So, I was cruising the web the other day, as I am apt to do, and I came across this gem from Neil Gaiman’s blog. The TL;DR version goes something like this: he was asked to read the Cheesecake Factory’s menu for a highly publicized charity stunt. And that got me thinking, scratching my long luxurious lady-beard, and I wondered to myself: How would I feel if what they had chosen to read was something I had authored, even if it was ghosted. After all, I still hold a little piece of those word babies tight to my chest and feel responsible for them for their entire lives.
Then I thought “Well, Hell, that could be a blog topic!” So here we are. You are now officially caught up. Thanks for sticking with me.
How Does Your Content Read to Others?
As you probably know by now, I work with young writers from time to time, giving them whatever weak bits of advice I can come up with and generally acting like I actually know something. One of the most common roadblocks these young’ens have is a fear of not being good enough or of being out-written by the competition. I’m sure you’ve had this fear yourself at some point in your journey, or maybe you feel that way right now. I’d be a liar if I said I never felt that I wasn’t as good as other writers.
But you know what? If someone is paying you for writing on a consistent basis, you’re doing better than most. Even those keyword-driven content monkeys are doing a better job with the words than the vast majority of the public, else the Google would have blacklisted their sites long ago. And that, my friends, should bring you some level of comfort. However, resting on your laurels is what’ll get my big black boot right up your ass.
You can always be better.
What if Neil was reading YOUR infomercial, blog or product descriptions for charity? How would you feel? Would you shrink in shame because you phoned it the fuck in and didn’t bother to actually care?
Although I’m not exactly proud of all the work I’ve done, and I’ve worked for some clients that I felt were totally fucking awful slimeballs (ambulance chasers, for example), if Neil Gaiman were to read any of those pages, any of those pieces out loud, I’d take a front seat. I’d be like, “Them’s my words, motherfuckers, and Neil bloody Gaiman is reading them!” And then I’d pass out.
Improving Your Content, Improving Your Mindset
There are two kinds of writers in this world. Those that write with confidence that they’re doing all they can to produce top notch content and those who bang out random words in hopes of getting paid. You can easily tell the difference between the two. Writer #1 is crippled with self-doubt and reads blogs like this. Writer #2 has no fucks to give.
You’re reading this, so I assume you’re Writer #1. And if you’re Writer #2, maybe you sorely want to be Writer #1, so I’m giving you a pass just this once. Charity. Don’t get used to it.
That writer that’s wracked with guilt, that wishes they could do more, be more, learn more, get better and better, they’re the ones to watch. And there’s a reason for this. Not only are they meticulously checking their work for places it could be improved, they’re also spending time reading and learning, which tends to trickle down into a wider vocabulary and even better ways to turn a phrase. Tends to. I mean, you can’t get away with reading cereal boxes and learn anything, but I digress. This blog is built on generalization, after all.
If you’re already doing all that stuff — the reading and the learning — well, I mean, that’s about all there is out there. There’s no magic to good writing. You simply learn the words, you figure out how they fit together, while demystifying punctuation and developing a sense for how people read along. Metre is important, it’s so vital, but it’s something you pick up as you go.
So, if you’re struggling, if you’re wondering if you’re enough, and you think you’d be mortified if Neil Gaiman were to read your blog, you’ve probably alright. A lot of it comes with experience. You’ll learn when to hold them (keep working on a piece) and when to fold them (stop touching it and turn the motherfucker in). You’ll learn when to walk away, you’ll learn when to run (from bad clients? This metaphor isn’t holding up). Write, that’s the thing. Keep writing and keep caring.
Writing Readable Content is the Goal
There are lots of tips out there for writing clean and perfect content (it’s a fucking unicorn, stop chasing it), but there’s only one you really need. Read that shit out loud, motherfuckers. Read it to your cat, read it to your pet barracuda, read it to the stars, but read it. There’s only so much you can extrapolate about the flow of a thing by simply staring the words down. You need to hear them, bring them in through your earholes and savor each umlaut.
Listening to your content is the one and only way to ensure that others will read it as you intended it. Clear your mind and read that shit out loud. You can break the rules, you can put an m-dash where there should be a period, provided it all flows right in the reading. Look, I don’t know what your mother told you, but English is a language that should flow easily from the tongue, even if you’re reading a automotive parts catalog or a Cheesecake Factory menu.
I did a piece a while ago about writing by beats, and I still believe in this. I do this every single time I write. Do I need to write something super peppy and salesy? Crank the happy music. Am I writing a somber report of sadness? Slow and steady, man. Writing by beats is a quickie cheat to getting your metre right. I’m very pro-cheat, or “life hack,” as we now call this shit.
What I hope you take from this blog is that you are absolutely capable of writing better content than the marketers at the Cheesecake Factory. Your content can fucking sing if you’ll let it. Just keep writing, just keep writing, and don’t forget to crank the jams.
I’m counting on you. Make me proud.