No matter your profession, your level of education, or your income bracket, almost everyone has a story about a dreaded writing assignment or a fanatical teacher who bled red ink.
Our teachers were all well-intentioned and gave us some necessary tools for success, but in the process, many of us learned that there’s a right way and a wrong way to write and that more often than not, we were doing it wrong. In the new era of Internet marketing and social media buzz, writing well isn’t just a necessary evil to pass a class, it’s often the only way to reach short-attention-span consumers who have too many choices and too little time.
So, here are five lessons that the real world teaches us about how to write to engage our target market:
Lesson 1: Yes, you CAN!
Forget what anyone has ever told you before. If you can participate in a conversation, you can write. If you worry about your grammar, check what you know with these practice tests (GED and beyond) If you are passionate about what you do, you can write. If you can text or tweet or post on Facebook, you can write. If you can’t spell, aren’t sure about punctuation, and lack an impressive vocabulary, you can still write.
Writing is nothing more than capturing those ideas swirling in your head and transmitting them to paper. Writing is the process of creating, or reflecting, or explaining, or persuading. Writing is nothing more than talking – on paper.
Lesson 2: Who cares?
Nobody cares about what’s important to you. They care about what’s important to them. They don’t care about what you can do, they care about how you can make their life better, solve their problem, or make them feel smarter, cooler, or sexier because they chose you. It’s always all about them, period.
Knowing that, you need to write like you talk, and write directly to that ideal customer – the one that will spend the most money, tell the most people and become so loyal they’d never consider a competitor. Now, remember that the person has the potential to be that ideal customer, but what you share with them will either convert them into a raving fan, or turn them away.
What are they thinking? What would make their life easier? What’s their conversational style? How could you engage them, make their eyes light up, get them smiling and nodding? If you met them at a coffee shop, how would you present yourself and what you do so they’d want to keep talking with you? (hint: it’s not by bragging about how amazing you are, twisting their arm to hurry and buy, or asking for a referral). Once you picture how that conversation looks and feels, you’re ready to write.
Lesson 3: Make mistakes. Make lots and lots of mistakes!
Writing and editing are two completely separate processes, and can never function together. It’s like stomping on the accelerator and the brake at the same time. The result is annoying and smelly!
As hard as it’s going to be to dismiss, you have to ban your “editor” from your head. Give yourself permission to just expel everything you’re thinking onto the paper. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, or anything.
Just open the floodgates and let her rip. Go off on tangents. Repeat yourself. Throw out fragments and incomplete sentences and double negatives to your heart’s content. Just release those ideas imprisoned in that head of yours, and let them flow onto the paper. It really is fine. Honest.
Lesson 4: Step AWAY from the computer!
Once you’ve expunged all of these thoughts onto paper or computer, now what do you do? You walk away. You shut down the computer, put the draft in a drawer, switch over to Solitaire or whatever you have to do to completely cleanse your mental palate. You’ve got to let all of those words ferment for awhile, while you switch gears from writer to editor. Step away from the writing for at least 30 minutes, or even a couple of days.
Then, it’s time for the rewriting. Your editor is now on duty, and so you go back into that creative conglomeration of concepts and pull out the ideas that you think will work. Find the words and phrases that catch you off guard because they’re original or quirky. Focus on the diamonds, and then set everything else aside.
With those diamonds now in front of you, imagine that ideal customer again, and have a conversation with them that centers on the diamonds, consistently asking as you write: why will he care? And given that he’s only going to spend a minute or two reading this, how can I say what he wants to hear quickly and authentically so he feels connected?
Then, walk away again from this draft, and when you return, edit it one more time. Get rid of everything that isn’t essential, and find a way or a person to proofread it, because at this point, your credibility hinges on your mastery of the English language, and that includes spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
Lesson 5: Befriend a constructive critic.
We’re all way too attached to our own ideas and our own words, so we need a test market who will provide honest feedback. Share your message with someone like this and don’t provide a lot of background information. Have them read it, and then ask them questions like this:
What is this message trying to accomplish?
At whom does it seem to be directed?
What impression do you get about the company (or product or service) based on the tone of the message?
Are there any places where you stumbled and had to go back and reread a word or phrase? Where and why?
Were there any assumptions made about knowledge readers have that you don’t actually have about our company or our services?
If you encountered this content [explain where: on our website, in a brochure, etc.], what is the very next thing you’d do?
Do you have any suggestions to make it even more engaging or relevant?
Take the feedback, choose what makes sense to you, and make a few more tweaks. The result might not be an English teacher’s dream, but it will certainly be “right” for you and your message.
Once you’ve learned these five lessons, you’ll be amazed at how much more confident you’ll feel when you sit down to write. You may not enjoy the process any more than you did before, but you’ll no longer be haunted by those demanding English teachers of yore. Instead, you have to answer to your market who may be even tougher to please!