How to Make Your Writing Real

image of landscape

In this day and age, substance matters.

What you say must be meaningful to the people you’re trying to attract.

Your content must solve real problems and satisfy real desires.

So why should it matter how you say it?

The reality is, how you say it has always mattered, and it matters even more today.

For content marketing, it’s basically the difference between success and failure.

You’re in a battle for attention. A headline that doesn’t specifically convey a compelling promise results in content that is too often simply ignored.

Beyond that, your copy has to hold that precious attention, sentence by sentence, until the conclusion.

Even the appearance of your content on the page matters when trying to make a substantive point.

Finally, the way you convey information, no matter how independently valuable, affects everything from clarity to engagement to retention at a psychological level. Your ideas and advice must stick in people’s heads for you to succeed.

In short, how you say it is what you say.

Here’s an example:

If someone asks you what’s for dinner, you can stick with the substance:

Tonight we’re having pasta for dinner.

Or you can add a bit of craft and style to make it more tangible:

Tonight we’ll enjoy a dinner of tender linguini, topped with a homemade marinara sauce featuring vine-ripened tomatoes, fragrant basil, and fresh oregano straight from our garden, accented with just a hint of garlic and red wine flavoring.

Same basic information — we indeed will be having pasta for dinner.

Is one more enticing and memorable than the other?

Let’s look at another example.

Popcorn is bad for you

The book Made to Stick gives us the case of Art Silverman, a guy with a vendetta against popcorn. Silverman wanted to educate the public about the fact that a typical bag of movie popcorn has 37 grams of saturated fat, while the USDA recommends you have no more than 20 grams in an entire day.

Instead of simply citing that surprising — if dry — statistic, Silverman made the message meaningful by making it real. He said:

A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!

Ummm … I’ll go ahead and skip the popcorn, thanks.

Make the benefits tangible

Yes, substance matters. Your content must be more than just relevant — it’s got to be meaningful to the people you’re trying to attract.

But never forget that it’s the relevant and tangible expression of that substance that creates meaning.

People have to get connected with your content in the first place before they comment, share, buy, or recommend your products or services.

Make your messages as real to people as possible, and you’ll find that content marketing has a payoff way bigger than the investment. Really.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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  1. What you said is true, words have meaning.

    • All words have meaning, but some words are more meaningful, depending on who you’re talking to.

      • As Mark Twain says…

        “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

      • You hit the nail on the head Brian when you said: “Depending on who you’re talking to.” It is much easier to write copy when you know specifically who the reader is. When you know about them, and their wants and fears, you can be laser-beam specific on what you write. Start with knowing the reader, and the process becomes a lot easier.

  2. Great post, the first thing I think of is smell-a-vision. lol. Your words must engage the readers emotions and senses.

  3. Hi Brian,

    I agree completely with what you are saying, but I sometimes find your advice intimidating (but still truthful)!

    “A headline that doesn’t specifically convey a compelling promise results in content that is too often simply ignored.

    Beyond that, your copy has to hold that precious attention, sentence by sentence, until the conclusion. ”

    I believe that to all be true, but it has in the past made me feel like writing good content is impossible.

    What I learned over time, and what I hope others realise, is that you cannot be expected to produce perfect copy from day one. It isn’t a case of “if you can’t nail it with your first ever article, you are doomed”, more a case of “practice makes perfect”.

    I know I’m going off on a tangent here but I felt compelled to say that ;)

    All the best,

    Tom

    • I know where you’re coming from, Tom.

      There’s truly a spectrum. I’ve found it most useful to work on one piece at a time — start with the area you think will bear the most fruit. (It’s often headlines.)

      As you get better and better, you’ll see better results. But yeah, you’re not going to just read the advice and instantly be able to perfectly implement it. :) I like Martha Beck’s quote, “If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing it badly.” And of course, the more we do, the better it gets.

    • Not trying to be intimidating, but I think sugar-coating reality does more of a a disservice to the new writer.

      Also, in between these matter-of-fact tutorial posts, I’m always encouraging everyone to keep writing and then write some more. No one is close to perfect, ever — not me, not Sonia, not Stephen King and certainly not a new writer. But I do know that the more I write, the better I get at it.

      Thanks for the comment. You’ve pointed out the truth about practice in a very useful context.

