a 18-minute read | Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated in August 2020 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
When you start thinking you’re getting good at content creation, try sharing your writing with the Reddit community called “Roast My Startup.” They won’t just roast your work – they’ll slice it, dice it, and burn it to a crisp. That’s the whole point. They’ll give you brutally honest feedback that will help you with your content optimization strategy.
Our CEO, Sina Fak, decided to experiment with this Reddit thread and put one of his own pieces of content out to be roasted, He was feeling pretty proud of this 3,000-word epic post that he’d crafted – but one of his own personal heroes, Oli Gardner from Unbounce, was nice enough to stop by and tear it to shreds.
In fact, Oli pointed out nine highly specific problems that needed to be fixed in order to optimize content. Instead of slinking away from the roast bruised and confused, Sina has already learned from the criticism and built even better content on the basis of that feedback. Read on to benefit from Sina’s public roast.
Here are the 9 most common mistakes:
1: Long-winded intros that don’t add value
2: Hard-to-navigate layout and structure
3: Writing that conveys no authority or adds no value
4: Headlines and subheads that don’t help the reader
5: “Edgy” statements that are actually just whiny or insulting
6: Tweetables that aren’t worth tweeting
7: Explanations that don’t provide concrete solutions
8: Posts that aren’t based on definite outlines
9: Half-hearted calls to action
Problem 1 | Long-Winded Intros That Don’t Add Value
If you’re reading this sentence, that means the intro to this article worked – constructive criticism in action.
A reader who makes it through the intro will at least skim the rest of your post. Some might even feel engaged enough to hit that “Share” button. But a reader who gets bored in the intro will have clicked away immediately, never to return.
The intro is the only place where you’ve got 100% of your audience’s attention. The latest research by Chartbeat proves the point. Take a look at this graph.
10% of people never even scroll down the page at all. A full 80% of visitors only glance at the photos and videos but don’t read what you’ve written. This only means that there is a lot of room for content optimization!
Follow these three tips to optimize your intro content in a way that hooks the attention of your readers from the start:
1 | Build a connection, then empathize about it
Show your audience that you come up against the same obstacles they do. Tell a quick anecdote. Raise a big question. Name a frustration that everyone’s wrestling with, but nobody’s been able to pinpoint. Stir their curiosity about the answer.
When the reader thinks, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m dealing with!”, that’s when you’ve got them hooked.
2 | Say what this post is going to fix
People want to know how you’re going to help them. If they’re going to invest time in your post, they want a payoff in return.
Nobody wants to read 500 words of rambling explanation before the meat of the post. Readers can pick up on fluff surprisingly quickly, and they’ll either skim it, skip it, or just leave your page entirely. Don’t waste your time and theirs by writing it.
As SEO content superstar Neil Patel says in his artcle 10 Simple Ways to Write Stronger Introductions written for HubSpot:
“It may be obvious to you why the content of your article is important to your readers, but it may not be obvious to them. Let them know loud and clear why it’s important for them to know the information you cover in your article.”Neil Patel
Tell them what they’ll get out of this – and make it snappy.
3 | Keep it under 150 words
The intro to this article is pushing 150 words, and even that’s enough to test the reader’s patience. If anything in your intro takes more than a short paragraph to explain, move it somewhere else in the article or just delete it altogether. Being firm with your editing is a great way to cut out a waffle that you actually don’t need at all.
Problem 2 | Hard-To-Navigate Layout and Structure
Have you ever come across a lengthy, detailed post about a topic you love? A post that makes you think to yourself, “There is no way I’m reading this whole thing today. But I know I’m gonna be re-reading it for months.”
That’s the kind of reaction we’re aiming for when we create posts like 3000 Word Guide to Optimizing Lead Conversions Throughout Your Sales Funnel. We want readers to bookmark the post and come back to it week after week – year after year, if possible – and pick up new tips for different stages of the process.
That’s why it’s crucial to make your article a truly high-quality reference text and keep it as accessible and easy to navigate as possible. Insert some anchor links to make it easy to jump between sections.
