Most people who write for a living will tell you getting it right takes about 10% actual writing time and 90% research. Knowing what to write before you write it, and to whom, might sound like an obvious place to start, but when you’re under pressure to meet a business writing deadline, the obvious can go out of the window. It shouldn’t though, because even when you’re up against the clock, the whole process of writing your content will become easier if you put the pen down, sit back from the keyboard, and consider it first.
“An important first task when you are planning a piece of written work is to think carefully about its purpose.” (1). Start by identifying your reader, bearing in mind these three simple questions:
* Who is my reader? * Will they read this? * What value is being created? (2)
If, for example, your brief is to write a 1000 word ‘business to consumer’ brochure on a new range of motorized mobility scooters – the language, tone and style of your piece should not be targeted towards the youth audience. Sounds too obvious? Look in any newspaper, magazine or at any website, and you’ll soon find countless examples of advertisements for products that seem to be incongruously addressing a completely irrelevant market. This accounts for the irritation or amusement you feel when viewing a TV advert not aimed at you. When this happens, the audience feels disconnected straight away, and the intended message of the content falls between the cracks. It’s one of the biggest reasons sales copy and adverts fail.
In our example, after you’ve identified your main ‘mobility scooter’ readership as senior citizens, you then have a very compelling reason why they will want to read about your new products. But it’s a competitive market and the scooters won’t sell themselves. So the next part of the process is to ask yourself, ‘What’s in it for my intended readers – what benefits will our products give these readers over and above those of our competitors – and how do I communicate this to them in a language they will appreciate?’
Consider benefits, not just features
This is when the ‘analysis’ stage of the research process kicks in – when you go back to your product and set out all the features it offers your target reader, listing the corresponding benefits. Think about everything your product can do, and how this will help the reader – how this will create value for them within the content you are about to write.
If at this stage you need to clarify certain product features or specifications, or identify more generalized subject matter that reinforces your point – go onto the Internet and Google your key topics, read up on relevant details that will put your claims into an authoritative context. Imagine yourself in the mindset of your target reader, and search for examples of similar products directed at them. Note the language used to talk to them, and consider what works and what doesn’t in terms of tone.
The more detailed your research at this stage, the more rounded and effective your writing will be. You might think you’re collecting superfluous details, but when it comes to actually writing your content, you’ll find you’re already a ‘mini expert’ on the subject, and can cherry pick the best facts, stats and juicy pieces of information to back up your message.
The final stage of your research should take the form of collating your rough notes into a definitive structure. This structure will depend on the media in which your content will be published – for example, writing for the Web is very different than writing a sales letter or brochure – but if your research is sound you’ll put yourself on a solid footing for actually structuring and writing effective content.
1. Prof. Gail Huon, The University of New South Wales, Writing Workshop, 2006 2. Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton, ‘Content Critical’, Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002