The Best Writing Advice on the Web

By Katie Trauth Taylor and Corinne Stanforth

It’s hard to weed through all the writing tips to find the best writing advice on the web today. From how to hire strong writers for your content marketing efforts to how to write morning pages to start your day off right, everyone seems to be weighing in and offering opinions on the best ways to write.

Today, we’re exploring the best writing advice on the web. If you missed last week’s article on The Worst Writing Advice on the Web, be sure to check it out too! As writing consultants with graduate degrees in professional writing, we’ve studied hundreds of books and articles on how to be a great writer. We’ll compare our research and expertise with internet advice to see which tips are worth following and which should raise your eyebrows and make you run. Let’s dive in:

Best Writing Advice #1:  Computer-Generated Content is Not the Future of Digital Marketing

If our increased reliance on spell-checker doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies, then computer-generated content most certainly will. Maria DiCesare’s recent piece in Vital shares great advice about why computer-generated content is not the future of digital marketing.

Today, content is king. Each year, companies invest millions in content marketing to drive website traffic by consistently and prolifically publishing content optimized for search engines. Quantity of content matters tremendously to brands that want customers to find them on Google when they type in certain search words and phrases. The danger is that quantity is now starting to take major precedence over quality on content.

Some large companies are turning to new computer-generated content technologies like Persado and Automated Insights to let machines, instead of humans, do the actual writing. These programs use algorithms to produce short-form content, like email subject lines and tweets, but it’s not unthinkable to see a future where computers are able to “write” longer-form content like blogs and articles.

There are major ethical and logistical downsides to computer-generated content. First off, it’s only currently accessible to the world’s biggest brands. At a price of about $3k/month for packages that only have the ability to write content like email subject lines, small- and mid-size companies and nonprofits can’t hope to afford it. Second, as evident in the latest research on the downfalls of spell checkers, computers cannot (yet) perfectly spot grammar and punctuation errors, let alone keep up with the ever-evolving cultural idiosyncrasies of the English language and its usage.

Language is and has always been a human-driven tool for cooperation and understanding. It morphs and changes as societies do, and so requires vast capacity for perception, adaptation, and response: stuff that an algorithm will never fully capture. As DiCesare so smartly puts it:  “We still have quite a way to go before our robot overlords descend onto Earth and start pumping out strategic blog posts that convert beyond our wildest dreams. And while a computer is always going to beat me in checkers, I bet myself and the rest of Vital’s writers could out-pun, out-wit and out-strategize that computer-generated robot to an embarrassing level.”

The depth and value of human ideas cannot be clearly and compellingly communicated by machines. At least not yet. And even if it could, that feat would require massive input from actual humans who create treasure troves of algorithmic possibilities that equal the nuance inside the human brain. Technology isn’t quite there yet, and we should all be having intentional conversations about whether we really want it to be.

Best Writing Advice #2: The Best Writing Emerges from Consistent Writing Habits

Keith Hjortshoj, author of Understanding Writing Blocks, studied the reasons why some writers struggle to be prolific while others write with less anxiety and stumbling blocks. His research revealed that writers who create consistent times and environments for writing were significantly more prolific, creative, and successful than writers who wrote when they felt inspired. So called “binge writers”—writers who wrote mostly during times of inspiration in irregular intervals at weird times of day “imagined that they were highly inspired while they were writing madly for long periods.” Yet, surprisingly, “their work was judged less creative by colleagues, they had lower rates of acceptance from publications, and they were less likely to be promoted.”

So what can we learn from this research-backed writing advice? Write consistently for scheduled periods of time (ideally) at the same time everyday. Commit to writing deadlines, whether those deadlines are self-imposed or set by a customer, colleague, or accountability partner. Don’t ascribe to the old philosophy that great writing only occurs during times of high adrenaline, inspiration, and stress. Understand that open stretches of time without deadlines are much more likely to cause writing blocks. So instead of working off of inspiration, deliberately structure your writing time in consistent, regular intervals where you set modest expectations for yourself. It’s hard to dial down the desire to be a superhero writer who writes a book in a week, but research shows that your writing will be clearer, better, and more likely to be to accepted if you write consistently rather than emotionally.

Best Writing Advice #3:  When Faced With Multiple Awesome Job Candidates, Hire the Best Writer

In his New York Times bestselling book about business, Rework, Jason Fried (the founder of Basecamp and a columnist at Inc.com), writes:  

“If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer. [His/her] writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate. Writing is making a comeback all over our society… Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.”

What we love about this quote is that, if you notice, Jason quietly mentions all five levels of effective business writing:  he mentions writing skills, or the importance of being an error-free writer. He talks about clear writing, and how it’s interpreted as clear thinking. He says great writers know what to leave out, which means they write concisely. And finally, great writers put themselves into other people’s shoes—they build the right amount of context and meet readers where they’re at culturally.

Especially considering that U.S. corporations spend $3.1 billion each year of basic writing training for their employees, this wisdom is definitely great advice.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to read up on the Worst Writing Advice on the Web!

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