8 Ways to excel as a content marketing writer

8 Ways to excel as a content marketing writer

Threading the needle of good content—the kind with meaningful, authoritative insight that’s fun to read and easy to remember—requires, among other things, a great writer: someone who manages to transform fleeting thoughts into fully-formed, utterly compelling think pieces or craft industry-specific articles that stand out from the competition, again and again. 

It’s tempting to believe that such dazzling wordsmiths must simply be unicorns, naturally talented creatives who spit perfect prose in their sleep. That might be true for some, but the writers with staying power know that quality content is the product of an unwavering process. Their secret is no secret: They operate on a set of shared principles, and they’ve built a process that works for them. They trust it, and they stick to it. Again and again. 

3 Pillars of the writing process

In the world of content marketing, we believe there are three pillars that support our work: goal-setting, research, and composition.

1. Goal-setting

Without well-defined target goals, content marketing is just a shout into the void. Whether you’re hoping to boost brand awareness or improve specific metrics like site traffic or social media engagement, knowing what you’re aiming for—and why—gives each piece a clear purpose and direction. Get clear about what you want to achieve with your content from the beginning, and let that be your north star.

Then, as you move through the writing process—and certainly when you wrap that first draft—return to your goals and consider if your draft takes clear aim at them.

2.  Research

Want high-quality articles? Start with high-quality research. It sounds simple, but surfacing relevant, accurate insights from a diverse collection of sources requires patience and a willingness to dig beyond the existing narrative. It’s an investment of both time and attention that generates something uniquely valuable to the reader.  

Most writers will start by Googling topics and reading high-ranking articles on the subject to create a baseline familiarity with the subject matter; great ones then use that expertise to uncover original and unexpected connections that support a point of view or contribute to a larger conversation. (Not to insert a dreaded cliché, but if there’s a box, this is the moment to map its edges so that you might think outside of it.) 

Push yourself to venture outside those bounds by bringing in information that’s inaccessible on the surface web, whether that’s by interviewing subject matter experts, consulting books or studies, or drawing from your own experience with the topic.

3. Composition 

Every writer has a go-to writing process. There are macro planners and micro managers, those writers who map the shape of a piece before writing a single word versus those who prefer to write and revise their way into a conclusion as they go. There are also note-takers and stream-of-consciousness spillers, subject matter experts and generalists, or, as Russian-British philosopher Isiah Berlin first termed them, hedgehogs and foxes

An awareness of how you like to work allows for more efficient time management. If you work primarily from an outline, filled with copious notes that simplify the actual writing process, you may find you can allocate more time to pre-writing; if you swear by the “vomit” draft, that no-holds-barred brain dump that many writers rely on to get into a rhythm, you’ll know to expect more structural work throughout the writing process.

8 Best practices for writers

To shed some light on how they create content that meets its goals and elucidates its audience, I spoke with two of Moonlight Editorial’s best: Charlotte Muzzi, a MFA-wielding poet and educator, and Sascha Bos, an eagle-eyed fact-checker and editor who’s worked for print publications like Vogue and digital platforms like MasterClass—two writers with distinct sensibilities who have both built their process around a handful of key principles.

An important distinction: There’s process, and there are practices. Process varies widely from writer to writer, but practices can be shared and adopted by anyone.

No matter who you are—a writer who wants to break into content marketing or an industry veteran hoping to hone your approach—or what you’re writing—articles, emails, or entire websites—these tips will help you perfect your unique process from outline to finished product.

1. Widen your aperture

Superficial research is easy, and it may be tempting to take the first page of a search engine’s results at face value. But with the imminent proliferation of AI content, it’s more important than ever to dig deeper than the digital topsoil. 

“The more different types of media you can consume, the more unique your piece will be,” says Bos, who keeps PDFs of books saved on her computer for easy reference alongside encyclopedias, scientific studies, newspaper articles, and interviews. “[Scientific papers] can be hard to read, but that’s a valuable thing to provide someone: being able to digest the information and give it back in a way that is more helpful.” 

“When I write my piece, I want it to have everything the [top articles] have, but better—and different,” she says. “If all your sources are from the first page of Google, you’re not going to be adding anything meaningful to the conversation. You need to go beyond that.”

2. Read widely in your off time

A bartender friend of mine once told me that he subscribed to as many different magazines as he could—and committed to reading each and every one of them—so that he might have something to talk about with every person who sat down in front of him.

An ambitious way to spend one’s time, to be sure, but the same impulse is common in exceptional writers. Consciously consuming vastly different perspectives and subject matter, on and off the proverbial clock, increases the chances you’ll find original, compelling connections in your own work. Maybe that’s back issues of Better Homes & Gardens and The Harvard Business Review or a diverse web of content that includes documentaries and podcasts. 

“I try to make sure I’m putting interesting language into my brain if I want to get interesting language out,” Muzzi says. “That means reading fiction, or criticism, something that is supposed to have a clear voice. That gives me a better chance of having a voice when I sit down to write.”

