From B2B content marketing to science fiction: The first rule of writing in every genre

Has your company struggled to engage your audience through content marketing? You’re not alone—and the solution involves getting back to the basics of good writing in any genre.

This past fall, a survey by The Economist Group and Peppercomm found a persistent disconnect between business executives and the brand marketers who are trying to reach them. Executives, like all readers, want substance; 75 percent responded that their primary purpose for seeking business content is “researching a business idea.” But most marketers are doing just that—marketing. An astonishing 93 percent of brand marketers said they “connect their content to a product or service.” It’s a bait-and-switch, and readers can sense it from the first sentence.

No matter the genre—content marketing, journalism, fiction, memoir, and so forth—a writer’s primary objective is to connect with one person: the reader whose eyes are currently on the page (or the screen). But writers, like all humans, are unanimous on very few things. Some prefer AP style, others prefer Chicago style, still others prefer APA style. The Oxford comma debate will rage for generations.

One writer's reference book shelf (mine). Find the Strunk and White.
One writer’s reference book shelf (mine). Find the Strunk and White.

Rising above the carnage, on the desk of almost every writer, sits a slim reference book—The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White—that is near infallible. Despite that the first edition by White was published in 1959, the 105-page book’s simple list of reminders such as “Do not overwrite,” “Do not explain too much,” and “Avoid foreign languages” are timeless. Witty and authoritative, it has served as a practical reference tool for writers of all genres for more than 50 years.

Good writers, the book’s authors proclaim, do more than write grammatically correct sentences. They write for the reader, not for themselves. They understand that they are merely the reader’s guide through the ideas, so they seek perfection through clear, concise text: “As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.” (p. 70)

You read that right: the purpose of writing is to connect with your audience, not to serve your own purposes. No one wants to read a self-serving article about how awesome your company is, veiled under the guise of a timely piece on industry trends. People want to connect with a subject they care about.

Aside from highlighting the disconnect between brand marketers and their audiences, the Economist Group study offers several other interesting findings. For example, 85 percent of executives prefer “text over video and audio when making business decisions,” confirming that traditional content is still king. And 63 percent “use online search as a primary tool to find content,” confirming that marketers who depend on an Internet presence for business development can no longer ignore search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). It’s a fact of modern content strategy.

The primary takeaway is that most marketers, as the survey is titled, are missing the mark. Too many people believe the point of business content is to promote their company. But by burying sales pitches in content, they’re actually turning off prospective customers. For the content creator, this leads to a waste of money, time, and good ideas.

Effective business writers and modern thought leaders are just like all other writers, from all genres and all time periods. In fact, this may be the only thing we can all agree on: to write well, you must write for your reader. To do this, you must understand what ideas he or she finds valuable and deliver that insight.

A bonus passage for lovers of Strunk and White:

“Young writers often suppose that style is garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable. Style has no such separate entity; it is nondetachable, unfilterable. The beginner should approach style warily, realizing that it is an expression of self, and should turn resolutely away from all devices that are properly believed to indicate style—all mannerisms, tricks, adornments. The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” (p. 69)

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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