You’re sitting around the conference table at your company’s quarterly planning meeting. The goal is to set up your inbound marketing content plan for the next few months. The discussion is going fairly smoothly, and then someone asks, “Well, how long is that going to take?”
Writer: <shrugs> “It depends.”
Manager: “Of course, but we can estimate, say, X hours, right?”
Writer: “Sure, we should be able to do that.”
Big Boss: “Wait, how many hours? For a [blog post, ebook, whitepaper, etc.]?”
Big Boss: “Why does it take that long?”
Writer: “I mean, it could take longer.”
Big Boss: “What?!”
Manager: <slams head against desk repeatedly>
How long it takes to produce good content writing is one of those questions that plagues just about everyone working in content marketing. Whether you’re a writer, a manager, or even the owner of a company or agency, if you’ve implemented a content marketing plan, you’ve likely experienced a conversation like the one above.
So why is our titular question so difficult to answer?
Firstly, it’s tough to figure out how long “good” content writing takes, because “good” is not the same for everyone. Yes, there are objectively “good” pieces of content writing, but I guarantee that within your team there will be differences of opinion on what is good enough. More on this later.
Secondly, one of the many delightful things about writers (and I say this with a healthy dose of self-deprecation) is that we can often be a little vague about time frames. I like to think of us as “delightfully frustrating” in that regard.
Thirdly—and most importantly—when it comes to content marketing, we’re not actually talking about just writing.
The many steps of good content writing
There are a number of additional steps to producing good content, whether it’s a blog post, website copy, a content offer, or anything else you’re writing for the web. Unfortunately, those steps tend to get rolled in under “writing” when we budget or track time for a project, leading to confusion and disarray.
In the next few sections of this post, we’ll lay out all the different pieces that go into producing good content writing.
1. Topic and keyword research
Research is one of those annoying things that you have to include in every step of your inbound process in order to be really, truly successful. Before you start any type of content writing, you need to have a handle on:
- Which buyer persona(s) you are writing for
- Which stage of the buyer’s journey those personas are experiencing
- What your target search keywords are
If you’re working from a fully established content plan, these three items should already have been determined by previous keyword research and content mapping. However, you should always be checking and re-checking that plan against current data to determine if the content and keywords are still relevant to your buyer personas.
The other part of this step is actually researching the topic you’re going to be writing about. Sometimes, content writers are experts in the field they’re writing about. Often, they’re not. Either way, there likely will be some research involved in producing a piece of good content writing on that topic. It could be looking up statistics, getting data from other reliable sources, or even just reading other pieces of content on that subject to get an idea of what’s out there and what you can offer that is different.
The moral of the story here is that no one in content marketing sits down and writes a 1,000-word post on any topic without doing some preparation—and that preparation takes time. So unless you have time-traveling sorcerers on your staff, budget for that step.
2. Actual content writing
For their 2015 State of Inbound report, HubSpot surveyed 4,000 marketers and salespeople on a number of different marketing topics, one of which was how long it takes them to write a 500-world blog post. This is what they found:
“According to our research, in every region of the world, most marketers spend 1-2 hours writing a 500-word blog post… In North America: The largest number of marketers (38%) spend 1-2 hours writing a typical blog post. In the same region, 29% of marketers spend 2-3 hours writing a blog post, 29% spend 4+ hours per post, and only 8% spend less than an hour per post.”
You could interpret those results as marketing writers throwing up a big ol’ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ to the question of timing. I mean, you’re looking at basically a three-way division between 1-2 hours, 2-3 hours, and 3-4 hours for a 500-word blog post. But there is a lesson to be learned here, and that lesson is: take as much time as you need and no more than that.
Yeah, I know that’s not an actual time frame. But good content writing is an art, and as such it’s very difficult to quantify how much work should go into it.
It’s a good idea, as a writer, to set yourself a time limit and try to keep to it as best you can. That way, you won’t waste time doubting yourself or rephrasing the closing sentence 4 million times (that’s what editors are for). However, be honest with yourself—and your managers or clients or whomever you’re accountable to—about how long it will take to do the writing and do it right.
3. Proofing and editing
To my fellow writers out there: the last step in your writing process should be re-reading and editing the content yourself. Always. Do not send a draft to your manager, do not pass go, do not collect $200 until you’ve proofread your copy for spelling and grammatical errors. You probably won’t get them all, but for the love of all things good and fluffy, try.
Once you’ve finished your edits you can pass the draft along to whomever will be reviewing and editing it for you. Yes, you always need to have at least one other person read your copy before it’s published. There will likely be more than one person who needs to approve before content can be pushed out, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
To the marketing managers, directors, business owners, and everyone else reading this: we are all human and mistakes happen. This is why spell check was invented, but it doesn’t mean that little errors won’t sneak through sometimes. If it’s a common occurrence, then you may need to have a discussion about your editing process, but don’t freak out the first time you see the wrong “there” used in a piece of content.
There are a ton of tools out there to help with that, too, but that’s a whole other blog post.
4. Optimizing for search
This step and the previous one are sometimes flipped, depending on your writing process, but it’s a necessary step no matter where you put it.
Writers should be optimizing as they draft a piece of content—fitting the targeted keyword and variations of it naturally into the writing, headers, subheads, etc. But once the writing is completed, the content needs to be fully optimized. This means tweaking your titles for search engines (title tags), adding alt-text to images (or adding images in the first place), specifying your meta descriptions, adding internal and external links, choosing categories and tags (if we’re talking about a blog post), and just going over the content again to ensure that you’ve done everything you can to put this content in front of the right sets of eyes.
This, also, takes a little bit of time.
A writer’s favorite part of the writing process, letting other people read your hard work and tell you what you did wrong.
I joke, but seriously, revisions are an important part of creating good content writing, and an unavoidable part of any publishing process. You’ll note that this step is titled “Revisions” in the plural form, because there will be more than one. Expect it, prepare for it, and budget time for it. Do not have an internal due date for a blog draft the same day you plan to publish it. For more on how to plan and schedule your content, check out my colleague Dave’s post on content calendars.
Setting standards for good content writing
Remember up top where I said “good” is subjective and “more on this later”? It is now later, so let’s discuss.
One of the first steps in your content marketing plan should be setting standards for everything you publish. That helps you avoid at least some of the inevitable waffling about word choice and other stylistic updates when you’ve been through five rounds of revisions on one blog post and are closing in on the publication deadline.
Some writers (yours truly included) can and will revise a piece of writing until the end of time if you let them. We are our own worst critics. Some CEOs and business owners will fuss and fuss over marketing content because this brand is their pride and joy and they want to express it in the most perfect way possible.
And that’s OK! It’s more than OK, actually, it’s great. That kind of passion is what makes this work worthwhile at the end of the day.
However, if you have a set of objective standards that every piece of content has to meet in order to be “good enough” for publication, those situations can be resolved quickly and easily. You can determine if the edits you’re fighting over are worth the additional time, or if you should stop worrying and move on to the next project.
So no, I can’t give you a straight answer for how long it takes to write a blog post or how many hours you should spend on that content offer. What I can tell you, is that producing good content writing is a process that requires communication, time management, and hard work. If you remember these steps and do everything you can to make that process run smoothly, you might be able to avoid that whole slamming your head into the desk thing. Where content writing is concerned, at least.