How to write content quickly

Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s F8 conference

The purpose of this post is to set out a few thoughts that help us create content quickly for ourselves and our clients and that may help you do the same.

A blank page is hard to overcome

Writers have a difficult job. They have to start with an empty page and fill it with content that someone else will enjoy. Is there a way to make this easier?

In the classic book On Writing Well, Willian Zinsser says that there is no “right” way to write. Some people write and re-write, polishing their work until every sentence looks perfect. Others simply spill out what is in their hearts and minds. Some plan a structure, outline and then write. Others write and find a structure emerges from the words they put down on screen.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

The terms plotter and pantser are used by writers to describe the two main approaches they take.

A plotter works out what they are going to do, and then does it. A plotter plans and outlines a story and uses techniques that help them fill in the details.

A good example is Monica Leonelle’s approach to getting out large amounts of content quickly. She first outlines the story. Then she creates beats, which expand on the ideas in the outline. She then chooses words to “show” rather than “tell”, creating the skeleton of the actual story. Then she creates the draft which is a first version of the entire story.

Pantsers work it out as they go along. They may have an idea, or many ideas – but it is the action of writing itself that starts to bring those ideas. Rather than imposing a structure on their thoughts, pantsers let their thoughts out and a structure emerges from the words they write.

Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird says that very few writers know what they are doing until they have done it. Quite often you really understand what you want to say after you have tried to express it once. And then, you can go back and try again. After you have done this a few times, you might end up with something quite readable. She says you should give yourself permission to write “shitty first drafts”.

Writing faster is not the same as typing faster

Both plotters and pantsers write and then revise. The process of revising a draft can take more time than you realize.

For example, if you write in longhand, it is almost impossible to revise much as you go along. The most you can do is strikethrough and write again.

On screen, the delete key lets you go back again and again, changing sentences and fixing typos all the time.

I still have two typewriters in the garage. When you write with a typewriter, the words you create are permanent. You have to keep writing, and leave the editing and polishing for later.

But, I wouldn’t use a typewriter for serious amounts of work because it’s less efficient in other ways. And they are pretty noisy as well.

Oddly, a good way to get create content is to write under constraints. If you have all day to write 500 words, then you will quite possibly take all day. If you have twenty minutes between getting up and being interrupted by kids, the chances are good that you will bang out 400 words in 20 minutes and be 80% there.

Read the Pomodoro Technique to see how you can work with time rather than against it.

An obsession with quality is a curse

Every writer has a fear that what they write is not good enough. Businesses can struggle with the problem of getting material approved by the right people.

You could argue that not publishing at all is more limiting than publishing something that is not perfect. Content is being created by more people in greater quantities. At the same time readers are getting better at telling the difference between good and bad content.

Of course you wouldn’t send a book or a blog post into the world riddled with errors. The kind of quality I am talking about is whether the work itself has been polished so that it is a finished article rather than work in progress.

In the past only finished articles were released because it was expensive to print and distribute content. Today blogs and podcasts allow us to create and distribute work in progress – thoughts that are still being formed and ideas that are still being crystallized.

Move fast and break things

Facebook is now all grown up. But in the past its motto was move fast and break things. Now it’s more careful about getting its infrastructure working and making sure everything doesn’t crash but its first priority was getting things working.

The same idea works for fast content creation. Your first task as a creator or a publisher is to get content created. Platforms like blogs and podcasts help you get material created and published quickly. This content is persistent – it stays on your website but not all of it is of equal value. Some posts will be read by many people while others may not get a single view.

Some authors create books that are the distilled essence of their blogs. They do this because they have built up an audience with their blog or have content that could benefit from being packaged into a compact reading experience.

A business that has created a number of posts can create a book authored by its CEO. Can you imagine meeting with a new prospect and talking about your business, and leaving a book as your calling card? That should help them remember you when they need services like yours.

Get the right balance between quality and output

So, the first step in creating content fast is to realize that there is a trade-off between quality and output. If you are too restrictive in what you consider good quality, you or your business will stop content being created in the first place.

This may seem simple but it is too easy to impose roadblocks on your own process. There will always be people out there who say it is too risky, what you are doing has not been sufficiently checked and you need a committee to get started.

For businesses in particular, committees are places where good ideas go to die.

In general, create an iterative process. Create, edit, publish. Revise.

Publish to an appropriate platform. Publish early drafts to a blog, where you can explore ideas and change posts if you find something is wrong. When you get to publishing a book, you need to take a lot more care in making sure the content is tight, the concepts flow and the words are well chosen.

Get your support systems working well

As a professional content creator and manager you need content creation systems. A basic content creation system has a number of moving parts. The better you can get all the parts to work together, the more time you can spend on writing rather than on your systems.

Time

It takes time to create content. Someone, somewhere has to sit down and create the words. You may write, type or dictate. But you have to spend the time to get the words out of your brain and into your system.

People

You need a number of roles to create content.

