What is a content writer? Here’s a day in the life

<!––>

Each day, I begin with a goal to create fresh digital content for a variety of clients. By the time I call it a night, I’ll have made time for meetings, research, strategic development, SEO and content creation to do everything in my power to generate copy that will stand out in the crowded world of content marketing.

I’m not alone in this rhythm. Content writers must constantly balance the need to invest in their own creative capabilities while satisfying the needs of current and potential customers to ensure everything they create is on target. To this end, we have a hand in a variety of tasks and do much more than just writing.

Let’s walk through the many different specialties that go into content writing.

Content writing and strategy

There are days when writing for the web can feel like shouting into the void. I craft a story to be published and wonder who is actually reading it. The reality is that no writer wants to create copy that nobody reads.

So we don’t just write.

We research what people are sharing on social media. We dive into organic search analytics to figure out how people are searching for the topics we’re covering and how search engines are providing them answers. We read content on similar topics to see what other writers are doing and make sure we can differentiate our content.

Every piece of content I create on a given day begins with strategy. Usually, it’s a combination of collaborative discussions with clients and independent research, but regardless of the methods, the goal is the same: Tell a story that’s engaging for the reader, valuable for the client and strategically designed to get noticed on the web.

In a lot of ways, a professional content writer is a well-rounded content specialist, with strengths in multiple content marketing disciplines. That’s how great content is born: mapping SEO, social media, technical research and more to the core task of putting pen to paper.

Relationship with SEO

Ultimately, as a web writer, my relationship with SEO is extremely practical. I’ve been trained to identify effective keywords and do some big-picture strategic thinking about how terms are best used in a content marketing strategy. However, it’s important to prioritize developing strategies to build content around those terms without overtly cramming in key terms or buzzwords.

Marrying SEO with content writing is very much like threading a needle. It requires a delicate, intentional touch. Plus, a content writer job doesn’t end when a piece is published. There’s also social media or email promotion to be factored in, as well as the larger marketing performance itself. A blog, for instance, can live on the internet forever and can be circulated through email and across social media. This means I have to consider how my work will be featured, optimized and talked about online.

The post-publication takeaways (Did it generate social media buzz? Did it help drive open rates or time on page?) are then cycled into my next piece for that client. Every post is a learning experience.

Whereas a purely technical writer or a content mill operates in a vacuum, churning out content with little insight into end goals, I’m tasked with putting a lot of pieces together. I have to anticipate future blog performance, understand niche lingo, be proficient in distribution channels and optimize for search engines. The writing is but one part of being a digital content writer.

Why is writing for the web unique?

An advertising copywriter will typically be working within the confines of a highly specific campaign and target audience: perhaps a key demographic group that frequently visits a website where a promo video will be played. A reporter is aiming to identify the underlying story behind a chain of events and communicate facts to the public. Bloggers are taking news and events that are relevant to a specific audience and offering commentary and context.

As a web content writer, I combine all of these things. I might report on an industry event in which a keynote speech aligns with a client campaign and can be contextualized in my story.

The other unique aspect of web writing is determined by the digital medium itself. With so much information readily available online, readers can simply move on to another story if what their reading isn’t engaging and valuable from the start.

However, readers also see past click-bait and gimmicks and want substance from what they read. Each story amounts to a balancing act between being accessible and catchy enough to get attention but deep and comprehensive enough to hold a reader’s attention.

Quality content is achieved only through understanding the psychology of online readers. It’s quite a divergence from reading a paperback or a newspaper. Web copy is up against the attention spans of oversaturated readers and the search engine algorithms that index and rank content. There are so many factors in play that make the digital medium its own beast.

What does the writing process look like?

Step 1: Research

For a typical story, I’ll begin by doing broad research on what is happening in the industry I’m covering so I can identify hot topics and overarching themes. From there, I’ll consider the strategic and campaign goals my client has at the time and move to selecting keywords and analyzing high-performing stories. These insights enable me to narrow my focus and get a clearer idea of what readers are really looking for.

