Content Marketing Lessons from Legendary Wordsmiths

I. On Content Inspiration

Inspiration Comes Anytime

“After all, most writing is done away from the typewriter, away from the desk. I’d say it occurs in the quiet, silent moments, while you’re walking or shaving or playing a game, or whatever, or even talking to someone you’re not vitally interested in.” – Henry Miller

Become familiar with thinking of content topics in your spare time. As you read or consume popular or viral content, think about why you like it, why you want to share it, and how the content was unique. You will find that by doing this regularly you will soon have ideas “pop” into your head at random moments. Just don’t forget to write them down!


Draw Inspiration from Experience, and Desire to Gather Experiences

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” – Henry David Thoreau

Having a broad array of interests, experiences and knowledge can be hugely helpful to a proficient content marketer. Compelling content often comes from tying together disparate ideas or topics in a new way. Strive to learn about many different things and be genuinely interested in the world around you. Knowledge sponges and those who love learning tend to make the best content marketers.

Step Outside of Yourself and Your Routine

“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.” – Toni Morrison

An empathetic heart is important for understanding what will resonate emotionally with audiences. Seek to understand what emotional and intellectual triggers are most effective with those you seek to target. Always be investigating new ways to make your content more unique or unexpected.

Inspiration Can Be Found in Other Mediums

Interviewer: Who would you say are your literary forebears, those you have learned the most from?

Hemingway: Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Virgil, Tintoretto . . . Goya, Giotto, Cezanne, Van Gogh . . . I put in painters, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers . . . I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Many times some of the best ideas are adaptations or new spins on something that has already been done. Look to other creative outlets online for inspiration. Try to think how a viral video could be adapted to an infographic, or vice versa. Think of how an article could be adapted to a quiz. How could a popular post from years ago be refreshed and updated with a new approach? Look to the success of other types of content to help you create ideas when you are having trouble being creative.

II. On Execution

Engage Your Audience with Narrative and Personalize Your Approach

“I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling them a story, and I don’t want them to get up until its finished.”  – James Patterson

If the content you are creating isn’t interesting enough to want to tell a friend, it isn’t good enough. It should be your goal to make sure your content is in some part narrative. Stories lend themselves to higher levels of emotional engagement and are more easily committed to memory.

Keep Your Focus, Be Concrete, and Build Toward a Conclusion

A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” – Edgar Allan Poe

Conciseness and concreteness are essential. Be sure to be building toward a singular conclusion. Content that consists of interesting information and nothing more is not as good as content that consists of interesting information that builds toward a conclusion that that information proves. articles do this particularly well.

Be Unique and Unpredictable

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.” – G.K. Chesterton

There is no getting around it, there is a massive amount of new content created online every day. In order to stand out from the masses, you need to do something wholly different and unexpected in order to gain attention. If your content has been done before, you better put a really amazing new spin on it or be prepared for failure.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take a New Approach or Innovate

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” – Oscar Wilde

If you are putting out content consistently and have managed to grow a readership, one of the surest ways to fail is to rehash old ideas or stale topics. Look for new ways to surprise your audience, to keep them guessing, and most of all keep them engaged.

Success Takes Practice – Not Everything Will Be Stellar

“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” – Ray Bradbury

When creating editorial calendars or proposals for content for clients, be sure to reiterate that it is generally a better choice to try multiple content initiatives instead of putting all of your eggs in one basket. That said, good content marketing is a skill that is developed through practice. Keep at it and you will find success comes more often as you gain experience and better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Be Brave, Don’t Hesitate to Go Against the Grain

“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words used. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.” – Ray Bradbury

Standing out and being heard often involves discussing topics or taking positions that may be controversial. Be careful with your brand, but don’t write off all potentially volatile topics. Giving your audience content that elicits a strong opinion can be an incredible way to encourage sharing.

Draw on Emotion

“A writer is dear and necessary for us only in the measure of which he reveals to us the inner workings of his very soul.” – Leo Tolstoy

Be willing to be vulnerable when possible. Show your humanity and your emotions as they can stir empathy in others. Seek to create content that speaks to these emotions.

Base Emotions are the Most Powerful

“The real persuaders are our appetites, our fears and above all our vanity. The skillful propagandist stirs and coaches these internal persuaders.” – Eric Hoffer

Sharing content is often an inherently selfish and vain exercise. We share because we believe the content speaks to an aspect of ourselves or our emotions. Seek to craft content that touches these emotions, especially our vanity and self worth. 

Simplicity is Important, Include Only What is Interesting.

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard

It can sometimes be tempting to continue to include more, under the false assumption that more is better. The problem, when it comes to content marketing, is that having too much can easily be the cause of a reader losing interest. Keep in mind the shortening attention spans online, and simplify your content to only the most compelling information.

Make Your Content More Tangible and Familiar Through Analogy

“Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.” -Sigmund Freud

Analogies can help content consumers understand topics that at first blush feel unfamiliar. Content that is well understood is shared more often. Do all you can to simplify and elucidate complicated material.

Facts Win Out Over Emotional Appeals

“For a creative writer possession of the truth is less important than emotional sincerity.” – George Orwell

Don’t mistake your personal convictions for truth. Your content should always be backed up with authoritative, impartial sources.

III. On Promotion and Reach

Target Tastemakers

“It is possible to argue that the really influential book is not that which converts ten millions of casual readers, but rather that which converts the very few who, at any given moment, succeed in seizing power. Marx and Sorel have been influential in the modern world, not so much because they were best-sellers (Sorel in particular was not at all a widely read author), but because among their few readers were two men, called respectively Lenin and Mussolini.” – Aldous Huxley

By understanding and targeting a select few tastemakers in your niche who wield disproportionate amounts of influence, you have a better chance of viral success. Seek out those at the top first, and work your way down.