      • Thanks for responding guys! I like “If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing it badly” – I’ll have to remember that one. I completely agree with your approach Brian and hope that you did not take offence at the wording of my comment :)

  4. Kind of like Jon says — we’re all street vendors putting on a show and if we’re boring, no one stops to watch. Our words attract ,- or don’t. Or something like that. Paraphrasing before the first cup of coffee. ;)

  5. Totally agree Brian. The words need to paint a vivid enough picture we can’t ignore.

    Along the lines of your pasta dinner example, 10 years ago in the UK we had mostly standard flavors of crisps (potato chips), those flavors still exist but the manufacturers have certainly upped their game with the way they describe their flavors…

    ‘Salt & Vinegar’ has now become ‘Handcooked sea salt and balsamic vinegar’
    ‘Cheese & onion’ has become ‘Mature cheddar cheese & shallot’
    ‘Low fat’ has become ‘Eat-well reduced fat lightly salted crinkles’

    Makes me hungry.

    • I am totally LUVing all the food references here! This might be a little off-topic, but wanted to point out that they’re really a great way to tell a kick-ass story. Food does that for us. (Just like sex, but more acceptable.)

      One of the things I’ve always noticed is the tendency by marketers to use food references to sell everything from lipstick to house paint. (Look at the names of all those colors!) It’s a metaphor that we all GET.

  6. I think the popcorn statistics are a great example of how to make facts interesting. I’ve found that a lot of B2B companies don’t know how to turn data into something interesting and entertaining to read for their audiences. It is possible, you just have to think outside the box!

  7. Thank you. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. I’ve written 300 posts, 2.5 books, countless emails, copy, websites, reviews, etc. – I’m talkin’ seriously prolific – and I have never seen things in this light.

    Mind.
    Blown.

    Good lord, my past work feels… awkward now :)

    Thank you, Brian, Sonia, and all the copybloggers around the world :D

  8. Every word written in this post is so very true Brian!

    I couldn’t agree more that ‘content IS king’ , though how you package and portray the whole package of a post is what really matters. To grab the attention of the readers, with so many blog posts around, is what makes you a real blogger.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  9. It’s all about finding the balance between smart, sophisticated language that doesn’t go overboard with the flowery descriptors. This is a problem I’ve struggled with my entire writing life – if you thought you liked big, complex sentences, well, you’ve probably got nothing on me. I usually find it’s best to overwrite and then edit for the most essential content later on. That way you’ll have more to work with then less, and can narrow down your focus to a patch of content that not only conveys the message in a clear and concise manner, but also uses strong, proactive (and descriptive) language to do so. More is better (unless we’re talking about popcorn, apparently.)

  10. I completely agree with everything in this article, especially these 3 lines:

    “A headline that doesn’t specifically convey a compelling promise results in content that is too often simply ignored.

    Beyond that, your copy has to hold that precious attention, sentence by sentence, until the conclusion.

    Even the appearance of your content on the page matters when trying to make a substantive point.”

    These 3 sentences are so simple yet hold so much information and value!

    thanks for sharing

    PS
    I think I’m now having pasta for dinner!

  11. Reminds of a quote: “Marketing is the truth made fascinating.”

    That’s what I love about the articles here at Copyblogger. Each author finds a unique and compelling way to make a teaching point. The factual points have merit, but only once someone breathes life into them do they resonate and become memorable.

  12. Yep.

    I totally agree with you Brian.

    The way a writer conveys her words matter a lot. You have to write in simple language that a complete beginner will be able to understand.

    It is not really about what you say, it is more of how you say what you say.

    The more juicy you make it the more your readers connect to what you have to say.

    But don’t try to be too clever just for the sake of try to make your writing real.

    Cheers,

    Sam Lab

  13. as always Brian, your succinctness makes every one of your posts meaningful and valuable to writers from all walks.

    But with all this talk about food, I’ve got to go pop me some corn and think about dinner tonight!

  14. Great post Brian. As a writer, it is as refreshing as standing under a waterfall on a 90 degree day to receive positive reinforcement on the power of one’s words – written or spoken. Let’s cultivate more of that – like a garden of green leafy vegetables resplendent with the red orbs known as ripe tomatoes. The ripe tomatoes represents “succulent speech or writing patterns.” Metaphors aside, I often write for fundraisers – with the challenge of turning a capital campaign into “digestible” pieces of exciting improvements (programs, facilities, research, etc.) that donors can envision and support.

