The Two Vital Attributes of Quality Content

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

~ William Morris, poet and designer

Imagine the household you would have if you got rid of every item that was neither useful or beautiful.

Gone would be the plastic doodad with no known purpose, the ugly frame your great-aunt gave you, the Special Free Offer™ you never opened, the collection of someday-useful peanut butter jars . . .

Every room would be so much more pleasant to be in, and every tool so much easier to find.

What if you applied the same rule to the content you wrote? Every email, sales letter, blog post, and comment you wrote would have to be useful or beautiful. Or both.

Does that sound a little . . . scary?

Most copywriters are fine with this, in principle. (Remember the first law of content marketing? Every piece of cookie content should reward the audience for reading: by solving a problem they have, or by entertaining them. Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it?)

The main problem people have with this advice is they don’t trust their own judgment. They’re unsure if what they’re writing is useful or beautiful.

And of course, some people are certain their writing would make James Joyce weep and Dale Carnegie gnash his teeth, while their readers are wondering what this pretentious and useless fluff piece is all about.

Are you unsure? Never fear! Here are some guidelines to help.

How do I know if my content is useful?

1. Write content that suits your audience

Your content must match your audience’s level of understanding. Experts won’t consider entry-level content useful and beginners won’t get much use out of advanced discussions.

Your audience must have the required resources — time, energy, money, potato chips — to use the content. Telling new parents about a relaxation technique that requires eight hours a night of uninterrupted sleep? Not useful.

Your content must relate to something your audience cares about. I’ll never find content on how to dress in corporate style useful, because I don’t care about dressing in that way.

2. Write specific content

Generalisations aren’t useful.

Vague:

Scooters need oil on a regular basis.

Specific and useful:

Refill your scooter’s oil tank to the indicator line with two-stroke motorcycle oil every third time you refill the petrol tank.

3. Write actionable content

Useful content creates action.

If your readers don’t do something as a result of reading your content (change their mind, buy something, tear up their desk calendar, dance a boogaloo, write a better headline, pick a fight, talk to their children, set a goal, start a collaborative experience), then the content wasn’t useful.

Your content must encourage, advise, mentor, support, bully, or dare your audience into acting.

And you must, must, must include a call to action in every piece of content you write.

How do I know if my content is beautiful?

This is the point where people get uncomfortable. Don’t worry! You don’t have to produce sonnets to write beautifully.

Experiences that provide pleasure or meaning are beautiful.

Johnny B. Truant writes posts that are beautiful, although he’ll likely laugh in your face and pour jam down your pants if you say so. They’re beautiful because they’re funny and vigorous and meaningful.

If you’re not Johnny, here are some tips. (If you are Johnny, hi Johnny!)

1. Write meaningful content

If you write your content with emotion, it’s more meaningful.

Ever read a “Thank you for subscribing” email with sincere gratitude in it? (I read one that was so beautiful I saved it. Really.) If your feelings don’t match the anticipated emotion it’s even more effective: an angry product review, an excited tax letter, a sympathetic auto-responder . . .

Be vulnerable. Instead of writing about the mistakes some people have made, write about the mistakes you made. And what they meant to you.

Write about the bigger implications. Fixing a dripping tap is ordinary. Learning to perform house maintenance as a sign of your new independence is meaningful.

Real benefits are meaningful. Creating more wealth, more connection, more options, and more purpose are some of our most meaningful activities.

2. Write pleasurable content

Write to inspire emotion in your readers: make them smile. Make them cry. Make them wistful. And make sure they know they’re not alone in feeling that way.

If you know your audience well, you can write mass communication that feels personal, where every reader thinks you’re psychic because you’re writing Just For Them. Everyone enjoys the pleasure of feeling understood.

Use the tools in your linguistic toolbox to make the writing entertaining: play with alliteration, hyperbole, rhythm, flights of fancy, metaphor, perspective, storytelling . . . whatever feels natural and unforced to you.

