Communicating well in writing is one of the most important skills you can have, whether your job formally involves writing or not. At Peak we’re constantly striving to create engaging content for our clients: blog posts, white papers, reports, articles, tweets. The list goes on.
Once you know your purpose and audience, you need to get some words on the page. Here’s how.
Fill your brain
Before I can write about a topic, I need to know what I’m talking about. Once I’ve processed the background information, it’s much easier to synthesize cohesive arguments and writing goes a lot more smoothly. To organize my thoughts, I create a text file devoted solely to research and notes. In here I copy and paste relevant information I find online, any ideas that occur to me as I’m researching, and raw quotes from individuals I interview. If you come up with key points or sections you want to convey in your piece, put them in here.
Dump your brain
The biggest inspiration killer for me is setting rules or expectations for my piece of writing at the beginning of the creative process. Instead, just write down whatever’s on your mind. Set a time limit and keep typing until your timer goes off. If you think of a phrase that sums up what you want to communicate, put that at the top and work to it, but don’t feel limited by it. While you’re doing this, there will be additional questions that come up. Whenever I feel a brain blank about a topic, I highlight it so I can come back to it later, like so: [insert in-depth description of the process here]. Then I continue writing about something else.
At this stage, value quantity over quality. Only in the editing stages should you polish this piece. Beware of correcting grammar and restructuring sentences. Just dump your ideas.
Fit the pieces together
Now it’s time to determine which ideas you’re going to keep and how you’re going to sequence them.
Once I think I have sufficient content on the page to start putting my ideas in order, I create a new document and save the research doc as-is. It gives me peace of mind because my research and ideas notes are always there for reference. It’s an assurance that frees me to use this new first draft document to experiment with order, change wording and delete with abandon.
Defining sections is a handy way of designing the big-picture information flow for your piece. As you determine your sections, insert subheadings and make sure you put only information related to that subject into that section. You don’t have to keep these headings in the final piece.
Once I have these headings, I shuffle my research, quotes and idea fragments into the different sections.
As you’re doing this, delete irrelevant information mercilessly. Shorten and rephrase cumbersome sentences that are essential. Cut out redundant information, or synthesize it with the bits you want to keep. If there are phrases that don’t fit anywhere but you like them, keep them at the end in an Extras section. Later you can delete them forever, or bring them back from purgatory as supporting points.
If you’re using info from an interview you did for the piece, use quotes very selectively. Quotes should insert information you couldn’t deliver any other way, such as your interviewee’s colourful opinion, interesting phrasing or their retelling of an experience.
Continue to insert your notes as you go through, highlighted like so: [insert better transition sentence here].
Let it sit
If you can, take a couple days off.
Kill your darlings
Come back with fresh eyes and a taste for blood and slash anything that doesn’t support your points. Zero in on anything that sounds awkward or doesn’t make sense and tinker with it until it works, or remove it.
This piece of writing is not about you. Remember your audience and write the piece with their interests in mind. Show your sentences no mercy.
Whittle and polish
Your piece has structure and it’s streamlined. It’s nearly done. Now it’s time to tweak the small stuff. If you fiddle with the details before this stage, you risk wasting your time crafting exquisite sentences about irrelevant points that get trashed.
- Do any remaining research and fact checking
- Make sure there are clear transitions between each idea
- Use active voice whenever possible
- Clarify long and/or convoluted sentences into concise thoughts
- Vary sentence lengths
- Replace vague phrases with specific ones
- Include illustrative examples where relevant
- Think your piece is good to go?
Here are some final tests to make sure it’s bulletproof:
- Get someone else’s feedback
- Read it aloud
- Leave it alone again and come back in a week
- Accept imperfection
It’s usually better to publish something that’s less than perfect than to leave it sitting forever unpublished with the hope of someday achieving perfection. Ain’t no such thing. After you’ve done your due diligence to ensure the piece makes sense, let it loose.
It helps me be more creative when I remember not to take myself so seriously. The quality of your writing doesn’t reflect your personal worth. If the article turns out bad, learn from your mistakes and take them into account next time. Once you’re OK with the worst-case scenario that this might be the worst thing you’ve ever written, you’ll feel freer to put words on the page.