I’m convinced nothing is more terrifying than being faced with a blank sheet of paper (or more realistically, a blinking cursor in a blank document). Recently, a few comments from friends and colleagues made me realize that many people would almost prefer to face Pennywise or a killer great white shark if the alternative was writing a 700-word blog post. That’s because writing is, for many reasons, associated with fear.
Believe me, I know. By day, I work with content creators, and in my off-hours, my time is spent with fiction and satire writers. I co-founded a satire site and am aware that almost no rejection feels as personal as the rejection of a written piece. And for those who aren’t primarily writers, forget it.
Plus, writing is harder than ever right now because our attention spans are so limited and fleeting. Heck, sometimes I forget why I opened the refrigerator door, so a coherent thesis? Fuhgeddaboudit. (I am a New Yorker, after all.)
To make the process easier, I thought I’d share the way we typically approach written content here at Imagine.
The first step: brainstorming.
You need a topic, and sometimes this is the hardest part, especially if you’re feeling particularly uncreative. When that second cup of coffee doesn’t bring an epiphany, here’s how I try to find a compelling subject. I typically ask myself these questions:
1. What content gaps exist? This question seems obvious, but is usually forgotten by the time you get around to brainstorming. Look at the existing content and try to figure out what’s missing. Do you need more long-form content for consumers who really want to dig in? Is there an area you need to better explain? Remember, you don’t have to do this alone; often, colleagues and salespeople can offer valuable insights based on their conversations and questions. I’m a big fan of collaboration because it gets you out of your own head and perspective.
2. What content has done well? I don’t suggest that anyone go only by metrics, but seeing what’s done well (by various measures) in the past can indicate what your audience wants to know more about.
3. Am I missing timely topics? Is there something in the news that’s applicable to your client’s business? For most industries, I wouldn’t make topical pieces the norm, but they can definitely be valuable. Just make sure there is an actual tie-in and you aren’t newsjacking just to newsjack.
4. What are other businesses doing? Look at your competitors’ content. You’ll usually find most competitors aren’t doing a great job, but that’s okay. You’re just looking for inspiration. If you read someone else’s blog post or white paper and think something’s missing or that you would have approached it another way, you’ve likely found a topic. Also, look at trade journals and industry websites to see what they’re writing about. I’ve even seen advice to look at reviews for books about your industry and see what criticisms people have. (I have never been able to make this work myself, but maybe you can -- or you can springboard off an idea in a book you read.)
Next up: outlining. I know -- fun, right? If I’m being honest, this is the part I dread the most, but for most of us, it’s a necessary evil that gets your thoughts in order. Sometimes an idea seems “together” until you do this and realize the connections are more tenuous than you thought. (That’s still better than having to figure that out as you write it.)
Here are the questions we tend to ask internally and include in a brief to a writer.
- Who is the audience? You must have your persona clear in your head as you write this or you won’t speak to their issues and interests.
- How does this benefit your audience? I like to have one or two sentences about what the piece is trying to accomplish for the reader. I often call it the “goal” on a brief, but remember that this is the goal for your audience, not you. Sure, you’re trying to make the reader realize they have a problem and you’re the one to help, but you must always, always write for the reader -- or they won’t read it. The reader is the hero of the piece, not your company.
- What are the takeaways? You should write a piece that gives the reader at least one actionable item. Can you get away with not doing this? Yes, on an occasional basis -- but you’ll be more valued if you give them something to try out.
Now comes the actual writing part. This is where the fear often gets paralyzing.
The secret? A garbage draft.
You heard me. Write. Just write. Don’t have any expectations at this point. It’s likely going to be bad. It’s called the garbage draft for a reason. But what this draft will do is help you get over that paralyzing fear and start working out your thoughts. You’ll likely find that the piece will start to coalesce at some point during your writing. But if it doesn’t, that’s what the editing process is for.
However, DO NOT edit until you have written a first draft. Trust me on this one. Some people can spend hours self-editing and never get a first draft down. Write, then edit. And remember, you do not have to write in order. If one section seems to leap out to you with more clarity, feel free to write that section first and then fill in the rest. This is about getting past that initial hurdle. Remember, you’re going to do at least one edit (and probably more).
It’s often said that writing is a muscle -- the more you use it, the stronger it gets. There’s certainly truth to that. It’s also true that it becomes easier with practice, like anything else. However, the sad news is that if you don’t enjoy writing, you probably won’t grow to love it. (I will never love statistics and that’s okay.) But if you try these tips, you should walk away with less dread and a better draft. Happy writing!