  • A researcher will get facts, commentary and supporting information.
  • A writer will create the draft
  • Editors will check the drafts, polishing it for clarity and accuracy.

Software

You can use a variety of tools to create content.

  • Microsoft Word – perhaps the tool that most people are familiar with. Best on windows.
  • Scrivener – a favourite of authors and bloggers on mac.
  • Emacs
    An all-purpose super tool on linux.

Servers

There are a number of choices for server technology. You can set up your own server, rent a small virtual private server or go for a dedicated server. The important question about technology is whether you have the capability to manage it in-house, or whether you need to get in some support.

Your server and control of what you do on it can be critical for your business. Make sure you have enough control and a backup option if things go wrong with one of your providers, especially in the early days of your website or blog.

Distribution

How do you get your material out into the world? Is it a blog post? Do you promote it through influencers or social media? Does what you write need to have general appeal or target a specific subset of people?

Select a genre to write in

It may be easier to create content quickly if you have a clear idea of the types of content that will help your readers. The fiction writer’s idea of genre can be very helpful here. As Shawn Coyne explains, genre tells the reader what to expect – you manage audience expectations.

Adapting the ideas that Shawn Coyne dissects to non-fiction / business / blog writing, your audience has a number of expectations:

  1. We expect the headline of each blog article or chapter to give us an idea of the content.
  2. We expect to be able to scan the content and get the main points quickly.
  3. We expect to know whether the content can be relied upon – is it factual or is it made up?
  4. We expect a style or a particular experience from the content.
  5. We expect to know how long the content is going to be.

Select a headline with a promise

David Sloly says that he was once told there were only three types of headline that all newspapers magazines and bloggers follow and gives the following examples.

  • The Promise Headline: Cure for baldness found
  • The Intrigue Headline: Man bites dog
  • The News headline: First humans land on mars

Create a structure that can be scanned quickly

If your content is longer than a few hundred words, then break it up to make it easy to read. Use subheadings that can be scanned and give the reader your main points. Use lists to create whitespace and make it easier to understand your points.

Talking about lists – use bulleted lists when you are simply listing a number of thoughts but when you use numbered lists, order the points from most important to least important.

Make it clear whether your content can be relied on

If you are simply making things up, then it’s probably important to make that clear so no one actually follows your advice. In most cases, it’s probably less clear – and you have to rely on a mix of facts, informed opinion and speculation to construct your point.

The reader also has a responsibility to look critically at what you have written and make up their own mind about whether it is something that that they should rely on or not. But you can make this easier by choosing to write in a way that make this clear.

For example:

  • If you are explaining a concept, make your point and support it with facts and references.
  • If you are reporting news, make your words objective and put across all relevant points of view.
  • If you are writing a history or biography, write connected ideas that follow a timeline.
  • If you are discussing an idea, make it clear that you are having a debate or thinking out loud.
  • If you are showing how to do something set out your instructions step by step for someone to follow.
  • If you are trying to persuade someone choose points that support your case and handle objections.

Select a style that works for you

Are you writing to build a personal or business brand? A personal brand is all about you – your thoughts, feelings and interests. A business brand is more about what you are selling and why someone should be interested.

Many people now have businesses based on personal brands. They create products and services that sell because they have an audience that will buy what they create. Seth Godin and Tim Ferriss are good examples of people with personal brands.

A CEO of a small business may be so intimately associated with the business that it makes sense to build the business brand around the person.

Product brands like Apple uncompromisingly build their content around their products – and you buy the product because it is good and the marketing is great.

The choice of style matters most when you want to do something with your content. For example, if you want to make money from your blog, get more sales through it or sell your business then you will need to be very clear how the content supports your objectives. A little thinking early in the creation process may help you avoid creating a personal brand that can’t be separated from you when what you really want to do is build up a business and sell it in five years.

Decide how long your content is going to be

The length of your content depends on what you think your readers are interested in. But, to get in front of your readers, you also need to think about what the search engines are interested in.

In a previous post, we looked at how long a post should be and posts that rank higher have 2,000 to 2,500 words.

If you are writing news, then a large number of 500 words posts may be fine. But if your content is going to be evergreen, in that it doesn’t change too much and could be useful for a long time, then long form posts are the way to go.

Summary and conclusion

In summary, you will need to develop your own way of writing fast. But it will make things a lot easier if you think about yourself and your team and what you are trying to achieve, and remove the blockers that will make it hard to create and publish content.

Think about the following:

  1. Decide if you are a plotter or a pantser: do you like planning and then writing, or do you want to write and let a structure emerge?
  2. Don’t get worried or blocked by thoughts of quality. Create content quickly, preferably under time pressure in short bursts. First create it and then worry about revising or polishing it.
  3. Get your systems working well. Select your tools and then use them, reducing the amount of time you spend with tools and instead focusing on creating content.
  4. Make it easier for you and your readers by making it clear what they should expect from your content.
Posted in Writing

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