A content writer is someone who produces written content for the Internet. The most common type of content is blog articles for inbound marketing campaigns.
However, content writing is more than just blogging, and it is actually more than just writing too.
First, just in my personal experience, content writing can also include writing text for mobile games, cold email writing (although this is more copywriting), writing social media posts, writing landing pages, preparing video scripts, and writing descriptions for shop items in freemium games.
Second, making great content starts with “ideation” and then progresses through planning, researching, writing, and editing. Depending on the size of a marketing department (and their budget), this work might be split among many people, including the content writer, content manager, content strategist, and copy editor.
However, as I argue in another article that describes all these different roles, the editing and writing steps should always be done by separate people! That’s because it is hard to see errors in your own writing, and online tools such as Hemingway Editor only help you so much.
Here, I am going to explain what is a content writer. I’ll then explain who needs a content writer, how to become a content writer, and how to excel as a content writer. Finally, I am going to explain each step of the content production flow.
What is a content writer?
A content writer is tasked with producing materials to help in inbound marketing. Inbound marketing is basically “free” marketing where you build up useful content to attract prospects to your website. This is contrasted with outbound marketing, which is all the “paid” versions of marketing, for example pay-per-click (PPC) advertising using Google Ads.
I put “free” and “paid” in quotations because you pay for both. (Sorry, but I can’t write for free!) However, with outbound marketing you pay directly for advertising, whereas content is something you pay for once and then slowly builds the engine of your website.
Some of the things content writers produce are the following: blog articles, video scripts, emails, how-to guides, in app text, white papers, newsletters, social media posts, press releases, and landing pages.
Some of these items might be better called “copy” and therefore the domain of copywriters. However, the roles overlap and are slowly merging. The basic difference is that content is meant to be valuable to the reader and therefore draw attention to the website, while copy is meant to elicit a response, for example signing up for a newsletter or becoming a paying customer. You can read more in my other article.
While I go in depth into the copy vs. content argument elsewhere, outside of the occasional rude user on Subreddits dedicated to copywriting, most people use the terms interchangeably at this point.
Do I need a content writer?
If you have a website and do not have time to write content—a lot of content—then yes you need a content writer. Whether you need all of the related roles from content manager to content strategist is another question. Whether you need an in-house content writer, a dedicated freelancer, or can use a variety of writers over time is still another question. Let’s take a look at each of these separately.
How much content do you need to write?
It’s hard to say what is a good pace for content production. However, in my experience, you notice a significant uptick in traffic after about 100,000 total words on a blog and another at about 200,000. (Note that this is well-written and search engine-optimized text and not just AI drivel!)
The first signifies roughly when Google starts to consider a website as having some expertise on a topic. The second is related to both Google considering the website as being valuable and there being some accumulation of backlinks by that point. It also seems to be a place where guest post opportunities can start to come in organically.
I’ve worked with companies that want to generate 100,000 words/month, which generally can only be done by (many) freelance content writers. Some of my clients have no native English speakers and need to outsource that work. There are also businesses that just like to have a “set-and-forget” content stream coming in.
Generally, writing a minimum of 100,000 words/year, which works out to approximately 2,000 words/week, is a good pace. Some companies can accomplish this by having everyone in the office write an article every couple months. Other companies, especially those without native English speakers, will want to find a dedicated content team.
Do I need a content strategist and/or content manager?
It is harder to outsource the content manager or content strategist role, although I do these jobs for some clients. This requires a bit more trust because the content writer is also going to be defining what content should be written, when, and how it should look. You are essentially outsourcing how people will perceive your brand.
If your space is competitive, then you may want to have an internal content strategist. They will be able to use SEMrush, Ahrefs, Yeost, and your content management system (CMS, for example WordPress) in ways to maximize the value of your content.
If you want to have a high content output that requires working with several content writers, then you will probably want a content manager. For a small company, the content manager should be able to do all of the content strategist’s tasks as well, assuming you don’t also do loads of PPC and have other marketing streams, such as a podcast and events.
Should I hire an in-house or freelance content writer?
I’ll try to be impartial here, but remember I am a freelance content writer so there is some bias to my answer. You should always pick a freelance content writer. No, I’m kidding, but there are definitely times where you are far better off picking freelancers.
Freelance writers are better if you are unconvinced by inbound marketing. While I recommend committing to about 2,000 words/week for a year at least to build up the authority of your website, if you are worried about your budget or not sure you’ll want to continue on after you have a large blog, then a freelancer is a good way to prevent long-term budget creep.
You should definitely avoid going to content mills. These companies can pay as little as $10/1000 words despite the high costs they charge. At that rate, you will be lucky if the article isn’t 100% copied or generated by a useless AI writer. You’ll also find it very hard to get a refund after you realize the quality is so poor. The best pace to find quality content writers today is on LinkedIn.
How do I become a content writer?
Content writing is a handful of skills. There are the soft skills of finding clients, getting work done on time, and being easy to deal with. Then, there are the business skills of running your own company. Next, there are the writing and editing skills. Finally, there are all the planning and research skills.
My undergraduate degree was in management and finance, which has helped me run my own business well but also write a lot of the B2B SaaS content I’ve specialized in. My graduate degree definitely helped with the research aspects.
Mostly I have just spent a lot of my career as an editor while writing as a hobby. It became a natural progression a few years ago when the opportunity struck to transition from predominantly editing to writing.
