What makes a “strong writer?” The answer has big implications for your communications strategy

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In the marketing and communications field, we’re always on the lookout for talent. I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked if someone is a “strong writer.”

It’s a simple question, but what does it really mean?

There are the clean writers – those who love grammar debates, can edit like rock stars and always produce clean copy, but who would never thrive as a copywriter at an ad shop or PR firm. Others lead with their creativity – they couldn’t care less about Oxford commas, but their stuff is original, compelling and interesting. There are also skilled technical writers, Web and SEO masters, and so on.

Communications writing suffers from a particular problem, and it is this: too often we assume that anyone who can string words together with any kind of proficiency is good to go. It's odd, because we go to such great lengths to pigeonhole other roles in the field – too much, in my opinion - based on whether they’ve done more consumer and business-to-business PR or crisis communications and social strategy.

Not applying this sort of critical analysis before handing someone a writing assignment can lead to bad fits. Sponsored content aimed at consumers written by a technician is more likely to be flat, while a sensitive internal memo from the CEO may not capture the right tone if written by someone who mostly produced content for an energy drink.

The problem for communicators is that, as earned opportunities continue to shrink, paid and owned channels are becoming more important than ever. And there are only so many videos we can make - or watch. Someone has to get busy writing, and the competition for eyeballs is unrelenting. It’s not enough to just get it done. It must be done correctly, and that starts at the source.

So, if any of your 2018 strategic plans include the word “content”, you need to look long and hard at your stable of writers, and ask yourself some important questions.

Do I want an industry expert, or do I want someone who can entice readers?

Most journalists who cover an industry have never worked in that industry, and never will. They get assigned to a beat and they do their homework to build up their knowledge. What’s important on day one is not that they can distinguish a mutual fund from an exchange-traded fund, but whether they can write about these things in a compelling, attention-grabbing ways. Same goes for corporate writing.

I’m not saying industry knowledge isn’t important, but when it comes to creating content, place the ability to write above the ability to speak and understand jargon. In fact, stomping out jargon, or the ability to distill complex and wordy explanations into simple concept can be the hallmark of a great writer. Keep this in mind when building or reviewing your writing team.

The person who knows your organization and industry inside and out is not automatically the best candidate for the content role in your department.

Is my current writer excited by their role, or are they simply writing because no one else wants to?

Especially in smaller organizations, the task of most blog and web writing falls to the person in the room who either doesn’t hate the thought of it, happens to be the best speller or who is too junior to say “no.” Once this person is identified, it’s very tempting to consider the problem solved and move on.

Don’t do it. If the person tasked with developing the voice and tone of your organization is doing it as nothing more than part of their to-do list, the result will speak for itself. Find someone with passion and chops.

Do I want a capable writer or a skilled storyteller?

The blogs you read regularly, the novels you download and the magazine articles you share on Facebook are written by people who can do more than just write with good grammar and correct spelling – they have a way with words that leave an impression. In other words, they’re storytellers. It looks easy, but it’s not, hence the old joke about people meaning to write a book after they retire but never getting beyond the first page.

If your strategic plan involves reaching a large group of consumers who have no shortage of distractions, then you absolutely need someone who can break through to them – who knows the art of the story just as well as the rules of grammar. The bigger your audience, the more important that skill is.

Am I constantly struggling to provide my writer with feedback because it’s hard to put into words what’s wrong?

A piece of copy reads well, but it’s just not “right.” The tone is off, or it’s just not capturing the spirit of the purpose behind it, or the organization that supports it. If that’s happening more often than you’d like, then it’s quite possible you have a mismatch – a writer who can write, but isn’t right for the assignment, or perhaps even the role. If you’re finding yourself having to often rework because of this, or lack a comfort level with your writer that’s not related to their technical ability, it’s time to reassess.

The bottom line:

When it comes to content, settling for good-enough writing is a dangerous proposition. Anything you post under cover of your brand must be more than adequate. It must strive for excellence. That takes writers who really know their stuff. Whether in-house or from an outside agency, make sure you have at least one that you can count on.