Writing is writing, right?
Nope. If you’re a writer, you know that what type of writing you’re doing matters. And it’s not just AP versus Chicago; it’s structure and style and voice.
Here at Craft Your Content, we’re all about finding ways to help your true voice shine through as you create great content. It’s a cardinal rule of ours: instead of the “right way to do things,” there’s the right way to do things for each of our clients.
Language should be flexible. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some basic tenets of writing to follow. We can create better content by following a few rules from the academic world.
Yes, academic writing is frequently stuffy and, well, academic. And blogging or creating other online content is frequently seen as far from academic.
But quality content — backed up by sound research, well-sourced, and catchy but not over-gimmicky — has the same foundation as academic writing.
I’ve literally been writing since I could hold a pencil (no joke; I was writing Escape to Witch Mountain fanfic long before there was an internet). But I didn’t learn how to write until college.
Writing — the act of putting pen to paper and pouring out all the words in your brain –– isn’t difficult.
Writing well, on the other hand, is something you have to learn how to do. It wasn’t until a discussion with a very disappointed history professor who knew I could do better that it clicked: I couldn’t just put words on paper. That was half-assing my writing, and it wasn’t good or useful.
I needed to learn — and practice — how to write well.
Writing in the history field teaches you how to be a strong writer, and it also gives you mad research skills.
Learning a few tricks of the trade will help you create better content. So here are a few rules from the world of academic history writing for how to write well – while letting your voice shine through.
Good writers are often good readers.
Writers are a curious bunch by nature, so learning all they can about a subject comes naturally (hey, how does one figure out how to calculate productivity if you’re an office of one?).
However, to create good content you need to do the right research for your topic. All knowledge may be worth having, but it’s more important to have the right knowledge at the right time. If you’re writing about, for example, the best hacks for working in a coffee shop, then reading political blogs probably isn’t going to help you.
Hitting the top three articles listed on your search engine for research is fine. Chances are you’ll find some really good information this way.
But here’s the thing: while you’re using these articles as research or evidence, so is everybody else.
If you want to write something new, dig a little deeper. That doesn’t mean go for the random or poorly argued pieces, but try breaking down your idea and researching it piece by piece. Then put it back together with a spin that’s all your own.
Or use those top three articles as a starting point, then figure out what they didn’t do, and take your research and writing a step farther.
Once you start asking the questions not answered by existing articles, you may find your research takes you down interesting paths. In addition to doing unique research, you may want to look just outside your specific focus.
There’s a reason why so many historians start off a project with a detailed outline, or at least a series of questions. You need to know what you need to know.
Let me give you an example from one of my current projects. I’m looking at writing about historical Virginia foodways, specifically the effect George Washington and Mount Vernon had on food in early America.
So my initial list of questions includes things like: what did they grow, what did they make on site, what recipes did they use to cook, and who wrote those recipes? My research includes Martha Washington’s book of recipes, historical accounts of the local farming practices, and letters from people who ate at Mount Vernon.
But my research also includes anything I can find from other Virginia locations and figures (Monticello/Thomas Jefferson, Williamsburg), as well as historical accounts of food and farming from other colonial locations.
I might even look at what farmers are doing today that has been shaped by early Virginia farming.
Focused research (like Martha’s cookbook) gets you the details; research on the edge of that focus (what Virginia chefs and farmers are doing today) gives you context and analysis for your topic.
In any type of academic writing, but especially in the field of history, there are two kinds of sources: primary and secondary.
Primary sources are original, direct reports: a newspaper article reporting a specific event, letters from individuals, autobiographies, artifacts, diaries, original documents, maps, recordings — some kind of original source or evidence.
A secondary source is anything that analyzes or talks about a primary source — a journal article, a recent news story discussing the history of an event, or a textbook.
Both have their uses. Primary sources give you data (for example, the unemployment rate in March was 4.5 percent, according to the government agency that tracks that number), while secondary sources provide context (for example, commentary from last year predicting that the rate would continue to drop).
In most online content writing, you’re not going to need to differentiate between the two. But depending on your topic, you might need to be aware of the different types of information and how to use them.
For example, if you’re going to write about the impact of online privacy legislation, you might want to highlight a specific legislator’s viewpoint. Would it be better to write about something they said directly (in a speech, an op-ed, or an interview), or something someone said about them (in a story about the legislation, or an ad designed to sway opinion)?
Both are valid sources of information, and most historians use some sort of combination, but you should know which works better for the message you want to convey in your writing.
For the love of Walter Cronkite, please don’t use Wikipedia as your main source.
Look, Wikipedia is a great tool. It’s a fantastic starting point, and usually a good overview of a topic. As an online encyclopedia entry, it’s a secondary source, but it should not be your only or main source of research.
One thing it’s great for is finding other sources. Check the citations on Wikipedia, and use those as your research. If something is cited on Wikipedia, there is a known source attached that you can follow up on. Use that known source in your research.
The one exception is if you’re writing an article about, for example, Stephen Colbert and the elephant thing. Because Wikipedia is itself the story, it would then be appropriate to cite the relevant entries.
If you look at my papers from high school and college, I’m pretty sure every single one of them has one thing in common: the use of quotes to introduce the paper, as well as kick off each section.
I love quotes. I believe that all wisdom in life can be distilled from Star Wars (“fly casual” was actual process guidance at my last office), Dirty Dancing, The Princess Bride, and The Big Lebowski. (Sleepless in Seattle and anything written by Joss Whedon comes in close behind.)
