Director of Web & Interactive Content, Speaker, Host of 'Content Lab' Podcast
June 17th, 2019
As I shared with you all last week, great writing and true thought leadership does not appear out of thin air. Which is a real bummer, if you ask me. And even if you have the best examples of blog posts in the world, getting inspired and writing great content isn't easy.
Yes, writing thousands and thousands of words is a core part of my profession, and a large part of my career is fueled by an insatiable passion for helping others understand how to tell their stories more effectively.
That said, I am also an inherently lazy individual.
For example, I only got into The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel this past weekend because the pilot autoplayed after another show of mine had ended. I was bundled so cozily in a blanket burrito on the couch -- with the remote about three inches out of reach -- that I decided, "Meh, it's not worth the effort to move."
That's right. It wasn't coworkers like Kathleen badgering me for more than a year about how I just had to watch this show, because I would absolutely love it, that finally got me to cave. It was an ill-placed remote.
It may surprise you to learn that I have a similar approach to writing.
Again, while there is no content wizard in the sky ready to "make it rain" polished prose for you, I have spent a significant amount of time trying to find ways to streamline or jumpstart the writing process -- without having to go back to the days of middle school, where merciless English teachers would for force us to write comprehensive, ungraded outlines.
In fact, there are eight specific blogging hacks I want to share with you today that will immediately remove some of the pain you're experiencing when you create content, and make the whole process go a heck of a lot faster.
1. Stop telling yourself you can't before you even start
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you're reading this post, you've probably made a commitment to create more -- or at least better-- content in 2019, 2020, and beyond.
(If you don't have that resolution, I hope you can feel my death stare across the expanse of cyber space.)
However, even the most well-meaning content creators arrive at the keyboard with a set of fears that can undermine their potential, making the whole process way harder than it has to be, before they've even struck their first keystroke.
"I don't have anything interesting to say."
"I'm not a writer."
"What story do I have to tell?"
"This is not my job -- I'm not good at this."
If you're good at your job, trust me when I say that little voice is wrong.
In fact, it actually became a running joke with myself awhile back that when a client would tell me, "I don't really have anything to write about," they were almost guaranteed to become the team contributor with the most compelling insights to share.
With this in mind, hear me when I say I'm not challenging you to set aside your fears and your avoidance based upon the fact that I think you're a writer first -- I'm doing it because you're not.
Whenever you sit down to write, and you hear that nagging voice in your head, tearing you down, remember this:
People are literally (and figuratively) searching for your expertise in an industry or area that probably has zero to do with writing -- not the next literary classic.
That's why you don't need to be Hemingway. You just need to be you.
2. Decide on your topic at least one day before writing
After fear, the worst thing you can do to yourself is not decide on a topic before you sit down to write.
Seriously, it amazes me how many people complain about how long writing a blog takes them, only to find out it's because they have to spend half of that time going through the basic step of figuring out what it is they're talking about.
Of course, blogging is going to feel like the absolute worst when you do that.
So, at least one day (preferably a week) before you want to start putting your piece together, decide on your blog topic and write it down. On a post-it. On the mirror after a steamy shower with your finger. In your journal. On your burger in ketchup.
I don't care how or where you write down your topic -- the important thing is that you get the idea out of your head and document it somewhere. Otherwise, the idea will remain abstract, which doesn't count.
It doesn't need to be a pretty title, and it may change, but it needs to be specific.
For example, blogging about persuasive writing in general is interesting, but too broad of a topic. But blogging about how and why buzzwords undercut your ability to persuade, or tips for being a better persuasive writer are much more well-defined options.
Again, as an avid high school essay outline hater, I'm not asking you to do anything more than this.
But if you're anything like me, once you zero in on an idea -- any idea -- for a title, your brain will passively flesh it out, mull it over, and shape it, while you move onto other things.
Think of it like giving a computer a complex equation to crunch as a background process.
