7 Unmissable Blogs for Writers and Marketers

The key to strong writing is plenty of reading. Plan to waste some time on the internets today? Make that time productive by checking out some blogs that’ll help you improve your craft.

Copyblogger

Copyblogger is THE go-to blog for copywriting tips, tricks and best practices. Rooted in WordPress, the company features a slew of different tools for content marketing. But the content on the blog features some of the best stuff for writers. It goes beyond copywriting to cover content marketing, blogging, SEO and general communications.

Content Marketing Institute

The brainchild of content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi, the Content Marketing Institute is one of the web’s premiere resources for up-to-date how-to content. Beyond knowing their craft, it’s important for writers to understand the vehicle they’re driving with their writing. CMI does exactly that. BONUS: You may see some of my own writing popping up here in the near future. Stay tuned.

Problogger

Everything you need to know about blogging, organized in one place. Copyblogger is an extremely popular resource for bloggers of all shapes and sizes. It’s all about visibility and making money at Copyblogger, where you’ll find tons of resources on how to do both effectively.

Cracked

Where to start with Cracked. If you need an intellectual, fact-based and hilarious break from work, Cracked never fails to deliver. It doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the resources on this list simply because it doesn’t offer tips for writers. I think it’s a strong study for writers looking for applicable examples of strong publishing on the web. It’s a great place to find some inspiration and get a good laugh.

Make a Living Writing

Carol Tice is a successful freelance writer who shares tons of great insights on freelancing through Make a Living Writing. Another great feature of this blog is her guest-blogging policy; submissions that get published earn $50 for their work. That’s a breath of fresh air in a world where your guest posts will get you squat.

Men with Pens

Men with Pens is a great resource for freelancers and copywriters alike. It contains similar material to blogs already mentioned on this list, but you’ll find a unique flair here.

The Rant

The Rant is entertaining writing laced with informative content. Not your typical writing blog, John Carlton’s personal vehicle for sharing insights is still a great place to learn from the best.

Why the Hell Are You Blogging?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? Seems like it should answer itself.

The unfortunate reality is that it doesn’t. So I ask again, why the hell are you blogging?

One of the toughest things to do in business (as in life) is to turn an introspective eye. You either understand your own goals and motivations or you don’t. And if you say, “Because everyone else is,” then maybe you should reconsider.

Who am I?

Not one single person in the history of business made a real name for herself by following the crowd. Justifying your actions based on groupthink is inexcusable. How often do we question our own motives?

Primarily, I’m writing this blog to establish my brand as a freelance copywriter, simplifying how I attract new clients. There are tons of secondary motives, including some that are slightly less narcissistic (emphasis on slightly). The main point is that I understand exactly why I’m doing this.

So why are you doing it? Maybe you’re using it to improve your organization’s credibility and visibility. In some cases, you may be trying to make money directly through advertisements.

Identifying your motives is the first step. Don’t forget: it’s also important to understand how your motives align with the goals of your audience.

Some Writers Take Advantage

The internet is rife with misinformation. It’s the era of pageview journalism. Publishers across the web are more concerned with making a quick buck than providing useful, timely and accurate information.

Which side are you on?

If you write for an organization, you’re competing for pageviews too. But you’re writing for a narrow audience. Some people need or want your product or service more than others, and that’s who you’re after. Because you’re looking to (perhaps) form a longer lasting business relationship, you and your audience both benefit from high-quality content.

Unfortunately, pageview journalism doesn’t work quite the same way. I’ve written about why it’s important to be wary of what you read online. Dissected, the reasons for this danger are pretty clear. Writers who make money through advertisements want to draw in any and every eyeball they can get. As a result, you get sensational headlines, coverage that doesn’t fit their format and poorly written or researched articles that no one should be reading.

I ask you again: what are your motives? Which side are you on?

Someone somewhere will read your blog. In my opinion, you have a responsibility to even that one reader to create accurate, helpful content.

It’s time to turn the mirror on ourselves. Figuring out your motives gives you a real opportunity to align them with your audience’s goals and desires.

Attributes of Killer Case Studies

A strong story is one of the best ways to sell your company, service or product. Also known as a “success story”, a case study is one of the simplest and most resonant techniques to build compelling storytelling content.

Case studies are 1-3 page stories of how one of your customers/clients found success with your product or service.

