Online Writing in 2020 & Beyond: 25 To-Dos & Not To-Dos via @ronlieback
During the first part of this century, nonfiction writers had it much easier than today.
Back then, SEO needs from writers were either non-existent or extremely minimal.
Fast forward to today and SEO is essential to writing, which presents a frustrating situation for modern writers who are not trained in SEO.
I’m not just talking about blog or article writers, but also PR, ad, social media, and product writers.
You get the point.
I felt this pressure around 2005 when I began working exclusively as an online writer with digital marketing teams and businesses.
SEO was new to me, and I had to revamp my thinking totally. This wasn’t that hard, considering I was always transforming as a writer.
I initially started writing fiction, then obituaries, then news stories, then blogs, and all other marketing material.
In the past 15 or so years, I have continued to transform as a writer with SEO in mind. I can’t do one without the other, though writing should always be first.
SEO guidelines are needed, but my agency still works with writers who know nada about SEO, so we have to add some extra steps to our strategy phase.
But we aren’t targeting an audience of content strategist here; instead, we’re talking to the writers or marketing heads who need to educate their writers into 2020 and beyond.
The following list is a hybrid of what I feel is most important from both a creative and SEO perspective to improve the quality of your online writing for today’s world.
The tips include thoughts on craft, on-page SEO, physical and mental training/practices, and managing time, among others.
Also, notice that there are 13 not to-dos, and 12 to-dos. It’s always the things we shouldn’t do as modern writers – and marketeers in general – that offer the largest rewards.
The Writing Not To-Dos
1. DON’T Copy Competitors
This is first because I see new and seasoned writers copy and rewrite content across every industry, from here in the world of digital marketing to motorcycles to finance to real estate to biohacking.
I had to let a few freelancers go throughout my career as both an agency owner and heading content efforts for other businesses and agencies.
Everyone’s strategy is going to be different and speak to a different audience.
If you sound like the competition, you can’t be original and produce value as a unique voice for yourself or the business.
When it comes to writing, the only time you should pay attention to your client’s competitors is for keyword rankings and top linking websites.
My agency reverse engineers the latter for clients and provide our freelance writers with the guidelines needed to create something that will rise above the proverbial noise.
And in regards to writing, there’s much noise in every industry.
2. DON’T Avoid Keyword Research
The nonfiction writer’s life before keyword research was amazing.
When keyword research became part of my duties, I was frustrated.
But now it’s simply part of the writing, and I’ve become quite obsessed with it due to seeing what the keyword efforts – not crazy amounts of work anymore due to today’s tools – are capable of.
Except for the one- or two-off pieces we get requested for certain clients, most are under long-term campaigns.
As a result, keyword research is embedded in the content strategy, which is typically created for each upcoming quarter with room to change things based on the latest service/products or news-sensitive items.
For these campaign pieces – service pages, blogs, white papers, etc. – all keyword research is completed for each piece and handed off to the writers via SEO guidelines.
Many of our writers are not SEO experts, and we don’t need them to be. But we supply them with what’s required to optimize any piece completely.
3. DON’T Forget to Be Remarkable
Search Google for [Seth Godin Remarkable] and you’ll get 86,000 results.
He reiterates that the only way to dominate is to create a remarkable product or service – and remarkable marketing.
This also equates to creating remarkable written content.
When I’m training writers, I always say, “leave no word behind.” This is an essential adage for creating a piece of content that’s remarkable.
You must make every word count.
If something doesn’t make sense or add value (what is what many consider “fluff”), kill it and write something new, or rewrite the existing piece.
Put equal amounts of energy into every piece of writing, whether it’s a 160-character meta description, 2,500-word blog or 100-word product copy.
4. DON’T Forget to Focus on the Headline
Your headline is one of most – if not the most – important element of your writing.
Put as much time into creating your headline as you do into each piece of content.
This is nothing new to most, but always use a target keyword, and appeal to emotions.
Don’t make the headline an afterthought; give it the creative energy it deserves.
5. DON’T Be Inconsistent
For blogging campaigns, my agency keeps uploading schedules consistent.
If we are doing two blogs a week, they are scheduled the same times on the same days based on analytics of when that website typically gets its most traffic.
Writers should also thing this way.
