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10 Tips From Best-Selling Authors That Will Polish Your Content

The one thing fiction and content marketing writers share is the desire to write something both beautiful and true. Beautiful content marketing captivates readers for years; it’s evergreen, always relevant, and continues to rank in Google’s top three results. It’s the equivalent to a beautiful and true piece of fiction short-listed for the National Book Award. What writer wouldn’t want those accolades?

What can you learn from those best-selling fiction authors to make your content shine? These writers know how to grab readers’ attention and keep them turning pages into the wee hours of the morning, when they reach a satisfying end. I chose 10 favorite pieces of author advice that can make the biggest difference to your writing. (Several of the tips come from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is an excellent resource for all writers.)

1. Remove everything that’s not part of the story — John Gould’s counsel to Stephen King

If the text doesn’t add to your readers’ knowledge or understanding, it doesn’t belong. Ruthlessly cut everything that isn’t necessary from your content.

Ruthlessly cut everything that isn’t necessary from your #content, says @StephenKing. Click To Tweet

2. Read. Read everything you can lay hands on — several authors including Stephen King, Lee Child, and Michael Moorcock

To write well, study excellent writing. Read posts and articles from writers who consistently put out content that gets shared across social media and the internet. They are doing something right to attract and engage an audience.

Don’t limit yourself to reading writers in your own industry or subject matter. Read many writing styles, from journalism to direct-response copywriting. You can learn much from how different writers compel and engage their audiences.

To write well, study excellent writing via @KathyEdens1. #writingtips Click To Tweet

3. Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’ — Mark Twain

He directs his advice at writers who lazily use the word “very” as an intensifier, often to support weak verbs. Was the subject of your article “very happy” to have met her business idol? Carefully comb your content and replace “very” with something more active or delete it.

Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very” — Mark Twain via @KathyEdens1. #writingtips Click To Tweet

The smart people at put together a helpful infographic of alternatives:

4. I know ($10 words) all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway spoke those words in response to William Faulkner’s thinking. Whatever you call it – corporate speak, business jargon, purple prose – using plain, simple-to-understand words makes your content more relatable. If a middle school student can understand your point, all your readers will spend less time working to figure out what you’re saying. Instead, they’ll easily understand and share your content because your ideas, suggestions, or conclusions are on point.

Using plain, simple-to-understand words makes your #content more relatable. Ernest Hemingway via @KathyEdens1. Click To Tweet

Perhaps one of the smartest men in the world said it best: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” — Albert Einstein

5. The road to hell is paved with adverbs — Stephen King

Just as succinctly, Kingsley Amis said, “If you’re using an adverb, you have got the verb wrong.” Anton Chekhov said, “Cross out as many adjectives and adverbs as you can.” And Elmore Leonard said, “Using adverbs is a mortal sin.”

An adverb ending in “ly” props up a weak verb, like “she went quickly” or “he looked at her angrily.” Replace adverbs with more precise and stronger verbs: “She sprinted” or “He scowled at her.” Remember, some of the most powerful sentences in literature are without adjectives and adverbs: “Jesus wept.”

Replace adverbs with more precise and stronger verbs, says @KathyEdens1. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Don’t attach adverbs to the dialogue tags, “he said excitedly” or “she answered shrilly.” Use description, not adverbs, to convey emotions. Most writers worth their salt know dialogue tags scream amateur.

6. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active — George Orwell

Some politicians love using the passive voice because it allows them to avoid taking responsibility: “Mistakes were made.” Oh really? By whom? Writers can’t get away with it because it means readers must work too hard to figure out what is happening to whom and by whom.

Look at these two sentences to see the difference between passive and active voice:

  • A ban on elephant hunting was lifted by Botswana this week.
  • Botswana lifted its ban on elephant hunting this week. 

Whenever possible, place the doer of your action at the beginning of the sentence so your reader can more easily follow your point.

Place the doer of your action at the beginning of the sentence so reader can easily follow your point. @KathyEdens1 Click To Tweet

Passive voice also can make the writing sound indeterminate, undecided, and wishy-washy. Regardless of where you fall on issues, take a stand in your writing and use active voice to communicate your authority and knowledge.

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7. Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Be wary and wield punctuation responsibly. Avoid using exclamation points, especially in professional communication (yes, even emails). Write to communicate excitement when appropriate, don’t articulate attitude with punctuation. Let your readers have their own emotional response to your content; don’t try to direct them with punctuation.

Cut out exclamation points. It’s like laughing at your own joke – F. Scott Fitzgerald via @KathyEdens1 Click To Tweet

8. I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead — Mark Twain

One of the funniest sayings that’s still relevant today, this sentiment shines a bright light on verbose prose. It’s hard work to trim 20 words to five or 1,500 to 750. Select each word with purpose and power, which often requires the elimination of “glue words”:

Image source

Why say someone, “walked over into the backyard of the neighbor’s house in order to see …” when you could say, “inspected the neighbor’s backyard for …”? Replacing this 13-word sentence fragment with a five-word one clarifies intent for your readers. Don’t make readers work to understand what’s going on.

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9. Easy books contain lots of short paragraphs – including dialogue paragraphs which may only be a word or two long – and lots of white space… — Stephen King

Sentence length plays a big role in how readers perceive your work. Today’s attention-overloaded readers must choose what to read from hundreds or thousands of options. How do you get them to pick your content?

Alternate sentence lengths and make sure paragraphs are short. Strategically use headings, bullets, and numbered lists to help readers skim.

Part of writing an engaging piece of content is to pace your prose, meaning you mix highly active wording with slower, more contemplative content. Readers are attracted by an almost poetic rhythm to the words; they want phrasing that ebbs and flows to pull them along.

Mix highly active wording with slower, more contemplative content, says @KathyEdens1. Click To Tweet

Consider how short sentences convey a sense of urgency, while longer sentences slow things down by meandering along, touching different points of interest along the way.

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10. You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club — Jack London

These authors eloquently relayed the same truth in other ways:

  • “A writer never finds the time to write. A writer makes it.” — Nora Roberts
  • “Professional writers don’t have muses; they have mortgages.” — Larry Kahaner
  • “There is no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.” — Terry Pratchett
  • “I learned to produce whether I wanted to or not. It would be easy to say oh, I have writer’s block, oh, I have to wait for my muse. I don’t. Chain that muse to your desk and get the job done.” — Barbara Kingsolver
  • “Writer’s block? I’ve heard of this. This is when a writer cannot write, yes? Then that person isn’t a writer anymore. I’m sorry, but the job is getting up in the f*cking morning and writing for a living.” — Warren Ellis
  • “Writing is total grunt work. A lot of people think it’s all about sitting and waiting for the muse. I don’t buy that. It’s a job. There are days when I really want to write, days when I don’t. Every day I sit down and write.” — Jodi Picoult

Are you a writer? Then you write. Don’t wait on inspiration to strike. Need to create a case study for a client? Learn how to sit down at your keyboard and pound out an article or post.

Are you a writer? Then you write. Don’t wait on inspiration to strike. @KathyEdens1 #writingtips Click To Tweet

Successful content marketing is unrelated to inspiration or the muse. It’s mastering what makes for great content. Once you understand the techniques masters use and how to reach your target audience best, you won’t have any problem sitting down and cranking out amazing prose that speaks to readers.

Final thoughts

As Lee Iacocca once said:

“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.”

Make your mark as a content marketing writer and use these 10 tips to streamline your writing and craft something that resonates with readers. Let your brand’s voice be received and heard.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute