Anxiety, terrible ideas and what I learned in my first year as a ‘proper writer’
In the back of a taxi, rattling over a bridge into the Old Town. I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night. I’m feeling a bit sick, driving over tram lines on my way to a cafe. Soon, I’ll order a coffee, sit down with my laptop, listen to the Star Wars soundtrack, and write as much as I can in two hours, knowing that I probably won’t publish what I come up with.
Lately 50% of what I write has never made it out of draft mode, but all felt like the biggest, best ideas at the time. Articles about the monetization of video games, how the way we speak in analytics affects our creativity, and the reasons Twitter is dying. Scraps on the cutting room floor.
My ideas feel well developed in my head, but when it comes to it and I’m in front of the screen, I can get about 700-words deep before forgetting the point, getting tangled up in the structure and condemning it to the drafts pile.
I’ve tried a range of things to overcome this, mostly different writing environments (real-world and digital), and last week I wrote 4.5 articles in full from scratch, and edited 2 more. But now, just arriving in the cafe after ordering my coffee, Star Wars soundtrack on, I have no idea what I’m going to fill my week with.
Yes, I’ve written before about getting fresh ideas for content, but I’m the sort of writer (probably the same as every other) who has to care about an idea 10 times more than any other option before opening the text editor.
Settling in to writing as a job, not a hobby
The unfortunate thing about writing as a profession is that drive to write and edit an article to perfection can be extremely low sometimes. I’m a short-attention-spanned magpie, and if I don’t catch the wave that comes when I first think of a shiny topic idea, my brain resigns it to the ‘old news’ pile and puts it off for anywhere between 3 months and forever.
Before this job, there was 0 creativity involved in my writing. I used to write product descriptions for model cars, 40 hours a week. That’s a whole load of ‘This diecast model car is’ and not much free thinking.
I think that the thing is, I’m still getting into it. There’s a bridge to be built between writing as a hobby (I used to think I was a poet and a novelist) and writing to deadlines whether you feel like it or not.
I haven’t totally overcome the unprepared Monday feeling of ‘shit, I have to write 3–4 high quality pieces of work this week, some of which need to meet the standards of Forbes, TechCrunch and Inc.’. I have, however, got a lot better at it.
I didn’t intend this post to be my life story. So, I’ll share with you some of the methods I use to keep myself writing content consistently, week after week, and what I’ve learned from 1 year as a ‘proper writer’ at the Process Street blog.
Work out what time of the day you write your best work
I didn’t know what time of day I wrote best until I chanced upon it. You see, I often use screenshots in my work. One day I noticed that almost all of the screenshots were taken between 12 and 1pm. Ever since then, I aim to be in the swing of my article by 12 noon, whether that means starting writing at 9am and getting into it, or whether it means typing the first word at 12 noon.
If you use WordPress or another writing app with versioning, you can take advantage of the fact that it will record what time you started on the draft and what time you saved it to work out when you’re usually in the mood to do your best work.
It’s highly unlikely that you’re all over the place, writing just as often your best at 6pm as you do at 6am. One of the best ways I improved my productivity was just by realizing what time I’m usually in full work swing and aiming to be in my text editor at that time of the day.
Writing in a space that suits your own picky habits
I used WordPress to write, edit and publish my writing for a really long time before I realized that it’s doing me no good. Since then, I’ve tried plenty of tools including WorkFlowy, Beegit and iA Writer and experimented with different combinations.
What I found is that I work best in a serene digital environment, so definitely not a browser window where distraction is just a cmd+t away. The header image here is what my writing space looks like right now.
If I’m writing something more research-based and involved, it will fail 9 times out of 10 unless I draft the subheaders and main points first in WorkFlowy. (Learn more about that process here.
Since it’s not possible to actually write a blog post in WorkFlowy, there’s something relaxing about it. My brain’s saying ‘eh, there’s no way this can be the final draft anyway, just get your points down’.
Write what you feel like, worry about its purpose later
Just the same way that we respond to stories in other people’s work, and that they make great material for the openings of articles to catch attention, they also catch our attention (as writers) when they happen in our own lives. Any kind of strong image that connects to an idea you’ve had rattling around in the back of your head for a few days can trigger a writing chain reaction which definitely shouldn’t be ignored.
There have been times where it would have definitely been more fitting to write a more on-beat piece but I’ve had a drive pulling me in the opposite direction. That’s resulted in my first 2 published articles on The Next Web because I was writing about something that I couldn’t not write about. Instead of sitting, foot restlessly tapping, trying to get something out you don’t care about, it’s best to give into the urge and see what that transforms into.
‘7 tips’ is a shitty get-out
I’ve been fooled too many times into reading lists of quick tips. Everyone has. I don’t know whether list posts like that work on anyone anymore, but there’s no way I want to read 7 tips about social media, even if they are genuinely useful. The days of 7 tips being equal to perceived value are over.
Just the same as no one seems too excited to read 7 tips any more, I doubt you’re excited to write it. It’s the sort of content that’s easy to mass-produce with no personalization, thought or in-depth research required. I don’t know about you, but I get excited when I’m sharing an experience or something I’ve found that is useful or interesting — not a list of recycled tips or tools I’ve never tried.
Give yourself the luxury of not having to write
I produce the absolute worst content under pressure. Like anyone else, I have good and bad weeks productivity-wise.
Sometimes that means I have to write a post the same week it’s due, and sometimes it means I’ve got 3 weeks of posts in the queue and I’m free to kick around and let ideas form in my head so I can knock out posts like this, this and this.
By writing when you feel up to it, and doing anything apart from writing when you don’t, it’s likely you’re going to be able to get posts in the queue and allow yourself time to come up with something good, not something rushed.
For writers, time spent not writing is time spent subconsciously preparing to write, ticking over ideas in the back of your mind. When I’m waiting in line, spaced out staring at the floor, I’m probably rearranging subheadings to the tune of whatever was on the radio earlier.
Keep the data from everything you do
Moving away from the world of ideas and into ‘best practices’ (shudder), it’s safe to say that marketers who collect and analyze data produce far more interesting content than those who condense everyone else’s findings into a ghastly list post.
If I wasn’t also in charge of SEO and actively tracking our metrics, I’d have never been able to write posts about how we boosted email clicks or brought an old post back from the dead. The great thing about case study posts like these is that when you have original data, people who go around collecting it in articles have to link back to you. You’re the only one with that data.
Plus, let’s face it, writing about data is easy. The headlines write themselves. “How we boosted X by a billion percent whilst simultaneously 10xing Y”. The posts write themselves, too. They have a predictable structure: before — solution — after.
I’ve got quite a few tests running right now that I’ll be able to write up when I feel like it. Sometimes, looking at data and % lifts is enough give you a rush and get you writing.
Most importantly, don’t edit your own voice away
I’m all for editing. I have to remove sentences that consist 90% of adverbs.
That’s good. I wouldn’t want anyone to read that shit. When I’m writing for news outlets, I already feel like I’m an impostor. I don’t want to make it obvious that I’m unqualified to appear on their site, so I have a bad habit of editing out the parts of the article that are personal, in case my story’s boring or long-winded or nobody cares.
You know what happens? Cutting the short stories, small ramblings and non-standard expressions make the article boring as hell. The moment I stopped editing out my voice is the moment I started being seen where I wanted to be seen. That’s the one thing I’ve learned over the past 12 months that’s made the biggest difference.
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