By the time you sit down to actually do your blogging thing, your topic might still be in tact, or it may have changed. It doesn't matter, because you'll have given yourself a head start with days of subconscious legwork already completed.
3. Use my helpful content framework to plan out the overall direction of what you're writing
One of the most challenging parts of writing -- for me, anyway -- is to get my head around the basics of what I want to cover. For every topic, there are so many ways I can choose to address it, including an endless sea of anecdotes, recommendations, lists, and so on.
But I can't treat every article I write like the kitchen sink. There has to be some organization and purpose to what I put in, and I want to make sure that everything I write is as effective as possible.
It takes between 10 and 20 minutes to complete the above grid; although now it takes me about five minutes to run through this mentally.
You fill it out in this order:
WHAT What are you talking about exactly, in an uneditorialized, uncontextualized way? For example, this article would be "blogging hacks."
WHO Do not simply drop in "CEO Craig" or some other buyer persona nonsense here. As I've said before, buyer personas are deceptively useless. Get specific and ask yourself, who is it exactly you are trying to reach? Why do they care about this specific topic? What is their urgency around it? Do they have unspoken fears, concerns, or questions? And finally, in their words, what would make an article about this topic successful for them?
WHY The "why" bucket simply asks the question "Why you?" Why are you qualified to address this topic? Is it a summary of experiences? Is it a specific experience or story that makes you uniquely qualified to not only show you can relate to their situation, but also help them solve their problem? Is it both?
HOW How is the pay-off. Now that you know what you're talking about, who you're talking to about this topic (and why they care about it), and why you're the one who should be addressing it, you're going to outline how you're going to address it. For example, "I'm going to list a few different blogging hacks, including stop telling yourself you can't write, picking your topic a day in advance, the helpful content framework, and more. I'll probably also relate to the fact that much of the writing process we've been taught is not fun, and even though writing is my job, it is hard for me, too. Maybe I can find a story in that."
I want you to think of the above tool I created like a compass. Upon completing it, you will have an 80,000-foot-view of exactly where you want to go with what you're writing, which makes it a lot easier to either dive into outlining (if that's your bag) or immediately into writing your first draft.
4. Create a simple "roadmap" of what you’re going to say
Even though I'm a writer by trade, I'll be honest. There are some days when the words flow with ease, and there are others when the words simply... don't.
For example, have you ever opened your mouth and started speaking with no end game in mind? But you plow ahead with your well-meaning word salad, hoping that you magically figure out where you want your words to go as you speak?
I do this all the time, which probably says all kinds of things about my personality, but whatever. If you relate to this, you know how awkward it is. Even if you somehow manage to blindly find your way to a point.
This same logic can apply to writing.
While I do fully subscribe to the notion of free-writing as an exercise, writing a full outline as a first step can be just as demoralizing as writing a blog, and it's not always that necessary.
Instead, I like to create what's called a "roadmap" for my blog. To show you what I mean, here's the roadmap I created for this post:
In short, a roadmap is a method I use when I'm feeling lost with a topic to plot out the beats I want to hit in a blog post -- and it can be as ugly and as bare bones as it needs to be. (Just look at that compelling conclusion, am I right?)
The purpose of a roadmap isn't to do all the heavy-lifting for me before I start writing.
It's to give me confidence that, from an 80,000-foot view, I'm going somewhere with what I'm writing, and I have a path to get there. (It also helps me keep on track with the point I'm trying to make, when I'm tempted to stray or go off on a tangent.)
If you want to continue to refine and add detail to your own roadmap to make it more of an outline, however, don't let me stop you. (In fact, if you are working on a long-form piece that requires lots of detail, it may be a smart move.) It's simply my preference that, from here, I get down to business.
Speaking of which...
5. Start “filling in the blanks” by writing the easiest section first
Once you have your roadmap in place, here's one of my favorite hacks: You don't have to write your blog in order.
Instead, look at your roadmap and pick the spot or section that seems to come easiest. Then, after that, the next easiest, and so on.
