Can content marketing be artful?

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” – Thomas Mann

 

I was a writer before I was a content marketer, and I’ll continue to be writing long after I’m done doing content marketing. This might be naive of me, but I’d like to believe that it’s possible for all writing– including content marketing– to be artfully, tastefully done. I think Moz does a great job of this, as does Helpscout.

So why isn’t this the case more often? Is my own content artful? If I’m honest with myself, I think the answer is “Not Yet”. I think my team has come pretty close on multiple occasions, but we’ve also missed the mark a lot of times.

What’s the difference? Let’s run through a list of possible variables.

A: The fundamental elegance and purposefulness of the writing.

It takes substantial practice for a writer to develop a sense of rhythm. [1] A good writer loves words, and uses them better than others. For some killer examples, check out Robert Pirosh’s I like words, Richard Provost’s This sentence has five words and Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer.  [2]

B: Editorial judgement.

Beautiful writing is good to have, but it is by itself insufficient. Think of good writing as tactical excellence: having great soldiers who can fight well. You still need to direct them around. That’s strategic excellence. You can’t just know how to write, you need to know what to write.

If you’re good at this, you can get away with compromising a little on writing quality. So… what should you write? You should write things that solve problems for your readers, which brings us to…

C: Sensitivity to the context of the reader.

Getting better at this improves both A and B. Any good writer or editor, when tasked with creating content, will ask you who it’s for.  There’s a great quote by Peter Drucker: “The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

This is a never-ending project. The subtle distinction between C and B is– even after you know your customer well, you still have to execute on saying the right things, and B is all about the execution part. There’s things like “How to manage writers” that you have to worry about.

In the real world, some compromise is inevitable.

In the process of building out our content marketing machine, I think we’ve had to make the decision to compromise on all 3 fronts. That’s just a function of starting out with limited resources. We’ve had to teach ourselves to become better writers, better editors, and to become more sensitive to the context of our readers. So I’m not ashamed of that. [3]

But so the question I need to answer next is, what now? I have more resources, more know-how, better writing skills, better editorial ability and a better understanding of my reader’s context than ever before. If I was starting over NOW, what would I do?

That’s something I’ll have to think about privately and demonstrate through action.

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[1] Oftentimes she has to go through a frustrating process of  unlearn what she was taught in school.

[2] I’m not really a fan of White & Strunk’s Elements of Style. Too prescriptive.

[3] The only way to get all 3 right from the beginning is to start with a lot of talent and a huge mandate. That’s kinda costly and expensive, and probably still suboptimal. It makes more sense to refine along the way. Again, see Content should be modular. Also read about the ugly Apple I.

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