The Sriracha of content: Write the compelling pieces readers crave

November 18, 2016Content Writing

By Jen Dougherty – Senior Content Editor


We are, as we all know, living in the content age. Blogs, articles, listicles, white papers, case studies, newsletters, emails: it’s a flood. But what was the last piece that really hooked you? What was it that made you bookmark it, save it for later, email it to your friends, post it to Twitter and say, ‘This.’?

It was a strong idea, presented in a new, compelling way. It made you say ‘Aha! Now I get it!’ or ‘Wow! I didn’t know it, but that’s exactly how I feel!’ It made you look at a familiar thing in a new way, or at a new thing as an old friend.

Michael Mohammed Ahmed points out in this fantastic piece about bad writing, all weak writing is the same. Bad writing is boring, cliché filled and inauthentic. Above all, bad writing is not specific: it could have been written by anyone, any time. Good writing, however, is unique. Not because it creates wild similes or neologisms, but because only this one writer, in this one place and time, with this set of experiences, could have created it.

What goes into great writing

Picture that marketing funnel we all know so well. At the top, instead of potential customers at the start of their brand-awareness journey, imagine general knowledge – all the accepted, commonly understood information vaguely related to a particular product or idea. Deeper down this funnel, there’s more specific information: articles, statistics, research. Way down the pointy end, there’s the very unique knowledge base, experience and perspective of one particular writer. All this knowledge simmers up together and what drips out of this funnel isn’t leads or conversions, it’s writing. It might be content marketing, it might be listicles, it might be novels. Theoretically, this writing is the distillation of all the knowledge, understanding and experience the writer has gathered about the subject matter. Practically, of course, that funnel is porous and the drip outlet is tiny, and a lot of important stuff can go missing.

Two things are essential to make sure what comes out is worthwhile:

1. Know why you’re writing.

2. Know what you’re writing about.

That’s it! Once we have these two things firmly under control, we can open the spout of knowledge, and out will drip the concentrated hot sauce of excellence: compelling content.

Let’s dig a little deeper into those essentials.


1. Set your goals

Nothing good comes out of unintentional effort. Without a clear objective, you have no way of knowing whether you’re picking the right information to meet your goals and your readers’ needs. What makes this piece necessary, and what makes you the person to write it?

Unfortunately, ‘because I’m selling the product’ isn’t a specific enough reason. Sell which product? Which features? To whom? Why? To use for what? Did they know about the product before they started reading, or do we have to teach them about it? This is what we mean when we say ‘audience-first’.

Here’s a better objective: Show a small business owner from Sydney’s Eastern suburbs how they can track the results of a social media marketing campaign conducted in the lead-up to Father’s Day. In the process, maybe you’ll sell the reader on the features of your analytics product. But even if you don’t, if you really fulfil this objective, you will create a great piece that’s genuinely useful to a reader.


2. Do your research

You know how your high school writing teachers always told you to write what you know? There’s a reason they wouldn’t give full marks to stories about billionaire robotics experts living on deserted mountaintops: there’s a very small chance of your average 16-year-old having any experience to inform that picture. The story will be predictable at best, painfully clichéd at worst. It will lack specificity, skimp on detail and, as a result, will have nothing unique to tell us.

If you’re creating blog posts inspired by other blog posts, you’re only diluting what was already fairly weak sauce. We need to make the Sriracha of content, as opposed to the sweet chili sauce: concentrated, potent and full of tasty detail.

(Fun fact: Did you know the chilies in Sriracha aren’t cooked at all? I’m not sure what the metaphor is here, but I’m sure there is one.)

Start with this simple strategy. Next time you read an article that sparks an idea for a piece of your own, follow the links. Not just one or two, follow every single link. Follow the research back until you reach something new, and until your own understanding of the topic has expanded. Not only will this fill up your funnel of writing ingredients, it will also help you understand how your favourite writers mix external sources and their own knowledge to put together compelling stories.


3. Use relevant analogies and examples

Without a good example or analogy for the product, idea or feature you’re describing, it’s going to be hard for the uninitiated to know what you’re talking about. Let’s say you’re writing an article about marketing automation. It’d be great to include some real-world examples. It’s easy enough to include a sentence like: ‘Automation has become a part of our everyday lives: from ATMs to the robotic arms that build our cars.’

Sure, it’s an analogy, and those are definitely examples of automation, but what relationship do they have to marketing? Does the reader have any more of an idea about how they can use automation at work? None at all.

So I need a better analogy. Thinking back, I remember I just got bumped up to the black Sephora card. The points system, the notification email and the alert the cashiers got to give me a new card when I next showed up to the store are all examples of automation. Less dramatic than robotic arms, but examples that the reader can picture in their own lives will illuminate a complex idea most effectively.


4. Edit your work

First, write your piece. Put down all the information you can. Don’t think of it as ‘Writing A Piece’, think of it as throwing all the ingredients in the pot so you can simmer them down later. When all your thoughts are down, you’ll have a great watery mess that’s three times as long as it should be.

Once you have this, go back to the beginning and start cutting. Take out whole sentences that double down on a point, introduce a tangent you didn’t end up pursuing, or go on about chili sauce.

Come back a day or a week later, and edit again. Delete, rearrange, cull. Once you’re pretty sure all the sentences in there are needed, print it out. Go to a different desk, and start editing with a pen or pencil. The editing stage is complete once there’s nothing extraneous left to take out. That’s when you’ll have a strong, tasty sauce.


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