Writing is hard. It takes time, concentration, energy, inspiration, focus, and all sorts of stuff that feels "painful." It's much easier to step into the office and knock out two dozen emails, which might still equate to 2,000 words, than it is to sit down and write a 1,200-word essay.
It goes without saying, however, that content marketing is a critical component to positioning your company as a thought leader and relevant brand among your target audience. Why then, do so few business owners actually take the time to produce original content? Is it due to a lack of ideas?
I'd challenge any CEO to spend just one day writing down all of the questions his team, customers, investors, or partners ask and not be able to identify two or three great article ideas from that list. In our company, we've actually found blogging to be as valuable of a sales tool as it is a marketing tool. Great content can be a source for lead generation, but it can also be a source for answering questions your prospective customers bring up during a sales meeting.
When you can send a prospect a well-crafted article that addresses his exact question, you've got a powerful tool. You'll get extra points if it's published in a major news source in your industry or has high engagement via social media.
So what is the best way to actually get pen to paper (or fingers to keys) and start laying out some prose? Given my seventh-grade love for alliteration, here are the five steps I use when trying to bring out my inner Hemingway: Environment, Exploration, Extraction, Expansion, and Editing.
Environment: Where you write helps.
Given that writing is already a process full of friction, you want to set yourself up for as much potential success as possible. Although it might be the secret for some, sitting down to write in the middle of a busy train station with death metal blasting in the background after you've just eaten a giant hamburger is probably not the most effective way to kick off your writing session. It's a ridiculous situation to imagine, but it does shed some light on the impact your environment can have on your ability to write and think creatively.
The goal is to figure out your ideal environment as you approach your next article. Do you prefer music in the background or complete silence? Do you work best early in the morning or late at night? These details will vary from by individual. However, there is one thing that's universally effective: shut off your phone and close your email. You need to eliminate as many potential distractions as possible. One last thing to consider is scheduling. Like most difficult tasks, if you don't block out time for writing, it's very unlikely that you'll ever actually get it done. Set aside some time in your calendar one day per week or month or quarter, depending on the needed frequency of your writing.
Exploration: Getting ideas on paper.
You’ve locked your office door, poured a cup of Rooibos tea, and put on some Miles Davis.
Now comes the actual work. The second step in this writing process is Exploration, and it's about getting as much material written down as possible. Think quantity at this point. You want to open your mind and just start pouring out every phrase, fact, and anecdote you have locked up. It's fine if it's poorly written, chock-full of errors, and half based on false information. Exploration is about getting comfortable with your topic and examining it from every angle.
I've found there are three writing hacks in particular that help me the most during the Exploration phase. The first hack is to write in one-line sentences. This forces you to examine your thoughts on an individual basis rather than in the cluster of a paragraph. It can help you to avoid adding fluff to your writing and to focus on the valuable material.
The second hack is to write furiously in 15-minute sprints, and then rest for five minutes. By setting a short amount of time where you commit to writing non-stop, you force yourself to produce material and prevent a wandering mind liable for distractions. Once you've done your 15 minutes, reward yourself with some stretching or a new cup of tea. Just be careful not to check your phone or email and fall down a dangerous rabbit hole.
The last technique I use is to write in a plain text editor. Since our goal is quantity and not quality at the moment, we want to strip any grammar or spell checking out of our process. Don't distract yourself with red underlines and auto-corrections at this point.
Extraction: Finding the article within the article.
Now we have a mess of words ready for some real analysis. The third step in the writing process, Extraction, is about sifting through the words to find the one or two golden nuggets. It's very likely that you've repeated yourself several times. It's just as likely that you've contradicted yourself several times. Since you've written in one-liners during Exploration, it should be easy to review each line (or idea), and ask what role or value it has in the article. When starting Extraction, I like to move lines around to find which order creates the best flow for the article. During this process, you must ruthlessly evaluate and remove any fluff that you've created. In addition, you'll want to notate anything that could use supporting facts or quotes to help strengthen your position.
The primary goal during Extraction is to formulate an outline for your article. Although some people prefer to start their writing process with an outline already in hand, articles often take shape organically and move in surprising directions if you use a more free-form approach as recommended in Exploration. As you rearrange your one-liners, you'll find a natural outline begin to take shape. This is an opportunity to identify any themes or possible headlines. Although you want to avoid detailed editing (such as grammar and spelling) at this point, it is helpful to start thinking about tense and transitions as your overall structure begins to take form.
Expansion: Filling in the gaps.
Once we've established our structure, consolidated our ideas, and identified the weak points in our argument, it's time for Expansion. This step in the writing process is all about filling in the gaps with better writing and key facts. This is where you'll combine your structured one-liners into actual paragraphs and start replacing made-up facts with quoted sources. Naturally you might come across external facts or ideas that will bring you back to the Exploration or Extraction phase, which is thoroughly encouraged. It's during Expansion where you turn ideas into an article
There are a few things to keep in mind that might aid the Expansion process. The first is to restrain yourself from formatting and styling your article. Although your go-to-press version is going to incorporate beautiful fonts and the strategic use of bold and italic formatting, you're still trying to crystallize your overall ideas, not the polish. Second, if you're planning on incorporating any graphics into your article, use placeholders such as screenshots until all of the actual writing is done. Design is a separate process and another tempting rabbit hole that you should avoid until you're comfortable with all of your wordsmithing. Third, as you're researching facts and supporting arguments, consider using a tool such as Evernote to help you organize your materials. This allows you to capture sources across multiple devices and interfaces, as well as tag and organize your materials in an easy-to-use format for future research. Finally, if you're sourcing any material from interviews, pay someone to transcribe the interviews. It’s well worth the money. You can use a services such as Longer Days or Rev.
Editing: Cleaning it up.
As much as you might want to just hit publish at this point, Editing is about taking a little extra time to make sure you've crafted a public-worthy thought piece. In fact, the first tactic in editing is to actually take a little extra time. Up until now, we've been working in 15-minute bursts with five-minute breaks. Before editing, you'll want to take a bit more time to step away and clear your mind from the last few hours of thinking. The goal is to have as fresh of a perspective as possible on the article to ensure you catch mistakes that might have otherwise slipped past you. The absolute best way to avoid those mistakes getting passed you is to have someone else edit your article entirely.
If you have a generous friend or colleague willing to help you for free, by all means take full advantage. For those of us who can't blackmail people into free labor, it might be worth hiring a freelance editor to review your work. Websites such as Elance act as marketplaces where you can find and hire freelancer editors for as low as $20 per article. If outsourcing your editing isn't an option, consider reading your article aloud. The process of hearing your words spoken can be enough to identify any poorly constructed sentences or ideas.
The last thing to consider during editing is the opportunity to sprinkle some SEO goodness all over your article. This is the practice of optimizing your content to be easily indexed by search engines for targeted keywords related to your products or services. Review your article for target keywords and craft a short meta title and description to help Google classify your article.
Whether you apply the process above or some other approach to writing, there is no denying the value writing produces along with the pain it causes. Good writing takes serious time and thought. If your brain hurts, it's probably a sign that you're working it out the way you need to in order to get an intelligent point across. Even if blogging and content marketing aren't at the forefront of how you promote your business or within your wheelhouse of responsibilities, the act of writing is a fantastic way to help you reinforce your understanding and perspective on any topic. Define a process, grab your pen, and start producing.
Originally published Mar 10, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017