By Ann Gynn published March 29, 2015

An Editor’s Rant: 7 Questions Every Writer Should Be Asking


I don’t want you to read this. No, really, don’t waste your precious time. Sure, it’s about content marketing. And yes, it will help your content marketing efforts. But, I don’t really want you to read this.

Those words don’t actually appear on most screens, but that’s what too many writers communicate to readers when they craft boring, generic, pointless leads. They tell potential readers to look elsewhere for interesting, valuable content.

As the editor for CMI’s blog, I have read all types of leads – many good ones, too – in the submissions. I’ve been editing for more than 20 years – at a daily newspaper, a trade publication, a law firm, a content marketing agency, etc. The universal truth is that too many people write ineffective leads.

Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you. It’s everybody else, but read on, as you may pick up a tip or two.

What is the article really about?

In journalism school at Ohio University, I learned to ask two simple questions that still help my writing and editing every day (thanks to Professor Michael Bugeja).

  1. What is the article about?
  1. What is the article really about?


  1. This article is about tips to create better content.
  1. This article is really about how to avoid mistakes many writers make in creating their leads and how to craft better, reader-worthy leads.

See the difference. The first answer is accurate but vague. It could be about almost anything content-related.

The second answer, though, gives the focus essential for a quality post and gives me, the writer, a clearer understanding of what I am trying to communicate.

TIP: Answer the second question several times – each response likely will improve upon the previous one – and a more refined answer will give your article laser-like focus.

Didn’t I just write that?

One of the biggest problems with leads I encounter is that they are so generic they could be swapped with other posts (within the brand and within the industry) and no one would know the difference.

Write a lead that is only valid with your particular post and that fits with your brand’s voice. If you need to be generic when you write a draft to help you get to the point, go ahead and do it. Just don’t forget to delete all those graphs before you publish.

TIP: Don’t forget to apply this across your brand, particularly if you have multiple editors – similar topics can lead to similar leads even with different writers.

Would I read this?

Don’t forget to be a reader. Walk away (even if it’s only to refill your coffee – I know you’re probably on a deadline). Now, with fresher eyes, read your lead. Would you want to read this article? Be brutally honest. If the answer is no, revise and read again.

TIP: If you still can’t craft a read-worthy lead, revisit the angle you’re trying to take or even the subject itself. Figure out what needs to change so you can write something you (your audience) would want to read.

Will readers know why they should care?

I love the nut graph – the nugget that explains that true value of the piece. The single sentence or paragraph lets readers know why this article is relevant and valuable to them today. The nut graph sets the stage.

Write a nut graph (some writers find it’s helpful to write it first so they always stay on topic). Incorporate the nut graph in the first three to five paragraphs – much further down than that and it doesn’t matter.

TIP: Read news articles and other content and see if you can identify the nut graph. Does the writer clearly communicate it? How? Does it help focus the story? If you can’t find the nut graph, is the piece difficult to read? Do you think you know the intent or reason for the piece?

What’s in a glance?

Readers skim. They are likely to glance beyond the lead to read the subheads or bolded phrases to see if the piece delivers something they want. Write subheads that clearly map out your piece and can (almost) stand on their own.

TIP: Read your subheads as standalone copy. Do they tell the story in the abbreviated form? Do they hit on every key point in the post? Do they promote less-important points? Are they grammatically parallel (i.e., if you use a verb as the first word in one, use a verb as the first word in all)? Adjust accordingly.

Should meta descriptions differ from the lead?

Don’t just copy and paste your lead into the meta description category. You need to write a distinct meta description that gets to the point in 156 characters. Given their appearance in search-engine results, you have a lot of competition. At this stage, you want them to click. So explain succinctly what the article is really about and throw in a few enticing words if possible.

TIP: At CMI, we write 235-character excerpts for each blog post that appear in our e-newsletter and on the website page. These excerpts blend the intent of the lead with the to-the-point brevity of the meta description. It’s a warmer “lead” than the search engine results, but we are still going for the click first.

What about the headlines?

Headlines are the sexy part of every piece of content – they lure the reader more than anything else. As such, experts share plenty of tips and advice on how to craft successful headlines. Here are a couple helpful posts focused strictly on headlines:

TIP: Ensure your headline delivers. You’ll only have frustrated and disappointed readers if your headline (and your lead) has little, if anything, to do with the rest of the article.

Want to share your own gripes or learn more about the editor’s role in content marketing? Join CMI Editor Ann Gynn at noon (EDT) on March 31 for her #CMWorld Twitter Chat.

Desire to improve your team’s writing and content creation? Sign up for daily or weekly highlights of the CMI blog and exclusive content from CMI Founder Joe Pulizzi.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Ann Gynn

Ann Gynn edits the CMI blog. She also serves as the Tech Tools editor for Chief Content Officer magazine. Ann regularly combines words and strategy for B2B, B2C, and nonprofits, continuing to live up to her high school nickname, Editor Ann. Former college adjunct faculty, Ann also helps train professionals in content so they can do it themselves. Follow Ann on Twitter @anngynn or connect on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Ann Gynn

  • Pinot Noir

    Well, creating a unique and quality post or article is not that hard these days because we have plenty of events happening all over the world and if we are some gifts in the writing area, we are able to create truly attractive content that can bring visitors back next day.
    For example, I saw that a new clean energy blog at is adding new posts every day regarding the renewable energy sector and they created a nice audience between many well-educated visitors.

