I’ve come to realise that writing – whether it be a book, an article or a short blog post – is a process beyond getting that first draft on the page. I used to think of it more like a task – I’d think of the time it took to write the first draft and ignore the (longer) time it took to get there.
Sometimes it can feel like you were born with that post or story fully formed in your mind, and it was just waiting for your fingers to do the work – other times, writing can feel excruciating.
If you’ve set aside an hour or two to draft an article or blog post and nothing is happening, it can be maddening – especially if you feel like you’re short of time or you’re worried that taking too long to write it will look bad to your manager or the client.
But, whether we’re aware of it or not, writing really is a process. It’s often not a straight line from idea to first draft.
There can be a struggle when you’re writing for someone else – a struggle between the way you work best and the speed with which the client needs the content.
But writing’s not just about finding an hour to bash away at a keyboard.
It’s really important, for example, to know three things before you start your draft.
Who? – whose name is the writing going in? Yours? Your client’s? Who is the article targeted at? These two things not only affect tone but content. It helps if they’re known in the planning stage.
What? – what topic are you talking about? What are the main messages the reader should leave with?
Why? – why are you writing it? Why does the client need to talk about the issue? Or, if you’re writing for your company blog, why are you writing the post? Is it because you have to have something on there once a week, or is it because you have an interesting perspective on a relevant topic? What’s the purpose of posting?
I’ve found that if you’re uncertain about one of the above, you can struggle when writing the post.
Even when you know these things, you still have to go through a process to get the finished product.
Stage 1: Research and ideas
You have to have an idea in the first place. For client content, this means staying on top of everything they’re doing. What other content is out there? Can you repurpose any of it? What expert knowledge do their thought-leaders have etc.
If you’re drafting content for your agency – like a blog post – it can be much harder. While content calendars help, they need to be a living document – reviewed and updated frequently.
But even if you have a list of ideas, you still need the time to do them, the ability to focus and a little something else.
Stage 2: Thinking and inspiration
If you’re not interested in the premise of the post, it can be difficult to make that post engaging for the reader. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you have to produce work, but because the subject does not inspire you – or the article idea – you struggle to know where to start or how to approach it (this is why having clear who, what, and why’s is essential).
You’ll still need time to look at the research and gather your thoughts about how the finished content should look.
Stage 3: More research, discussion and an amended concept
This stage isn’t always necessary – or can just pass very quickly – but sometimes you’ll hit a dead-end when you launch into your draft and realise that something isn’t right. You may talk it through with your colleagues or the client and maybe tweak the concept a bit.
Throughout this stage, you’ll be doing more research, searching for a way to refine the idea.
Stage 4: Starting Draft Zero
Fiction writers have a concept called Draft Zero – it’s pretty much just doing a bare-bones outline of the post, article or guide. It’s a chance for you to trial-run ideas for the draft and get any client feedback before launching into the first draft.
So, you may have to do more research and thinking as you discuss the outline with others. However, outlining makes the draft stage much quicker because most of it’s there already (obviously, it’ll take a little longer if you need to change the outline).
Stage 5: Writing the First draft
If I’ve gone through all of the other stages (even if they didn’t take me very long at all to complete), the first draft is easy enough to do and usually takes 30mins to one hour. The only barriers here are time pressures and how easy it is to find your flow.
Most of the time, when I have a problem writing, it’s because I’m skipping at least one of the stages when I need to do them. For example, it can help (and save time) to talk through an idea you’re struggling with rather than try to muddle through alone.
Writing also needs time – more of it than you think. Look at the manager vs maker schedule system; makers (writers, in this case) need large chunks of time – often entire afternoons – to dedicate to writing. Interruptions in the form of meetings, IMs or anything else throw them out of their focus state, and they can struggle to get back in.
If we want our writing to be engaging, relevant and effective, we need to spend uninterrupted time on it and treat it like the process that it is.