    • Great example, Liz. I know I’m more drawn to nonprofits that can articulate what they do in a concrete way (SmileTrain, Heifer, End Malaria). Their marketing simplifies complex situations, which makes it more “real” for me. (Even though they’re leaving out a lot of details that are very important to them operationally — but they don’t add to the marketing story.)

      • For nonprofits (and many other organizations or companies), it’s all about telling the story in a way that makes you think, makes you remember and, hopefully, makes you take action. Appreciate the feedback Sonia.

  15. Thousands of poets and fiction writers would agree with you, Brian. Anyone who has ever taken a college creative writing course has heard the old saw, “Show, don’t tell!” The idea being that the writer should tap sensory expression and use imagery — give the reader visuals — preferably through the use of strong verbs as opposed to adjectives and adverbs.

    You can say: Do you remember when Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire? Boy, was that a juicy bit of news.

    Or you can say: Remember when Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire and then burned its way through the news like wildfire?

    One simply tells — it reminds the reader of the event. With its final image, the other shows — it evokes the urgency and excitement of the original story.

    For me this sort of creative stretching makes writing fun. Though I’m quickly bored with pretty much anything once I master it, I never grow tired of honing my craft as a writer.

    Maybe because I will never be satisfied that I’ve mastered it. But if you insist that I write in a canned voice that sounds more like a telegram than an inspired human being? Deadening drudgery! Really. It’s spirit killing.

    Though I know it does intimidate people, working at writing well need not intimidate anyone. Everyone gets to begin at the beginning.

    You wouldn’t pick up a violin for the first time, pull the bow across it, and expect to play like a concert soloist. But for some reason, people think that they should use written expression like a pro right from the get go.

    But realistically speaking? Picking up the pen and putting it to paper is really only the equivalent of picking up the violin. Cut yourself some slack — give yourself permission to practice.

  16. Words have power. If you doubt it, go to a corpse and say you’re responsible for the death. It’s certain you will be killed too. When marketing online, we should choose our words wisely, it’s the parallel line between engaging readers and putting them off.

  17. I had a post I started about people aren’t buying products anymore, they’re buying into the person who’s selling them.

    In essence, if you sell cars, I’m only going to buy from you if I trust you and/or like your way of doing business.

    It requires less effort because I know I’m not going to get scammed, and you’ll probably know a lot about me, like #1 – I am not spending more than one hour in this dealership, can’t get it done I’ll go somewhere that can.

    I want to associate myself with like minded people, forward thinking, who want to think big, take huge risks, move mountains, and not muddle around wondering why nothing good ever happens.

    I also like people who can express their ideas without hesitation, or trying to perfect everything.

    I want to find more people who think like me, and so I write exactly that way.

  18. Intellectually I can understand the concept and yet there continues to be a disconnect for me when it comes to application. Case in point: my titles are weak and a source of frustration. I recognize that I have a problem, getting readers to read my posts due to lack of craft in my titles. It takes time and as I write and get more experience, I notice what works and what doesn’t. There are no real shortcuts, just hard work through daily writing and tweaking and assessment.

  19. After years of reading Copyblogger I’m getting to the point where I can read a headline in my Google Reader and think …. yep, that’s Brian.

    Well done.

  20. I like that , Derek!

    Great post, Brian. Thanks. =)

    – Jennifer

  21. Very Well said “half Full or half Empty” is the classical example of your story. It the presentation that matter now a days, Ingredients/information is available everywhere.

  22. Interesting that you brought up Made to STick. I was just rereading it the other day and thinking about how vague we are sometimes with what our blogs are about. When people use to ask me what I wrote about I used to say “self help, self improvement, goals, and that kind of stuff.” It was really vague and not exactly something that would stick. When people ask me now I say “the things you should have learned in school but never did.” One of my personal measures of stickiness has become if I tell somebody will it be easy enough for them to remember so they can tell somebody else. in MADE to Stick, they refer to this as Identifying your Core. If you can do that and let your content be driven by that then I think you’re able to make your writing real. Great insights.

  23. Words are so important. Of course they are, blogging is a writing medium, mind you alot of bloggers now put out video posts. Your writing is always so crisp, and easy to read. I think as bloggers we improve over time, like a good wine. When i read back over my original blog posts almost 2 years old now, i cringe and think, ‘Boy i’ve come on a bit since then’. I’ve got a long way to go, before i get to your standards, but am making progress. Thank you for another great post.

