Devising Content Strategies for Businesses

The Irish economy is apparently recovering. People’s perception of that recovery may differ, but I’m inclined to believe that the recovery is real. That’s because businesses have started to look for content from me as well. There’s a greater interest among businesses in content marketing, which means creating content that helps them reach their customers and be more visible on search engine.

Content marketing is part of a wider phenomenon called inbound marketing, where you aim to draw people to your business by giving them valuable information and building relationships with them. HubSpot, a social media marketing platform, offers online certification in inbound marketing, which I will study for during the quiet summer months.

copywriting image
Marketing content can have many hidden messages.

I know that businesses want results, and in the coming months, I’ll be focusing on writing content that doesn’t just read well, but delivers tangible results for them. But I still believe that before you employ any of these fancy marketing techniques, you need to figure out what you want to say.

I create content strategy documents that outline this for businesses, and which they can use when they’re talking or writing about their business. I wrote one for a new business recently, and here’s an outline of what it contained.

About Us

This is the most important section of the content strategy document. It outlines the fundamentals of your business. You define what you do and most importantly, why you do it. Knowing why you do it keeps you motivated, because it connects you with the passion and creativity that made you want to start the business in the first place. You also outline the mission of your business, the goals you want to achieve for your customers.

Our Services

In this section, you further define what you do for your customers. You give a detailed outline of what the service is, how it works and how it benefits the people who avail of the service. You also include a section explaining the ways you go the extra mile for your customers, the extra efforts you make to deliver great service.

Our Audience

We’d all love to think that everyone will be interested in what we offer, but the reality is, there’s a certain core group who’ll be more interested than everyone else. In the section, we define that core group. A helpful way to do this is to create a profile of a typical customer: their age, location, educational background, family situation, interests and use of social media. You can then pitch your content to match their interests and concerns.

Why Us

This section is one of the most important, because it gives you a chance to tell customers how great you are. It summarises all the reasons why it would be worthwhile for people to avail of what you offer. It highlights the benefits you can bring them, the ways you can solve their problems and enhance their lives in lots of little ways.

How do you approach writing content for your business or organisation? What strategies do you use?

Why Children Can Read Dark Stories

A few months ago, I read a comment from a mother in a newspaper article that she would not read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to her six-year-old daughter, because of its racist overtones, particularly in the early chapters which reference the lead character Mary’s life in India. I was dismayed to hear this. Partly because she was allowing modern-day values to colour her view of the book. And partly because I don’t think she was giving her daughter enough credit. In my experience, children are much better able to handle dark material than adults give them credit for.

The Secret Garden

In a way, it’s easy for me to say that. I don’t have children and if I did, I might feel the same fierce urge to protect them from dark or troubling subject matter. But I’ve given numerous creative writing workshops to children over the years, and children are willing to embrace darkness in a way that adults are not. I also think of my own childhood, when my parents were willing to answer any question I had, and when I came across anything dark in a book or TV programme, they were able to contextualise it for me and take any fear away.

Processing Truths Through Stories

From time to time, you’ll hear parents say that they won’t allow their children to read fairy tales because the material is too graphic. But in earlier eras, parents used fairy tales to explain the world to their children, to teach them lessons about good and evil and about the right way to behave. Stories give children a safe way to process dark and difficult concepts, and this is something children instinctively understand.

It strikes me that stories can be a useful jumping off point for discussion between adults and children. In the case of The Secret Garden, yes, the attitudes to race were somewhat unsavoury. But they were a product of their time. I myself wouldn’t be mad about its portrayal of disability, but again, I have to accept that this was a product of its time. Besides, the book also teaches lessons that are still vital today, about the redemptive power of nature and the value of kindness.

Children Embracing Darkness

In a week’s time, I’ll be giving a children’s Easter creative writing workshop. During the workshop, I’ll do a Chinese Whispers style exercise. The story will begin with the words, “The girl went into the wood,” which tends to conjure up dark fantasies in people’s minds. When I did it with adults recently, they stopped the story just as it was starting to get dark. But when I do it with children, they will be willing to go all the way with the material, taking the story to lots of crazy places. They will thoroughly enjoy the process and, as far as I can tell, emerge from it emotionally unscathed.

What do you think of children reading or writing stories with a dark theme? If you are inclined to shield your children from this material, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. It’s always worthwhile to have another perspective.

A Wonderful Writing Workshop

In February, I was to give a memoir-writing course in Dungarvan, but the numbers weren’t high enough for the course to run. This was becoming a regular pattern for my workshops, and I decided it was time for a workshop revamp. After all, I love giving them, and the people who come to my workshops seem to love attending them. I decided I would take back control of my own workshops and promote them myself. My promotional campaign was a success, and on the day of the workshop, 12 souls arrived – my biggest number ever. People were even fighting for places, which was a great boost to the ego.

Workshop Introduction

The workshop was being held in a truly heavenly location, the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore. The day happened to be sunny, and the sea views were stunning. The windows are deep-set, and some of the participants used the window ledges for their writing, looking out the window for inspiration.

Coastguard Cultural Centre

Coastguard Cultural Centre. Pic taken from the centre’s website.

