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.
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!