Sometimes it seems like writers are magicians, because we have the power to create something out of nothing.
An important point to note about magicians, though:
They don’t really do magic. 🙂
Instead, they study and practice specific behaviors until they can create that illusion of creating something out of nothing.
And of course, all creative people do the same. We study and we practice our craft, making consistent improvements and (if we’re lucky) building habits that lead to more consistent output.
Today’s post will help with the “consistent output” part.
I don’t think I’m alone in finding Starting the hardest part of writing.
We don’t know what we’re going to work on. We’re not sure what the structure will be. We don’t have the first sentence yet. The ideas are all running around in our heads like kittens with ADD, and we have no idea how to get them corralled.
For creative work you want to do consistently, like blog posts or podcast episodes, it’s a lifesaver to have a familiar, repeatable process you use every time.
Then you don’t put things on your calendar like Get the blog post done. You schedule a 20-minute block to Draft subheads.
Here are the steps I follow. You can use this simple process to write as many blog posts as you need, without tears or frustration.
Instead of thinking like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, think like a gardener.
1. Start lots of seedlings
Any time you sit down to write without a solid idea of what you’ll be writing about, you’re setting yourself up for frustration and wasted time.
You’ll be better off going for a short walk and bringing a pencil and an index card. On your walk, write down any idea that occurs to you for a piece of content. (Not necessarily the one you’re writing.)
Productive writers know they have to catch as many of their ideas as they can — both the good ones and the silly ones.
An “idea seedling” can be a post idea, but it can also be a theme for:
Capture all of them. Make a habit of carrying something with you that can capture notes. Most of us can use our phones and an app. But go with whatever works. My friend Victoria makes a great case for 3×5” index cards.
If you find that you’re constantly running dry on ideas, boost this habit. Make a commitment to capture at least five ideas for content every day — even stupid or boring ones. The more ideas you capture, the more will come.
2. Make sure you’ve got soil, water, and sunlight
Gardens, of course, need those things for the plants to grow.
As a writer, you have certain conditions that support doing your best work.
You probably need to get away from distractions or interruptions. (Turn off electronic notifications, at least during your work blocks.) You probably have equipment you prefer. You might have a little ritual that gets your writing brain going.
Quality writing is what Cal Newport calls deep work.
To hear yourself think, you need time, space, and privacy.
3. Set down stakes
Once you have all these seedlings, what happens next?
For blog content, I like to start with some subheads. They form an inherent structure (kind of like the framework you’d grow a tomato plant on) that you can quickly eyeball to see if the final version will be relevant and useful.
They also come in handy for writing scannable content that can catch a reader’s attention quickly and entice her to take the time for a more thoughtful read.
Other writers find a mind map really helpful at this point. Mind maps don’t work well for me, but if they’re your cup of tea, go for it.
Once your framework is in place, you can start anywhere. You don’t need to start at the beginning — just jump in where you feel moved, and write a paragraph or two.
You probably won’t be ready to complete the draft yet. (If you are, just move to the next step.) But capture any words or phrases that occur to you. Expand any points, make a few notes of stories or examples, and track down the links you’ll want to refer to.
4. Write freely
When you’re ready to get some draft copy down, do it fast.
Unless you’re a very experienced writer, don’t stress too much about grammar, usage, spelling, word choice, or even logical flow.
At this point, it’s not uncommon for those ADD-kitten ideas to dart off in all kinds of crazy directions. That’s fine. Get your thoughts on this topic out of your head and into some words, and then we’ll figure out what to do with them.
If you end up with some tangents that definitely don’t fit into this piece of content, those become new idea seedlings. Move them over to your idea seedling system whenever it won’t interrupt your writing flow.
5. Talk to yourself
If your fingers won’t move on the keyboard, try talking to yourself. If you were talking with a friend, client, or colleague about this topic, what would you say?
(Privacy does come in handy here. Not all of us have the social confidence to talk to ourselves aloud in a coffee shop.)
What makes you angry about this topic? (That always creates interesting work.) What frustrates you? What do you wish people would do differently? What did you used to do incorrectly? How have you improved?
Transcribe your own mutterings as quickly as you can. Don’t worry if they look goofy on the page. We’ve got plenty of time to fix that.
6. Prune and thin
Once you have a bunch of words typed into your framework, you’re ready to prune it.
What’s the main idea of this post? (It’s often different from what you thought it would be when you started.)
Which parts of this post have a lot of energy? Could you move them to the beginning, to create a more powerful introduction?
Which parts of this post belong somewhere else? Remember, they’re idea seedlings, so you don’t lose them by cutting them out of this piece.
Read what you have aloud. The weird stuff, the odd word choices, and the random tangents will start to jump out at you.
My pruning time is two to three times longer than the time I spend writing the original draft.
Take it through as many pruning sessions as you reasonably can. It usually works better to do a pruning pass, then let the post rest for a little while and come back to it with fresh eyes.
When I prune, I look for:
- Words that can be cut without losing meaning
- Ideas that can be cut and developed into additional work
- Words that haven’t been used correctly, or that could be replaced by something more precise
- Complicated sentence structures that can be streamlined
- Fancy language that can be made plain
You’ll have your own list you develop over time.
7. Plant more seedlings
A thorough edit is important to creating quality work, but there comes a point when you click Publish and move to the next idea.
That’s why a consistent content calendar can help your creativity. Ship it, learn from it, start the next piece.
Writing and gardening happen in cycles. There’s always something new coming up.
If you get stressed out about a writing piece that didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to be, that’s a sure sign you need to be writing more.
Worrying about your writing is not writing. Kicking yourself for all the ways you fail to measure up is not writing. Even endless edits are not writing.
And once in a while, a piece that you weren’t incredibly excited about turns out to be a fan favorite. We aren’t necessarily terrific judges of how well a particular piece of writing will work out for us.
Capture some more ideas. Start growing the next one. Write until it’s done. Prune until it’s pretty good.
Then keep going.