If you're wondering how to become a content writer, you've come to the right place. Though you might have dreams of quitting your 9-to-5 and living by your pen, this can seem difficult to achieve.
The truth is, there are so many different ways to write for a living: articles, online content, academic papers, and blogs all need writing, just as much as novels and books, fiction and nonfiction. Freelance writing comes in all shapes and sizes.
Content writing itself involves researching, planning, and writing pieces that provide value to a certain website, company, or brand. That value can be entertainment, information, or education; the writing can be formal, conversational, or instructional. That being said, the content writing skills required to be successful are different than other types of writing, and require particular attention to a number of things to stand out in the business.
To become a content writer, you'll first need to understand what content writing is. From there, you should review some common traits held by successful content writers to determine whether your skills might overlap with the needs of someone in this position.
What is Content Writing?
Content writing is really just what it sounds like--creating written content that is meant to be consumed. This content can be in the form of website copy, blogs, email blasts, newsletters, social media posts, whitepapers, RFPs, and much more. Content appears on product packaging, in sponsored articles in print, and on billboards.
The purpose of content writing is to illustrate the reasons a product or service is useful, but to do so without coming across as overly salesy or pushy. You are providing legitimate, accurate, and helpful information to potential customers, knowing at the outset that these customers may never buy from you at all. By offering up information, however, you're proving the value of your brand and establishing thought leadership.
In a world where marketing and advertising take center stage, assaulting consumers quite literally everywhere they go, content writing is a bit of a relief. It's part of the sales funnel, to be sure, but it offers help with no strings attached. A soup company might offer a recipe that includes their soup as an ingredient, or a ski glove manufacturer could present a blog about how to care for your skis. These pieces of content are useful, product-adjacent, and can be branded. But they don't necessarily directly lead to sales.
Content writers can apply their love of writing by working for brands and businesses who need content. So many of us writers prefer to operate behind the scenes, and many who have a way with words don't actually like operating as salespeople. What does this mean? Write, get paid (often well, since companies tend to have decent marketing budgets), and sit back and let others do all of the actual selling.
What Skills Does a Content Writer Need?
The most important content writing skill is, of course, writing. Content writers need to be fluent in their written language; they need to understand standard grammar conventions, and know how to use available software and online tools to check their grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
They should be able to produce a coherent work in a reasonable amount of time, and should have a basic understanding of the kinds of software one might come across when doing content writing. These include word processing programs like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or Open Office, but can also include project management type of programs like Microsoft Teams, Monday, Asana, or Slack. Good working knowledge of computer software and the internet is an absolute must.
In addition to fundamental writing skills, content writers need to be able to adapt their writing to a number of different styles, depending on what kind of content they’re asked to create. Technical articles, for example, are written in a very different style than a blog post; writers need to be able to be engaging and conversational for some articles, while others will require a more formal voice. It isn’t enough to be able to write. Content writers have to be able to provide quality content in a number of different styles.
Content Writing and Research Skills
Knowing how to do solid research online is a key content writing skill. Writers may be asked to produce content on topics they aren’t familiar with, and no one wants to reject potential work. This is where research skills come in; content writers should be able to not only produce relevant links using a search engine, but also know how to judge which sources are legitimate, and which come from sites that might not be so reliable.
Once the writers have gathered their sources, they need to be able to review those resources and put together an understanding of the topic at hand so that they can build an outline. In places where two sources contradict each other, the writer has to be able to search for additional sources, so that they know their article will have the correct information. Accuracy is absolutely essential, as brands are counting on your advice to be useful, safe, and professional.
The work of content writers must be two important things: original and accurate. Every content writer knows their work needs to be original; there are a number of online programs that check for deliberate plagiarism, and web content companies absolutely know how to use them. It’s important that writers make sure they’re speaking in their own voice, and aren’t parroting or copying from other sites. In addition, the content they produce is intended to be accurate; misleading claims or false information can damage the customer’s brand, and they’ll absolutely take their business elsewhere.
Being able to find and verify information, review it, and create the outline for the content article is one of the most valuable content writing skills. Research forms the base of the article, provides sources that can be quoted for eligibility, and also helps the writer see what’s already out there, so that their content can stay original and unique.
Other Skills Needed by Content Writers
Some content writing jobs stop here: the writer produces quality content with reliable sources and submits it to the customer. However, there’s another set of content writing skills that can help writers stand out, and it involves an understanding of the social pieces of the internet and how they work. In addition to work processing and project management programs, the best content writers are also familiar with online search protocol and social media platforms.
Understanding search engine optimization (SEO) is becoming standard for online content producers. This involves having current knowledge about search engine trends and what keywords and phrases are relevant to the article; search engines often change their algorithms, so it’s important that the writer understands how to keep up and make their articles stand out.
In addition, experience with the backbone pieces of the internet is another highly desirable skill. Knowing how to make changes in basic HTML, CSS, using formatting languages like Markdown, and understanding platforms like WordPress or Dreamwidth can make a writer highly valuable to a customer who may not want to worry about all of that.
Not all content writers outsource their social media accounts, but a good number of them do, and this can be a place where content writers shine. Understanding which social media platforms may be relevant to a particular brand and what content the customer wants to put out across a number of social media platforms is another key content writing skill. Understanding how to create social media content that engages people and helps to direct content can help both the customer and the writer expand their own online network.
Content Writing and Time Management
In addition to all of these skills, content writers need to be effective at time management and communication. Most content writers receive a number of assignments that can span a wide variety of topics, each requiring its own research, style, and keywords; writers need to know how to manage their time so that they can dedicate enough time to every article they write.
For content writers, their content is their brand. It pays to be thorough and professional. Only by doing so can a content writer expect to grow their book of business and maintain their stellar reputation.