3 Signs Your Writer is Phoning It In – And What You Should Do About it

Lazy writer sitting on the couch.

How to get your content people to step up their game

One of my favorite phrases is “You teach people how to treat you.” I don’t know who’s responsible for this little advice nugget … seems like it could be Dr. Phil, or Oprah, or your grandma’s neighbor … maybe I should just look this up? Hold, please.

Apparently it was everyone. Everyone said that. (It’s possible that Tony Gaskins said it first, but I can’t be sure.)

In any case, this little phrase is true in life and in business. And since my business is writing, lemme tell you a little something about writers: IF YOU ACCEPT BORING COPY FROM YOUR WRITERS, COUNT ON ALL OF THEIR FUTURE COPY TO BE FLACCID AND FLAVORLESS.

If you have to hire writers, I offer my condolences. It’s hard (unlike the above-referenced copy). Even with the advantage of being a writer myself, I have still messed this up. Not only do you have to assess skills and chops and work ethic … you have to try to sort out the very subjective question of whether or not someone’s talent is a match for your business goals.

So companies end up hiring adequate writers who do adequate work. Hence, the Internet is full of so-called content marketing that is perfectly pleasant, even though it doesn’t engage, it doesn’t teach, and it doesn’t make anyone understand why they should give a crap.

The question is, what should you do if you’re the poor schlub who hired these jerks? Fire the bastards!

Just kidding. Don’t do that.

Instead, I challenge you to take a new approach with your writers. Let’s talk about how to turn your so-so writers into the beacons of genius you hoped they’d be when you decided to hire them.

What the Real Problem Is

Many writers today fall under what heading in the corporate structure? Marketing.

This is a problem … not because marketers aren’t smart, but rather because they don’t know how to inspire the appropriate levels of fear and loathing from their content people.

The best writers I know are the ones who were forced to toil in the permastink of their grumpy editor’s coffee breath while doing yet another rewrite of a piece that was due two hours ago. Holding up production over your shitty copy is a valuable learning experience, as is hating your editor. (I once rear-ended someone on the way home because I was busy wishing death upon my boss over a nit-picky revision she was insisting on.)

You know what I’m going to say now, right? Thank God for every editor who has ever sent me back to the drawing board. Because anyone who makes a writer think critically about what they’re putting on the page is doing a valuable service. Even if the feedback turns out to be crap, at least the writer had to think about WHY and HOW they presented the material.

So if you’re a CMO or a marketing director who has the unhappy task of supervising writers who haven’t already been properly abused broken in by someone who knows what’s what, YOU are going to need to be that person.

Assessing the Damage

I know, I know. You’re not a writer. You’re not an editor. But chances are, you’re also probably not an idiot. I’m going to give you a little cheat sheet on what you should look out for.

  1. Generic headlines. Good Gawd Almighty, is it possible to overstate the value of headlines? (No. It isn’t.) Generic headlines are dangerous. As we have well established above, the days of newspapers and magazines are over. People don’t just happen to read a story. If someone doesn’t go “OMG I MUST READ THAT RIGHT NOW!” then the piece was a waste.
    Some examples: “How to Make Great Content.” “The Changing Customer Experience.” “Successfully Navigating the MarTech Landscape.” “3 Easy Ways to Make Money Online.”
    Note: I would argue that “easy” should never be in a headline. Things that are supposedly “easy” rarely live up to the promise. Don’t sell your readers short.
  2. The tra-la-la lede. Yes, that’s “lede” and not lead. The lede is the opening section of the story. Because of our ever-shrinking attention spans, ledes now have a helluva a lot of work to do. It is the lede’s job to reach a virtual hand out of the reader’s screen, grab him or her by the collar, and proclaim “THOU SHALT PAY ATTENTION TO THIS.” Any post that takes too long to get to the farking point, or at least entertain or engage the reader in some way, is going to lose more readers with every worthless line.
    These posts often have opening sentences such as “Summer is here!” “Fall is here!” or “Winter is here!” (Yes, spring is just as guilty.)
    If the reader isn’t laughing (“Funny!”), nodding (“They totally feel my pain!”) or going What the eff? (“I don’t know what’s happening here but I can’t stop reading!”) in the first few lines, then the piece is not doing its job.
  3. The perfectly pleasant post. It’s on time, it’s grammatically correct(ish), it gives you exactly what you asked for. But it’s completely forgettable.
    Useful content should be more than just words that fill a space.

What You Can Do

Have I made you hate your writers a little bit? Well, I hate to break it to you … but you’re part of the problem, too (we’ll get to that in a minute). There’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone! #togetherness

Now let’s talk about how to fix this mess. Break out your red pen and slap a sneer on that pretty face of yours. It’s time to indulge your inner editor. Here’s what you need to do to whip those scribblers into shape:

  1. Do not rubber stamp anything. The content machine is hungry all the time. You gotta get stuff out the door. I get it. But if you are not reading over your writers’ work with a critical eye and asking questions, you’re going to end up with lazy writers who are going to save their best stuff for their social media accounts.
    Condition people to expect questions about their content. If you do, you’ll find that they’ll soon start anticipating those questions and putting a little more blood and sweat into their drafts. That’s how you encourage writers to think about what they’re writing instead of just regurgitating their research or the interview they just did.
  2. Take them off the leash sometimes. Writers are smart people but we’re often put in the position of being told exactly what to do, especially in terms of marketing and content. We quickly learn that people want us to use our brains, but only so much, lest we veer from a pre-ordained objective on someone’s spreadsheet. We get used to dialing things back.
    As a freelancer, I’ve had the really excellent experience of working with people who have let me stretch my wings. Now I approach all writing from a “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” standpoint. I listen hard to what people tell me they want … and then I give them what I think they need instead. And you know what? Nine and a half times out of ten, people go nutty for it.
    Dare your writers to impress you. Have them go all over your organization and sniff out the stories that are worth telling. No, you don’t have to throw away your objectives; instead, challenge your writers to create narratives around them. If you give them room to surprise you, they just might.
    [WARNING: The next bullet point is the one you’re going to hate.]
  3. Hire an experienced editor.  I’m so sorry to break this news to you. Really. But in the age of content factory farming, there’s so much emphasis on production and not enough emphasis on craft. If you really want great content that’s going to make your organization stand out as a thought leader, you need to to hire an editor.
    Think of it this way: Any business that’s doing content is now a publisher by default. If you were a magazine publisher, you’d have an editor handling the nuts and bolts of the content. Your blog, your social media accounts, every bit of content you’re putting out in the world … it’s got to gel. It’s a big mother of a job. If you’re the person in charge of marketing, you’ve got to run campaigns, establish branding, cut deals, and look sharp in a suit while doing it. Hire someone fantastic to oversee your content and get that stuff off of your plate.*
    My prediction: We’re going to see more and more companies with executive level positions just for content. And when that happens, perhaps marketing and content will find a way to live happily ever after.

*I know you won’t listen to me on this. No hard feelings. I still think your suit is pretty snazzy.

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