english culture essay

6 Ways Your Writing Really Stinks


yourwritingsucksSo, you think you want to be a writer, huh?

Many people think blogging for money online is a dream career. Freelancing is easy, right? You just need an internet connection and a keyboard to strike pay dirt! Churn out content in your pajamas and enjoy the good life. (Honest confession: I am guilty of working in pajamas some days.)

And yet, freelance writers experience burnout in droves. Why?

The simple answer is this: working as a writer is tough work. Yes, there are plenty of perks and bonuses of working from home. I do love my job. And yet, I’d be lying to you if I said writing for money on the internet is a cakewalk.

From pitching to invoicing, my day is spent performing a myriad of challenging tasks. Some things I’m really comfortable doing and other things need some work, but fortunately, I’m a halfway decent writer. You’d think this would come with the territory, but I’m constantly surprised by how many frankly awful writers try to make a living writing for the web.

As we prepare to head in to 2016, use the following list of bonehead freelance writing mistakes to identify potential areas of improvement for your writing.

You Haven’t Mastered English 101

Listen, I’m not asking you to be the next Shakespeare. In fact, Shakespeare might have been an awful web writer, with his flowery prose and fondness for complicated metaphors. What you do need, however, is a basic understanding of how English works.

How can you expect a client to pay you well for work that reads like a sixth grade homework assignment?

How can you expect a client to pay you well for work that reads like a sixth grade homework assignment? Sloppy verb tenses, made-up words, and run-on sentences are but a few of the egregious errors I’ve encountered reading the work of fellow freelancers. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time—heck, I made a big one earlier today, on a public blog comment I couldn’t edit after the fact! Doh! I’m not talking about mistakes, unfortunately, but rather fundamental misunderstandings of the workings of the English language.

There’s a really simple remedy for this problem: get better! Develop a voracious appetite for reading, and spend time immersing yourself in the work of successful writers. Write until your blue in the face, and ask people you respect to provide feedback. Invest in some great courses. Use your imagination, people.

Most of all, stay open to criticism. Nobody likes to receive negative input from others, but as the proverb goes, iron sharpens iron.

You Don’t Understand Your Subject

Choosing a narrow freelance writing niche is a beautiful thing. Great writers focus on covering topics they understand inside and out. Let’s face it, nobody wants to read content that feels like it was written by an amateur.

I remember applying for a freelance position once, only to receive a really painful response to my query. Not only did the client admonish me for submitting a piece with “points [that weren’t] factual,” but he also added this joyous tidbit at the end of his message:

“I need someone who can research carefully his thoughts before publishing and I don’t feel you did on that particular piece. For this reason, I’ll pass [on your work.]”

Okay, truthfully it hurt even searching for this email in my archives!

If I’m being completely honest, however, this client was right. I really didn’t have any business writing on the subject in question. I’d seen an ad and thought, “I can probably swing that.” Big mistake. Become an expert writer by honing in on the subjects you clearly understand.

Remember, you’re competing with high-level writers, every single day. Earlier this year, I helped a client screen some resumes for a junior copywriting position that was paying a measly $15 an hour. One of the applications received was from a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, easily one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions for writers. If you want to compete with a Columbia grad, you better know your stuff.

Your Writing Has No Depth

Content experts regularly debate the merits of deep content, an umbrella term for web posts that go beyond the standard 500 or 600 words. Copyblogger covered the subject in great detail here, with a thoughtful piece exploring the pros and cons of “wide” and “deep” content.

Regardless of which approach you take as you write, you don’t want to simply rehash tired themes again and again. Whether you’re writing for your own blog or a client, focus on feeding readers meat, as opposed to fluff. Provide actionable content that will keep readers coming back for more. Take the time to research your topics, and supplement your writing with resources from trusted sources.

Your Content Doesn’t Convert Well

Landing a longterm writing contract is an impressive feat for any freelancer, but clients aren’t paying you to write cutesy posts. You’re providing a business service, meaning your writing should deliver value for your customer. If your content falls flat, you likely won’t enjoy a long working relationship.