I love this strategy for a few reasons. First, it allows you to break up writing your post into manageable chunks over the course of a few hours or even a few days. Second, it has empowered me at a more global level to realize that the best work I've created typically comes together in pieces I work on out of order.
A nip here. A tuck there. Oh, this idea I just had made me realize I should go back and expand this other section near the top.
As I mold my blog post into its final form, I'm able to step back and evaluate what needs tweaking and fixing to get it just right, without getting hung up on whether or not I'm doing things in the correct order.
6. Skip the hard stuff, come back to it later
I'm going to keep this one short and sweet. Whenever I'm writing, I always have those moments where I know what I want to say, but the idea or the words aren't ready to fall out of my brain yet.
Instead of falling into a pit of despair about how I'm the worst and everything is terrible, I make note of where my brain fart occurred in my draft and move on.
Here's an example:
This is the original outline section for this post, as I was writing it.
As you can see, my quips about teachers wanting to torture me and keep me away from Carson Daly weren't fully formed when I first started working on my draft.
Initially, I stopped. I glared at the screen. I tried a few versions of what I wanted to say, and they were terrible, so I decided to come back to it later, with a fresh brain.
So, if you get stuck like I did, note it in your writing and move on.
Don't let a single idea or sentence be the roadblock that sends you spiraling into an endless void of self-doubt. The worst thing you can do is stall your momentum with the asinine notion that you need to have all of your words and ideas totally figured out when you sit down to write.
Even if an entire section is stumping you, set it aside, work on a different section, and try again later.
7. Write your introduction and conclusion last
Finally, save what is often the worst for last.
One of the most unpleasant parts of writing for me is when I know what I want to write about, but I’m stumped when I try to write that first sentence; that hook that makes me people go, “Wow! I need to read this.”
In those cases, I won't tackle writing the introduction and conclusion until after everything else is written -- unless, of course, I have some sort rare stroke of divine inspiration.
After I write everything else, I’ve usually spent enough time with my overall writing topic to know how to kick it off and wrap it up effectively.
I feel like I should have more to say about this hack, but that's really all there is to it.
8. Listen to ambient noise instead of music
I've been in the professional world for more than 10 years, and it's only been in the last two or so years that I realized I was doing one thing that completely eroded my ability to stay focused and produce my best work.
I listened to music when I tried to write.
I don't know about you, but -- with the exception of very few playlists -- my mind wanders when I listen to music. I think about the lyrics or the artist... or maybe a particular song brings me back to a particularly happy (or sad) memory.
That's fine if I'm working on something that doesn't require extra mental mojo -- placing web copy into a page template, formatting articles for publication, building out a piece of pillar content that has already been written and edited, doing some light copyediting, creating an editorial calendar, etc.
But when I'm writing, I need to listen to something that simultaneously blocks out all of the distractions around me, but also doesn't pull me into a new ball of distractions.
Noisli is a free, life-changing website, Chrome extension, and downloadable application that allows you to create customized ambient noise sound blends, so you can be your most productive.
In fact, there are studies that show listening to ambient noise instead of music increases productivity and creativity.
I don't know if I'm ready to give up listening to Beyoncé when I'm feeling particularly peppy about a nonwriting work project. But I will say that I have never felt more focused, more productive, or more able to hone in on the exact words I'm looking for so easily than when I'm working while listening to Noisli.
Sometimes it's the little things we take for granted that end up being the most influential conditions for success, when it comes to writing.
Writing still requires effort & self-awareness
I hesitated using the word "hacks" as part of the title for this blog post, because I believe that some people -- not all -- are always on the lookout for some sort of magical unicorn shortcut that will take the pain out of writing.
That said, I hope you find value in the tips I've shared here. They've helped me tremendously as I've continued to refine and "hack" my own process over the years.
Just remember there's no blanket blogging solution that will apply to everyone. So much of finding what will ultimately work for you will require you to commit to the practice of creating content and maintain awareness of the specific challenges you're encountering along the way.