11 Commercial Writing Skills

“So, what are you going to do with that English major?”

Every liberal arts major has heard some version of that question. Sadly, it represents a gross misunderstanding of the job market. Companies pay for value. Sometimes that comes in the form of a credential or a degree, but most of the time it’s more abstract. Content marketing is a field that needs more people with commercial writing skills, i.e., ones who can write and get their work read.

The written word is more valuable than ever. So for all the journalists looking for a new career path and recent liberal arts grads trying to figure out what to do with their lives, know that there’s an industry willing to pay for your skills.

Your task is to understand how your work helps a company grow. Purists might see this as a corruption of the craft of writing. Others, a beautiful pairing of business and art.

Study the skills below. It’s what we and many other companies are looking for in content marketing hires.

1. Follow the money.

We say this often, but we can't say it enough: writing is an art, but content is an acquisition channel. The same idea applies to copywriting and UX writing. Writers need to understand where the money comes from, then stay close to it. Software companies don't pay for art—at least not directly—they pay for new customers. You can still make art by working within the positive constraints of a revenue model. One key differentiator of good content marketers, for example, is that they understand where their work fits within the larger context of the business. They take an interest in metrics, in acquisition and marketing spend. Their work is more valuable because of their perspective.

2. Take an interest in strategy. Then take ownership.

Writing is the core skill of any content marketer. But as you grow in your career, you need to evolve from “someone who writes” to “someone who decides what/how/when/why to write.” Content creators tend to lack the nuanced knowledge of an industry or audience to make good content strategy recommendations. Content strategists—sometimes called editors or content directors—can see the whole field and call plays. This skill is many times more valuable than the ability to write, but it's built on top of years of good writing practice. As you become a better writer, start thinking about editorial plans, article distribution, audience growth and organic search. Your job isn't just to write, it's to 1) get people to read it and 2) help the business grow.

3. Develop complementary skills.

Writing gets you in the door, but it only takes you so far. To become a better content marketer, you need to develop complementary skills. These skills not only make you more valuable, they break down barriers. Don't wait around for the design team to fix the website, learn to fix it yourself. Don't wait for someone technical to analyze data for you, learn to analyze it yourself. The more you can do, the better content you can create and the faster your work will be recognized. Here are just a few skills that can help any content marketer level up:

  • Editing: Learn how to make other writers better.
  • Design: Be able to create visuals to support your writing.
  • HTML/CSS: The web is your platform. Learn how to make it better.
  • Data Analysis: Learning advanced spreadsheet skills and SQL make any writer significantly more valuable.
  • SEO: Organic search is your growth channel. Understand how to manipulate it.
  • Management: It's not for everyone, but learning how to lead a team of writers is an invaluable skill.
  • Workflow: Master the art of project management. Know what to do and when to do it.

Writing is your foundation. Build on it with as many complementary skills as you can.

4. Invest in yourself—with cold, hard cash.

There are so many conferences and courses out there to help you advance your career. Don't wait for someone else to pay for you. Give yourself an annual budget to spend on advancing your skills. Conferences, in particular, are a great way to learn complementary skills, get inspiration and meet lots of people. There are other ways to invest in yourself as well. You might, for example, start a side project like a blog or online course. You could also subscribe to publications you love reading or pay for apps that help your workflow. As long as you're learning, consider it an investment. Take advantage of all the free resources out there, but don't be afraid to spend cold, hard cash on yourself.

5. Seek perfection in your own writing.

It's very difficult to edit your own writing, but it's a skill worth developing. Most content marketing is poor because the articles are too long, not clear enough and don't contain specific, non-obvious information. I emailed one of my favorite writers, Morgan Housel, on his best writing advice. He responded with this: “Pretend each word costs you $100. You'll choose them carefully, remove what isn't needed, and be better off.” Effortless reading requires brutal editing and rewriting. Get very comfortable with the idea that everything you write will require numerous revisions. Sometimes the best writers aren't the most gifted, they're the ones willing to edit the most.

6. Develop a network.

In practice, networking is just making new friends. In the content marketing world, friends are a powerful way to get ideas, land interviews and promote content. To make friends, help people. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Share other people’s articles before they ask.
  • Offer helpful feedback about their writing, SEO, design, etc.
  • Ask people for quotes and link back to their sites.
  • Refer customers their way.
  • Sing their praises on social media (without pandering).

This, along with a steady habit of publishing, is the best way to build a strong network. Goodwill goes a long way.

7. Seek out freelance projects.

Taking on freelance work is a good way to sharpen your writing skills, but it also exposes you to new elements of the content business. Learning how to write proposals and negotiate rates will help you when you're on the other end. Understanding your clients' business objectives will help you refine your own strategy. A failed project—an inevitability in the freelance world—will teach you painful, but valuable lessons about business. Tommy Walker, a deeply experienced content marketer, has this to say about freelance work: “What you'll find in almost any role, is that writing is only a fraction of the job. The rest of it is about getting clarity on the vision, managing expectations, and revising until you've created something everyone can agree with.” That experience is where the value is.

8. Maintain a personal blog.

Creating and maintaining a personal blog helps you accomplish several things:

  • Create a portfolio of your work.
  • Add legitimacy to your job applications and freelance pitches.
  • Provide a platform for regular writing practice.

My friend Ernie Smith, a full-time journalist and creator of the Tedium newsletter, has this advice: “Build your own site and use it as a way of drawing attention to your work. Beyond keeping you in practice, it sharpens your story angles and helps make the sell of pitching a freelance client a little easier.”

9. Use social media.

Twitter and LinkedIn can help you draw new readers to your work and network with other people in the content space. You may find social media to be distracting, but we highly recommend getting in the habit of posting and commenting on a regular basis. When you change jobs, you take your social followers with you. If you're able to earn a following, it's an asset that makes you stand out. It can even help you earn more from employers and freelance clients.

10. Develop a system for capturing ideas.

Building a repository of ideas is a great way to provide fodder for your writing. You need a streamlined system to make sure you can easily capture articles, quotes, images, numbers, etc., in an organized way. The Evernote Web Clipper is one tool that makes it very easy to “clip” these things as you peruse the web. You can also add ideas via Voice Notes, images or text. There are plenty of other good tools. Choose one that works for you and start collecting anything that inspires you. Pretty soon, you'll find that you're more easily able to identify good ideas and incorporate them into your writing.

11. Learn how to communicate.

One of the best skills any writer can learn is how to communicate with context. Here's an example. When you submit an article, to a freelance client or your own editor, it's a good idea to explain what you did, why you did it and what you learned along the way. The article itself is the deliverable, but it's more useful to people you work with when it comes with metadata. Make life easier for the people around you and they'll reciprocate.

Are you ready?

Good, because we're hiring great content marketers.