This type of content gives you an opportunity to showcase some lively, descriptive writing as part of your marketing collateral. You can also add SEO, promote the story with a press release, use it to pitch reporters, turn it into a webinar or sales deck and feature it in a brochure.

Why are case studies effective?

A good story draws people in, creates an emotional connection and entertains the reader. Of course, those are only three things a story is capable of. They’re crucial to the success of your marketing.

One of the most important things a case study can do for a marketing program is temporarily take the marketer to an outside perspective. Whenever I write a case study, I make it a priority to talk to the person the story is about, rather than the client the story is for. The interview and resulting copy offer a unique view into the benefits of your products or services.

Case studies:

  • Engage customers/clients with a compelling story
  • Inspire empathy from potential customers
  • Illustrate how others applied your products/services
  • Showcase endorsed validation that your product/service works.

Before you get started, consider the structure.

The typical case study format

Successful case studies vary in terms of how they approach the story. But the basic structure is the same. Even if you plan to create a sequential narrative, you’ll still need to follow the guidelines of strong case studies if you want it to land.

The basic case study structure consists of:

  • Background: Here, you’ll explain who the customer is. This area should be short and sweet. Even a well-crafted boilerplate (if your client is into press releases) should suffice.
  • Problem: In this section, you’ll want to detail exactly what caused the client to seek out your services in the first place. In most cases, it’s usually some sort of business problem. For consumer case studies (and some B2B), perhaps there was no problem. But there’s always a catalyst prior to your business building a relationship with the client. Detail the catalyst if it isn’t technically a “problem”.
  • Solution: Now, it’s time for your brand to swoop in and save the day. If the previous section detailed a problem, how did you solve it? Be sure to dig deep. Ask the right questions to find the features or angles that offered the biggest impact for your client.
  • Benefits: Finally, if you can find ways to quantify the benefits, you can detail them in the last section. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to sprinkle this section with qualifiable benefits as well. But make sure to tie in some hard metrics (even educated guesses) to create a basis in reality.

What else can you do to craft an effective case study?

Tips for creating case studies

Building a strong case study will take a bit of time and energy. Done often for a single client, you’ll get into a groove that’ll greatly speed up the process. (Writing case studies for ecommerce software provider 3dcart has become pretty formulaic for me.)

Here are a couple of bonus tips for writing case studies.

  • Quote often: You’ve interviewed someone who gave you a glowing testimonial! Use that information so the audience knows this is coming from a valid source. (Hint: I usually craft quotes based on my notes and ask for permission from the client before the case study is published.)
  • Find the angle: If you have a narrow audience, writing case studies can get stale. Spice things up a bit by focusing on a different angle every time you write a new one.
  • Be descriptive: Get creative with it. Use saucier language and create a setting. Tell the story almost like you’re writing fiction.
  • Ask and answer questions: Ask the reader a question about what will happen next. Answer the question in the next section. But be careful: this can get cheesy if you take the wrong approach.

6 Techniques for Better Press Releases

Over the past half a decade, there’s been a lot of scrutiny over press releases. Turns out many of the articles going over the wire weren’t saying much of anything at all.

Think about it: how many press releases do you see that call the company “cutting-edge” and the product “innovative”? Meanwhile, the quote starts off with, “We’re really excited…” The boilerplate offers a bunch of useless details or, worse yet, is three paragraphs long, detailing the numerous accolades of the company.

For instance: “We’re so hipster that we typed this press release on an honest-to-god typewriter.”

Keep in mind that press releases were initially intended for members of the press. Unless you’re a major player in the tech space, don’t expect many journalists to find your release and run with a story. No, nowadays, you need to consider your potential customers and clients your target audience. Your press releases are now available online and serve a drastically different purpose than they used to.

Those same five or so years have brought a reanimation of press release writing. They’ve brought about a return to simplicity. Many writers now understand that the shorter you can get in and get out while saying what needs to be said, the better. (The real problem is convincing an older client who thinks he/she knows press releases.)

Press release writing really isn’t an art. Just follow some of the tips below and you’ll immediately start improving your releases.

1. Lead with benefits, differentiators and the timeliness factor. There are three simple rules of thumb for your nut graph (and the following paragraph). I tend to follow this pretty closely for most of the releases I pen. In the opening paragraph, lead with the newsworthy (timely) element of the story. But make sure to weave in the benefits to the audience in that paragraph, even if it’s just a high-level overview. (Why should the reader care? They want to know immediately.) Finally, what makes this news different from what other organizations are doing in your space?