It’s hard to beat the pleasure of seeing your name in print. Praise your readers in public, hold them up as an example, thank them, or mention them as an inspiration . . . and do it by name.

Do you want to take it even further?

Think of a piece of content that’s critical to your success, like your sales letter.

What if you applied the same rules to every paragraph of that content? What if you judged every word?

If you wrote your sales letter and removed every word that wasn’t useful or beautiful:

  • You couldn’t use weasel words like “actually” or “amazingly” or “absolutely.”
  • You’d have to use evocative, beautiful words and images.
  • The writing would be muscular, short and punchy (Like Hemingway would write it).
  • You’d become a thoughtful student of copywriting, so you knew how to make each word as useful as possible to create the result you want.
  • It would kick ass!

Do you think you could improve the usefulness and beauty of your content? Tell us how you plan to do it in the comments!

About the Author: Catherine is wicked passionate about helping people to start and grow an awesome website: she’s even published a manifesto about it. When she’s not adding five-minute missions to BeAwesomeOnline.com, she can invariably be found on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. I’m working to keep it real and beautiful by being up front about my fears, weaknesses, and flaws. And I have a ways to go to pare down to the essentials too – I do use “actually,” a lot!

  2. I really appreciate the part about being vulnerable and explaining the bigger implications.

    No one likes to be told that they are making a mistake, or that they have done something wrong in their business for the past 15 years.

    It’s much better to be self-depricating and show by example that you may want to change something… just look at how much I screwed up doing this, learn from my mistakes etc…

    The “bigger implication” is super-critical, where you add the element of fear in your copy; fear of loss.

    Awesome post… on my way to check out your “awesome” blog.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire

  3. Hey Catherine,

    What a great list you provide for bloggers to follow. I think the first one, ‘write content that suites your audience’ is so vital. I visit so many blogs and they miss this.

    Have a great weekend…
    Josh

  4. Last September my wife and I did a major dejunking of our house. We rid ourselves of dressers, TVs, desks, clothes, boxes and boxes of plain ol’ stuff. Our house is nice and clutter free. It’s refreshing and very pleasant.

    I really like your point of writing pleasurable content. There’s a lot of power in connecting with people on a personal level.

  5. Fantastic stuff . . . so many can become overwhelmed when writing . . . these simple steps are what it’s all about

  6. I love the simplicity: useful and beautiful. Thanks for such a beautiful and useful article! I’ll return to it again and again.

  7. Hi Catherine – I just want to say thanks for using one of my all-time favorite quotes and applying it to writing. Well done. Cheers!

  8. THANK YOU. You have just written the best guide I’ve seen for how to write a blog. It’s been difficult for me to know what to say with mine – and you just solved my problem. I’m going to tape this “Useful And Beautiful” outline to the wall next to my desk.

  9. Andrew Billmann :

    Very cool, Catherine — those are awesome points. In my own writing for very different industries, I’ve usually applied a key question that’s a totally corollary to your post: “Why does this need to exist?” Answer that, and you’re halfway home.

  10. You are a talented writer Catherine – I’ve saved this post and will re-read it every time I prepare a post.
    Every line mattered and every word worked.
    Useful and beautiful… I’ll try!

  11. Thanks for sharing this lovely post with us. Writing specific content and a meaningful content is most important for a blog to be unique in his niche

  12. This is a wake up call for every writer. “You’d become a thoughtful student of copywriting, so you knew how to make each word as useful as possible to create the result you want.” Brilliant…

  13. Awesome post, Catherine. YOU are useful and beautiful :-)

  14. I find this post very amazing. Writing a perfect post is an interesting and hard jod. We should make everything in a smartest way!

  15. I’m a big believer that writers should make sure that everything we write, we’d like to read. There’s an obvious reason — if we don’t want to read our own work, why would anyone else — but there is a deeper reason.

    When each day ends, I want to be able to think that what I’ve done is ‘useful and beautiful’ — I don’t want to realize that the only thing that will read what I’ve written are the spiders Google sends out.