I wrote recently on how to raise your freelance rates, and I recommended providing hard numbers for your clients. The simple fact of the matter is this: your writing should be generating measurable results. Whether you’re focused on driving traffic, increasing engagement, or generating leads, your content needs to serve a purpose.

Web copy is a foreign beast that puts the fear of God in even the most talented of writers. There are so many resources you can use to improve your craft, but I’ve listed a few below as a mini crash course:

  • How You Can Write High Converting Copy… Without Actually Writing
    This post on Unbounce was written by Joanna Wiebe, the founder of Copy Hackers and a veritable guru for modern copywriters. It offers a precursory look at what makes content convert well. I’d also recommend the full array of courses available from Copy Hackers. These are extremely in-depth guides that will really stretch your skills.
  • 6 Proven Tactics for Writing Blog Posts that Convert Traffic to Leads
    This nifty post from Outbrain offers six easy-to-follow tips for writing content that will hook readers and generate leads.
  • 11 Ways to Convert Blog Readers Into Customers
    Sujan Patel, another incredibly talented copywriter and conversion expert, wrote this piece for the Content Marketing Institute blog. In this post, he provides keys any freelance writer can use to better optimize their content.
  • Kopywriting Kourse
    Kopywriting Kourse is a resource developed by Neville Medhora. I’ll be the first to admit, his style doesn’t resonate with everybody. I took his video course last year and found it a little abrasive, but the guy knows his stuff. If you’re writing for a millennial audience, I’d particularly recommend following him. The link I’ve provided is a full list of awesome copywriting tools he recommends, including the aforementioned video course.

Don’t treat mastering copy conversion as a one-off deal. Instead, continually educate yourself and strive to learn as much as you can about writing great copy for the web.

You Don’t Understand SEO

Oh, you thought conversion optimization and SEO were the same thing? How adorable of you 😀

SEO, or search engine optimization, refers to the techniques content creators use to boost their site’s search traffic. The ever-evolving nature of search engine algorithms has continually challenged how writers create content for the web. Having said that, there are certain fundamentals that remain essential for any budding freelance writer.

From keywords to headlines, writing great web content extends far beyond crafting coherent sentences. Nobody expects you to be an SEO genie, but you do need to possess an elementary understanding of how things work. If concepts like meta descriptions, long-tail keywords, and click-through rates leave you scratching your head, spend some time familiarizing yourself with search engine optimization.

There are so many great blogs you can use to stay current on the latest trends in SEO, including the following: MozSearch Engine Land, Kissmetrics, HubSpot, Search Engine Watch, Yoast. This list is by no means comprehensive, but these blogs offer a good place to start.

(By the way, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by the idea of keeping up with all of these blogs, consider using a service like Feedly to simplify things. It’s a news aggregator that compiles all of the latest updates from your favorite blogs every morning. Oh, and did I mention it’s free?)

You Don’t Promote Your Work

Clicking the “Publish” button does little more than send your work out into the ether. It’s your responsibility to spend time promoting that work, maximizing your post’s reach and connecting with the widest audience possible.

A very small portion of your followers see the updates you publish at any given time. In the time I’ve spent writing this blog post, Twitter tells me I’ve missed 177 updates, and I don’t even follow all that many people! Sending out a single tweet regarding my latest blog post would be a disservice to the time I invested writing this thing. Instead, I’ve gotta promote the heck out of it.

Check out this post on doubling your social media traffic to learn how to promote the right way. You need to understand your audience, craft unique messages time and again, and monitor your results to better understand how social media marketing works.

Remember, the same principle rings true for the work you complete for clients. If you’re working with established publications and larger businesses, social media promotion likely falls under someone else’s responsibilities. Small businesses and startups, on the other hand, may need help getting their feet wet. If you’re feeling up to the challenge, offering social media marketing as part of your freelancing package can be a great way to boost your revenue.

Phew, that was a mammoth post! I hope you’ve found it helpful in your quest to become a better freelance writer. What are the hallmarks of a great freelance writer, in your opinion? Are there any glaring “DON’Ts” you’d like to share with the class?

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