2. Use bulletpoints. A lot. People are busy and don’t like reading something that looks intimidating during the work day. Every chance you have, use bulletpoints to summarize crucial main points. It breaks up the narrative of the release nicely. But more importantly, it attracts the lazy reader. The ‘lazy’ reader may not always be lazy, but when several tasks are attracting her attention at once, she’ll only look if you give her the facts upfront and highlight the most important information.

3. Stay away unprovable claims. Listen, you make think your company is the best at what they do. Still, if you have no quantifiable proof of that claim, why are you labeling your brand the “leading” one of its kind? It sounds pompous. People will see right through it. Journalists will delete your release. Give us the facts only. And don’t tell us your window cleaning solution is ‘unparalleled’ in the field. That’s just silly, and it’s sensationalized. People are much more conditioned to pick that stuff out than you think.

4. Quotes should actually say something. Alright. When you describe your excitement, thank your new partner or tell the audience that something is ‘interesting’, just what in the hell do you expect to accomplish? Of course you love your new partner. That’s why you partnered with them. Don’t insult your reader’s intelligence. Tell us something useful about the announcement — something perhaps that resonates better coming directly from a human.

5. Keep your boilerplate simple. Businesspeople like to talk about their business. Hey, that’s great! You love your work and you feel a sense of kinship with your brand. The problem is that no one loves your business as much as you do. When you write a boilerplate about your company, you don’t have to put every important fact about your organization down. Keep it short and sweet, just the facts, and direct the reader to your website. There they can read up on your brand if they so choose.

6. Tie in keywords. It’s SEO time. You have control of your destiny here. Work in SEO keywords and phrases to get more bang for your buck. Link your most important keyword to your website. But make sure to follow search optimization best practices. You don’t want to get blacklisted for keyword stuffing.

How To Prioritize Big Rewards Over The Little Ones

The human brain is a complex masterwork of evolution. It’s also a total bitch when it comes to exercising those writing muscles.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to writers. If you’ve ever held down an administrative gig — or practically anything that involves a computer — you’ve done battle with your stubborn brain before.

Two men breakdance-fighting their brains in the forest, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For creative types, however, your brain’s compulsion to do everything except what you want it to do is especially strong. It craves an activity that requires it to process and store information. What you want it to do is pull up archived information to influence the creation of something new and previously unknown to it.

As a result, you’ll find yourself drawn magnetically to Facebook, YouTube, news sites, blogs — anything that takes you away from the task at hand. We’ve pointed out in the past that these types of mental stimulations cause little shots of dopamine in your brain.

It’s All Hyperbolic Discounting’s Fault

One of the most difficult tasks in my daily life is seeing the future good in everything I do. In fact, humans are hardwired to take the cheap thrill. It provides immediate rewards and, as a result, often destroys the bigger rewards that you see in your mind’s eye but never truly pursue.

This is a human behavior called hyperbolic discounting. We want the smaller rewards now. Our modern culture of pleasure-on-demand doesn’t help things, either. As a result, we tend to ignore the bigger rewards available to us down the road if we could just focus on the damn blank page.

Hyperbolic discounting results in procrastination and a failure to reach those big goals we envision in our minds’ eyes. The more we procrastinate, the more we reward ourselves for that behavior, causing a Pavlovian response that reinforces it.

Classically Conditioning Your Way Out of the Rabbit Hole

To rise above hyperbolic discounting, we have to condition ourselves to focus on the bigger future benefits. You’ll need a bit of self-deprecation and a shitload of discipline. Up to the challenge?

It actually isn’t all that challenging. Simply reward yourself every time you take positive steps towards long-term goals. Maybe you’re writing that book that will break you to the mainstream one day. Give yourself a daily goal of 500-1,000 words. The first time you reach that goal, reward yourself by taking the rest of the afternoon off, grabbing a beer, watching your favorite movie — whatever gets your juices flowing.

Have a nondescript beer on me, courtesy the righteous and forthright tap that is Wikimedia Commons.

Setting daily goals and channeling the discipline you require to meet them is another way to focus on the future. Planning ahead, your rational brain can set out a successful path for you. It’s in the heat of the moment that we tend to lose sight of our goals. That’s why scheduling your day is such a powerful way to find success as a freelancer.

