I write for a living, but I also write in my free-time. And anyone who writes anything knows that it can be a luck-of-the-draw experience: Some days 😃 what is writer’s block even?! Other days 😑 I quite literally want to crumple the English language into a tight ball and throw it out to sea.
Even though my day job is to write blog posts, my time is split between doing that, editing multimedia, and working on other smaller missions as well. So, I really can’t afford the struggle of ‘bad writing days’. With the amount of stuff I need to get done, I need to know that — if I sit down to write — it’ll take me X hours to do so. I need to be able to schedule time for writing, and get it done relatively predictably.
To do that, I set up a repeatable system that helps me write better blog posts, better. After-all, in the words of James Clear: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there.”
In this article, I outline the habits I’ve built to structure my writing process. It outsources the hardest part of writing — namely, just getting started — to a structured process. That way, I don’t need to think too hard about what to do first/next/etc.
Plus, this system helps me write better blog posts in general. For two reasons:
- Firstly, it keeps my posts pretty formulaic. This makes it easy for me to structure my thoughts logically, and makes it easier for other people to read. We as humans like familiarity.
- And secondly, it keeps the core idea, and the audience I’m writing for, top of mind the entire time. In my experience, these are the first two things you lose sight of as you get writing, and generally makes blog posts feel like they never really reach a point.
Here are the 7 steps I use for myself, as well as a neat template I made that you can download and use for yourself!
Note: Although this process is ✨ magical ✨, it’s not a miracle worker. It still takes intentional effort to get this kind of thing right, and you might need to tweak certain parts for the specific kind of writing you do.
Step #1: Design your reader
This is the step that a lot of sites will tell you to do, but that many writers take shortcuts around. But it’s really, really important.
Who you’re writing for changes everything about a blog post — from what you highlight in the blog post, to what you don’t highlight, to the quotes you use, to how you structure it from start to finish.
To give you an example, I wrote a post recently about being a multi-hyphenate. I wrote it for people who aren’t sure whether or not being a generalist can be a beneficial thing. However, if I decided to write it for the people who are already convinced it’s a good thing, the tone of the article would’ve changed completely. None of what I wrote in that article would be useful for the latter audience.
Trying to write for everyone means you’ll end up writing for no one. By starting your process with a rough silhouette of who you’re writing for, you’ll write for a specific kind of person, as opposed to trying to write for a global audience. This means you’ll end up with a clearer point.
How, you ask?
In the template I use, I start by unplacking four ideas about my reader:
- What kinds of characteristics they have: This helps me personify my reader a little more. It makes me feel like I’m writing for someone who actually exists, and lets me read out loud to them while I’m writing to test my ideas against the kind of person I’m hoping will read this. I try to think of things like: Whether they like reading or not, what kind of humour they enjoy, whether they would prefer bullets or personal stories, and whether they’re more introverted or extroverted.
- What kinds of things they struggle with / need help with: Knowing someone’s main pain points around the topic lets you address very specific things. For example, this post had “struggles to start writing a blog post” as a pain point, and I addressed that right at the start. This gives you that sense of “Wow, this person knows me!” when you’re reading something.
- What I want them to think after reading my blog post: This helps me bring my point across more clearly. If I want someone to understand that systems help the writing process along, I can focus on really teasing that out throughout the blog post.
- What I want them to feel after reading my blog post: This, on the other hand, helps me think of the tone I want to carry through my blog post. If I want someone to feel motivated to try new writing techniques, I’d lean towards giving lots of ideas and encouraging that in the way I phrase things. On the other hand, if I wanted someone to reflect on writing, I might pose more questions and things to think about.
Step #2: Write your one-liner
Once you know your audience, you should capture the thing you want to communicate as simply and as succinctly as possible. No fluff. No examples. No complexity. No jargon.
If you can’t get your point across in one sentence, you haven’t thought about it enough.
Personally, ELI5 language has been the most effective way to get this right, but you should figure out what works best for you. Whatever you do, your goal should be: One simple sentence that gets your point across, that you can refer back to while you’re writing your blog post and check that you’re still on track.
It’s so easy to go off on a tangent, and veer off course completely. It’s happened to me many times that, after a few paragraphs, I realise I’m writing a different blog post. That’s why this one-liner helps me so much: I check every sentence I write against that thought; and, if it doesn’t fit, I cut it out. Easy.
Pro-tip: As you’ll see in my template, I copy-paste my one-liner to the top of the article. That way, it’s always visible.
