by David Miller

Ernest Hemingway once famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.”

I think I know how he must have felt. Sure, the writing process can be fulfilling, even euphoric when it’s going well. But when the words aren’t flowing and you’re staring woefully at a blank piece of paper, virtual or otherwise, even a master like Papa H. can feel like the sun will never rise again.

I’m reminded of Hemingway’s quote when clients express interest in taking on a big writing project in-house. They’re genuinely excited about the anticipated result, like new material for an enterprise website or a thought leadership blog. But do they realize the amount of work involved? And are they really up for it?

As a content strategist, it’s my job to help them go in prepared, and one of my favorite tools is a content template. It’s basically a blueprint for the editorial team that explains what the content needs to do on a given page. So when they sit down in front of that blank screen, they don’t have to wait for the blood to drain from their heads. They can just start writing.

OK, Tell Me More

So let’s say the design of that new site or blog is approved, and you’ve got a team of folks ready to populate the pages with fresh copy. You may even have a content stylebook, an editorial calendar and voice and tone guidelines. So far, so good. But there are still lots of unanswered questions, like how do your writers know which to messages to emphasize? How should the story unfold? What are the specs for each module or content block?

A content template provides the answers in a simple format that’s easy to understand and use. It also helps to maintain editorial quality and consistency, particularly when you’re working with a large group of writers, some of whom may be in different locations.

Content templates can be set up in a variety of ways. I often include two main sections. The first defines the purpose of the page and contains style and tone guidelines.

Here’s an example of what this first section looks like:

1-contentTemplate

Note that the “Purpose of the Page” and the “Style and Tone Notes” are brief, just a paragraph for each. In most cases, that’s more than enough space to get your point across.

A Modular Approach

The second main section deals with content modules. I like to provide instructions for each block of content, and I arrange them in the same order as they appear in the design comp or wireframe. That way writers can consult both side by side while they’re working on their copy.

I describe the purpose of each module. Then I list the components, such as a headline, subheads and calls to action, along with word or character counts. The latter don’t have to be exact — just use a range that seems workable based on the design.

If there’s something else I want to highlight I put that in a column labeled “special instructions.” For example, here’s a message for a module listing industry events: “Consult style guide for proper style on cities, states and dates. Spell out the full name of the venue.”

Finally, it’s important to provide a content example for each module. Why an example? Because a description of a piece of writing can never convey as much information as actually seeing the real deal. In fact, I try to provide examples for every single module on the page.

When you put all these elements together, this is what it looks like:

2-module

The Making of a Content Template

The best time to start on a content template is during the concept phase of a project when a content strategist and UX designer are working together to define the experience. As they build out the wireframes, they’re discussing the purpose of each page and how the content should be arranged to achieve that goal. Sample content is also being written to make the wireframes appear as realistic as possible.

These three elements — the page purpose, page flow and sample content — are the building blocks of the content template. The content strategist captures them in a spreadsheet and refines each element as the design process unfolds. Once the design is approved, he or she can develop the final version.

Not every page on a site needs a content template. It’s often sufficient to have them just for content-heavy pages. That said, the number of templates you provide will depend to some extent on the capabilities of the content team. Novice writers may need more content templates than experienced ones, for example.

It’s important to remember that content templates, while useful, aren’t the only tool your team will need to ensure a good content workflow. You’ll want to outline your editorial process, define the roles and responsibilities of each person involved and create an overarching style guide with voice and tone guidelines.

Even then, the writing process can still be challenging. For those times, it may help to recall another Hemmingway quote: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

Ernest Hemingway at his desk in London

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