One of the most difficult conversations for an editorial team to have with a marketing manager regards tonality. Writers dread the phrase “it just doesn’t sound right,” not because it’s frustratingly abstract, but because they so often have to grit their teeth and resignedly agree. The content, for whatever reason, just doesn’t sound right. Marketers deal with the nuts and bolts of content on a consistent basis, and the quantifiable aspects of content are pretty easy to diagnose, but what about those relatively unquantifiable factors? How do we make them better? And just how unquantifiable are they?
In recent months, Google has addressed the issue of quality of content with updates that are, on a large and somewhat abstract scale, designed to identify “quality websites.” While the practical integration of quality-recognition tools into search algorithms is something that analytics can unpack, in the abstract, Google’s aim is clear – to create an organic ranking system that identifies “good” content. That is, content that is well organized, well written and informative.
Google’s aim is clear – to create an organic ranking system that identifies “good” content. That is, content that is well organized, well written and informative.
As more marketers understand that web content has to be useful and readable to be successful, they increasingly encourage the implementation of blog-style content onto websites. Blogs perform well for a number of reasons. Blog-style content is typically (or ideally) inviting, accessible, relevant and social-friendly. The question is how to achieve this.
You are not your blog
If you scout around the internet for tips on how to develop a blog voice, you’ll find a lot of the precious, theoretical advice that plagues creative writers: Be yourself. Write like you speak. Write what you know. Be funny. This sounds good and obvious on the surface, but it’s problematic for two reasons. It’s all way easier said than done, and in a lot of ways, it might actually be the last thing you want to do. After trolling through a number of articles on developing an effective blog voice (articles that dealt largely in these types of cliches), I came across this quote from writer Jeff Goins, from a guest post for Problogger:
“Your blog is not you. It is not your personality. … Your blog, regardless of how you’ve branded it, is separate from you. It can, by no means, represent all the complicated nuances of your persona. Even if your blog is about you, it’s not you. It can’t be.”
This advice seems to go against all those tips about being yourself, and it’s a better way of looking at the content you produce. Anyone with writing experience knows that sounding natural is, and should be, a careful, laborious process. Just being yourself is going to inevitably produce bad writing, and while there are certain grammatical rules and professional writing preferences that can be bent in the interest of producing more readable, accessible and conversational blog content (you can split the occasional infinitive and end sentences in prepositions, sure, but you probably don’t want to just, like, write the way you, like, talk), it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that you’re still writing.
Anyone with writing experience knows that sounding natural is, and should be, a careful, laborious process.
Work hard to develop a voice
In many ways, a well-developed and marketed blog is a lot like a good novel – the sort of dense, thought-provoking novel that readers say they “just couldn’t put down.” Marketers spend an enormous amount of time and effort developing a content scaffold, an extremely detailed, analytic and exacting process. To take this research and then plaster seat-of-the-pants content over the frame is counter-intuitive. Treat your blog’s content with the same level of care that you do your preliminary processes.
The term “blog voice” gets tossed around a lot, but I think it’s important to establish that this isn’t really a static, defined term. There are a lot of different “types” of blogs. The New York Times has all kinds of blogs. Rolling Stone, the Milwaukee Brewers and that guy in accounts with the cryptic tattoos all have blogs, too. So what exactly is a “blog voice?” A blog’s tone is neither that of a news article nor a dictated conversation, but it’s not really in the middle of those two forms either. The tone’s going to be different depending on your audience. Are you writing to laypersons or industry insiders? How does the company or publisher want this blog to be received? Is the content sort of a casual respite from more serious industry news? Is the content actionable? Is the content promotional?
All of these questions are important, but the answers to them, tonally, should be subtle. Regarding what seems like something of a strange, but common blog-voice misconception, I think it’s important to remember that a blog doesn’t necessarily call for puns, jokes and cliches, and these are all the more incongruous when interjected among what still kind of reads like a news article. Again, keep it simple. Consider the (pretty significant) effect of simply shifting a paragraph from third to second person perspective. The tone is almost invariably and enormously altered.
Deft writers make subtle changes to adjust the tone of a piece without the average reader being able to identify what, exactly, has been changed.
Subtlety is key when shifting tone and voice, and Brafton content writers have learned not to overreact to client requests for shifts or new forms of content. Deft writers make subtle changes to adjust the tone of a piece without the average reader being able to identify what, exactly, has been changed. Make your adjustments carefully, and consciously, and you’ll have success with any number of different forms.
Do the dirty work and get to the point
To keep content relevant and informative, marry word count and the amount of information offered. A longer word count constitutes extended sourcing, more information, and sometimes even a different tone or overall structure to keep readers engaged. A 400-word article that reads like an extended 200-word article is like a standard 22-minute sitcom that a producer tries to turn into a movie – it just feels like a really long episode. Longer posts should always be carefully crafted to form a cohesive, linear and actionable narrative. Reiteration of important points is one thing, but repetition is another.
There are a lot of ways to make sure extended blog pieces are strong. There are no golden rules, and the process of development varies depending on the nature of your industry, but in general, you can apply these three simple tenets:
A 400-word article that reads like an extended 200-word article is like a standard 22-minute sitcom that a producer tries to turn into a movie – it just feels like a really long episode.
Make an outline.
Keep it simple.
Extended pieces, even if they’re conversational blogs, need structure to succeed. The piece has to flow logically to keep the reader engaged, so crafting an outline before you write helps ensure that you’re getting your points across and that your readers are sticking around for the duration of the post. Outlines also often encourage more research, and limit the chatty flotsam that can make a blog post feel forced and lengthy.
To create a successful blog, content marketers and writers need to work together to develop a formula that effectively captures a target audience. This, admittedly, is on par with advice like, “write what you know,” or “be yourself.” When developing a blog voice, approach it like any serious writing project: lean on your research, both analytic and content-facing, and maintain a writing process that is careful, precise and subtle.