call yourself a content writer.)

I dislike wasting my time with writers like this, because there’s so many more important things they could be doing with their writing. There are minds to change, groups to influence, and arguments to build. There are lists to build, ideas to promote and conversions to make. There are so many bigger things to be bothering with!

Content is a slow-burning persuasion machine. Content writers need to recognize how big their job is and step up to the plate. Content writing is the business of spinning stories, building strong logical arguments (especially in B2B) and influencing emotions and behavior.

It’s harder than it looks. Getting there is going to take a serious commitment to the craft. These are the 5 things I think every content writer should be trying like hell to improve every single day.

Non-Negotiable Standards for Content Writers

1.) Grammar and syntax.

These are the basic building blocks of the writing profession.

You need to know how to stop and kill your own run-on sentences, redundancies, awkward phrasing, and nonsense analogies. You can’t build a valuable piece of content with shoddy writing. (Ann Handley’s book,Everybody Writes is a handy resource on what you need to throw out of your vocabulary.)

2.) Storytelling or narrative ability.

No smart piece worth reading ever started with: “If you’ve ever run a business, you know that your bottom line is the most important thing.”

No crappy generalizations, please.

Good writers sniff out an angle and set a scene. They zoom in on compelling ideas and anecdotes and tie it all back to a useful purpose, usually a takeaway or call to action.

3.) Rhetoric and persuasive skills

No one has time for long, meandering, unstructured thought experiments.

Good writers write with purpose. Good writers know their rhetorical devices. Great writers know which ones to use to build up an argument, and great writers recognize that this paragraph employs an anaphora.

Sorry, you don’t get to leave this stuff behind with 10th grade. It’s all about the ethos, pathos and logos.

4.) Logical, structured communication

Good writers make use of bullet points, subheadings, bold text and visuals to focus the attention of their reader.

Crappy writers send me big blobs and inconsistent headings. Sometimes, they send me no headings at all.

5.) One hell of an instinct

This is what separates the good from the great: instinct.

Instinct is the ability to look at a piece and say: “This is incredibly boring.” It’s the ability to plant the right seeds in your readers’ minds, give them enough to chew on but not too much. It’s also the ability to know when to stop.

This is not teachable, but it is learnable. You get it by going out and reading everything you can get your hands on. It’s the only way to learn how to tell the good from the bad, and then apply it back to your own writing.

This is why it matters

You hit the payload when you master these skills. You establish an incredibly valuable set of skills that you can start doing incredible things with. You’ll be able to sway emotions, build urgency and trust and more importantly, relationships. The power will be yours, all yours.

In my opinion, being a truly great writer is one of the hardest jobs in the digital economy. There are no instructions, it’s completely subjective and seriously, there’s no telling what’s going to sail or sink.

So take control of what you can: honing these timeless skills you’ll be able to use anywhere, on any platform forever. Really great writing can start revolutions. No point wasting your time with mediocrity.

Indeed, no point wasting your time with mediocrity. That’s precisely why this piece, as written, is a waste of time.

So rewrite and polish this piece of dreck. Make it shine like frost in the moonlight.


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