14 safety precautions for inexperienced content writers
Published: 07 January 2016 By Ben Davis
If one of your team is new to content writing, what are the potential pitfalls?
I've been writing articles for Econsultancy for a few years and although I certainly don't profess to be an expert, there are a few things I look out for.
In fact, I still get caught out, which is why creating a list like this is a good way to encourage vigilance.
1. Beware common grammatical errors
- Know when to use 'less than' and when to use 'fewer than'. Here's a guide.
- Remember that 'Coca-Cola is launching a campaign' (a brand is singular).
- Check your personal pronouns, are they the object or the subject of the sentence?
Okay, for some people this is second nature. Others aren't as precise with their grammar.
The important thing to remember is that descriptive grammar means that as long as you and your readers are reasonably happy, that's what matters (not the rules).
For example, ending my sentences with a preposition is not something I worry about.
2. Don't contravene copyright law
If you're not using your own images or photographs, make sure you source an image that is free of copyright.
This may be an image with CC0 applied, meaning you can use it without accreditation. Or, it could be an image with some rights reserved, perhaps requiring you to attribute it to the original author.
I get a lot of images from Pixabay, which exclusively contains CC0 images. They often show up in a Google image search with a filter applied to show only images available for reuse (simply click 'search tools' and then 'image rights' in a Google image search).
Wikipedia is also a great source of imagery, as is Flickr.
But be careful, Wikipedia and Flickr images will show up in search but you'll only be able to see the details of their licenses if you click through and investigate (see below). In general, Wikipedia is a safe bet that offers variety when Pixabay doesn't suit.
3. Avoid temporal confusion
If you're intending to write a piece of evergreen content, try not to date it with references to the current year.
Yes, the article will have a publish date on it (if it doesn't, you need to talk to your techies, quickly), but if you refer to 2016 in the opening line, a visitor in 2018 might click elsewhere for fear of outdated information.
Conversely, if you're writing a topical piece, you probably want to achieve clarity in your writing. So, writing 'this month', for example, could be improved by saying 'January 2016'.
There are no hard and fast rules here, it depends on where you are writing and whether you want to sacrifice your natural style prose.
However, you should definitely consider the future life of any piece you write.
Perhaps the best example is if you are writing a piece that you know will feature in a monthly newsletter. Writing, 'today, Twitter changed it character limit' might not be as smart as writing 'Twitter has dropped its character limit', for example.
4. Remove unnecessary formatting
Bad HTML is a very boring but infuriating occurence. If you cut and paste stuff from a Word document or an email into your rich text editor, chances are it's not going to look right when you hit publish.
Right-click and select 'paste and match style' or 'copy as plain text' to avoid headaches. There should also be a 'remove formatting' button in most editors (an eraser icon).
And remember, if you're editing a piece for someone else, don't assume their HTML is in order, because when it goes live, you'll be the one who gets the blame.
5. Search your own archive
While refreshing old content is not a bad idea, you should beware of rewriting somebody else's work by accident. Especially if that work is still doing well in search and bringing in the readers.
Always check your archive before you write. If anything, this might give you ideas to improve the piece you're ready to write.
6. Try to reference primary sources
The world of digital marketing can be full of unscrupulous wannabe statisticians (I wrote about it here). There are plenty of stats flying around that can be used to back up an argument.
Truthfully, the stats you use in any industry should be sourced from a freely available study with, at the very least, published methodology and sample numbers.
If you're going to assert a statistic, linking to the primary source validates your article and is altogether more professional.
7. Don't overreach with your headline
This is synonymous with 'the boy who cried wolf'. If you are forever writing headlines that start 'why' and 'how', but the articles never truly explain why or how, readers will get fed up.
Then when you have a real peach of an article, it won't get the love it deserves.
This is, in part, a problem with all online publishing, and you will suffer the side effects even if your own headlines are beyond reproach.
A good approach, if you have the time, is to write 10 headlines and then pick the best, whilst also seeking input from your colleagues.
Headline writing is a fine art, and one that must be accurate but with a pinch of excitement, intrigue or controversy.
8. Were you on the record?
If you've interviewed somebody, you need to be clear from the outset that everything could be used in your piece, otherwise, it's best to check before publication that your subject is happy.
Similarly, you need to be sure that information given to you by email or on paper is not confidential. You're not working for the New York Times (unless you are), so it's better to ensure you don't upset anyone.
Of course, this doesn't mean you should kowtow, simply know what side your bread is buttered.
9. Make it readable
The fact is, even the most excoriating, salacious, brilliant articles are hard work without regular paragraph breaks.
Think of literature, it's only figures like Beckett that attempted to do away with paragraphs (and you don't have a Nobel prize to your name like Beckett... unless you do).
It's not just paragraphs, it's headings, bolding, images, bullet points and more. Here's a handy guide.
10. Check your facts
An obvious but important point. If you're struck with an idea like a bolt from the blue, it can be easy to rush off a piece, unwittingly including a factual error.
Check every fact you assert, things can change.
11. Control image size and weight
Here's a more technical point. Even if you're just a writer and not a content man concerned with SEO, you can play your part in optimising article pages.
Page speed and indexing is all influenced by your content. So make sure you're not embedding large images that will delay mobile loading.
If you're interested, here's a no-fuss guide to doing just enough SEO.
12. Enlist a second pair of eyes
If you're a newbie, it's likely your work will have to be signed off, or go through an editor.
If that's the case, great, but remember that you are ultimately responsible for your articles, so if you don't think your boss is the eagle-eyed type, ask a marketing colleague to run their eyes over your piece.
13. Use your preview functionality
We've already talked about HTML and layout. If you don't preview your piece, you might miss errors - typically broken images or poorly formatted text.
14. Re-read on publication
Lastly, don't get complacent. Read your piece as soon as it has been published. Preview functionality isn't always gospel and a last read-through when live will put your mind at rest.
Obviously, if you've left a heinous error in there (I once mixed up a CEO and a serial killer), reading on publication may give you time to correct the error before it's noticed.