If you want to be a successful online marketer, there’s one thing you must be able to do:
you must be able to write.
Writing is involved in almost every type of content creation there is.
Emails, blog posts, and books are all primarily written content.
But even for videos, podcasts, and courses, you need to write content as well as scripts.
I’ll be honest with you:
If you’re a terrible writer, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful.
It’s harsh, but it’s true.
The good news is that you probably aren’t a terrible writer. It’s pretty hard to be one.
But at the same time, it’s hard to become a great writer.
Even after years of writing, I still wouldn’t say I’m a great writer—maybe a good one.
The key thing that you need to know is that you can improve your writing skills.
By studying the works of great writers, you can learn what makes their writing great.
And with practice, you can improve the effectiveness of your own writing, which means more traffic, subscribers, and customers.
Although you could spend dozens of hours doing that research yourself, you could just let me show you which skills are the most important when it comes to writing.
I have studied a wide variety of top notch writers (who are also great marketers) over the years and noticed that they all have certain skills in common.
In this article, I’ll break down these skills, showing you examples of them in action and ways to develop them.
By the end of this post, you should have a concrete game plan of how to become a better writer for the benefit of your business.
1. Having a big vocabulary doesn’t make you a great writer
When most people picture great writers, they think of them crafting sentences full of obscure words such as aphesis and esculent.
But the people who use words like that are usually terrible writers.
The measure of a writer is not how big his or her vocabulary is. As long as you have a decent vocabulary and understand the fundamentals of grammar of the language you’re using, you can be a good writer.
Even if you’re just learning a language, don’t think that you can’t be a good writer just because you don’t know every word of it.
There are plenty of successful bloggers who write in their second language (e.g., Bamidele Onibalusi).
Is their writing perfect from a grammar and vocabulary perspective? No, of course not.
But even without an extensive vocabulary, they’re able to create content that people love to read.
There’s actually a way for us to quantify the complexity of writing. It’s called the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale.
It looks at the length of words, and a few other factors, in order to determine at what grade level people could understand your content.
By copying a few sample blog posts into this readability score calculator, I was able to create this chart:
The three other writers on this list are all great writers in my opinion, or at least very good.
Notice that Brian and Ramit both write at about 4th grade level, as do I. That means the average 10-year-old could read most of our content because it’s not very complex.
Even though Michael Hyatt writes at a more sophisticated level, it’s still only at a grade 7 level.
The big question then becomes: Why?
The reason why great writers use simple words and phrases is because they write for the reader, not themselves.
They may appreciate the intricacies of the English language, but most readers don’t care about that. They want their information in the simplest and easiest to comprehend way.
Obviously, it’s much easier to read and understand short simple words than to figure out what the heck clandestine means (if you are curious, it means “done in secret”).
Oh yeah, there’s one other benefit to writing simply: you can write much faster.
Instead of searching for the “perfect” word, you use plain language—typically the first words that come to mind. These words are usually the words that your audience understands easily as well, so they’re really the perfect choice.
How can you apply this? This is a very simple skill to develop: just write. When you’re writing something, write down the first things that come to mind instead of searching for more complicated words instead.
Don’t worry if you make mistakes; you can always fix them when you edit.
2. Do you care how your readers feel?
Poor writers do a variety of things.
Some write what they themselves would want to read.
Others write to sound as intelligent as possible.
Either way, it’s not about the reader. Instead, it’s more about “look at how smart and awesome I am.”
Very few people are interesting enough to make this strategy work for them.
When writers focus on themselves, their writing is not compelling to the reader. These kinds of writers either improve over time as they recognize their mistakes, or they blame the readers for not recognizing good content.
I have to ask you a tough question now:
When you write content, do you think of the reader first or do you think about how to make yourself look the best (as the author)?
It’s not necessarily one or the other. Your answer could be somewhere in the middle (i.e., sometimes you focus on yourself).
The simple solution: If you’ve recognized an opportunity for improvement here, it’s easy to take advantage of it, at least in theory.
The answer is to develop empathy.
Empathy basically means that you can understand your readers’ perspective: their problems, interests, personality, and other relevant aspects of their lives.
It takes time to develop empathy, and I’m not sure if you can ever master it completely.
But empathy really shows in great writing.
The best writers use empathy both to understand what readers need to hear (solve their problems) and to determine the best way to teach them.
Some audiences need to be shown direct solutions; others need step-by-step directions; while others need a gentle prod in the right direction.
Examples of empathy in action: When writers truly understand their audience and then focus all their attention on writing that will help the audience as much as possible, it shows.
Take a look at this post from Seth Godin. He mentions the word “you” or its variations 10 times in about 100 words. This post is all about the reader.
The post is about being passionate about your work.
Many bloggers write on this topic. Most would have focused on how their own corporate experience led them to the epiphany that they needed to care more.
But that would have fallen on deaf ears.
Instead, Seth focuses on the reader’s life. He explains the problem using the language that the reader would use to describe the problem in detail.
And then, he offers a simple, one-line solution.
Or how about James Clear? He’s another great writer.
His posts aren’t based on the numbers in Google’s Keyword Planner. They are based on questions that he gets from his readers.
He knows that for every person who expresses frustration or identifies a problem, there are a hundred other people in his audience with the same issue.
So James uses his readers’ language so that other readers can relate to it and feel that the content was created specifically for them.
There’s no other way to do that other than by writing solely for the reader.
The hard part – How to develop empathy: Telling you to develop empathy is easy, but actually doing it isn’t so easy: it takes a lot of conscious practice.
But it’s not all or nothing either. Just because you don’t perfectly understand your audience doesn’t mean you can’t partially understand them.
And as you get better at empathizing with your audience, your writing will improve.
To practice this skill and develop empathy, I suggest the following five-step process. Perform it every time you create content:
1. What problems (and related problems) do your readers have around [topic of choice]?
2. How significant are these problems (very serious? or just minor pains?)
3. How do you think your readers would describe these problems?
Use steps #1-3 to outline your post. Create an intro and headlines that a reader would not only understand but would see and think, “I was just wondering about that!”
4. After writing the content, look at every single sentence/paragraph and ask yourself: “Does my reader actually care about this?” If not, either rephrase it, or take it out completely.
5. Study all comments you get on your content (whether it’s a blog comment, review, email, etc.). Try to understand why a reader says they do or don’t like it.
Create a simple checklist using these five steps, and follow it every time you write.
If you do, you’ll notice that your content will start to resonate with readers more and more.
Your audience will be more excited to read your posts, and they’ll be more engaged. You’ll get readers’ comments telling you their thoughts and opinions, which will be full of great ideas for more content (I get great suggestions all the time from my readers).
Ultimately, when it comes to your business, this type of resonance is very important because it tells the reader that you understand them.
If you create a product, they know that you’ve created it just for them and that it will meet all their needs and wants. Developing empathy is a skill that will have a long-term impact on your revenue.
3. Great writers aren’t born overnight
Think of the great writers in history: Shakespeare, Hemingway,…Neil Patel (maybe one day).
Whomever you think of when you think of great writers, it’s important to realize that they were not born that way.
Although writing is more abstract than mathematics or programming, it is a skill like any other and can be developed.
At one point or another, all writing greats could barely string a sentence together.
However, they all shared one thing: a drive to be a great writer.
Right now, you need to check if your motivation to become a better writer is enough to get you to the level you want.
If you really want to be the best writer you can be, you’ll have to write many hours, every single day. That’s what it takes to be the very best.
If you want to be one of the best writers who is also a marketer, that’s still hard, but not quite as difficult. You’ll still want to practice at least 10-20 hours a week.
But the most important thing you need to determine is this: do you really want to be a better writer?
Determine your goals, and then figure out what you’ll need to do to get there.
For example, if you want to be a blogger, start by taking a look at your favorite bloggers.
If you scroll down to the bottom of Quick Sprout’s blog page, you can click on the “last” button to see my oldest posts.
And if you do, you’ll see that my first post on this blog was written in 2007:
If you wanted to reach my current level of success, are you prepared to write about 2-3 posts a week for 8 years?
And then write over 300 guest posts as well?
If you are willing to put in that work, I guarantee that you will be very successful.
How to put in your dues in a systematic way: If you simply say out loud, “I’m going to write a blog post every day for the next three years,” chances are that you won’t.
You need to develop your own system that keeps you accountable.
Step 1 is to determine what you need to do to become the writer you want to be.
Create a new document that clearly states what you think you need to do.
Step 2 is to determine a schedule that you can stick to. This is formed by your personal schedule. If you have more time to spend on writing, you have more flexibility.