When your article is accessible, readers will spend more time on your page. If you’ve made it accessible and genuinely helpful, they will keep spending time on your page for a long time to come.
Problem 3 | Writing That Conveys No Authority and Adds No Value
Confident writers get to the point and express each thought clearly. They only use as many words as are necessary. Then they close their article with a punchy finish because they know they’ve made a solid argument.
Follow these five tips to write with authority:
1 | Kill off filler words
Which pair of sentences grabs your attention more?
The quality of your content is determined by how valuable it is in addressing the needs of your audience. So don’t write a single word without considering how it benefits your readers.
Valuable content addresses the needs of its audience. Don’t write a word unless it benefits your readers.
Simplicity is at the top of our list of tips. Many people don’t catch Part 2. Believe it or not, the second thing that shouldn’t be there is the word “so.”
“So” is a filler word. One study found that it’s the single word most likely to torpedo a TED speaker’s credibility – and the same is true for blogging. “So” indicates a lack of confidence; it shouldn’t be in your writing.
By removing the word “so” from your sentence you create a powerful position statement as opposed to an apologetic teenage shrug.Oli Gardner, Unbounce
The word “so” is just one example of phrasing that weakens your position – but the point is that readers respond to confidence. They respond to authority. Filler words undermine that authority. Get rid of them. If you need help – check out the Hemingway app which will help make your writing bold and clear.
2 | Don’t bother with data unless it’s actually meaningful
Anybody can Google up some semi-relevant stats and put them together. But that is not thought leadership; it’s copy-pasting.
What if in this article, statistics like: “Using data will make your content 40% more popular,” started popping up? Would you feel informed? Convinced? Gifted with new earth-shattering knowledge?
Most likely not. A statistic like that might be factually true – but it doesn’t tell you anything concrete. It’s not actionable. It’s not even specific.
You’d be perfectly justified in asking:
- 40% more popular as opposed to what?
- In what context?
- What are your sources?
…and many other pointed questions.When you cite statistics in your writing, cite them in relevant, useful, actionable ways. Here’s a great article by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina – and another article by Buffer – on how to make that happen.
3 | Talk transparently about your sources
If you’re proud of your source, don’t be coy about it. And if you’re not proud about your source, then find another source.
Verify the reputation of each source you cite, as far as you’re able. A quick Google search is usually enough to give you a sense of whether this source has earned its place in your work.
4 | Deliver on your promise to add valueadd value
Remember in the section on writing intros, when we said you need to promise to fix something in your post? Now is the time to deliver on that – and really make sure that you do.
You might be writing blog posts to draw attention to your products – but that’s not a reason for anyone to read them. They’re investing their time with you because they want to solve a problem, gain a particular insight, or be blown away by the sheer force of your genius.
One way or another, it’s your job to make it worth their time to read and engage with your content.
5 | Spellcheck – twice
There’s no easier way to lose credibility than to have “spellng mistaks” in your text, or grammar mistakes.
This should really go without saying in 2020, especially when any piece of software you could possibly be writing in has its own built-in spell checker – like the free version of Grammarly that even highlights some premium stuff. There’s really no valid excuse for this kind of mistakes.
Problem 4 | Headlines and Subheads That Don’t Help the Reader
A captivating headline tells people your content is relevant, that it’s worth the read. It makes people click your link. It makes at least some of them start reading. And if you’ve written a solid intro, that may just be enough to draw them into your world.
Subheadings serve different, but equally important, purposes. They:
- Help break up your text – colorfully if you’ve got a good blog design (and you should);
- Draw attention to important points;
- Help readers find the sections they want.
In short, an engaging headline gives people a reason to read your article – and an engaging subhead gives them a reason to read each section.
Follow these four tips to write headlines and subheads that leap off the page:
1 | Keep your heads and subheads clear and specific
Here’s one of Sina’ articles’ subheads that Oli tore apart:
Before: “Step 1: Top of the Funnel.”
How many problems can you see with it?
First off, “Top of the Funnel” isn’t even a step. It’s not something to do; it’s just a phrase. Beyond that, this subhead doesn’t tell readers what’s coming in the section below. It’s not specific, so it serves no place as a placeholder.
