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Use Fiction Writing Techniques To Spice Up Your Content

I’m an author, a crime novelist: the ultimate purveyor of written content. (Sure, screenwriters get paid more, but their stories are written in pictures. I don’t count them.)

I also run a business that offers manuscript assessments to wannabe authors: basically we give feedback on their writing, they cry, then they fix what wasn’t working. Their stuff gets better.

Both disciplines – working as a writer and giving feedback to newbie writers – teach what makes content great. The purpose of writing may vary. The rules of quality are basically the same.

And I hope I don’t need to tell you that the search engines have noticed. The old ways of acquiring links (directory submissions, social bookmarks and the like) are increasingly feeble as a way to affect search rankings and traffic. What matters are genuine, contextual mentions on genuine, authoritative websites. That means that, to a huge degree, the business of search engine optimisation IS the business of quality content creation. Delivering the latter means you achieve the former. There is no other way.

So: how to achieve terrific content without putting in significantly more time than you already do?

It starts with writing like a human to humans. For sure, if you’re writing about something business-related or technical, you’ll need to use technical terms, but you can do that in a relaxed way. Don’t use “do not” when “don’t” would be more natural. Feel free to use sentence fragments. Use a relaxed style. If you know about the Flesch-Kincaid readability score, then your writing should register as being no more than eighth grade in difficulty. (I once assessed one of my own manuscripts this way. The novel was for adults but it was OK for seventh graders on the Flesch-Kincaid scale.)

It also helps if you write like yourself. Gore Vidal once said, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” That’s so true! And the more you learn about writing, the truer you find it is. The best blogs are those where the author feels completely comfortable in their tone, presentation, and approach. They’re comfortable because it’s the real them. The reader feels like they’re having a conversation, not like they’re being lectured at. Probably most content writers start out imitating the kind of people they think they ought to imitate (the Seth Godins of the world) when really the only person they ought to write like is the person who greets them in the mirror. That’s what Godin does.

Next always start with the specific and the concrete and move outwards to the general. Take this article for example. I started with myself and my business. Not much – two short paragraphs – but it gave a personal, specific and local context for everything that followed. If I had started instead with a much more general paragraph (one like this one, for example) you’d have switched off almost instantly. I only get to write this paragraph, because I’ve already earned your trust.

(That’s why, by the way, journalists reporting from an earthquake, for example, will almost always start with a line like “Juanita Hernandez was in the middle of cooking dinner when …” In a way, it’s a dumb opening. The point of the earthquake is that hundreds or thousands of people were affected, but journalists know you can only reach the general through the specific.)

Another great tip is Start Late, Finish Early. When we offer manuscript assessments, we often notice that writers effectively use the first chapter or two to write their way into a story. When we give feedback to novelists, we ask them to check that their story has been properly established by the end of chapter one. With blog content, the test is probably whether the post has established its purpose by the end of the first paragraph – the second at the most. And more than that, and you’ve lost your reader. (A great title helps of course: you can be halfway there in ten words.)

And don’t be keyword obsessed. Sure, all SEO activity starts with a strategic view of which keywords to optimise. But trust Google. If your piece is written on a topic appropriate to your keyword, Google will know that, without you laboriously shoving your keywords into every paragraph.

Next up, get feedback on your writing. Seek out people you respect and ask what they did and didn’t like about a couple of pieces. You won’t always like what you hear, but you will never fail to learn something.

And finally – spice. The fun stuff. That can be almost anything. If you’re happy being a little funny, then good. But it can be hard being funny on the page, and you don’t have to make people laugh to hold their interest. Story is and always has been a powerful technique. Let’s say your first paragraph deals with a business that has a certain problem. The secret of maximising the use of that story is simple: just withhold the punchline till the end of the piece. Or if you’re a movie buff, bring the movies into your piece. If you love word play, use that.

Be yourself and enjoy the process. If you’re having fun, then the reader is too: great content equals great SEO results.

Harry Bingham is a bestselling novelist. His company, the Writers’ Workshop, offers manuscript assessments (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/manuscript-assessment.html) and professional feedback on new writing (http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/writing-feedback.html).

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