Published on December 28th, 2017
You know what used to grind my gears in high school?
When teachers would make me turn in an outline for a paper that was to be graded independently, before my paper was due. The whole exercise seemed pointless to me; why did it matter what the paper looked like before it was actually written?
In my 16-year-old brain, the answer was obvious: They were gleefully torturing me with busy work that would prevent me from watching the Backstreet Boys perform on TRL with Carson Daly.
Oh, to be young, self-centered, and boy band-obsessed.
Now that I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, I see that my teachers were trying to teach me a valuable lesson.
Great pieces of writing don’t just appear out of thin air. For most people who write as part of their profession -- myself included -- every column, article, blog post, and essay requires some sort of preparation stage prior to putting proverbial pen to paper.
So, if you maintain a blog for your brand, and you’ve ever found yourself faced with a blank screen and a cursor that seems to mock you with each blip, here are six quick hacks that have worked for me to help you become a successful and efficient blogger.
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 2018.
(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. 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...
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
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.
The reality is that creating content takes time and effort, and this should be a surprise to no one. Moreover, the fact that sometimes you need to sit down and think, and occasionally get stumped should not be a signal to you that you're not good at creating content. It's simply part of the process -- and we all go through it.
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.