Content writing strategies that really work

Jul 27, 2021

I started writing for fun when I was 13. Fresh out of primary school, I marveled at how the written art form made me feel invigorated and in love.

Years later, I have written about design, real estate, computer science, data centers, pharmaceutical monitoring, and plumbing. I became both a freelance and in-house content writer for a few brands. And in those years, my writing got better, though not without the usual frustrations of finding the right words or the dread of writing a perfect intro.

Here are some of the best content writing strategies I’ve learned over the years. I hope they can help you level up and ease your writing process.

1. Write the introduction last

During my first year of writing seriously, I would stare at a blinking cursor for hours because I couldn’t come up with a good introduction. I wanted it to be neat before I moved on to the next phase.

I could have used that wasted time to write the body of the content, but I always get stuck perfecting the first lines.

Over the years, I realized that I could write the introduction last and still end up with great content. I first heard this tip from a Hubspot online course: As long as you have an outline for your writing, you can ditch the introduction and focus on your main point.

Now, once I get a good grasp of the body of the piece, I can craft a great intro fast.

2. Make an outline first

Writing the introduction last can only be effective if you have an outline. Otherwise, tackling the main points will prove difficult.

Outlining was not part of my writing routine when I was a newbie. I would just write on and on until I ran out of words.

An outline provides structure to an otherwise lumpy article. Writers are not born to say things smoothly in print. We have so many varying wild thoughts that may or may not help us prove our point. Outlines tame those wild thoughts.

When you have a good outline, you'll know what you’ll talk about next. You’ll know how you’ll end. And you will definitely know how to start.

3. Use a thesaurus

As all writers do, I get frustrated when I have no words to explain my great ideas.

The best tool I have learned to use to combat this is the thesaurus. It has a bad rap among the writing community, because it can be used to make writing sound pompous or out of context. And I agree with that, but what I like about the thesaurus is it gives us a list of words we already know — words we have forgotten in the moment but perfectly understand when and how to use.

It’s also a good tool to learn unfamiliar words in a niche industry. Great content writers should be able to write about various fields, like marketing, technology, and digital tools. A thesaurus can help writers avoid generic words and use more specific words that target the intended audience.

4. Research, research, research

Only brilliant writers write to their knowledge and still come up with great content. The rest of us need to do some research before we begin to jot down our thoughts.

During my first year as a freelance content writer, I would dread the research part so much that sometimes I’d skip over that step. What followed were horrendous editing remarks, and a note: revise!

The truth is that without proper research, our content flies in fluff and vagueness. Research solidifies our content and gives it form. Better yet, research improves our base knowledge, helping us become better writers for the next project, and the next, until we become that expert writer.

Research doesn’t have to be so time-consuming. We don’t have to go to libraries or scour experiment results like academics and scientists do. A good abstract statement from a research paper is enough. As are explainers and ultimate link resources from authoritative websites like Harvard Journal, The Lancet, and MIT Technology Review.

If it helps make your writing persuasive and lively, include it in your research.

5. Leave the article for a day or two before you edit

The actual writing is difficult, yes. But how about the editing? Where you thought you had delivered great writing, you often get surprised, upon rereading, how horrible your writing really was.

“It doesn’t matter how good you think you are as a writer,” says freelance writer Harry Guinness, “the first words you put on the page are a first draft.”

Good content writing is mostly a result of excellent editing. Writers appear intelligent to readers because it take days, even months, to refine what they really want to say in print. But if you’re someone who writes every day, you can get so caught up in the world of your content that cutting anything is difficult.

The best way, I've learned, is to leave your piece before editing it. Even a day or two will do wonders. You’ll go back to it with fresh eyes, feeling the way your eventual reader will.

So, after a grueling writing session, pause for a while and do something unrelated to your work. Walk outside. Read fiction. Watch YouTube. Then go back to it and revise, revise, revise.

6. Use the active voice mainly, passive voice rarely

I grew up thinking the passive and active voices were just two literary techniques I could use interchangeably to add variation to my writing.

Over time, I have learned to use the passive voice with intention. For the most part, perhaps 90% of the time, I make my point with the active.

The active voice powers up your writing. It makes the content concise, lively, efficient, and to the point. Narratives are less confusing, more understandable, and flow better.

The passive voice, however, is useful in certain situations. When we focus on the receiver of the action — what affects them— using passive voice is all the more necessary. Used too much, however, it leads to clunkier sentences and confusing narratives.

Only use the passive voice with calculated intent. When you want to emphasize the receiver of the action, when you don’t know the doer of the action, when the doer is obvious or general, or when you want to sound diplomatic,  stick to your passive construction. Otherwise, make it active.

7. Keep paragraphs and sentences short

While this advice doesn’t apply to all types of content writing — certainly not to legal and medical journals — web readers generally favor short paragraphs and sentences.

Big blocks of words can bore the average reader. Even if you have great content, an engaging introduction, and dynamic words, longer paragraphs will lead the readers to assume your content is lengthy and complicated. With millions of pieces of content flooding the internet every day, your chances of getting noticed get slimmer.

With some time and work, we can break down long sentences and paragraphs into digestible bites. (That’s why taking time to revise is vital!) Shorter paragraphs lead to shorter sentences, and shorter sentences lead to better engagement. At least that’s how my experience goes.

If you can’t leave your long paragraph writing style, use it moderately. If you want to build tension, create shorter sentences. But if you want to establish a continuous flow of thoughts, longer sentences and paragraphs will do.

In my practice, I use shorter sentences at the beginning of a piece to hook as many willing readers as possible. Once they get a good grasp of the premise, I will shower them with well-seasoned long paragraphs and sentences.

Conclusion

Content writing is born out of consistent and persistent practice. The more you write, the better your content will be. That’s the only way.

Like me, you too will develop your techniques and strategies to improve your output.

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send us your blog post.

Marvin Rey Espino

Marvin Espino is a writer from the Philippines. A marketing specialist from DesignCrowd and BrandCrowd, he has written several pieces on branding, marketing, and design.