After: “Step 1: Reduce unqualified leads at the top of your sales funnel.”
Sure, it’s longer. But it contains a clear idea about what the section’s going to focus on. It helps readers decide to keep reading, which means it affects Google’s algorithm positively. Those are the goals of a clear and specific subhead.
2 | Pose questions that demand answers
- What are the essential elements in Pixar’s storytelling?
- Which homepage clutter are you failing to eliminate?
- What were the management secrets of the Aztecs?
Give people a clear reason to want to learn more.
Start with a basic headline. For example, something like:
“Are You Tired of Chasing After Hard-to-Reach Customers?”
and make it stronger:
“How to Tell Hard-to-Reach Customers From Non-Customers.”
Present a common problem. Hint that you’ve got the solution. Do those things well, and natural curiosity will do the rest.
3 | Write a lot of headlines and cross-test them
Two headlines enter! One headline leaves! Better yet, start with five headlines. Or ten. Make the battle more interesting.
Nobody nails a headline on the first try. The good news is, tools like Optimizely and VWO are great for pitting two or more headlines head-to-head and seeing which comes out on top. As this post on CrazyEgg says, “Every headline is clickbait.” Writers for BuzzFeed and UpWorthy write 10 or more headlines for every article, then A/B test them until a victor emerges. Do the same, and your headline has a fighting chance in the social-media arena.
4 | Read your subheads in isolation
If they don’t make perfect sense on their own, without the rest of the article to explain to them, they’re not clear enough. Your subheads should tell a story – a simplified story, obviously; but a focused, coherent story nonetheless.
Each subhead should point logically to the one that follows it. Each of them should present its own little self-contained thought, like a short tweet. If you get stuck, try switching up the order of your subheads, and see if another sequence makes more sense.
Problem 5 | “Edgy” Statements That Are Actually Just Whiny Or Insulting
There’s a fine line between speaking the truth that others have been afraid to say out loud – and just being plain whiny. The controversy is fine. Jokes are fine. Even a little raunchiness can be fine, depending on your audience. Whining and insulting your own readers – that’s not fine. It’s not always obvious when you’re on the wrong side of this line – as Sina found out first-hand from Oli – so let’s break down what this can actually look like.
Saying something controversial can be a sign of confidence – provided you say something that needs to be said instead of just begging for attention. If it really needs to be said, then say it. Say it at the right time, in the right way, to the right audience, and it might just turn you into a thought leader.
Saying something insulting or whiny, on the other hand, conveys the exact opposite impression. It makes you sound insecure: like you’re not in control. Or, worse yet, like you actually resent your sector or some of your customers.
In the article Oli roasted, Sina referred to the majority of people at the top of a sales funnel as “time-wasters.” He thought he was being frank; funny – refreshingly honest, even. Not really.
“Don’t insult people. Statements like “time-wasters” might seem like a funny thing to say, but it also applies to most of the people reading your post.”Oli Gardner, Unbounce
The last phrase is the key there. Sina was inadvertently insulting his own reader base. Instead of calling these people “time-wasters,” a better wording would be using neutral phrases like “the wrong targets” or “non-ideal customers.”
People may love to complain about their own lives – but they definitely don’t want to hear you complain about them. When readers come to your blog, they want solutions. They want uplifting, inspirational, problem-solving content that’s worth sharing because it feels good to read.
If you’re not sure how to walk this fine line – or where your own writing should fall on the controversy spectrum – that’s okay. It just means you’re still developing your voice and testing your brand’s boundaries. The voice you adopt will depend on your audience, and on your own personality and comfort zone. Check out a great “10 Steps to Finding Your Writing Voice” guide by Jeff Goins on how to figure that stuff out.
Problem 6 | Tweetables That Aren’t Worth Tweeting
Embedding tweetable quotes in your article can be a powerful way of keeping the conversation going, far beyond the final line. When done right, tweets are addictive little info packets that automatically keep promoting your content and ideas. However, your tweetables will only create value if they’re well-written and if they convey meaning in a clever, memorable, and creative way.
