The art of writing a lot
For many of us producing a lot of content is critical to what we do. Original, entertaining and valuable content builds credibility, creates a body of work you can use in other work and in some cases repurpose as books or courses. In my business I produce content to support my coaching, consulting and info products. I published my first article on 26 May 2017 and at the time of writing this story - almost exactly 1 year later - I’ve published 65 articles totalling some 92,000 words. The content is published on my blog and on Medium.
I started writing one article per week. In the beginning they took ages to write, but investment in a great article writing course and practice, practice, practice has helped me get better and faster.
Exactly 1 month ago I started publishing an article every weekday. In the 23 weekdays since then I’ve produced 22 articles - I missed one article during an intense week-long site visit with a client and another when I had a morning workshop with another client but made that up with publishing two articles in one day.
Here’s what I’ve found.
Pressure amplifies problems
When I started writing, publishing one article per week was an effort. I was working through the article writing course at the same time as writing, and my skills were still new and slow.
Almost a year later I thought I had developed enough skill to start writing every weekday. Suddenly I had to produce almost 5 times as much content as before, and that put pressure on everything I had learnt up to that point.
It’s only when you put pressure on yourself that you realise how good your skills really are.
Cruising along at one article per week had become comfortable and relatively easy to do. But the pressure of writing every day suddenly put pressure on my skillset and on my mindset - I was placing myself under pressure that was not always comfortable.
After writing every weekday for almost a month I’m getting a little better at producing at this rate. I am still learning and I still have not solved all the problems - but I have learnt a lot.
The main barriers to writing a lot
I’ve found two major barriers to writing a lot:
generating ideas to write about; and
taking too long to write each piece.
When I look back at my writing I find that the stuff I wrote about made sense (and most were well accepted) - but I sometimes had real problems thinking about what to write. Jumping from 1 article per week to 5 made that problem a whole lot worse.
Between coaching, consulting and building info products I don’t have a lot of hours in the week, so it’s critical for me to produce my articles quickly - but still maintain quality. This is a tough standard to maintain, but putting out junk will damage everything you’ve built. So you have to maintain quality.
I’ve found some solutions to these problems. Here they are.
Solution part 1: Generating ideas to write about
Here are some of the things I’ve found helps me generate ideas to write about:
1. Keep an idea list:
This seems like an obvious one, but I’ve found that if I don’t capture an idea as soon as I think of it, it will easily disappear. I keep 3 (yes, three!) idea lists:
Ulysses is my writing app and one of the folders in here is dedicated to article ideas. I will often think of things to write about while I’m writing, so it’s easy to pop over to that folder and capture the idea while I’m writing. Here’s what it looks like in my folder structure:
And finally I use Siri on my iPhone to capture ideas on the fly. It’s quick and easy to dictate a reminder and know that I can add it into MindNode or Ulysses when I have the time.
2. Get granular
One of the biggest mistakes we can make when writing is trying to tell people too much.
An article does not have to be about a large and wide-ranging topic. I’ve had the best responses from articles that focused on one very particular thing, getting very fine-grained about the topic.
The key here is that what looks obvious and familiar to you may not be as familiar or obvious to your readers. So don’t overwhelm them with too much information - focus on one thing and do it well.
Some of my best articles were inspired by my clients, peers or network. I will often write an article about a particular thing I saw someone struggle with, and send a note to that person saying “this one’s for you”.
These are real-world problems real people are struggling with. Help one and you’re likely helping others as well.
Solution part 2: Writing fast
Here are the things that I’ve found helps me write faster:
Before writing an article I create an outline. The outline provides a structure for what I want to write about. With an outline I can focus on writing just one portion of the article - rather than thinking about the whole article all the time.
2. Hemingway writing
Ernest Hemingway was famous for writing without editing. The idea is that you write without editing, just letting the words flow without going back, doing any editing or corrections. Just write. Editing comes later.
This style of writing is one of the biggest productivity boosters I’ve found. By relegating editing to a later stage, you can focus just on getting the words out. Don’t worry about grammar, clumsy sentences or spelling mistakes. You can fix them later.
3. Write, then edit
This is the second part of Hemingway writing. Part 1 is all about getting the words out - no editing allowed. When you’re done you can go back and edit, fix the things you need to fix and create the final version.
There’s another big advantage to this method of writing. If you ignore spelling and grammar and just write, chances are that you will be writing in your own voice rather than in a contrived style. This is called finding your voice.
When you write in your own voice you come across as more authentic. I’ve learnt to accept the way I write even if it is full of my dry sense of humour and colloquialisms. This is who I am and how I speak - and that needs to come across in your writing.
4. Use a stopwatch
I’m currently using a stopwatch to time each writing sprint. Similar to the Pomodoro technique, the stopwatch helps me focus for short, intense writing sprints where I have to get as much down as I can in a very limited time.
One of the techniques that Chris Fox recommends is to start with a micro-sprint of 5 minutes. It’s easy to focus intensely for 5 minutes - and you can produce a surprising amount of content. You can later extend the sprint to 20 minutes at a time.
5. Distraction-free writing
I use Ulysses as my writing app on both my MacBook and my iPad Pro. Ulysses allows me to remove everything that is not about the piece that I’m writing about right now - here’s what this part of the article looks like on my screen:
But I combine the app with one other technique:
Turn off your Internet connection.
Between the distraction-free writing environment that Ulysses provides me, and the inability to get sidetracked into doing quick research or URL lookups, I can focus purely on writing. I put an XXX any place I need to go and look for a reference or link and come back to that when I’m done writing the article.
Practice, practice, practice
My goal is to produce a 1,200 to 2,000 word article in an hour. I’m not there yet, but I am getting there slowly but surely. Practice is the name of the game, but there’s one other thing that I do to help - and I believe you need to do as well:
Take time out to analyse what’s working, what not and how to improve.
If you keep doing something that’s not working you will never get better at it. You need to take the time out to analyse what’s working for you, what not, and change things around so that you can get better.
One of the things that I’m experimenting with now is to take one of my writing sessions every week and just spend it outlining article ideas. The idea is that I can then sit down and write an article without having to outline it first. I’m not sure how well this will work (there are variations on the technique) - but the point is to get better all the time.
It’s all about quality
In the end, the effectiveness of your writing is all about maintaining quality. You don’t have to write every day - you can write once a week if that works for you.
But if you want to write more, remember that a lot of junk is just that - a lot of junk. What you produce has to be at a consistently high level of quality. If you lose quality you lose your audience.
I may scale my writing back a bit to 3 or 4 articles a week. The jury is still out on that - ideally I would like to maintain this volume of writing. But I will have to get faster.
Other resources that can help
Here are some other resources you may find useful if you want to write more, faster. They’ve helped me:
5,000 Words per hour by Chris Fox: This is a small but highly focused and practical guide to getting to produce 5,000 words per hour. Yes, it works.
2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron: I downloaded the Kindle sample from Amazon and found it to be everything I needed. The remainder of the book is focused on developing fiction (which I can’t use now), but the first part is gold if you want to learn how she went from 2,000 words per hour to 10,000.
I hope this helps you - and I would love to hear your comments and suggestions too! Drop me a note.