After introducing the workshop and talking generally about the evolution of memoir as a form, we kicked off with the warm-up exercises, which were all designed to help people tap into their natural storytelling abilities. A Chinese Whispers style exercise showed them that stories can take you to unexpected places. A paired exercise where people told stories about their day helped people to see that ordinary lives are rich with events that provide inspiration for stories.

Shaping the Story

In this workshop, my goal was to give people the tools and confidence to put a story together and realise how doable it was. As it was a three-hour workshop, a relatively short space of time, I kept the focus on plot and structure, in particular, the three-act structure. This is a classic structure. In the first act, you set the scene, in the second act, the action unfolds and in the third act, the story reaches a resolution.

We did brainstorming to help the group come up with an event in their lives that they could develop into a story. I asked them to identify three events in their lives, big or small, recent or from the distant past. Out of those three, they would choose one to expand into a story. At this point, there was some confusion. The group were finding it hard to see how this process would lead them towards a story. There is always this point in a workshop, and as workshop facilitator, you ask yourself if you’ve taken the right path, or brought the group beyond where they’re able to go.

Writing the Story

But then, once they had chosen the event, I gave them a questionnaire to fill out, based on the three-act structure, and once they started to fill that in, the structure started to make sense. As the group started to write the story itself, “the hum” had begun. This is what I call that moment when all the pieces start to fall into place and a workshop group starts to understand how powerful writing can be. The air goes still, but there’s a current of concentration in the air, a current so strong, you almost fancy you can hear it come.

Some groups need a lot of time to put their story together, and I had allowed plenty of time for that. But the stories came together remarkably quickly for this group. I had noticed that before when I used this structure with the group, and I thought that was a one-off. But it seems that using the three-act structure really does help ideas to fall into place. Some of the group read their stories, and the room filled with laughter and tears. By the time the workshop ended, each person had created their own unique story, something I hope they will always treasure.

The Privileges of the Writing Life

When we think of writing, we think of struggle. The struggle to get our stores written, the struggle to get published, the struggle to promote our books, the struggle to gain a living as a writer. The image of the tortured artist still holds sway in the popular imagination. But in many ways, the life of a writer is a rich one, and if we didn’t enjoy it, we wouldn’t do it. We tend to think of the benefits of writing in terms of competition wins or publication success, but it also greatly enhances our emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as the quality of our everyday life.

Here are some of the benefits that I’ve observed as a writer.

Ordinary Life Becomes More Interesting

If you’re a writer of fiction, your job is to pay attention to those small, ordinary details that other people miss. Seemingly insignificant details, banter with a shop assistant, a brightly coloured scarf around a woman’s neck, can be the trigger for stories. The great gift of writing is that you notice the extraordinary within the ordinary, and you transfer that to the page. You’re a lot less likely to be bored, and because you’re so engaged with what’s happening around you, other people will find you interesting to talk to, which is a nice ego boost.

Following Your Passion

Not many people are lucky enough to have a true passion, an activity or a cause that fills them with purpose and gives their life meaning. If you have the courage to follow your passion for words, life will feel much more exciting. That passion will also be reflected in your words, and people will respond to that passion. Many people find that they feel out of sync if they don’t act on their urge to write. Acting on that urge gives you a sense of balance, and you will end each day feeling fulfilled.

Making Sense of the World

Modern life is so busy and so full. Our days are full of events, even if they are only small ones. We’re also being bombarded with more information than our brains are equipped to handle. Writing helps us to process what’s happening around us, and turning our experiences into stories can help us to understand ourselves better. Most important of all, if something happens to us which involves a lot of emotions or changes in our life circumstances, writing gives us a way to deal with it. Being able to give voice to our innermost thoughts and feelings boosts our mental health in the long run.

You Get to Play God …

… or whatever higher power you may subscribe to. Being able to invent worlds, and characters to live in those worlds, can give you a real sense of power. When your story is flowing, you feel really inspired, and the process of putting that story together is thoroughly enjoyable. As a non-fiction writer, you benefit from being able to gain more knowledge of your subject area, or bring to light an amazing true story. Even being able to find the exact word or image to describe something is extremely satisfying.

When the words refuse to come, you get rejected or your Amazon profile doesn’t get the attention you hoped for, it’s worth remembering that the writing life is also full of wonders, which make all the hassles worthwhile. What benefits do you feel the writing life has brought to you?

How to Benefit from Facebook Writers’ Groups

A couple of years ago, I set up a Facebook group for writers. I love running it, partly because I’m addicted to Facebook groups. As opposed to pages, groups are designed to be communities of like-minded people on Facebook, where people can exchange tips, advice and experience. I set up the Facebook group for Irish writers and book professionals because I felt overwhelmed by the information overload on the web, and wanted to meet other writers and get information that would be relevant to me as an Irish writer.

Facebook groups are intended more for information sharing than for promotion, but they can help you get the word out about your books or writing services if you use them cleverly. Here are some tips for how to use Facebook groups to enhance your writing reputation, drawn from my own experience of running the Irish Writers, Editors and Publishing Professionals Facebook group.