Start off by making a to-do list that includes your daily goals. Build those into separate weekly and monthly goals. Put a little order to the chaos and you’ll find yourself more motivated to go after those big rewards.

Why It’s Important for A Writer to Keep An Open Mind

Recently, audiences across the nation were enthralled by my post on cultivating creativity. Now, I’d like to talk about one of the strongest factors in creativity.

Open-minded people are hard to come by. Many of us try to be more open-minded on a daily basis. But we all have bias. As humans, we tend to put too much weight on first impressions. We make judgments based on those impressions, closing ourselves off to further contact and experience.

Wait, what does this even mean? These are just masks glued to a wall! You call that art?

But creativity is heavily rooted in open-mindedness. Neuroscientists have tested the connection. After all, creativity requires new ideas. And new ideas aren’t often the product of a closed mind.

Cynicism and Aging: How Do We Curb It?

Part of the challenge of staying open-minded is age. It follows naturally that the more experience we gain, the more firmly rooted we become in our beliefs. Getting older and growing cynical pretty much go hand-in-hand.

Have your parents changed their political affiliation over the course of your life? Does your stubborn uncle think technology is the downfall of America? The older we get, the harder it is to adapt to change. After learning and relearning ideas, technology, social norms and the like for years, your brain eventually gets to a point where it says “Enough’s enough!”

These factors and more lead to a natural decline into closed-mindedness. The best ways to avoid this are to challenge yourself and make changes on a regular basis.

Of course, staying open-minded is a conscious decision in itself. Prioritize it above other firmly-rooted beliefs and it’ll help you keep your creative flair.

Stay In Touch with the Weirdness

A little weirdness lives inside all of us. It’s what makes us truly unique as human beings. Sometimes, you have to suppress that weirdness to make friends, get a job and live a normal life. Highly intelligent creative people recognize that the best way to express weirdness is to channel it in outlets.

Too weird, scale it back!

Of course, you can’t let that weirdness get away. That’s what separates the leaders and the followers. Some people stay in touch with their weirdness and are more open-minded as a result. Others get dry and cynical. Whatever happens, you must not only hang onto it but nurture it as well. To accomplish this, consider things like:

  • Take an introductory class on something you have no experience or interest in
  • Watch a show you’ve vowed never to watch (as long as it isn’t Jersey Shore)
  • Try to learn a new language
  • Perform some mental gymnastics regularly (like these exercises)

Keep it weird, my friends.

Why Would You Hide One of Your Best Attributes?

A small business owner once approached me for a copy project. We talked a bunch about the themes and messages he wanted to run throughout.

“What I want,” he explained, “is to give the impression that we’re a big company.”

This wasn’t the first or the last time I got this request. I responded: “Why would you want to hide one of your company’s best attributes?”

Alright, I probably didn’t word it that perfectly. But you get the drift. Time and time again, executives want to give the impression that they’re bigger than they are.

Guess which one Apple sponsored.

By projecting a big company feel, they think:

  • Customers respect a company that’s obviously been around for several years
  • A big brand equates to reliable customer service
  • Doing it longer means doing it better

In reality, customers don’t necessary want a big brand. They want big accomplishments. They crave reliable customer service. They want a reliable product or service. Big companies tend to assume small competition. As a result, companies like GoDaddy, Comcast, Best Buy and AT&T have customer service problems. Because they know they can get away with it. They’ve cornered the market. They put their big budgets into marketing and ignore things that customers care about.

Why project that image? Why not tout the benefits of a small company feel? Successful small businesses offer a more personalized experience for customers. Try carving out a niche on which you can actually deliver.

Small businesses imply:

  • They’ll work harder to get and keep their customers’ business
  • They’ll offer personal, human interaction
  • They’re trying something new that will advance the market

Your copy should embrace your aesthetic. Customers will thank you for your honesty. And maybe that honesty will result in massive growth. Then, you can start ignoring what your customers want. *rolls eyes*

Cultivating the Creative Mind

What’s happening with creativity?

A fair question, is it not? It’s suddenly lost on Hollywood. You won’t find it in the widening gulf of politics. Today’s popular literature literally shuns creativity. Everyone is rehashing the same old ideas. And there are no twists.

