To Succeed as a Writer, Learn How to Shift Gears

Woman and two kids enjoying a bike ride together

The other day, I was out for a bike ride with my two daughters when we came to the Big Hill.

By instinct, I geared down as the going got steeper. With 24 gears on my bike, it was easy to adapt to the climb.

But I noticed my seven-year-old falling far behind. And I was moving past my 10-year-old who usually takes the lead in our little pack.

“Are you gearing down for the hill?” I asked her as I went by.

“I can’t!” she muttered, “I only have one gear that works!”

When I got to the top of the hill, the older girl was still huffing and puffing her way. The younger was walking her bike dejectedly up the slope.

What Does Cycling Have to Do with Writing?

That commonplace incident reminded me of one of the secrets of my writing success: knowing how to adapt for different scenarios.

Through 45 years of writing a vast range of materials and formats, I’ve realized that starting some new projects is like riding a bike up a steep hill.

I’m not talking about the learning curve to research the client, the industry, or the product. I’m talking about understanding the format you’re writing and then changing gears to match what your client and readers are expecting.

That can mean writing in a different tone, to a different length, including or leaving out different elements.

For example, whoever heard of footnotes in a marketing piece?

Yet any good white paper has footnotes. And knowing how to handle footnotes is all part of changing gears to handle that longer, more in-depth format.

Newspaper Stories vs. Technical Manuals

Perhaps changing gears comes easily to me because for 20 years, I had one foot in journalism and the other in technical writing. Every time I started out to write, I had to remember what I was writing.

Here’s how I would write a story for a newspaper:

  • Describe an event without a lot of interpretation
  • Get quotes from people involved
  • Sum up the story in the first sentence or two, then add more details
  • Use simple words, short sentences, and short paragraphs

That’s completely different from technical writing for product literature. That can be anything from the little slip of paper that comes with a new window fan to the 10,000-page library on running a generating station.

In tech writing, you use no stories, no quotes, no metaphors, and no figures of speech.

The first time I tried to put a joke in a technical manual, I got my hand slapped.

Later, when I wrote, “This software has three ways to accomplish this function, but this one is the best,” I was told to keep my personal opinions out of the manual.

So, I learned to stick to what was expected. And after a few years, I got tired of those constraints.

Moving on to Magazines and Newsletters

I moved on to write for magazines, where I found more freedom. I could pick more interesting topics and use more colorful language, including touches of humor and opinion.

For example, I wrote many articles for a magazine about cottages (aka “camps”). I interviewed people who’d been hit by lightning or had their cottages burn down, stories with strong emotional content.

All my writing experience helped me land my first corporate client in 1990.

I was writing a newsletter for each division of a huge enterprise.

These were somewhere between journalism and technical writing: newsy and concise, with certain dos and don’ts. I took to that format happily. For years, I wrote newsletters for many clients.

Just like riding a bike, I learned how to shift gears between those four formats: news stories, technical manuals, magazine features, and newsletters.

I learned how to vary my style for each format and how to include or omit certain elements. After a while, I didn’t even have to think about it: It had become as instinctive as riding a bike with four gears.

Many Writers Can’t Shift Gears

I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with many writers who only have one gear.

Once I asked an accomplished tech writer to contribute to a company newsletter. The piece she gave me sounded as stiff and straight jacketed as any tech manual.

That wasn’t her fault: She had no experience writing anything else. She’d never had to shift gears like I did.

But I realized how that limited her options. How could she ever do any other kind of writing?

Over the years, I’ve seen many writers who are comfortable in one or two formats, but completely lost in any other.

It’s like they’re trying to ride a bike with only one or two gears. That’s fine, as far as it goes.

The problem is, that can really limit your horizons and your income.

Companies Need Writers Who Can Shift Gears

I don’t have to tell you that content marketing is the biggest trend in marketing today.

During the height of the pandemic, when trade shows and in-person sales calls were all cancelled, smart companies spent even more on content.

In fact, e-commerce sales took a massive 10-year “Leap” forward and content marketing skyrocketed to become a $412 billion industry.

Companies spend money to publish fresh content to show up in Google’s search results to get noticed by prospects.

And that means companies need writers who can shift gears and write in more than one format.

After all, when any client asks, “Can you write format X?” you want to say, “Sure!”

Think about it. There are many types of content, from articles to web pages. Each type has a format: a shape and size and tone that people expect to see.

Some formats are longer and more formal, like white papers. Some are shorter and less formal, like blog posts. Some are essentially stories, like case studies. Some are written for the ear, like speeches; and some for the eyes, like infographics.

Every time you learn a new format, it’s like adding another gear to your bike. So climbing that income-earning hill gets easier.

When you learn more formats, you can write more projects for more clients. You can answer, “Yes, I can!” to more offers. You can shift gears, keep moving, and make it to the top of your field.

The Most Popular Types of B2B Content

If you know anything about me, you know I go to market as That White Paper Guy.

Naturally, you might think that I only write white papers, that I only have one gear.

Not so. Instead of being limited, I chose that format to write because it was under-developed. I could make a difference there.

I identified that as my key to getting noticed by the search engines and standing out.

But I still write in other formats.

I’ve been writing for the Web since 1997. And over the years, I’ve done many hundreds of blog posts, case studies, and white papers.

So, I’d like to help other writers learn how to shift gears like I do.

Consider the 12 most popular types of content being published today:

  • Blog posts
  • Case studies
  • E-books
  • E-newsletters
  • Infographics
  • Placed articles
  • Press releases
  • Slide decks
  • Speeches
  • Video scripts
  • Websites
  • White papers

Each type of these has a typical format: a shape and size and tone that people expect to see.

How many of those have you written? What would you say if a client asked you to write a new one? How would you quickly learn about that format?

Well, one of the best ways I know to learn a new format is to check out some good samples. Those provide a model to work from and show what to put in and what to leave out.

So, when a client asks you to write in a new format, don’t madly start googling “good samples of format X” or “how to write format X.” You’ll get millions of hits — and you won’t know if you can trust any of them.

Instead, ask your client if they have any samples like how they want their piece to look. They can usually find you some, published either by their company or a competitor.

And the ideal would be to have a guide at your shoulder giving you an overview of each format, some tips on writing it, and a realistic idea of how long it will take and how much you can charge.

That’s why I put together the Crash Course in B2B Content.

This online self-study program covers all 12 of the most popular formats.

For each format, I did a narrated slide deck packed with tips, handpicked samples, and a detailed walkthrough of a sample where I point out all the key elements.

Plus, there are dozens of links to further resources you can trust, and lots of extras like a quick reference sheet for when you’re on the phone with a client.

And the best thing for many busy writers? You don’t need to work through the whole program from A to Z.

Need to write your first-ever case study? Grab that module, and in an hour, you can get all the basics you need to start writing.

But not interested in writing, say, speeches? Leave that module on the shelf.

So next time you’re facing a steep hill writing a new format, check out the Crash Course in B2B Content.

That will give you some more gears to help you get to where you want to go on your writing journey.

As for my kids, today they both have shiny new bikes with six gears each. Now they love going up the Big Hill. And we all get to the top with lots of energy to carry on with our adventure.

Do you have any questions about getting started in content writing? Please share with us in the comments.

Crash Course in B2B Content

Crash Course in B2B Content

Dive into the lucrative world of B2B content writing. Expert Gordon Graham will show you the top 12 content types in high demand by B2B firms and how to complete each one like a pro. Learn More »

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Published: August 20, 2021

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