Here’s what it might look like:
I will write and publish a post every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, no matter what.
You have the plan, but you need to make sure you follow through with it.
Step 3 is to find a way that will hold you accountable.
It’s really easy to just not write a post because you’ll barely notice the difference in the short term. But in the long term, it can make a huge difference.
So, how will you hold yourself accountable? There’s no wrong answer, but make sure that there’s a serious consequence if you don’t follow through with your plan.
For example, you could say that if you miss a post:
- you will donate $50 to a charity
- you will do something that you don’t like
- you will email a friend or family member revealing an embarrassing secret
When you’re feeling motivated, you’ll have no problem writing. But when you’re not feeling motivated, this accountability plan will keep you on track.
Now you should have a simple but solid writing plan:
You should print this out and put it somewhere where you will see it at least once a day (at least until you develop good habits).
Finally, step 4 is to forget about the result, and focus on the process.
The reason for this is that in order to get the most out of your writing, you need to focus on writing itself as much as possible.
The whole point of this writing plan is for you to not focus on the results.
You don’t need to worry, thinking: “Am I doing enough to become a successful writer?” because you’ve already determined exactly what you need to do.
If you just focus on adhering to your plan, you’ll know with nearly 100% certainty that you will become a very good and successful writer when you are done.
So, don’t worry about traffic stats and other metrics while you write; just focus on writing well—the result will come.
4. “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time”
That quote has been attributed to many great writers, but it appears to have been first said by Blaise Pascal.
Regardless of who said it, the meaning is incredibly powerful.
When we talked about using simple words in writing, I advocated writing down the first words that came to mind.
When you do this, you’ll often end up using more words than you need to.
And the reason why this is a bad thing is because it dilutes the value in your content.
Think of it this way: your content has a message that has a certain value to your readers.
I would define the intensity—or quality—of writing using a simple formula:
Intensity = Value / Length
The longer your content is (if the value is held constant), the lower the intensity.
If you really want to inspire your readers to take action, your writing needs to blow them away.
It needs to provide value at a fast enough rate so that it feels to them as if a light bulb went off in their heads. In other words, your writing needs to be of a high intensity.
The more unnecessary words you have, the lower the intensity of your writing will be, and the smaller the impact your content will make.
Again, we can look at Seth Godin for a perfect example of high intensity writing. He makes every single word count.
Despite writing very short posts, he delivers a ton of value to his readers, which results in significant emotional reactions from them:
As you’ve noticed, I take a very different approach with my posts.
They are very long, usually at least 4,000 words. Since they are so long, I need to pack them with value.
Where Seth’s content is more strategic (broad thinking), my posts are more on specific tactics and ways to implement them, which takes more time to explain.
But although my posts are between 4,000 and 6,000 words, they are usually much longer when I first write them. I edit them down and remove as much “fluff” as I can.
With blog posts, you have a lot of flexibility with length. In other forms of writing, you don’t.
In emails or landing pages, you typically only have a limited amount of space (often fewer than 100 words) to get as much value across to your readers as possible.
Notice in the above example that every sentence either describes a feature or a benefit of the product.
How do you cut out the “fluff”? Like with these other skills, it takes practice to become a good editor (you could hire one if you wanted).
To practice, go through your content, sentence by sentence, and ask yourself if there is a simpler way to get your message across.
For example, the sentence:
There are some marketing channels that are better than others, like email marketing.
could be reduced to:
Email marketing produces the best ROI of any marketing channel.
That simple change took the sentence from 13 words to 10 words, and made the meaning of the sentence clearer.
That’s a 23% decrease in length. If you originally wrote a 3,000-word article and decreased every sentence by that percentage, you’d end up with a 2,300 word article.
Although it’s shorter, it will make a bigger impact on your readers because of its increased intensity.
Here’s a brilliant article on specific edits that you can make to make your writing more powerful to get you started.
5. I’ve never seen a great writer that doesn’t have this
What do typical writers do to prepare for an article?
They do a bit of research on Google and then compile what they learn into an article.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s a recipe for producing content that is very similar to what’s already out there.
The best writers I’ve seen can write about any topic in their niche and put some kind of unique spin—angle—on it.
Besides being unique, that additional something is also insightful and adds to the value the reader gets.