I’ve been known to take pictures of particular sentences in books so that I’ll always have those words with me. I think the world would be a better place if we all talked in phrases from Mark Twain and Jane Austen.
And I frequently quote something from a favorite TV show to make a point, assuming that everyone will just understand what I mean.
But in creating content, especially online content, there’s a time and place for quote usage:
To illustrate or support a key point. Sometimes, someone else says the thing you want to say in exactly the right words.
If the quote fits well enough for you to use, then try fitting it in with the flow of your writing instead of at the top or end of a section. Use the quote to support your voice and make it stronger, rather than just giving the reader another voice to listen to.
One of my fellow writers here at CYC did this beautifully in her most recent article:
During a session with my virtual yoga instructor, Adriene, of Yoga with Adriene, she told us to place our hands and feet in a particular posture.
“But,” she said, “Don’t look. See feelingly.”
That was to say, tap into the senses we don’t normally use to find our balance, but still get to that place of stability.
As a hook. If you’re writing an article about the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, using quotes from the show as a hook in your introduction is a good idea.
Just don’t overdo it. You probably don’t need a different quote at the top of each of your twelve sections.
To set the mood. Quotes can function as shorthand for certain situations. If you’re deliberately trying to be informal, or set a certain mood, the right quote can point people there instantly.
This might be the one time where quotes at the beginning of an article or section are really appropriate, but again, don’t overdo it.
To show your street cred. Using a quote can show that you get it and that you’re part of a certain group. Again, use judiciously. You might get five readers who nod knowingly, while the other fifty wonder what the hell you’re talking about.
It’s also important to be clear on when not to use a quote.
It’s tempting to pull a block quote from a source that describes your topic in detail. But what if that quote is primarily a statement of fact?
Let’s borrow an example from nasa.gov. The first paragraph of the What Does NASA Do page states: “President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958, partially in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite the previous year. NASA grew out of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which had been researching flight technology for more than 40 years.”
Everything in this paragraph is a statement of fact. You could quote it, but the rest of your writing probably isn’t this formal, so it’s going to stick out and break the flow of your voice.
Write this using the facts, not the quote: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was established in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Prior to NASA, the U.S. government’s flight technology research was conducted by the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics.
Think of it this way. There are facts, and then there are those facts stated in a very specific way. “The sun is a star.” That’s a fact. You might have read it on the NASA website, or on an astronomer’s Twitter feed, or remember it from elementary school science class.
But “The sun is a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace” is not the typical way one would state that fact. It’s very specific, and as such, you might note that the language comes from the awesome They Might Be Giants song, “Why Does the Sun Shine?”
When you include facts, figures, and other information in your content, it’s usually not a bad idea to link back to where you found the information, or provide it in a notes section at the end. And, of course, if you do quote something, give the proper credit to the original source.
Fortunately, online content creation is not like academic writing where you have to cite in detail every little piece of evidence or thought that you read somewhere else.
But it doesn’t mean you should just throw in facts, quotes, and ideas willy-nilly without noting where they came from.
The easiest way to cite something is to embed a link at the appropriate word or phrase.
But if it’s a page you’d rather not link back to, or if your content is more blue hyperlinks than regular text, then there are other ways to give credit for your ideas.
Mention the author or speaker and the book, article, talk, or video that contained the idea you’re using. It can also be appropriate to note when this information was published or given. In the case of a speech or video, you might want to add the context it was used in, as well (for example, a SXSW talk, or a video created as part of a TED conference).
Keep it organic and consistent with the flow of your article, but always give credit where credit is due.
What’s your article about? You probably put together a pitch for your editor, so you have a starting place.
But when you put fingers to keyboard, what is the one sentence that sums up your post?
That’s your thesis statement, the thing you’re trying to prove or disprove.
When you were in grade school, you were probably taught to write a paragraph with a topic sentence, followed by a certain number of supporting sentences.
Online content has different rules for paragraph construction (more paragraph breaks tends to read better on a screen), but the idea is still sound.
Your article should have a main idea, strongly expressed in one or two sentences. In academic writing, it’s typically one of the last sentences at the end of the introduction.
Online content is generally more informal. It’s less important where your thesis is than that it is clearly stated. For example, the thesis statement of this article is actually stated in two parts, at the end of each of the first two sections. (The foundation of good online content creation is the same as academic writing; rules from academic writing in the field of history can help you create good online content.)
Each section should also have a main idea (or topic sentence) that supports your thesis statement. Again, specific placement is less important, though they should be near enough to the beginning that readers understand that it is indeed the main idea of the section.
You don’t have to hit your reader over the head pointing these out (for example, “as I said in my thesis statement in the introduction” or “in this section we’re going to discuss the three examples that support my thesis”).
Creating academically-sound online content doesn’t mean you have to end up with a dry, stuffy, “academic” paper.
A few rules will strengthen your writing without messing up your voice:
By building your content using the same foundation that historians use to research and write, you can create quality online work, while maintaining your own unique voice.
Sarah Ramsey holds a M.A. in Science, Technology and Public Policy. She has spent most of the last two decades doing strategic communications work for space-focused organizations like NASA. She wishes she could write space-based, because if she could live anywhere else, Mars would be it. In her free time, you can find her working through a long to-be-read list and an even longer to-be-written list.