You could make an argument for creativity in tech development. But then again, aren’t we just pushing ideas that require us to think less? Is that intellectual evolution?

This guy could have created you out of existence with a snap of his fingers. (William S. Burroughs, circa some time after a heavy heroin binge)

As our collective knowledge grows, it’s become clearer that the constant stimuli surrounding us are killing our creative juices. We have the answers at our fingertips. Thinking is unnecessary. When faced with a blank page, today’s writer is super efficient. Unfortunately, most of that efficiency comes from borrowed content. It’s a necessity sometimes. But as a writer, it’s important to exercise your creativity from time to time.

Take a second to breathe. Here are some simple ideas to get your mojo back.

Disconnect. Every time you interact with technology, you’re shooting up. Kick the habit for a day or two. Go the old-fashioned route: carry a notebook and a pen and jot down ideas for later.

Read. Sit down with a good book, a magazine or an honest-to-god newspaper. You’ll find it’s a lot easier to process information when you have a single focal point.

Escape. The traffic. The late night drunks. The texts and calls. Get out of the city. Go enjoy the outdoors for a bit. And remember to bring that good book (and notebook) with you.

Simplify. If you’re like me, you have 50 browser tabs open. In addition to 33 documents. Add Skype, AIM and Gchat to the list and you’re going nowhere fast. Close everything and put Microsoft Word into “focus” mode.

Exercise. It’s taken me a long time to finally get into this. But I’m surely reaping the benefits. Exercise is an important part of getting in tune with your body and clearing your head.

Mute. I’m a gigantic music geek, but it can add a layer of overwhelmingness to your brain. Turn it off and work in silence for a few hours so you can focus.

Additional reading: check out this recent article in Fast Company for psychological perspective into the world of the creative process.

Watch Your Tone: 5 Tips on Brand Voice

Everyone has a unique voice.

Some voices are simple.

Some voices are terribly verbose and sometimes boisterous!

Some are confident bordering on cocky. Others are gentle and sympathetic. But whatever your brand’s voice sounds like, it must be consistent. It must fall with impact upon the ears of your target audience.

Easier said than done. How do you define your tone and ensure it resonates with potential customers?

No no, not a voice that irritates. One that resonates.

The answer to that question is complex. To get started, take a look at five tips on brand voice and tone.

1. Carefully defining your audience is central to ALL marketing. How do you know how to talk to potential customers if you don’t understand them? Narrow your audience down to people who actually have use for your product. Once you know who you’re targeting, you’ll have a better grip on how to talk to them.

2. As always, keep it human. You know…unless you’re targeting robots. During some sort of robot apocalypse.

3. Keep it simple. Planning to tell a story? Keep it short. Include the details that resonate most with your audience. Simplicity is the best policy for the diction you use, too. Just because you’re targeting a group of rocket scientists doesn’t mean they want to waste precious brainpower reading clunky words, phrases and sentences.

4. Speak like a peer. Companies that speak down to their audiences tend to lose them. Yes, you have the solution to your customer’s problem. But you’ve been in their shoes. What they do is just as important as what you do. And don’t you forget it.

5. Get specific. You can speak more effectively to a narrower audience. Use words, phrases and inside jokes that only your readers understand.

Is Outlining Really Necessary?

As a young writer, I struggled with the concept of outlining. If you already have a strength and passion for writing, you may struggle with this, too. You feel that you need the purity of the creative process undisturbed. You tell yourself that truly creative thinking follows no form.

Of course, if you get anywhere in your writing career, you’ll soon realize that this is hogwash. Yeah, that’s right. I said hogwash.

Hogwash.

Professional writing requires structure. And the longer the piece, the more structure you’ll require. The more detailed your structure, the less you have to fill in during the writing process. Outlining eliminates frustration and writer’s block while easing drafting and revision.

If you decide to write without outlining your concept first, you may be in for a huge headache. Outlining forces you to:

  • Organize your thoughts in a fluid but visible way
  • Make a simple-to-follow reference sheet
  • Order thoughts in the sequence that makes the most sense
  • Ensure you have enough content to deliver a complete message
  • Get a high-level view of your piece and make sure you don’t forget anything
  • Understand how to weave any themes into the narrative.

Before you sit down to write a piece, take five minutes to jot your thoughts down on a blank page. Put them in a logical order for your reader and craft stronger, more coherent pieces.