  • Stacy Mayhorne

    Great article. I’ll refer to this again and again. I often write for business but struggle when I am putting together an article that will be printed/posted. This takes me back to the basics and should smooth my editing process and produce more captivating articles.
    I also rely on journalism basics, such as the Inverted Pyramid, being sure I give the reader all the info they need up front.

    • Ann Gynn

      Glad you found it helpful, Stacy. Sometimes we get so deep in a topic and our research that we forget to go back to the basics — the audience. (And our bosses or clients will be much happier for it!)

  • L George Baines

    This is REALLY helpful! I’m going to share it with an author-friend-client who is just getting started as a blogger.

    • Ann Gynn

      Thanks for sharing the article with your author-friend-client. Best wishes to him/her on the new blog!

  • Mike Myers

    So many good thoughts here for new writers and those with experience who may be, er, forgetful (like me). Thanks for sharing!

    • Ann Gynn

      Mike … aren’t we all forgetful? I always like to take time for a tuneup every once in awhile.

  • editsol

    This was another excellent article in a series focusing on editing skills. I have a few simple additions that I often point out to clients during B2B publication editorial reviews:

    (1) Introductory paragraphs should establish a key story point within an article’s first ten words. In fact, I use a “counting system” to facilitate instructional value. That is . . . give every word in your opening sentence a value of +1.Using that guideline, you are shooting for intros that have a value no higher than +10.

    (2) There are many cases where ledes end up in the +50-100 range. This often occurs when ledes are anecdotal. Slow-paced intros are even more likely when the article is written in source-first, news-last style.

    (3) Whenever possible, B2B content marketing headlines should launch with a specific quantitative reference. It’s easier to get there if during the assignment phase, you provide your writers with a list of questions that can only be answered with numbers.

    (4) Good headlines reflect “what was discovered” rather than
    “what was covered.” There is a difference.

    (5) If your articles use a head/deck format, the deck should expand upon and not duplicate the message offered in the main head.

    • Ann Gynn

      You bring up some excellent additions — love the point about “what was discovered” rather than “what was covered” — good lesson for more than headlines too!

  • Michael Bugeja

    Excellent post from a former student and now expert. I’ll be sharing this with my faculty at Iowa state.

    • Ann Gynn

      Thanks. They’re lessons that started with you — was a pleasure to be in your mag feature writing class at Ohio University many years ago.

  • rogercparker

    Dear Ann: This is excellent, a very worthy wake-up call. As you said, if the headline’s promise isn’t immediately reinforced in the opening, everything quickly goes downhill. Nice approach, too.

    • Ann Gynn

      So true — your readers assume the ride is all downhill and jump off — even if the ride includes an exciting middle and end!

  • Terri Zora

    Thank you! It can be so frustrating trying to convince people that “General Topic” is not a real topic. Then they wonder why it takes so long to write something for them.

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    • Ann Gynn

      Great point. I sometimes find that they don’t even mean “general topic” — they have a specific point of view or thing they want but don’t bother to communicate until the first draft is wrong (in their eyes).

      • Terri Zora

        Too true! We have one client that was that way for months. It took us a long time to convince them that if they provided the specific idea or topic they had in mind up front they were more likely to get something close to what they envisioned. That’s actually what prompted me to write a blog about the questions you should answer before having an agency create content for you!

        • Ann Gynn

          If only the clients who trusted us enough to hire us would trust they made the right decision and follow our expert counsel. But alas … too often that’s not the case.

  • Fernando Amaral

    Great tips to write content that people actually want to read, thanks!

    • Ann Gynn

      It seems so simple and yet it’s something we as writers often forget.

  • Ann Gynn

    Mumtaz, are you writing about particular topics or industry? Would love to read it. Pls share address.

  • editorialist uk

    Apologies for coming to this discussion late – but I fundamentally disagree with the examples you have given in your first answer. You say:

    “1. This article is about tips to create better content.

    2. This article is really about how to avoid mistakes many writers make
    in creating their leads and how to craft better, reader-worthy leads.”

    Sorry. This article is REALLY about demonstrating an insight into creating content, in order to promote the Content Marketing Institute.

    Unless writers are briefed in the ultimate objective of a piece of branded content, they will never be able to craft something which achieves that objective. That ultimate objective is the reason why they are being commissioned – the reason why a brand is paying for the content – and has to be known and understood. And that ultimate objective is what a piece of branded content is REALLY about.

    • Ann Gynn

      You bring up a good point. When writers ask, “What’s this article really about,” they don’t need to limit themselves to a single answer. In the original example, the “really about” answer is focused on the audience — and that should always be top of mind.

      But for content marketing initiatives, it’s valuable to ask “what’s this article really about” in the sense of purpose for the brand. It’s imperative that content marketing efforts align with the goals of the company — and critical for writers to make the connection.

  • Hollyann

    What the heck is a nut graph??

    • Ann Gynn

      Hi Hollyann,

      Glad you asked. A nut graph is the paragraph in an article that explains the point of the piece (the “why this article is relevant now”). It can summarize the point of the story in a single nugget of information. Here’s more than you probably wanted but it’s an interesting history/explanation of the nutgraph: