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28 Nov 2014

The Gryffin Guide to Readable, Shareable Blog Content

Part I: Developing Quality Content

  1. Is There A Clear Structure?
    1. Outline your article
    2. Delineate your principal ideas
    3. Make sure your structure is solid

  1. Is it Compelling/Shareable?
    1. Lead With A Hook
    2. Identify Angles and Opportunities
    3. Be Original
    4. Speak with Authority
    5. Always Research
    6. Understand Your Intention
  1. Is It Relevant?
    1. Know Your Audience
    2. Pay Attention to Keywords
    3. Follow the Brand Narrative
    4. Back Up Your Claims
    5. Break Away from Your Ego
  1. Is it Readable?
    1. Break Down Big Blocks of Text
    2. Provide Visual Aids
    3. Use Smooth Transitions
    4. Watch Out For Style and Grammar
    5. Proof-Read Out Loud

Odds are, you’re reading this article because you are

  1. a blogger looking to improve his or her content marketing game
  2. a digital vagrant enticed by images of mythological creatures in classrooms
  3. in desperate need to learn how to improve your online visibility

Regardless of your background, you should find this tutorial very informative in your quest to become an expert blogger in the age of content shock.   This guide will help you to:

  1. Optimize your writing for visibility and shareability
  2. Get comfortable with a general blog aesthetic
  3. Package your deliverables for streamlined publication
  4. Become familiar with our creative tools and workspaces
  5. Improve your style and editing techniques

Part I: Developing Quality Content

You’re working in a unique industry where supply far outweighs demand, so if you want anyone to look twice at your product (that being blog content), you need to make sure it stands out.  So, as writers and editors, it’s on us to package the work for maximum engagement.

But how do you know if your content is a quality contribution or just adding to the static?  There are 4 basic questions you should ask yourself as you audit everything you write.

1: Is There a Clear Structure?

The first thing that is going to draw in or lose your reader is the structure.  The average reader is looking to take in information for the least amount of effort, so your post should appear functional and easy to digest.

Most of this simply comes down to proper planning.

  1. Outline Your Article

As you can see above, an outline helps readers to navigate longer pieces.  But it helps the writer just as much.

For shorter pieces, you wouldn’t want to include the outline in your work, but blocking out what you want to say beforehand streamlines the actual writing phase significantly.  It allows you to fill in information without having to worry about the big picture narrative.

Now, you may find as you’re writing that a different angle emerges.  This is just part of the writing process.  Sometimes, the real core of the article doesn’t come out until it’s half-way written.  Outlines are always subject to adjustment as new information emerges.

But how does one go about formulating a strong, stable outline?

  1. Delineate Your Principal Ideas

The best place to start is to determine what your key ideas are.  What are the main points you want your readers to take away from the piece?  Those will generally be the foundation for your headers.

Headers help break down ideas to make them easier to comprehend.  Rather than taking in the article as a whole, audiences can read each section as an independent mini-article and bring it all together later.

This accomplishes a few things.  On one hand, if there is just one specific attention-grabbing element in your article, this allows the readers to skip right to the meat of the piece.  If there’s anything that might encourage more shares, you want readers to be able to find it as quickly as possible.

This article from SEMRush is about securing social media account for business, but within that larger topic, there are sub-sections, which are broken down, as you can see below:

Blog Content

Here they have a section about developing stronger passwords, and one about tools for tracking passwords.  These are easy to find at a glance, and increase the likelihood of reaching the audiences that are looking for this kind of information.

Often times, if the reader is interested in the subject matter but bored by the piece, they may skim through the headers to see if there’s anything interesting.  Sharp, catchy headers can draw them back in, so take the time to come up with headers that are not only indicative of the sections content, but intriguing to readers.

There are many creative ways you can structure a blog post to build a narrative and intrigue visitors.  But again, you’re content must be able to deliver beyond the teasers.

  1. Make Sure Your Structure is Solid

Once you’ve established the structure, go back and make sure you’re being as succinct as possible, not repeating yourself or including superfluous sections that just re-hash established points.

For example: In a section devoted to structure, a sub-section “Make Sure Your Structure is Solid” is entirely redundant and wastes the reader’s time.  Sorry, but now you know.

2: Is it Compelling/Shareable

  1. Lead with A Hook

Titles are the first thing to catch your reader’s attention.  Crafting an engaging title is such a complex science, I won’t dive into it here, but I’ll refer you to this great post on the topic.

Titles aside, that first line is equally important, as it sets the tone and pace for the piece.  If you bore the reader in the first sentence, there’s no way they’re going to stick around to read the second one.

But don’t overdo it!  Sensational openers can be a draw, but unless you can back them up with equally sensational content, you risk leaving readers irritated and dissatisfied.

  1. Identify Angles and Opportunities

The most sought-after content is the kind that brings something new to the table, something that people can share on social media to impress that they’re ahead of the curve.

The difficulty is, if you make too many unprecedented claims, you’ll start to lose credibility, so it’s important to find the middle ground.  In most cases, originality will stem from a new angle on a topic that’s been covered at length.

This happens on a macro level, and a micro level.  Sometimes, when you are caught up on a certain section of your piece, or a certain key point, you may have a take a step back and engage with a different point of view.

The more variety you add to your writing, the less you’ll have to worry about the next big component.

  1. Be Original

The statutes of originality may sound pretty basic to experienced writers, but they can affect visibility in ways you might not expect.  The number one rule: Do Not Plagiarize… Ever.  Even if it’s something you’ve written, sites can be penalized by Google for having duplicate content.

Once you’ve written a blog post and published it, you should think of it as someone else’s work, because reusing ideas and blocks of text can land you in a lot of trouble, maybe not legally (our writer personas have never been in the business or suing one another) but in terms of visibility and Google penalties, watch out.

Additionally, those of you who are working as ghostwriters can not assume that all of your work has been published under the same name, or that your current submissions are being published in the same place as your past submissions.

In this business, intellectual property rights often go to the publisher, not the writer.  This publisher may be a client, or just a contact site.

  1. Speak with Authority

Authority may seem esoteric, but never underestimate the pull of objectivity in SEO.

While google does have algorithms to determine domain authority, as the writer, your chief concern should be your own authority as a speaker.  Your voice must reflect confidence in the information you’re presenting.

Take note of the tone used in this excerpt from an article on Social Media Examiner:

Blog Content

The language is direct.  It doesn’t waste time and it’s doesn’t qualify it’s own claims.  They don’t say “the subscription process could probably be one of the best times to ask for a social follow, so long as you’re polite about it.”  It’s the best time. Period. Moving on.

Whether you’re an industry expert or a ghost writer tackling a new subject for the first time, as far as the audience should be concerned, you’re an industry expert.

But how do you speak with authority on a topic you may know nothing about?

  1. Always Research

“Write what you know” is a common editorial mantra, but when you’re freelance writing for a competitive market, you won’t always have that luxury.

More often than not, you’ll probably have to research topics as you write the articles, but even then,  your editorial voice should convey confidence and expertise on that topic.

It’s important for writers, especially those focused in a single industry, to know the lay of the land.  Identify influencers and top blogs in the industry you’re writing for and take note of their presentation.  This will be very helpful as you adjust your style to fit industry standard.

Use statistics and quotes – hard data – wherever possible.  This data is the difference between fluffy opinion pieces and informative content.  Don’t add to the fluff!

  1. Understand Your Intention

A blog post usually has at least one of three goals:

  1. To inform
  2. To persuade
  3. To engage

Informative Content should be cut and dry, conforming to an industry standard with clear, understandable language.  You want your reader to be able to follow what you’re saying and believe what you’re saying, so structure and authority are absolutely essential.  These will most often be in the form of step-by-step tutorials, with plenty of visuals.

Persuasive Content are going to be more tied to advertising a product or service.  You won’t always be speaking AS a brand rep, but regardless, the most important factors here are trust and authority.

Engaging Content is targeted and purposed for drawing in a larger crowd.  The content appeals to current events, emotions, or industry talking points.

Most blog posts should aim to combine all of these to some extent, but there will almost always be a primary goal.  Once these aspects are in order, you can ask yourself the final pressing question.

3: Is it Relevant?

According to Content+, 3 out of 5 consumers trust a company more after reading their blog, and 7 out of 10 customers would rather get to know a product via branded content than a targeted ad.  As the editorial voice of a brand, it is important that your work is not only in-line with the client’s objectives, but also captivating to the right audience.

  1. Know Your Audience

Before you can inform, persuade, or even engage an audience, you have to understand it’s background and sensibilities.  Industry cultures often embrace consistent rhetorical, aesthetic, and even political tendencies.  It’s the marketer’s job to appeal to that culture, whatever that may be, to promote the clientele.

As the writer, you just have to keep in mind that  you’re jumping into a conversation that’s been going on long before you, and will most likely continue long after you.  Nothing is more annoying to an industry insider than a new blogger spamming their SERPs with obvious observations and fundamental factoids.

For example:

You’re writing blog content for a bookstore in San Diego.  You just got a new shipment of graphic novels and you want to bring in the hardcore fans.  You write a 2500 word blog post on Comic-Con, letting everyone know that it’s coming up and it’s totally awesome.