Step #3: Make a 5-bullet summary
Before jumping into the structure of the blog post, I find it really useful to write a condensed version of the blog post first. It gives me a sense of how to create a nice flow from start to finish, and gives me a good idea of where to put the subheadings so that they fit logically in the piece. It serves as a roadmap for where I need to start, go past, and get to.
Think of those news articles that put a TL;DR of the most important facts under the headline. The way I think about it is: If I gave someone only those 5 bullet points, would they be able to get the gist of what I’m trying to say?
I spend about 10 minutes condensing the main points I want to make into 5 bullet points. Again, super simple language. I try to think of the main sections I want to cover in the blog post, and also use it as a reminder of things to include.
Step #4: Brain-dump your structure
Now I’m ready to start fleshing out the article’s structure.
Sometimes, if there’s research or quotes I want to include, I dump those verbatim into a table (you’ll see it under the one-liner in the template I gave you earlier). I also spend a few minutes phrasing those into my own words, which helps me not copy-paste other people’s ideas into the article later. This prep step is not always necessary, but it can be really useful for dumping ideas I don’t want to forget somewhere into the working doc.
For the structure itself, it’s really going to depend on what you’re writing. Sometimes you’ll need lots of nested bullets to make sure you’re dividing ideas up well, and the number of subheadings you include will also depend on how complicated your blog post needs to be to get the idea across.
The only tip I really have for this part is: Let your structure be really ugly. This is not the stage to worry about how it looks or how it sounds. You’re structuring your thoughts and it’s going to be messy… let it be messy. This is when an artist makes all kinds of marks and lines on their canvas before they start really painting. You’ll probably need to backspace, delete, add, remove, and tweak a few times before you feel ready to start writing.
For me, I focus on getting a lay of the land — so to speak — to help me visualise what the final blog post will look like when it’s done. Things I think about at this step include:
- Do the ideas from one section flow into the next section logically? Do they link somehow?
- Have I included enough detail in every section?
- Do the sections feel balanced, or is one much longer than the other?
- Have I got a red thread that pulls through the entire piece?
- Is my conclusion strong enough, or does it ‘hang’?
I don’t spend too long here because I don’t want to get finicky about phrasing and wording, but I do make sure I spend enough time that each section is roughly fleshed out.
#5 Write in chunks
Once my structure is done, I start writing.
This step is going to be short, because I could write an entirely separate post just on how I structure my writing time.
What I will say here, though, is: Don’t self-edit on the first draft, and write in chunks. What I mean by that is: Pick a section, copy-paste whatever you had in your structure for that section into your draft post, write that, don’t read it back, and repeat. In other words, don’t jump around from section to section, and don’t edit your work on the first round.
When writing the first draft, you want to focus on getting your ideas down, not polishing. You want to optimise for momentum and flow, and avoid back-and-forth editing. It’s not only slower, it’s more frustrating.
This is also why all the previous steps are so important: If your one-liner, 5 bullet summary, and structure are good, then you can write your first draft without looking back. You can trust that you’re still on track and communicating the point you wanted to communicate, because you’ve set up all the signposts you need. You shouldn’t need to self-edit as you write.
#6 Rewrite the intro
Once I’ve written my first draft, I always go back and re-read the intro first. Sometimes, I don’t even write the intro until the end. What normally happens is that, after writing an entire post, I’ve remembered or added things that are important to include in the intro.
And that’s not only normal, it makes total sense : It’s much easier to write an intro for a blog post once you yourself know what the blog post looks like. Until that point, you are — quite literally — predicting the future.
#7 Write the title
And, contrary to popular opinion, only once eeeverything else is done, do you go back and give your blog post a title.
This not only needs to be a condensed version of the entire blog post, but it also needs to hook someone’s attention, stand out from every other blog post out there, make a promise that it can actually deliver on… Like, it has a lot of things it needs to do, and I guarantee you: No title you write before you’ve actually written the blog post will do whatever you’ve written justice.
Follow whatever advice you’d like to about what to include in the title (numbers, pronouns, questions words, verbs, etc.), but promise me this: As tempting as it is, do not write a title first. Not even a working title. If you must, leave it blank.
And then: Practise, practise, practise
Some of this might not be news to you, but I hope that seeing it in this structure helps crystallise some theory, and make it a bit more practical for you. I also hope you find the template I made to be useful — I still use it whenever I write a blog post, even for my day job.
If there’s anything else I can say about writing, it’s this:
There will be hard days, and there will be days where you feel like you’ve lost any ability to write a coherent sentence. I still have these often. All you can do, and all you should do, is keep writing. And, if you can’t write a nice sentence, then write an ugly sentence. And write ugly sentences until they become nice sentences again. Just don’t stop.
Until next time,