  24. If you cannot make someone feel, or think they will have no reason to come back to your blog no matter what you write about.

    I keep saying it because it is simple but true, my best posts strike an emotional chord with my readers. The first time it happened it was over a very simple post that I wrote about my son. My love for him came across and that was what readers connected with.

    MAKE the reader care. Give them a reason to keep reading. That is why word choice is so important. Thank you as always for another great post Brian.

  25. I think this post will ring true to anyone who took creative writing classes in school. The color of words is what will make or break you. For all of us who decided to sit that class out, we have work to do. Practice makes perfect, as long as the practice is very deliberate and focused.

  26. Liking the “food description” example, I guess we can all take queue from those, if words can LITERALLY make something sound appetizing, then… well, I think everybody understands their power.

  27. Thanks for the nice and valuable information. It’s a challenge for me to write captivating content. You gave me a glimpse of what I can do to change my writing.

    Thanks

  28. Really enjoyed the post — as we do all of the content at Copyblogger. As film and TV producers, we find a lot of wisdom from your blog that translates to our world. In our newsletter we recently told filmmakers Copyblogger is just as important to read as McKee’s STORY and Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY. A post like this one gets right to the heart of the matter — make you s*** real or no one will care. Thanks for all you do.
    Joke and Biagio

  29. Great advice and tips. :)

  30. I wonder if this is the same thing as one’s “writing voice”, something that I always mention and work on my for myself in my writing and story-telling. It is what makes the style unique to that writer so that if you do not know beforehand, you will know immediately who wrote the piece by reading the writing.
    How you say it adds everything from making it memorable to also going a long way in having a healthy conversation (around confrontational topics, like when I posted about the path to happiness without children! ;)). Yep, can’t agree more. Thank you Brian (and Sonia) for excellent tips here.

  31. Sometimes you can tell the writer basically typed out the whole thing as they thought it

  32. My connection point between your post and what I am writing as content is “wine”. I am not writing about wine – but I remember always listening very carefully to the descriptions when a “fancy wine connoisseur” talks about it. It is not “hey, this is red wine” – It’s always loaded with expandable terms – “rich, undertones, earthy, etc… ” I get it..

  33. The most important bit I get from this is knowing who you are writing to, knowing your market, knowing your niche. It makes your writing pop. (no pun intended) I personally see all the ‘how to’ bloggers fading away soon. Nobody wants to read all that dribble.

  34. My writing is an odd mixture of nostalgia and business history, and one of my (many) goals for it is to “not sound like Wikipedia”. I’ve found that by emphasizing the dramatic side, the human side of things, it resonates so much more with my readers.

  35. Hi Brian,

    Great note here, as our words either inspire folks or elicit no real effect. No in between.

    Real writing moves people into action. Real writers learn how to use words to make people feel a certain way, to move into specific actions. Add details to your message: power verbs, colorful adjectives, all that good stuff. We seek not to convey a message, but to make folks act on the message we offer.

    Thanks!

    Ryan

  36. Very true! I put myself in the seat of a reader and well – we can feel which content is real for us to read and digest. And then we make a way to entertain our readers and give them as much point as possible – as if we are reading our own story.

    Pretty tips. Thanks for sharing with us Brian! :D

  37. It’s difficult hearing that how I write some matters, too.

    I just want to put out the best information, and forget about the “marketing” of it.

    Also, as the expert in my topic, I get more excited about how amazing the information is, and sometimes a little too excited about minutia.

    So, I run into situations where I’ll write about a study on the psychology of networking, and for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make a juicy headline out of that.

  38. Brian,

    I think it’s important to also remember that “meaningful” depends on who you are talking to.

    Even more important than how you say it is to whom you say it.

    Talk about bland pasta to someone who just ate and there’s not too much that’s meaningful there. But mention the word pasta to someone who hasn’t eaten in 14 days and that one word is guaranteed to get a big response.

  39. I agree with what he is saying about content, and how it is the line between success and failure.

  40. Great read – thank you for this post Brian.

    It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

  41. I absolutely love the way you explained the pasta and popcorn deal. By adding a description to a delicious meal it sounds amazing when you think about it! But, by adding a description to fatty meals or snacks, it definitely makes the person think first before actually accepting. I think this may work for many people who are not aware of what types of things go into food, but are aware of their weight and such.