They know what Comic-con is.  They made up their minds about it long ago.  Unless you’re exposing the event as an NSA plot to gather intelligence on UFOs, your target audience couldn’t care less about what you have to say, and by assuming that they do, you insult their intelligence and throw up a expose yourself as an outsider to the culture.

The same applies to any industry.  If you don’t know (and respect) your audience, you are more likely to alienate than entice, so make sure you’re not wasting their time with the basics.  If you must make an obvious claim, package it in the sentence in a way that suggests you realize what you’re saying is fundamental.

For example:

“We all know that Facebook Ads are a must-have for online marketing campaigns, but accepted as that may be, many marketers still under-utilize the platform’s capabilities.”

By acknowledging what most people already know, you establish yourself on the same level as experienced marketers, and you’ve teased that you know more.  But who are you, and why should anybody care?

  1. Pay attention to Keywords

Relevance is determined primarily by an the target keyword, a word or phrase that theoretically encapsulates the main idea of an article.

For example:

Gryffin Media might use a keyword like: Penalty Removal

The more a target keyword appears in an article, the more “relevant” the content appears to search engine crawlers.  The keyword should almost always appear in the title and URL, and should appear as much as possible in sub-headers and body text.  A target keyword must also appear verbatim, or it will not qualify.

For example:  

Penalty Removal is a different keyword than Penalty Removals or Penalty Removed.

You can sprinkle your content with a hundred variations of one keyword, but only the exact matches with count toward optimization.  There are long-tail exceptions, however.

For example:

Find Cloud Security Provider lacks an aesthetic ring, so in this case, it may be appropriate to include stopwords.  Instead of using the keyword verbatim, you can say: Find A Cloud Security Provider or Find Your Cloud Security Provider Today, because the keyword is only broken by a stopword.

Keep in mind, there is such thing as keyword overkill.   As you orient your work to be more SEO friendly, take note of how the keyword integration affects the flow of your piece.

Too much pandering to algorithms and you start to sound robotic.  This repels your actual human readers and defeats the entire purpose of visibility.

  1. Follow the Brand Narrative

The brand narrative is the set of values and perceptions that you, your client, or a marketing team before you, has cultivated over an extended period of time.  It’s a “personality” designed to appeal to a selected target audience through trust, goodwill, and common interest.

As a voice of this brand, you are expected to assimilate and perpetuate this effort.

Are you speaking as a brand rep?  On behalf of the company?  As an independent third party with no apparent affiliation?  Are you an individual voice, or a mouthpiece for an organization?

These are relevant questions to ask yourself, or your editor, when starting a new project, as it will affect everything from tone of voice to the pronoun usage.  Singular or plural, male or female, these may seem like arbitrary issues for an independent blogger, but when you’re representing an established brand, a statement as simple as “This is what we offer” could contradict a pre-existing narrative.

  1. Back up Your Claims

The best way to influence your audience is to anticipate their rebuttals.  Just as it’s important to steer clear of indulging obvious truths, you want to avoid making bold claims without hard evidence to back them up.

This is where sources and affiliations are paramount, so think before you link.

It’s always better to link to sites with high authority.  One of the simplest ways to check authority of sites is by downloading the Mozbar for Chrome or the similar add-on for Firefox.   This will tell you how much domain authority a website has.  Sites with little to no authority are probably not worth linking to.

Ideal link destinations would include:

  • edu domains
  • gov domains
  • established newspapers/magazines
  • leading industry blogs

On the flip side of that, we highly discourage linking to:

  • low-quality amateur blogs
  • wikipedia entries
  • client competitors
  • forum posts
  • anything that conflicts with the brand narrative

Don’t leave holes for critics in the comments section to poke.  Evaluate your work, identify points of interest and points of potential debate, then make sure you reinforce any  vulnerabilities with credible sources.

And save the big controversy for your personal publications.  Advertorial content should be moderated and trustworthy.  You’re speaking for the brand, not your own agenda.

  1. Break Away From Your Ego

Getting outside of yourself can be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary when representing another brand or individual.  There’s no room for bias or stylistic signatures.  Ideally, a writer should approach every new client as a blank slate, then inform their own style and voice from industry, audience, and competitor research.

This should also inform everything from your language to your sense humor.  Just because you think something is funny or appropriate doesn’t mean every audience will.   Always take that into consideration.

The more you can distance yourself from you personal identity and assimilate to the needs of the brand or marketing campaign, the more effective your final product will be.

4: Is it Readable?

  1. Break Down Big Blocks of Text

While big blocks of text convey a certain formality, and many academic schools of thought use them quite liberally, they have little use in the context of content marketing.  A good blog writer knows to lead with clean, readable formatting, because even if the title fails to capture, a brief, one or two line intro paragraph begs just a minute of the reader’s time.  If those lines are even mildly compelling, the reader may look across the white space, see two more lines and think, Why not?  You want to keep this momentum flowing as long as you possibly can.  Ideally, no block of text should be more than 3-4 lines, but there are always exceptions.  In those cases, you just have to hope that by the time the reader gets to your more bulky paragraphs, they are already too engrossed in the overall narrative to abandon ship.  Take this paragraph, for example.  Some small part of your brain saw this a minute ago and has been dreading it, but now that same part of your brain feels a minor sense of accomplishment, and a great sense of relief that you won’t have to endure this kind of psychological torture again for the rest of the article.

  1. Provide Visual Aid

I could explain the value of visual information to you, or I could share an excerpt from one of our infographics:

Blog Content

The visual component is essential for delivering a message.  You should lead every blog post with a featured image that captures the reader’s attention.

Depending on the length, the article will probably have a couple more images interspersed throughout.  It’s wise to include one image for every 300 words.

  1. Use Smooth Transitions

An abrupt change to the progression of ideas can be jarring to the reader, and every time you break their train of thought, you risk losing them completely.  That’s why it’s important to make every transition as seamless as possible.

The end to one section should set the reader up for the start of the next, with a progression that mimics natural thought patterns to the best of your ability.

Anchor text should follow the same rule, assimilating to the sentence flow.  If your anchor text extends beyond a single word, then make sure the cut off is logical and aesthetic, that is isn’t fracturing self-contained clauses or disrupting the train of thought.

If you have to break your syntax to include a link, it’s usually a sign that you need to re-think the link or re-think the structure of the sentence.  On that note…

  1. Watch Out for Style and Grammar

Even the most advanced writers fall into certain grammatical traps once in a while.  Learn to spot a few of these basic issues in your own work, and you’ll be shocked at how much your writing improves.

Basic Mix-Ups happen all the time, even to the best writers.  The English language is an exceptionally convoluted one, so much so that most readers will likely gloss over these mistakes without thinking anything of them.  Still, for a professional writer addressing a professional audience, these fundamental faux pas scream amateur.

The Dangling Participle usually results from being in a rush, one of the most common grammatical errors.   Wait, did that sentence sound odd to you?  The wording of that sentence implies that that act of being in a rush is one of the most common grammatical errors.

Correction: A dangling participle is one of the most common grammatical errors, which usually results from being in a rush.

Nominalizations are an indication of a writer with a lack of confidence in the validity of his or her assertions, considering the fact that they emerge from a reach for precocious semantics and greater sentence length results in a statement that ultimately elicits more distortion than comprehensibility.

Translation: Writers who over-use nominalizations appear less confident because they’re forcing big words and longer sentences to make the message harder to follow.

Passive Voice undermines your authority, or perhaps I should say, your authority is undermined by passive voice.  It’s a useful literary trick when you want to divert attention away from an acting force, but most often, it just makes the sentence hard to understand.

Repeating Words and Phrases can be a tough habit to break, especially when writing about a relatively new concept like cyber bullying.  There simply aren’t that many words to describe it, and often times it may even be the target keyword, so the goal is to use it as much as possible.

That being said: Each time you recycle a term like Cyber BullyingCloud Security Provider, or Unified Communications, it loses a bit of momentum, especially when it reappears in one sentence or paragraph several times.  Get creative to find new ways to describe old terms.  This is one case when it’s okay to drop a few nominalizations.

The Writer’s Digest lists 15 more odd grammar hang-ups that even experienced writers struggle with.   If you’re like most writers, you’re well aware of most of these issues, but still have a hard catching yourself in the act.  Luckily, there’s a simple solution.

  1. Proof-Read Out Loud

Not everyone can recognize a sloppy sentence in writing (especially our own writing), but reading out loud will help you identify where you’re breaking the flow.  If you can’t easily speak it, that means you’re working too hard to read it, which means the syntax is failing.

Use Your Resources

That is a good overarching rule to apply to your writing in general.  If you’re working too hard to bring something together, to create a cohesive structure, or phrase a sentence to readability, it usually means there’s an issue with the foundation of the assignment.

If you’re an independent freelance writer, it’s your job to find out how to fix that.

If you’re working for a company with assigned topics and articles, you have less freedom to make adjustments, but editors can be a great resource as well.  You shouldn’t hesitate to consult them if you are struggling with an order.  Perhaps you don’t understand the instruction, or you found new information that offers a better angle.

Regardless of circumstance, adaptability and communication with your editor is the key to cultivating the best possible content for the client.

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Search engine marketing expert with 15 years of experience in the industry, working with small mom and pop shops as well as large corporate websites. I have experience with all aspects of inbound marketing, including SEO, Link Building, Social Shares, Usability, Conversions, PPC, Email Marketing, and more.