As a recovering English major, I can't tell you how many times I've been told to start with an outline or at least some semblance of what I'd be writing beyond a thrown-together title. Instead, you might have found me up at midnight the day my essay was due, spilling some words onto a page and hoping for magic.
Honestly, do you ever wonder how we survived college — and actually graduated?
But I digress. My point is that I would never do that now. Why? Because when it comes to content marketing (and, really, any essay on the relationship between Medea and Jason), you need to know where you're going in order to plan your trip and effectively get yourself there.
This should sound familiar (and I'm not just speaking to my fellow English majors). Ideally, this is the same approach you and your team took to create your content marketing strategy. You identified your goals — industry influence, thought leadership, sales enablement, lead generation, etc. — and put together a plan to achieve them.
To execute that strategy and create content that works together to move you closer to accomplishing your goals, you need to apply that same approach to each of your individual pieces of content. You need an editorial mindset.
What do I mean when I say you need an editorial mindset when planning your content? Simply that you should plan ahead.
A poorly prepared piece of content could make your brand seem inconsistent and your thought leader look scatterbrained — and the last thing you want is a lead or customer walking away before you've made a good impression. And considering that you only have 15 seconds to make that impression, that content needs to be organized, strategic, and well-thought-out from the beginning.
Don't just come up with a title for an article and think that's enough. A title doesn't tell you or another writer what to put together or what this article will accomplish.
Instead, write a quick two- or three-sentence summary for each piece. Jot down an outline. Look at whatever writing guidelines you have access to, and make sure you have everything you need before anyone starts writing — or else you won't know what you're getting back.
I'm not talking about a huge, in-depth outline — just something basic that will give you an idea of where you're headed. This way, your outline isn't so concrete that you can't shift as needed, but it's concrete enough that if you stray too far, you know you either need to change the article altogether or revisit why you're writing this piece of content in the first place.
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When we send article topics to clients and internal thought leaders, everything is already written as a summary, and when we send question sets as part of our knowledge sharing process, we make sure those question sets are put together in an outline format.
This way, our clients not only have an idea of what their articles will look like when they get them back, but they also see exactly how any piece of content fits into their overall strategy.
If you want to start working an editorial mindset into your content strategy and topic ideation, it's best to start your pieces of content with a summary (rather than just an idea for a title).
Summaries are actually rather formulaic at first. As with any type of writing, you follow the rules until you know you can break them.
One thing you really need to know before you write a summary is the guidelines for the content. If you're writing an article, you need to know which publication you'll be pitching your content to — some prefer how-to articles, while some want analytical pieces — because your summary will look pretty different depending on the type of content.
Curious which publications you should be contributing to? Take our to learn which publications your audience is reading.
To give you a jumping-off point, here are two quick summary templates (one for a how-to article and one for an analytical article) that you customize for any content you want to write for the future:
In this [content type], [thought leader/company] will [address/discuss/question][problem this content is addressing] and how [solution] resolves this problem. [He/She/They/It] will give readers [X number] of strategies [audience] can use to implement this solution and how each strategy can improve [audience]'s [industry/business/etc.].
More and more often, [trending information that this article will address] is happening. But should it be? In this [content type], [thought leader/company] will examine this [trending information] and provide [audience] with an in-depth analysis on why this trend should [or should not] continue and what [audience] should know about the future of the industry.
Once you get used to writing summaries, you'll be able to play around with the content a lot more. You'll have the opportunity to be creative, which is honestly what we're all here for, right? No? Anyone?
After you put together a summary, you should have everything you need to start putting together an outline you don't hate.
(I'm just kidding; there will never be an outline you don't hate.)
(OK, I'm kidding again. Outlines don't have to be the end of the world, and they've honestly never done anything to you personally.)
As I said before, you don't need to write an outline that's basically the entire article. You don't need your content right up front — just an idea of what that content is. For example, you can take a look at the rudimentary outline I used when crafting this very blog post into, well, something:
Introduction: Why is it more difficult to create content without an editorial mindset?
Body/Takeaways: What is an editorial mindset? Describe both it and its benefits. How does Influence & Co.'s process allow us to have an editorial mindset while crafting articles? (Touch on how how questions are crafted into an outline, starting with a summary, etc.)
Conclusion: To really create a cohesive piece of content, you need to know where you're going. As a result, not only will your customers understand you better, but you'll also be more likely to be published/create a cohesive editorial calendar/etc.
I've already strayed a bit from this. I haven't spoken a lot about Influence & Co.'s exact methods, and my conclusion will hopefully be way better than what I dropped on a page in the middle of the day on Tuesday last week. But this gives you an idea of how rough of an outline you can have before gathering all of the information you need and either writing yourself or sending your content to a freelancer.
The term "editorial mindset" makes it seem like this is something you need to be born with or like you need to go to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to really have a grasp on what your content should look like. That's not true. With these tips and some careful planning, you can keep your content from straying too far from your original strategy and keep your audience fully engaged along the way. (That's better than the outline's conclusion, right?)