  16. Very good post.

    Writing specific content is important. But I also believe being specific can be detrimental.

    For example, some things people will understand through deductive reasoning. So, I’m not a big fan of being specific when a good amount of people would have known exactly what you meant without going into more detail about it.

    To me that’s unnecessary and redundant. The only thing it’s good for is increasing the word count of a blog post which your readers probably don’t want.

  17. Great way to cut through the clutter — we hear so many tips and techniques, sometimes we forget that “useful and beautiful” are really what it’s about. Thanks for sharing it with us, Catherine!

  18. This post hit me square in the face- I am trying to talk to two different audiences- no wonder I am threatening a walk-out :(

    I find when I am in a hurry, I write more.
    If I take my time,the words flow.

    bless you

    (ps- I edited out a ‘totally’ out of copy’ on read through)

  19. This is such great advice. I’ll try to keep all those important points at hand when I do my next copy writing.

  20. Great concept. It is very Interesting

  21. Thank you everyone for your comments!

  22. I think even I can manage to remember ‘useful’ and ‘beautiful’ though not necessarily at the same time! Thanks for a thoughtful post Catherine. :o)

  23. “Useful and Beautiful” those two things could be used to simplify any aspect of your life. I must say this piece hits both marks without fail. I already knew about targeting readers and all of that, however I never thought about the “filler” words being just that. Thanks a lot for that bit of advice. I believe it will make a huge impact on my writing!
    As always you give excellent advice that will keep me coming back again and again.

  24. Superbly written an absolutely true, Catherine. You are a treasure.

  25. What a useful and beautiful post! Definitely going into my read-once-a-week list. Or possibly the read-before-posting-every-piece one. Asking the right questions is amazingly powerful, but not if you forget to ask them at the right time.

  26. Useful and beautiful: my new mantra. Thank you for a beautifully useful post.

  27. Really nice article :) I personally believe it’s very important to have quality content!

  28. Well… what can I say? I can get rid of the crap in my writing, but I sure do hang on to a lot of junk in my house. {SIGH}

    Yay Catherine!

  29. “To please and instruct” Aristotle :) Thanks for bringing the basics back

  30. That’s also one of my very favorite quotes ever, kudos to CC for working a post around it.

  31. Thank you for posting this, Catherine. I now understand where I could have possibly go wrong with my posts and what I can do to improve it.

  32. Beautiful article! Useful too. This leads us down the path to where the web is going, and to where is has always wanted to be: meaningful conversations between the writer and reader. There are two things every great web content writer has to do. 1) Listen before you write. 2) Be honest and generous in how you respond to what you hear.

    Nick

  33. I think that this article pretty much covers everything important when it comes to writing anything. There’s a lot of content out there that wants to tweak and alter and perfect, but without the passion, emotion and general give-a-crapedness you talk about, none of it matters.

    I’m printing this sucker out. Good job!

  34. Well Thanks, Catherine. Now I need to go rewrite everything I have ever written. :)

    I just went to my blog and did a quick comparison to see how well I matched up with your principles. The one area that I could do a lot better in is writing actionable content. Giving my users an inspirational call to action at the close of each article could absolutely make a difference.

    Thanks for this post, I will begin to implement these techniques from now on. I believe they will make me a better writer… It’s all about continuous improvement!

  35. Everything here should be common sense. Unfortunately, for newer writers they sometimes forget that they’re readers want to impart with some knowledge!

  36. Hi guys,

    If only every blogger had this gift of writing beautifully. I have learned that not everyone is blessed with this gift. Because sometimes I read blogs that are full of information that I need and I get excited. Then there are blogs that I get nothing out of.

    Kind regards,

    Sam
    X

  37. Usually the humorous yet informative blogs do it for me. Like one guys blog put it, pretend you’re sitting at the bar with a friend having a good time, write your copy the same exact way you’d tell your friend a story over a few drinks. That’s hard to do, but works apparently!