Train yourself to write at the same time every day, and you’re mind/creativity will adapt – and quickly.
Words will flow smoother, and those who say they need to wait for a creative streak are just undisciplined.
6. DON’T Procrastinate
Due to the world of whacko fiction writers and artists of the 20th century, many writers assume they must wait for those creative moments to arrive and start drafting when this creativity surfaces. Then, and only then.
These moments are amazing, but if you train yourself to get into full creative modes at certain times every day, your creativity will adapt. And you’ll do much more quality, um, remarkable work and more often.
Don’t procrastinate as you wait for a creative moment.
Rather, train your creativity to surface on call and at your disposal. That’s the sign of a true artist.
It’ll also help kill that damn cliché of the “starving writer.” I thought that way around the turn of the century, but realized I was just lazy.
There are thousands of writing jobs available, and technology makes them super easy to find. You can also find exactly what type of work you desire.
Even if you’re writing that next best-selling fiction novel, you can still make a living as a freelance writer in the world of non-fiction.
7. DON’T Be Perfect
Working until a piece of content is perfect is just another form of procrastination. Nothing will ever be perfect.
I still have to remind myself of this whenever I am wrapping up a piece of personal writing. As an editor, it’s much simpler to ship; as a writer, though, especially before the last edit, many seek perfection.
Imperfection will save you much grief and energy, allowing you to put more time into your next piece of great content.
8. DON’T Plagiarize
I literally had to split ways with seven freelancers in my life of freelance management due to plagiarism.
One actually copy/pasted paragraphs from different writers and submitted it.
This started a Copyscape frenzy.
I trust 99% of my freelance staff now and don’t worry about this. But going forward, whenever I’m working with a new writer, I double-check at least for the initial five or so pieces.
So, as a rule of writing, never ever plagiarize.
The word spreads quickly, and you’ll never find work.
9. DON’T Focus on Immediate ROI
Explaining to a prospective client why my agency’s ongoing blog campaigns (after some heavy SEO work) are a minimum of six months is one of the toughest parts of my job.
Many want to see immediate ROI, or expect it within a few weeks.
I don’t want to work with clients that have a short-term mindset.
For the ones with a long-term mindset, there’s still much work to explain how this all works.
I have to:
- Establish trust and show results from prior clients.
- Prove that the results will arrive – but that they must remain patient.
- Talk about vanity numbers, like why Likes are less important than building a loyal audience.
- Continue the momentum with a strategy that will continually work.
Writers must think the same.
You won’t see immediate ROI with many of your SEO writing pieces.
Many look for that “viral” piece (“viral” is a term I’m trying to erase from my workforce).
Some will do whatever it takes for a viral post, and not focus on a real strategy that will give back long-term, but instead loads of crap content for that one good piece.
It may work; it may not.
I don’t like to gamble with my client’s money.
Instead, I engage in only long-term strategies that work.
Do the same with your writing.
10. DON’T Be Intimidated or Influenced
You’ll see some successful writers who try to intimidate or influence in negative ways.
These are typically the ego-driven people that you don’t want to be associated with anyhow, the ones who say “you’re not ready to write that book” or “that business is a tough one.”
The same is said by department heads of both businesses or agencies like CMOs or CEOs who may intimidate you into writing in ways you don’t see fit for the client.
Sometimes these writing ways are not ethical, either.
Don’t be intimidated or influenced by these types – but make sure you explain why you’re going to write the way you should, and have a plan or strategy ready to explain.
11. DON’T Write JUST for SEO
This is crucial. I worked with many businesses and agencies that needed writing to please the search engines and not the actual readers.
They wanted quick tips with a bunch of keyworded headlines, and would even ask to add complete BS just to please an internal linking strategy.
That’s not creating content that caters to the audience. And it’s certainly not anything remarkable.
Always write for the reader first and foremost.
You need the SEO strategy for what content is required, but don’t only focus on SEO – it’s vital, but the story told must always be the focus.
12. DON’T Forget to Outline
When I help train freelance writers, I stress the process portion as much as I do creativity. Part of the process is creating an outline – and an effortless outline. Sometimes it’s just the act of writing “Intro” or “Conclusion” to get the energy flowing.
Let’s take a blog, for example. Each piece will have a different outline based on the topic but take this one. First, I wrote all 25 sub-titles, along with the intro.
After I filled in each sub-title, I walked away and rewrote a day later. Then came the conclusion, followed by another walk away and final edit.
Sometimes I write the conclusion first, followed by the middle, and then the beginning. I always have an outline before any piece of writing. The process is never the same – but the outline is always there.
13. DON’T Sit – Stand!
I bought a stand-up desk two years ago, and it was one of those things “ I should have done” much earlier in my writing career.
My energy levels are much higher, and I found I can keep my focus longer.
If standing and writing were good enough for Ernest Hemingway, it’s definitely good enough for the rest of us.
The next addition that came earlier this year was a grounding mat.
I’ve got deeper and deeper into biohacking since launching my agency in early 2017, and grounding has become a staple.
I’ve used a grounding mat every day since I got it, sometimes for 10-hour periods.
Sure, it feels weird being barefoot on calls, but it has also helped with my clarity.
14. Don’t Forget About Mental & Physical Health
If you don’t feel good both mentally and physically, you can’t possibly write at your full potential.
I remember constantly writing with hangovers back in my 20s – the quality was super poor because I wasn’t providing my full potential.
Of course, this pairs with the procrastination part of creating “art.”
The worse situation possible – and it often happens across all ages of writers I know – is the crunching last minute to finish a piece.
Many involve alcohol, and then they attempt to edit or rewrite while hungover.
That situation is disastrous.
Lately, I’ve been more and more of a biohacker, though I still enjoy my vino.
But lime water, celery juice, coffee, and about 40 supplements a day, along with grounding mats and standing desks and other things many things weird (cold showers!) help keep my mind and body sharp to perform my best in business and writing.
Find what works for you and get physically and mentally fit.
The Writing To-Dos
15. DO Learn Patience
Patience is the ultimate driver of any success in life, from relationships to building a business and, especially, for writing.
Good writing takes time. And most of this time involves editing.
Learn patience to write, edit, and rewrite as many times as needed, and you’ll become a much better writer.
And, again, perfectionism is procrastination.
16. DO Become Discipline to Mastering Craft of Writing (Though Mastery Is Truly Impossible)
I still believe mastering anything is impossible, and this is a positive thing.
Because the process keeps us striving to be the best we can be at whatever we’re trying to master.
This is beyond the truth in writing; look at some of the most recognized writers in history, from fiction to non-fiction.
Think Hemingway, Delillo, and Twain in fiction. They were super disciplined to master the craft.
But be warned – mastery is impossible; it’s the act of trying to master writing that made these writers so amazing. Their content will surely be around hundreds of years from now; will yours?
17. DO Rewrite Every Thing
Write. Edit. And Rewrite. Then edit and rewrite again.
During rewrites, cut out everything unnecessary, and simplify things.
When I guide my writers, I tell them to outline, then blow out the first draft with zero worries about sloppiness, grammar or spelling issues. It’s the rewriting stage where the magic happens.
But again – remember not to edit to “perfection.” You’ll drive yourself insane, and you’ll never deliver on time.
18. DO Study & Master Subject Authority
Whatever you write about and are passionate about, study it. Read as much as possible, or do whatever works for you – podcasts, audiobooks, documentaries – whatever it takes.
The more educated you are about the subject, the quicker the words will flow, and the quick turnaround times you’ll get.
This equates to not only establishing yourself as the expert writer within an industry or niche, but one people want to work with because of the quick turnaround time of quality writing.
19. DO Learn On-Page SEO
Learn on-page SEO. This will help ease things for a business, whether they have an SEO team or not.
Learn about internal linking structures to pass link equity to pages you want to highlight for both readers and search engines. Learn to format your on-page SEO for inclusion in snippets, such as:
- Breaking the content up into headings.
- Using bullet points.
- Emphasizing words or sentences with bold or italics.
Also, if you’re doing page or blog content, learn how to write remarkable 160-character meta descriptions. They can help support that equally remarkable headline you wrote.
And the business or agency you’re working with will love you even more.
20. DO Strive to Write for Authority, Reputation & Trust
This is another thing writers can do to surface among the noise – always write for what I call ART – Authority, Reputation and Trust. I wrote a piece for Search Engine Journal where I once called this TAR to symbolize a stickiness in content creation but have since transformed it to ART.