In Breakthrough Advertising, a legendary copywriting book by Eugene Schwartz, he notes that great copywriters have a wide array of experience.
You might consider them jacks of all trades.
Great writers read and practice things in all sorts of fields. If I had to boil it down to specific traits, they all possess high levels of curiosity and an open mind.
They can write an article about social media marketing and use an example of hiking up a mountain in a way that makes the point they are making clearer to the reader.
One marketer that does this really well is Bryan Harris at Video Fruit. He often shares personal stories in the introduction of his posts. But he always finds a clever, insightful way to tie it back to the point he’s making:
Another well-known marketer, Ramit Sethi, often mentions real life stories in his blog posts and emails.
For example, in an email about “unconventional ways to win,” he mentions both baseball and government officials as examples:
The great power of connections: The reason why these unexpected connections are valuable is because they can relate your thoughts using a different language.
Some points will be difficult to explain no matter what niche you are writing for.
For example, maybe you’re trying to explain to your readers how to write in a conversational tone and why it’s more interesting to their readers.
If your readers don’t understand your explanation, reading it over and over again won’t help them.
But often, when you make a point in a different context, it becomes much clearer.
With regards to writing conversationally, for example, you could tell a story of being bored at a lecture when a lecturer simply read his slides to his students instead of talking to them. That’ll illustrate your point in a way that’s recognizable to most people.
So, how do you do it? The very nature of this skill is abstract. You’re making connections that other people don’t think of naturally, and that’s what adds a unique angle to your writing.
In order to do this, you need two things:
- Experience – The more experiences you have in life, the more connections you can make.
- Practice – At first, you won’t make these connections naturally. When you write about a complex topic, force yourself to come up with five connections you could use to explain your point. Over time, you will naturally notice good opportunities.
And when I’m talking about experience, I mean different experiences.
Always be ready to try something new:
- take a cooking class
- reconnect with old acquaintances
- take an online course in a subject you’ve never studied
Basically, now you have a very good reason to learn or try anything you’ve ever wanted.
6. Want to become (and stay) a great writer? You need to have this…
The final skill that the best writers (in a marketing context) have is adaptability.
Each content medium has its own quirks. Although your writing style will be more or less the same, the best writers know how to tailor their writing for each medium.
When I say medium, I’m talking about forms of content such as:
- blog posts
- Kindle books
- social media
I could give you many examples, but let’s look at Danny Iny, founder of Firepole Marketing.
He’s written multiple courses in the past:
But he’s also written hundreds of blog posts and guest posts.
On top of that, he actively engages with his followers and customers on social media:
And if that wasn’t enough, he just released a new book, in addition to several others:
On top of knowing how to write for different formats and audiences, great writers keep up with change.
Take me as an example. If you look at older Quick Sprout posts, you will see that many are only 500-1,000 words.
But as blogging has developed, good writing practices for the topics I cover have changed.
I noticed that longer posts performed better, and now almost all my posts are 4,000+ words long. I try to make every post the definitive post on that specific topic.
How do you develop adaptability? By definition, you need to learn how to respond positively to changing circumstances. And in the marketing world, things change fast, which makes it even more important.
The first key takeaway for you is this: adaptability comes second. First, you need to hone your initial skills.
In practical terms, this means that you should pick one main format of writing and focus as much of your attention on it as possible. That’s how you’ll learn all the ins and outs of it.
For most, blogging is a great place to start.
Once you’ve put in the time and effort to fully understand how to write great blog posts, you can move on to the next format, be it email, social media, or something else.
In the initial period, you can still write emails or other content, but most of your focus will be on the first format you’ve chosen. Then, you’ll shift that focus to the second medium.
The second key takeaway is that you always need to be looking for what’s next, whether it’s a new medium or changes happening within an old format.
When you see a new type of content becoming popular (e.g., lately video content and podcasts), give it a try because you can always learn something from it to become a better writer.
You should always be testing different ways of reaching your audience.
Being a great writer will be very valuable for the foreseeable future, no matter which industry you work in.
And even if you’re not an experienced writer today, you can become one with practice: all great writers had to start from some point.
If you follow the steps I laid out in this post, I guarantee that in a few years, you will be an excellent writer.
You can use those skills however you please, whether it’s to get more followers, subscribers, a better job, or take your sales to a new level.
If you have any questions about these skills or want to share a story about writing, leave me a comment below.