The advice that helped you get across the street as a kid can help you populate your blog. In my class today, we are talking about coming up with ideas for reader-friendly content, and for a lot of people, that is the hardest thing about writing.
I’ve written already about the types of content you produce, the things your audience needs to know and the things your audience wants to know and I’ll be talking today about using variations on a topic to come up with ideas.
Another technique you can try is bringing ideas across media. Here’s how it works:
Stop. Use your reading habit to find ideas in a lot of places. You know you can use an .rss reader to keep up with writing in your area of interest. But do more. What are popular podcasts in your area? Do your YouTube subscriptions bring in new ideas? Keep a list handy in the cloud so you can add to it when deliberately searching and on the go.
Look. Train yourself to attend to serendipity. You are surrounded by content pretty much all the time. Look intentionally at billboards, that TV channel that they plan in the grocery store, the back cover of the magazine that lady is reading on the bus. Snapping photos of things you want to remember and pinning them on a private Pinterest board is a good way to remember this kind of information.
Listen. There’s content that you are interested in, and there is content other people are interested in, too. People talk about media frequently, it is worth it to pay attention to the things they say, both for topics and smaller pieces of information that are interesting. For example, the Superbowl featured a bunch of new ads, like usual, and people have favorites. When they talk about the ones they like, ask questions – what did you like about it? Who was your favorite character? What surprised you? This can give you ideas for both topics and approaches in your own work.
I spent the morning coming up with ideas for content marketing white papers for my students. No matter what you are doing, coming up with a solid idea is half the battle of getting it done. So what are the characteristics of a great idea?
Relevance – Unless you are keeping your own personal journal, you are always writing for an audience. And as Dale Carnegie told us
“Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn’t bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: ‘Wouldn’t you like to have that?’ Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?”
A few things can help here:
- A look at your analytics to see what your audience has liked in the past
- A consideration of the news value of the topic you are considering (see this past post for more on news values)
- A thoughtful audience persona (see this past post for more on personas)
Feasibility – A great work is, first and foremost, a completed one. Your idea is only valuable if you have the insight, talent and time to bring it to life. If you struggle with coding, a nifty app is a great idea. If running your business takes all of your time, it will be hard for you to keep a blog up consistently. Yes, you can and should learn new things, but unless you have the time and resources to do that before your deliverable is needed, you may need to be more realistic.
Once you have the great idea, your job is much easier – now you just have to do it!
As I mentioned last time, I read more than ever. At least some of that is because I feel like I have more to read than ever. Whether you are just trying to make your opinions known, or to boost your search rankings through content marketing, good writing is more important than ever. Step 1 for readers? Is this piece going to be tolerable to get through.
I grade a lot of writing (really, really feeling it this Exam week!). Here are the general criteria I use:
Is the writing form appropriate for the topic? If you are reporting data, sentences with a lot of numbers in them just don’t make sense. If you explaining a funeral home’s services, opening with a joke about zombies* might not be the most tasteful approach.
Is the writing form appropriate for the audience? One of my biggest pet peeve in this is billboards. I am not going to remember a lengthy URL from one. I remember one from a college that used the college’s initials as white in the black words let it be. They were getting at the fact that they speak “words of wisdom”, but I passed that billboard every day for 8 months, frequently as a passenger, before I got it. There’s two issues here: what the audience WANTS to know and what the audience CAN understand.
Are the facts straight? There are two factors here: accuracy and logic. Good writing uses both. Writing that doesn’t makes me hate you.
Are the tools of language used properly? Jokes about grammar police and nazis aside, readers totally judge you on this. If you can’t get the commas right, how can I trust that you got the facts straight?
Note that all of the above are basic level issues. In my classes, do that right and you get a B. To get an A, you have to be interesting, too, and that’s a whole different challenge.
*What’s a zombie’s favorite lunch? Manwiches.
My job as a college professor is a full-time, plus occupation. But I still write this blog and contribute to a public one. Why would I do that?
First, it is good practice for me as a writer. I do write for my work, but often it is either research papers or class assignments, both of which have a narrow and unusual audience. My journalism training means I can write for a given audience, but I know I do better when I regularly practice.
Second, it is good practice for me as a thought leader. As one of my favorite NY Times columnists noted, professors have some good, important thinking they do, and it’s important that they share.
Finally, it keeps me in touch with the industry. I do a lot of work in content strategy and marketing, and I need to practice what I preach.
Should you blog? I think so. Here’s a short presentation on reasons why.
Tomorrow is idea workshop day in my class. It’s a simple premise: taking a general topic, you can come up with lots of different story ideas by considering how you’d present it in different genres. For example, let’s say your product is shoes. Basic, boring shoes. What kinds of stories can we tell about shoes?
Round up – Mistakes people make in fitting shoes
Historical – What’s the origin of the athletic shoe? How did they get the popular feature you are selling?
Inspirational – “When I put on my shoes, I’m ready to dance. My shoes bring out my inner wild man.”
Humor – How many shoes X has ( a senior citizen who has them going back to 1964; a child who has dress shoes, sneakers, cleats, etc. etc.)
Essay – First person on why the right shoes make the outfit.
Exposé – If your shoes worker friendly, what are the conditions for shoes that are not?
Service article – What kind of shoes for what kind of activity?
Profile – Our tough river sandal, the outdoorsman’s best friend.
How to – How to break in your new shoes.
Presentation on the characteristics of different types of articles.