    Chuck

  38. New to the blogging arena. Really appreciate the idea of giving attention to every piece of writing…emails, posts, blog comments.

  39. Gold star worthy article. “Are your articles beautiful and useful” is going straight to the top of my whiteboard.

  40. GREAT ARTICLE!!! I just went and re-wrote my Thank You Page … so you got me into action! thank you so much.

  41. “Every email, sales letter, blog post, and comment you wrote would have to be useful or beautiful. Or both.”

    Would be nice….but sometimes even writers need days off.

  42. This is very useful and good stuff. I always try to find an inspiration in order to give my articles the beautiful and useful content that make it memorable and valuable. It is those little details that make the reader want to continue reading and remember what he read.

    Thanks for the post…

  43. This is beautiful (sorry – couldn’t resist). Thanks for more great tips! This post is one of the more useful ones I’ve read in that it does tell me what to do (I almost used “actually”..LOL)

    Thanks
    Terrie

  44. basem shahin :

    Nice article man,
    I really enjoyed it… How are you these days? what are you doing?

  45. The idea to write like Hemingway is fabulous!

  46. Thanks for these fantastic tips Catherine (nice name… it’s my middle name ;-)). I especially appreciated your advice on writing relevant, purposeful content. Although it’s easy to fall into a lazy rut and write about your day or things you like, etc…my aspiration is to write what is deemed useful information. I want my readers to leave having learned something new (or in a new light), and to be challenged by what they read. It takes more time and energy, but in the long run, I’m sure it is well worth it!

    Thanks again!

  47. Mike Korner :

    Excellent advice Catherine. I mean, awesome :)

    I love these two parts the most:
    * “Writing actionable content”. You always do that well.
    * “Write pleasurable content”. Inspiring emotion is always a worthy achievement. I think making readers smile and cry in the same article is the ultimate goal. I seem to make readers cry (and their dog’s howl) all the time, so maybe I’ll work on the smile part for a while :)

    When I find high-quality writing, I always want to save it. The bad news is that there isn’t a lot of high-quality content. The good news is that half of the world’s supply lives here at Copyblogger. Thanks for adding to the high-quality side of the equation.

    p.s. Hey, I’m going to use those peanut butter jars

  48. I liked where you say “Write meaningful content”….Many of us used to drop single line emails and same habit sometimes we can repeat with clients also, so its good to have your communication with meaningful content…

    I have noted few points from this and really like to try within communication point of view

  49. Good tips. I’d add, use your ‘voice’ when writing articles. This will make it authentic and the reader will feel they are engaging with a person and not a robot.

  50. Wonderful tips. Thank you so much. I would love to see a copy of the “Thank you for subscribing” email that you mentioned. Can you share?

    I’ve found that looking at examples of “useful” and “beautiful” content are the best source of inspiration. This blog post is definitely one of them.

    Thanks again.

  51. I love the useful/beautiful tip. Love this whole post. My question is about the “actionable” issue: how would you address that with a blog that’s just meant to be fun and entertaining?

    I mean, I could say at the end of a post, “now go tell all your friends how hilarious this post was.” That would serve me well, given an obedient readership.

    But I don’t think that’s what you have in mind. Any ideas?

  52. @Laura That’s totally an action they could take. So is commenting. And signing up for your updates. So is laughing their head off… :)

    The question is about what action you want people to take as a result of reading your posts. Do you want people to be entertained and then forget it? Or to click over to reality shows with Dr Drew to see what the fuss is about?

  53. Catherine,
    Thanks for the advices. I will apply this approach every time I create a post in my blog.
    All the best,
    Boris

  54. nice article….give lots of info about quality content….thanks for sharing such precious info…..

  55. Its funny, although I love to write, I find that writing to promote numerous sites, via article marketing becomes quite tiresome. Its okay if you’re writing about a topic you enjoy, but for something like apple recipes, its just a boring chore.