  1. Start Chatting

Like anything in life, you’ll get out of a group what you put in. If you join in the discussions, you’ll get to know the other authors on the group and build relationships with them. Writing can be a lonely life, and just knowing there are other people out there ploughing the same furrow can be a comfort. As an extra bonus, over time, these people will be your audience when you have book or event that you want to spread the word about.

2. Be Generous

If you’re a writer or a book professional with some experience, a Facebook group gives you the opportunity to share what you know. If someone on the group asks a question, give them a comprehensive answer. This will enhance your reputation as an expert in the book field and may attract people to your books or services in the future. Give encouragement to a fellow author who doubts themselves and share useful information that group members post with your own networks. People will appreciate these little acts of generosity.

  1. Ask Questions

If you are breaking into the world of writing or the book world in general, a Facebook is a great place to gather the knowledge you need. A well-run Facebook group offers a safe environment where you can pose any question you want without fear of ridicule. You’ll have access to a warm, friendly community of people who know what they’re talking about, and the information you gather will help you achieve your writerly goals.

  1. Respect the Group’s Promotional Policy

Some groups allow no promotion at all, while others are very liberal, allowing you to trumpet blast your latest book release. In the group I run, we try to achieve a balance between promotion and information. We allow promotion using certain designated posts, and promotions are not allowed outside of them. In general, Facebook groups are more about information than promotion, and with blatantly promotional posts, you may run the risk of looking a little desperate. If this is your promotional style, you’ll get better results using more direct promotional mediums like Facebook ads or e-mail campaigns.

  1. Use Moderate Language

You’re on Facebook to represent yourself professionally as an author. My Facebook group doesn’t allow profanities, but even if there is no such restriction, be careful with your language choices. A remark which you think is made in jest can seem offensive out of context. Also, avoid making personal remarks against individuals, even if you have good reason to. You could run the risk of libel charges, and at the very least, you’ll give the impression of someone who’s bitter, which won’t do your reputation any good.

How do you use Facebook groups to promote yourself? And if you run a Facebook group, how do you make sure that the group is beneficial to members?

Ten Rules for Writing Plurals

The plural forms of English words can sometimes be fraught with confusion. It’s a mystery to me how non-native speakers cope with them. The standard rule is that to make a word plural, you add s or es. You use the verb form is with singular words (describing one thing) and are for plural. But there are so many exceptions to these rules that they are now almost redundant. What’s more, some rules have changed completely. Words that once took a plural are now deemed to be singular and vice versa.

Here are 10 rules to help you navigate the maze of plurals. We’ll start with a basic one.

  1. Some words take an s or es plural at the end, but to make them easier to pronounce, the spelling of other letters in the words changes. The letter f changes to v, so wife becomes wives and hoof becomes hooves. For words ending in y, the y changes to ie, and then you add the s at the end, so canary becomes canaries.
  2. There are some words that were once treated as singular words. These describe organisations that have a lot of people in them, but are considered to be one entity. As a result, you would use the singular is verb with them rather than the plural are. Examples include the government is, the team is or the company is. Officially, these should still be treated as singular, but the use of the plural is now acceptable, because it’s used in spoken English, and it’s less ambiguous. So it’s now correct to say, “the government are” or “the team are.”
  3. Similarly, there are words that once took the plural verb are, but are now treated as singular. Media is a word of Latin origin, which describes multiple mediums of communication, but we now say “the media is.” Again, this comes from spoken English, and people are more likely to know what you mean when you say that rather than “the media are.” The word data now follows a similar pattern.
  4. For most words ending in o, you simply add an s to the end of them. You can speak of hippos and trios. The exception is when you’re describing multiple fruit and vegetables, for which you add es. That’s why you write tomatoes and potatoes.
  5. Just to make things a little weirder, there are words ending in s which aren’t plural forms, but you could be forgiven for thinking they were. Grits is the name of an American breakfast dish. It does not mean more than one grit. And have you ever heard of just one shenanigan? Such a thing may well exist, but the word is almost always spelt shenanigans.
  6. It can be hard to know what to do with compound words, words that combine two or more small words. Should you pluralise the first part of the word or the second? Most of the time, it’s the first word that you pluralise, so it’s mothers in law, not mother in laws.
  7. There are a lot of Latin origins words that survive in English and typically end in um or a. Traditionally, for the plural form, you change the a to ae and the um to a. Officially, you still write stadia and formulae. But now it’s acceptable, and even preferred, to write stadiums and formulas.
  8. Words describing quantities are kept as singular, because even if they are describing large numbers of objects, there is only one quantity. So you would write, the amount is enormous.
  9. For some words, you get to keep it simple, and the plural is the same as the singular. Common examples are fruit, sheep and fish.
  10. It can be very hard to know what to do when combining apostrophes with plurals. I could write a whole blog post on that. It’s usually s with an apostrophe and no second s after the apostrophe. For decades, you just add an s with no apostrophe, so it’s 1970s, not 1970’s.

What unusual plural forms have you come across? What plural forms tend to cause you the most confusion? Share them here and we’ll get to the bottom of the mystery together.