How do I write the best content possible?
The keys to writing amazing content are knowing your topic and knowing your audience. If you deeply understand the content you are writing by focusing on a specific niche, like me with B2B SaaS enterprises, then you can quickly research a topic and know what needs to be added to your article to make it stand out.
If you understand your audience, then you can write specifically for them. This comes from knowing the buyer persona of your clients. A buyer persona is a fictionalized version of your customer base and helps a company target their inbound marketing.
While I have been tasked with defining buyer personas before, this is not something I recommend outsourcing to freelancers. Buyer personas are too important and should be created by the marketing manager, marketing director, or even the director of operations.
After you understand the audience and the topic, it is about writing for the Internet. The Internet loves short sentences, short paragraphs, simple words, and a conversational tone. Try to write in the active voice and aim for a sixth or seventh grade reading level.
Finally, you need to get a grasp of on-page SEO practices. You should be able to work the keyword (or “keyphrase”) into the prose naturally and in different ways. You should also be able to recognize when an interlinking opportunity arises. If you can produce converting calls to action (CTAs) that’s a bonus!
What are the stages of producing great content?
While content writers are not going to do every part of this cycle, they should be familiar with each stage as some clients might expect you to do more of this process than others.
Content planning has several steps. It begins with your buyer persona and ends with a content brief that makes content research easier. Let’s take a look at each of them. All of this is done following a content map. Before you make a content map, consider using my content map templates.
The first part of planning an article is brainstorming. You look at your buyer persona to see what content would be valuable to them. Then you make a list of every keyword you think might draw their attention.
I keep organized lists of keywords from previous brainstorming sessions as they can help with future ones. If you keep circling back to the same ideas that you have rejected previously, it might be time to write them. You might also find that, having written two or three related articles already, a marginal idea becomes a great one because of the interlinking and supporting functions.
Once you have a list of potential topics, it is time to vet them. You do this by using a few specific criteria. First, you want to make sure that the keywords will attract the right visitors to the site. That is, you want to attract people who might use the service on offer.
Second, you want to make sure the traffic volume and difficulty are in line with reasonable expectations for your site. Apple will win the keyword “iPhone”, but maybe you can win the keyword “hard cases for iPhone 13”.
Third, you want to use a program like Ahrefs to see if your competitors are using the keyword. It is good practice to create directly competing articles for every keyword a competitor is using—only with better content.
Content brief preparation
Now it is time to create a content brief. While some content writers, myself included, can create great content from just a keyword, it is more expensive because it is more time consuming. It also reduces the chance that the article will exactly match what you wanted.
I consider a complete content brief to have the following elements:
- An article title
- A keyword
- At least four decent comparison articles (no tweets, etc.) per 1000 words of length
- The subsection/H2 (and preferably sub-subsection/H3) titles
- A paragraph explaining the targeting and anything the client wants mentioned (a specific feature of their platform tied into one section, something lacking in a competitor’s comparison article, or key buzzwords that make it specific to a certain sector or location)
- Preferred writing style (personal, formal, serious, funny…)
- A list of links to add to other articles on the blog and any outside sites that can be linked (and a do not link list of competitors)
- Calls to action (CTAs)
That’s a big list, but they are all important if you want your content to match the aims of the marketing department. When I am not given a content brief or it is less specific, I usually create my own as it makes the research and writing stages easier.
Content research isn’t like scientific research or even competitor analysis. It is much more superficial. It entails looking at the competing links, for example the first two pages of results on the keyword in your target location (hint: use a VPN).
You should look to see all the important elements in the competing articles. If several articles have the same section, then you should have that section. In fact, if the word count permits, you should have every section that every article includes. Of course that is not always possible, so you should prioritize the ones found most often.
You should also be remembering the information in those articles as you go so that you can write your own information under each subheader. Plagiarism is rampant on the Internet, and while you probably won’t face discipline over it, Google definitely notices.
Your best bet to prevent copy-and-pasted text is to pay content writers a fair rate so that they are incentivized to produce stellar, unique content. Then, build a relationship with those content writers who excel so that you can maintain a strong stream of content into the future.
I generally start with the outline that includes the keyword and meta description at the top of the page above the title. If I am working for a client, this comes from the content brief. Otherwise, I write it myself.
Then, I add all the subsection and sub-subsection titles. Next, I insert any CTAs that have been requested where appropriate. I then paste in any links I plan to use under the appropriate subsection titles.
From there, it is just writing some catchy text throughout. As noted above, keep it simple, light, and personal. Internet readers want to feel like the text is a conversation, and this is how you build up a good visitor base.
Editing is an integral part of the writing process. It is also impossible to do well on your own text. I consider myself a proficient editor after over a decade of full-time work as an editor in academic publishing. However, I struggle to find mistakes in my own work.
The editing process usually reduces the word count. As a content writer, I aim to have 10% more words at minimum than the agreed upon word count. That way, it stays above the targeted word count after the editing process is completed.
Content writers are the backbone of inbound marketing
People often say “content is king”. It is the main driver of sales today. While not all content is written text, this will always be a part of the mix. Customers today do not appreciate the hard sell, and most people skip over the paid advertisers in the Google search results. This leaves content as the only viable route to bring prospects to your page.
The rise of long-term relationship building between customers and businesses makes a content strategy even more important. Good luck!