Are You Sure You Want to Be a Content Writer?
I haven’t been writing in my personal style for a while. I feel like I’m recovering from a “content writing hangover.” All I can think of as I type these first words is whether or not I’m “luring the reader (you) in” and if my headline is click-worthy enough to get some eyeballs on this text.
This “content mindset” has been with me for a while. And I feel limited by it. Initially, I became a content writer because I’ve always loved writing and it seemed like a good idea to turn my passion into my career.
That’s what we’re told we should do, aren't we?
I recently read Meghan Daum’s piece where she describes how she advised a young writer who wasn’t sure if she should pursue writing as a career. Meghan said to her: “If you’re really serious about writing, do something else for a living.”
This stroke a deep chord in me. I always thought that because I was serious about writing, I should do everything in my power to do it for a living. So, I turned myself into a content writer which, in the current economy, seemed like the most straightforward way. The prospect sounded great: I would string words together and someone would pay me for it. Sounds like a dream, right?
What I didn’t consider was that the “content mindset” would inevitably impact the way I write. Because creating content for clients always has some bigger objective other than just creating a delicious piece of text, it forces you to treat your writing strategically, often at the expense of your creativity.
What I’m saying here isn’t that you shouldn’t be a content writer. I’m just asking you to consider how it (most likely) will influence the way you write.
As a professional content writer, you’ll need to:
1. Constantly be aware of the time
Some content writers get paid by the hour, and others operate on a per-word-rate basis. It doesn’t matter which one you are. One way or the other, you’ll be restricted by time since you want to make sure you get decently paid for your time.
With each piece, you’ll end up calculating it in your head:
“Now, this 1,500-word article shouldn’t take me more than five hours to write. So, I’ll spend the first hour researching, the next two drafting the piece, one to one-and-a-half hour editing, and the remaining time will be for polishing the headline and finding the feature image. Yeah, that should work. Let’s do it.”
Even though the timing above may sound reasonable (apart from the fact that 1-hour research isn’t research at all), it only works as long as you can function like a machine. There’s no space here for digging deeper into a nuance you found interesting. There’s no time for hesitation, mind-wandering, and other underrated writing techniques that allow you to add something truly unique to the topic.
Instead, you’re simply focused on producing and shipping the piece in the shortest possible amount of time. This can easily dishearten you if it was never the way you wanted to write.
2. Count the words
Taking this line of thought further — why do you even want to write? What lights you up about this craft (or art)?
If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing that writing allows you to express yourself in a unique and, at least to some extent, unfiltered way. It provides a format to create something beautiful, or raw, or emotional, that others can also relate to. You want to write because when you’re in the flow, it feels meaningful.
Here’s the harsh truth about writing content: most of the gigs will require you to constrain your thoughts in a limited number of words. And even if they don’t, you’re likely to constrain yourself. After all, you’re only getting paid for a 1,500-word blog post — why the heck should you produce the extra 2,000 that you get no tangible rewards for?!
This is what the content writing game may do to your brain. You stop caring about the inherent, unquantifiable value of your writing and start measuring it in “per-word” terms. To me, counting words has also brought about the notion that I’m never “concise enough” or, on the contrary — that I must be lacking something as a writer because I struggle to produce a “long enough” piece of content.
3. Keep your thinking in very specific tracks
Now I want to talk about content templates — i.e. those thinking fast-tracks that make you standardize the way you assemble writing ideas.
I’ve been using content templates since I enrolled in my first blogging course. There, I learned that templates could help me organize my thoughts and present them in ways readers are used to. As a bonus, they allowed me to write in a fast, efficient, and structured way.
Some examples of those templates include:
- How-to Posts — tutorials that show the reader how to achieve the desired result, step by step (arguably the most popular template in the content writing world).
- Ultimate Guides — one-stop articles which claim to cover an entirety of a topic (spoiler: 99% of the time, this is a lie).
- Illuminator — posts that take a piece of common knowledge, dissect it, and show the reader that something entirely else is true (think of those glorious “The Real Truth About X That No One Ever Talks About” headlines)
- Listicles — yeah, we all know this one. As a content writer, it’s hard to resist listicles. At least once in a while, you’ll find yourself collecting long lists of ideas and wonder: Will this really be helpful/interesting to anyone?
Now, these templates may indeed help you organize your thoughts when you’re just beginning to write. They certainly helped me to get started with blogging. The problem was that, after a while, my brain learned to think according to those templates almost exclusively. It became hard to bring it back to a more creative, unstructured realm.
By the way, look at how I organized this very blog post. Yep, even if the headline doesn’t suggest it, it’s a listicle. It’s hard to escape those tendencies after four years of content writing.
Is this a problem? For me, yes. It makes my thinking lazy as I follow the path of least resistance to complete a coherent article in as little time as possible. It became a comfortable habit and now it’s challenging to venture beyond it.
4. Use keywords
If you’re a content writer, a lot of clients will expect you to write SEO blog posts. Not that many people have a good idea of what makes for a successful SEO strategy. However, the concept of using the right keywords stuck with us all — and even when it doesn’t bring any particular results, people still want to see you using them.
At the first glance, it may not seem like a big deal. You just write whatever you want and then sprinkle it with a bunch of words that make the article more discoverable in search. Piece of cake, you might say. So, you get to work.
But here’s the thing: Over time, you discover that there’s a whole game to keyword-based blog posts. Like, it’s a whole different discipline and an art in itself. However, this may not exactly be the kind of art you want to pursue.
You need to think not just about which words to use — but also, where they are in the text and how many times. You may want to look at LSI keywords — those that may not be your exact keywords but, as Ahrefs put it, “that Google sees as semantically-related to a topic.” You’ll research how already existing posts talk about that topic — and try to say what they say in your own words, plus some more.
All of that resembles putting a pre-cut jigsaw puzzle together more than creative work. Keywords were what I never wanted my writing to revolve around. Yet, as a content writer, I couldn't afford to ignore them.
5. Deliver on deadline
Now here’s something to make you feel like a special snowflake for a moment: (which I honestly believe all writers need from time to time)
To produce your best work — your art — you need time. You need to feel abundant about the hours you can afford to spend on a piece, as well as when to do it.
No matter how much you love it, there will be days when you don’t feel like writing. But as a content writer, you’ll be forced to ignore that feeling. That’s because of one thing that always lurks at you from around the corner:
It cannot work any other way. If you’re selling your articles as products, in 90% of the cases you’ll need to be aware of a deadline. Because your clients will want to get articles from you consistently, there’s no way around it.
And that will probably mean that your snowflake-like, artsy nature that wants you to take your time writing will need to be put down sometimes.
Do you want to be a content writer?
Even though writers have many things in common, we all write for slightly different reasons. Different things light us up and therefore, we get excited about various types of writing.
Content writing is one possible route, and it may be the right one for you. I don’t want to discourage you from taking it if you feel like it’s your calling.
But, I do want you to remember that it will impact your writing, most likely in some of the ways I just described.
Now that you know it, you can make a more informed choice. Do you want to be a content writer and develop your thinking and skills in this direction?
Or, do you want to grow as a writer outside the realm of paid work? That’s 100% possible, too. Meghan Daum’s words are a great reminder:
“[L]et go of the idea that not working in a writing job means you can’t write. If anything, it means you can. That’s because if you’re a real writer you’ll write no matter what.”