Much of this starts with a search engine, but it will also entail combing through collateral provided by a client or notes taken from a prior conversation. A good content writer should be able to distill messaging, information and key data points from multiple sources, rather than relying too heavily on one research method.

The same goes for keywords, too. High-quality SEO writing is doable with just a tool or two, but checking keyword performance across a few different tools can help ensure I’m on the right track. After all, most tools are scraping information that may have been cached for weeks or months. Clarity on keyword direction is thus crucial.

Step 2: Write

At this point, much of the big-picture background work is settled and it’s time to delve into the actual subject matter and start writing. I’ll read studies, think-pieces and information from client subject matter experts to formulate the messaging and develop the content.

At this point, I might create a thorough outline of the piece, especially if it’s longer form. This could mean headers, bullet points, source endnotes and even a specific keyword phrase I want to include in certain sections.

Step 3: Collaborate

All of this work eventually comes together to inform what goes on the page. Throughout the process, collaboration with clients is invaluable. I find great information through personal research, but proprietary knowledge is a gold mine when it comes to creating unique content that will stand out on the web.

Any sort of technical writing in a highly complex sphere can always benefit from client-provided interviews or reports. To ensure I’m matching the type of language and tone professionals in a given space use, I might quickly touch base with a client subject matter expert or salesperson.

How do web writers offer unique value to your business?

Not too long ago, I had an interesting conversation with my wife. We were discussing what I like about the work I do, and she asked a simple question that kind of caught me off guard. It went something like this:

“If I’m in charge of messaging for something, I need to make sure everything that comes out is not only on point but has the tone and feel that I need,” she said. “I don’t know if I would ever be able to trust somebody outside of the project team to understand what I’m trying to achieve well enough to capture that. Why would I go with a third-party agency to capture a message that I’m so personally invested in?

Here’s why: As a content writer on the outside, my No. 1 goal is to learn about your brand and understand your goals. From there, I add in the broad knowledge I have from working with a variety of clients and industries to bring a unique context and perspective to your conversation.

When you work closely on a project, you can get so deep into the exact messaging and material on your plate that it’s extremely difficult to see beyond that immediate goal. Web content writing that looks too much like typical marketing and sales materials will push readers away. When I’m writing for clients, I try to bring what I’ve learned researching and working on a huge range of projects into everything I do.

A successful content writer has tons of prior experience achieving the exact goal a client is looking for — even if they don’t, at this very moment, have the very same SME as your internal team. SME can be developed over time (and rather quickly), but true writing skill is harder to capture. That’s where I come in.

Relationship with content marketing

This is where my relationship with the larger content marketing strategy becomes so valuable. At its best, web content isn’t about promoting a brand or selling a product. Instead, it initiates a relationship with readers by engaging them with content that is both valuable to them and representative of your brand ideals. By building a connecting point through shared interest in what a piece of content creates, reader and brand have a starting point for conversations. When I understand the marketing goals in play during a campaign, I have an opportunity to build out highly branded content without being promotional.

If a client is heavily focused on lead generation, I may develop pieces that encourage action at the end of the post, such as a newsletter signup. If the project is built around increasing traffic, I may be more casual and fun in tone to attract a wider range of individuals exploring a topic at the top of the funnel.

My most valuable reader, however, is always my client. They’re the ones who eventually take ownership of the content I create. It represents their business. The satisfaction in my work comes when I can achieve their marketing goals through stories that are compelling and surprise them with their blend of unique perspective and branded storytelling. Achieving this means always growing. Always gaining a deeper knowledge of my clients and the industries I cover.

At the end of the day, that’s what I love about writing for the web: I’m constantly challenged to learn new things and bring that knowledge to a wide range of projects. Creating content for the internet isn’t glamorous, but when all of the background work comes together, delivering on a client’s vision is incredibly satisfying.

Editor’s Note: Updated December 2020.