Because – as Oli pointed out when he roasted Sina’s article – the goal isn’t just to get people to tweet your quote. It’s to get their followers to retweet it, too. It’s simple to create and embed tweetables with a variety of WordPress plugins. You don’t even need a Twitter account. For example, we like using Better Click to Tweet plugin.
Follow these three tips to craft tweetables that beg to be shared
1 | Create tweetables that thrive on their own
Context shouldn’t matter. Tweetables need to stand alone, without the rest of your article to prop them up. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? Yet that is the hole that Sina unwittingly fell into with some of his tweetables. It doesn’t matter how suave a quote sounds at the end of a paragraph – it needs to be an unbreakable diamond of wisdom all on its own.
Here’s one of his weak tweetables, which Oli rightly tore apart:
“The goal isn’t to get everyone to buy but to figure out who is genuinely interested and able to pay.”
This is a true and meaningful statement – in the context of the article. Removed from that context, it’s useless. It’s not even exactly clear what it’s talking about. Make sure your tweetables can survive in the wild.
2 | Phrase your thought in an unexpected way
Every thought that can possibly be conceived by a human mind has already been expressed in some shape or form. If that wasn’t true 20 years ago, it’s definitely true now, in the age of 400 million tweets per day. All that’s left is to say something in a way it’s never been said before, which is definitely possible if you know what you’re doing. As John Corcoran says in his article How to Craft Tweetable Quotes That Spread Your Content like Wildfire:
“A good tweetable quote … captures the essence of a speaker’s speech, talk, presentation, or other messages.”
In other words, a tweetable needs a “wow” factor – or at the very least, an “a-ha!” factor. People will retweet it if it says something that genuinely needs to be said – or that they wish they’d said themselves. Controversial quotes can be great tools for this – but remember our tip from Problem 5. There’s a difference between being controversial and being insulting. Stay on the right side of that line.
3 | Hint at a brilliant article behind the quote
Like a smart headline or subhead, a well-written tweetable generates curiosity about the article and blog it came from. Although your tweetables need to fly freely beyond their original context, they should still make readers think, “Wow. I want to know what else this writer has to say about that,” like this tweet:
Sentences don’t have to say much – just the right things. Our imaginations will fill in the blanks. http://bit.ly/LyV8hS via @copyblogger
Or else, “Whoa. I want to know why this writer said that,” like this tweet:
Want to improve your diet & energy? Stop eating grains! They’re utterly pointless in a healthy diet. http://bit.ly/1hPlL0l via @Mark_Sisson
Either way, your tweetables are pointing back to the core of your own thought leadership.
Problem 7 | Explanations That Don’t Provide Concrete Solutions
Everyone already knows actionable tips are crucial, right? So why are we spending a section discussing it now? Because there’s a difference between “actionable” and merely “explanatory.” It’s a difference that many of us miss. When Sina submitted his article to get roasted, he naturally felt that he’d written a piece that was actionable and valuable to readers. Those were his top priorities, after all.
Then Oli sent his feedback:
Tell me EXACTLY how to do it. It’s not a step or a process if you don’t teach me how to do it. There’s nothing I hate more in content that someone telling me how to do NOTHING.
The “actionable” tips were mostly a dull mix of general suggestions and complex descriptions. Strip all that away, and there wasn’t much original thought left to take action on. Actionable content needs to provide value to readers. It builds on the reader’s interest to teach them how to do something in a way they’ve never considered before.
Here’s how to optimize your content and make it actionable:
1 | Understand your audience’s pain points
Imagine your post through the eyes of your ideal reader. What keeps this person up at night? Does your post discuss it? If you don’t know who your target audience is, or what their specific pain points are, then you need to go find out – or else write a different article.
Our Guide to Crafting Customer Centric Marketing Plans That Sell will show you exactly how to find your audience’s pain points, and how to address them.
2 | Address their pain and offer a solution
When you complain to someone – a close friend or a stranger – one of the most affirming things they can say is simply, “Yeah, I get it. That completely sucks.” If they say it in a way that makes you believe them, then you’re suddenly on the same side.
The exact same principle holds true for writing. Point out the exact pain points that bother your target audience. Acknowledge that you get it; you’ve felt the pain, too. You know it needs to change. Then lay out your solution, and explain how it’ll address the problem.
3 | Provide resources for achieving that solution
If you’re telling your audience what to do, you’d sure as hell better tell them how to do it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
As Oli said when he roasted Sina
It’s throwaway content if you’re not teaching someone how to do something.
- Link to a post where you wrote how to do it
- Link to a post where someone else wrote how to do it
- Include steps within the article itself
- Or delete the post and write something else.
4 | Communicate like a human being
This is a super-advanced SEO tip, but it works magic: write in a natural tone, not like a robot. When conducting content optimization, you really need to focus on Google’s third most important ranking factor – an algorithm called RankBrain:
Write in a natural tone. Make sure that the new keywords don’t override the main keyword that you want to rank for. The new key phrases are only there to give additional meaning to your content and to help Google understand the context of what you’re talking about.Neil Patel, 19 Advanced SEO Techniques That’ll Double Your Search Traffic
Other than articles stuffed with keywords, we’ve also seen those packed with jargon. It can be hard to tell if there’s a kernel of meaning buried in there at all. Jargon and cliches provide no value. Focus on clarity and keep it down-to-earth. A great video by Google’s Matthew Cutts will tell you exactly how to do this.
5 | Write for skimming, not for reading
You could write the most brilliant headline, subheads, and intro in human history – but the fact is, most people aren’t going to read your article. They’re going to skim it.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. By breaking up your text, using bulleted lists, and providing subheads that are easy to return to, you can capture the attention of readers who don’t have time to read the whole piece – but who may come back to it later, and read in more detail, or even use it as reference material.
Problem 8 | Posts That Aren’t Based on Definite Outlines
We’ve all written posts that sprawl to an insane length, veer off into irrelevant territory, or just plain fizzle out for lack of focus. Outlining keeps you focused. It also prevents you from wasting time and energy on words you’re going to edit out anyway.
Before you even type up the actual outline, spend a few minutes pulling these things together for yourself:
- Your topic idea (max. three sentences)
- Your target audience
- The problem you’ll address and solve
- Why anyone should care about this problem
- The solution you’ll provide
- Relevant stories and anecdotes
- Links to research articles and images
- Embed codes of tweets, Facebook posts or videos you want to reference
- Possible headlines
Now you’re ready to write your outline!
List all the major points you need to hit – those will be your sections. Now’s a good time to write rough subheads for each of them. You can always come back and swap in snazzier ones as you write the article itself.
Make sure each of those sections is essential to the argument you’re making. Make sure each one addresses a pain point of your target audience, and comes packed with a concrete benefit. If not, then cut it.
Once you’ve got your resources in one place, and your whole outline on the screen, you’ll be stunned at how quickly the full post takes shape.
Problem 9 | Half-Hearted Calls To Action
The reader has invested time and mental focus in processing your content. Now it’s time for you to make them an offer – hopefully one they can’t refuse.
Your call to action will differ depending on your business sector, your audience, and which stage of your Buyer’s Journey you’re targeting with your content.
Say, for instance, that your company manufactures custom printing equipment for other printing businesses – and you’re trying to gain interest and demonstrate your authority to readers in the first stage of the Buyer’s Journey.
In that case, you might publish a piece that tells people “ten things to know when buying printing equipment.” The call to action might be a link that offers you expertly researched “Top 10 Questions to Ask Before Purchasing Printing Equipment.” When the customer clicks the link, they’ll find themselves on a landing page that tells them what they’ll find in the checklist, and explains how it’ll save them time and money. Of course, they’ll need to fill out a contact form to get the free checklist. Customers who submit that form have taken another step in their buying journey.
Calls to action don’t always have to be another piece of content or a form submission. In fact, here’s our call to action for you in this section:
Whoever your audience is, include a distinct call to action in every piece of content you put out. Every single one.
Here’s another, much more immediate call to action for you, too – the one this whole article is about. Write the most useful, valuable content you possibly can – then get it roasted.