Leave no word behind and create each piece so people understand that writing as an authoritative, reputable and trustworthy piece within that industry.
Readers can recognize crap and quickly. If you always write to establish ART, the ROI is endless.
21. DO Keep Creative Chunks of Time Within Your Limits
I also wrote about this in “11 Habits of Content Creators Who Optime Their Creative Spend.” It’s worth repeating that we only have a limited amount of hyperfocused creativity time, which may be three hours for some, and a half-hour for others.
Regardless, find yours. You’ll feel yourself wane or distracted from the task at hand. If this happens, take a break.
And just like everything else in life, you can train yourself to expand your creative chunks of time. This goes back to point number 5 above; if you put away a chunk of time every day for just writing – read, just writing and nothing else – and stick to the schedule, within a few days you’re time to remain in creative focus will grow.
I once could only go about an hour straight through with pure focus. There are days I set away five hours straight now, where I can remain entirely focused on whatever writing I’m doing. It’s that proverbial “zone,” and it’s a high like no other.
22. DO Read Daily on Writing & Subject
This goes back to point number 18 about studying your niche and is worth another perspective. Besides studying the niche you’re writing about, also read daily about that niche in respected publications. Find established blogs with strong writers and follow their lessons.
Do the same for writing. A simple Google search of “writing tips” delivers over a billion results. You’re sure to find something there, whether from colleges or some lesser-known bloggers.
23. DO Read ‘On Writing Well’
If you are serious about writing, read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well”.
If you’re not serious about writing, but still create emails or any other form of written communication, read “On Writing Well”.
The themes of the book are based on simplicity and continued writing/education.
Written communication is stronger than ever but also sloppier than ever.
“On Writing Well” can help shift the careless ways to simpler and cleaner writing, which eases communication and ultimately saves time.
24. DO Optimize Downtime
With all this talk of actual writing, an equal amount of energy should be focused on getting away from the written word.
This is especially true after a massive chunk of creative time.
You need to walk away from everything and let that work settle in your subconscious. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, the energy will return quickly, and you’ll create much more quality work in much less time.
The problem here is with society’s standards of working – which stemmed from the dot.com boom and working extended hours before a project was finished. Red Bull, coffee, greasy pizza, not showering, etc. – that Silicon Valley dream.
Don’t do this as a writer.
Walk away when you know your work sucks. Come back to it with a fresh mind.
This is why time management is vital to good writing.
If you have a piece scheduled for 10 days, don’t wait until day nine and “crunch write” – rather, spread it out, even if it’s only a half-hour every day.
Write in chunks and always return with fresh eyes.
Your audience will thank you, as will whomever you’re writing for.
I have some staples for optimizing my downtime when I want to keep things creative – typically an afternoon bath with music and reading something unrelated to the work I’m completing – usually fiction.
This brings me back to the project with energy and helps me refocus with full intent sooner.
25. DO Take Time to Explore the Unknown & Write About It
I learned from some of the world’s best entrepreneurs that exploring the unknown helps keep the mind fresh and charged.
The same is true in the world of authorship.
When we force our selves to write about something that we don’t know or initially understand, the work freshens the mind and keeps it energetic when creating everyday words for either work, a book, or industry that you write within.
For example, I continue to write about motorcycles daily. But I continue to challenge myself by taking on some ghostwriting or personal projects that are totally out of my norm (ethnographic research, anyone?).
This work requires intense study, and the outcome is well worth that study. And the best part is coming back to the day-to-day writing because your brain recognizes just how efficient you are with your favorite subject and words flow.
Plus, the best way to learn is through writing.
Back to one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Zinsser, he wrote an entire book dedicated to this topic, aptly named “Writing to Learn.”
Nonfiction online writing is much more of a challenge than it was in years past.
Sure, you can continue to write without thinking about SEO, the audience, or consistently rewriting everything you create.
That work will likely be average.
Average writing doesn’t build loyalty.
Without loyalty, you’ll just become another online writer.
As this online noise continues to strengthen in 2020 and beyond, you’ll need to strengthen your skills as a writer equally.
Try focusing on these 25 tips that are a hybrid of thoughts, from best practices in SEO to craft to time management, and work hard at producing something remarkable.