If you can keep your creative spirit, and then edit it, that’s going to give you the best piece in the long run.

3. Tap into your voice 

At the risk of sounding a little corny, one of the best things you can do for your process (and state of mind) is to…enjoy your own writing. Really: The more you can amplify the natural energy in your voice as you compose, the better your chances of engaging your reader. 

“If you can keep your creative spirit, and then edit it for the [intended channel], that’s going to give you the best piece in the long run,” says Bos. “You want humans to read your article, to like it, and to have a positive connection with your brand because of it.” To do that, she says, “you have to find a way to keep it fun for yourself.”

Muzzi agrees. “I just like to write. Finding those fun examples, writing an intro that helps folks understand a confusing subject, that is fun—and I can let myself have fun doing it.” Cutting loose where you can in the copy brings balance, especially in technical or instructional articles. “Examples are helpful, and there’s no reason that they need to be boring,” she adds. “I’ll try to look for places where I can get in…typically not beauty, but mirth.” (Here’s a Muzzi subject line gem for all the email marketers out there: “Two Pants, Too Furious: Linen Strikes Back.”)

4. Aim for usefulness

Both Bos and Muzzi derive motivation and focus from a central question: how is this helping somebody? This idea of usefulness, whether by helping someone acquire a new skill or illuminating an industry quirk, is often a distinct feature of great content marketing.  

If the reality of our media landscape is that we find information on Google and click on the first thing we see, then Bos says she wants the top spot to be something she can trust. “If I can share some nuance or offer a new perspective—that’s highly motivating to me,” she says. “In journalism, we’re obsessed with finding the truth. In SEO, I’m driven by this desire to create the top-ranking article because I know that mine is the one that’s correct. That’s the one I want people to find.”

5. Write the first draft quickly

The goal of a first draft is never perfection; expecting it is an excellent way to self-edit into oblivion and end up with nothing on the page. One of the best ways to combat this hesitation is speed. After the initial research period—or even before it, if you have some experience with the topic—do your best to empty everything banging around in your head into a fresh document. Forget formatting and metrics and outlines, and try to bring your instincts into focus. 

Seeing what comes out will provide a more organic sense of direction: What aspects of the topic are you naturally drawn to? Which bits confuse you (and would likely confuse the reader)? Trust that you and your reader have enough in common that your impulses here align.

6. Build balance into your workflow

Muzzi points out how easy it is to obsess as a writer (no one knows this better than a poet who can spend six months toiling over fourteen lines!) but giving your writing time to marinate, even for a few hours, can result in cleaner copy and a better grasp of the subject matter. 

After you’ve written the initial draft, take a step away. Sleep on it, take a walk around the block, snack pensively while staring out the window, whatever you need to do to come back with fresh eyes. Then, kill some darlings if you have the heart to do so, address any redundancies, and make sure the narrative makes logical sense. When you’re ready (read: when you can bear to show it to another human), hand it off to an editor or another trusted reader for a fresh perspective. 

7.  Write the introduction last

Article introductions hook readers in a number of ways (think original metaphors and little-known histories), and the introduction is a natural place to lean into a more engaging voice, which is more likely to get someone in the door.  

The beauty of writing the introduction last is that it leaves space for your own reflections and discovery throughout the writing process to unfold into genuine perspective. It allows you to address any preconceived notions you came with, and it prevents you from leading with assumptions you may or may not be able to back up. 

The style of introduction you choose is informed both by that overarching concept of usefulness and a company’s overall goals. While you don’t want to give away the salient points of an article before the audience has a chance to read it, shaping an introduction around a distinct point of view can help to establish you as an expert in the conversation, rather than just a participant. Conversely, opening with a question can make the reader feel like an equal, and make them more invested in the answer you’ve promised to uncover. An anecdote provides real-world context, an analogy makes the complex comprehensible. All useful, and—when written as the penultimate step before submission—authentic.  

8. Play to your strengths

Whether you consider yourself a generalist or a subject matter expert, you’re best off devoting your efforts to the subjects you care about.

“Being honest about the topics that are most exciting to you is the best way to get work that’s going to be exciting for you,” says Bos. “Let people know you can write about anything, but you also have a masters in art history, or whatever. I think it is worthwhile to share your special skills and your niche knowledge.”

Final thoughts

Like anything you’ll read on craft, the “how” and the “what” might vary wildly from writer to writer, but the “why” never does: the desire to create good content, better content than 99 percent of what’s already out there, content that adds to the body of work that people turn to when they want to feel better about the state of things, or the state of their own mind—that’s the shared trait at the heart of the best.  

We love connecting with writers who take pride in their craft and bring a unique sensibility to their work. We also love connecting with brands who value great writers. If you are either, drop us a line.

Cassandra Landry is a Bay Area writer with a soft spot for craft talks, passionate brand storytelling, and the em dash. Her work has appeared in Bon AppétitThe San Francisco Chronicle, and Publisher's Weekly.


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