If you’re a content person, people often think that you can whip up the perfect words for any occasion on demand. Despite the many and varied ways you try to explain what content design is and why it’s important, they’re genuinely surprised when you ask about the basics. By basics I mean information like:
- who the content’s for and what they’re trying to do
- source material
- data and analytics
- which stakeholders to speak to
You can almost see them thinking, “We’ve told you what we want to say, that’s more than enough. Now please proceed with your content-based voodoo!”
It’s as if they assume that all they need to do is insert a bunch of user needs – or an assortment of random ideas – and out pops some brilliant prose. A bit like a writing version of Willy Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper Machine.
Maybe it’s because – particularly when it comes to blog posts – they only see the final result, which has been polished within an inch of its life. They’re not privy to the deliberation, self doubt, and angst that went into creating it.
On top of that, there are characters like Don Draper from Mad Men, Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, and Carrie Bradshaw from Sex And The City. All merrily perpetuating the myth of effortless writing.
My “writing process”
I’d love to be the kind of writer who can effortlessly bash out whatever it is that they need to deliver. But my process (that sounds grandiose, doesn’t it? It should be, “the steps I go through when I’m staggering towards my goal”) is so much more torturous than that.
As the Oscar-nominated essayist, novelist, screenwriter, and director, Nora Ephron put it, “the hardest thing about writing is writing.” Which makes me feel better for often finding it a struggle.
I’m not going to lie, sometimes (once or twice a year) I know exactly what I want to say, and the words come out in a satisfying flurry. But the rest of the time, it goes like this:
- Have an idea
- Get really excited about it
- Think, “I really must get this down on paper”
- Let a million other things get in the way and I don’t get anything down on paper
- Beat myself up about procrastinating until I’ve hoovered all the joy out of the idea I was so excited about
- Push the idea to the back of my mind for a while (this could be a day, a week or forever)
- Think about getting stuff down on paper again
- Write an outline
- Start adding to the outline
- Worry that I don’t have enough relevant and interesting stuff to say about any of the points I want to make, and that everyone will find out that I’m a charlatan and an imposter
- Beat myself up for not crafting something that’s worthy of a Pulitzer Prize
- Leave my rough draft for a few days
- Have a few thoughts about points to add and examples to use
- Go back to my rough draft
- Realise that what I’ve written so far isn’t so bad after all
- Start feeling excited again
- Add the new ideas and finish the draft
- Edit the draft (this is my favourite part – slashing and burning)
- Read the piece aloud so I can catch any long sentences and anything clunky
- Get someone else to give it a once over
- Worry that they’ll be polite but secretly think it’s crap
- Marvel at how columnists can crank out hundreds of words to order in a matter of minutes, and still make what they produce logical, witty, and engaging
- Make the edits suggested by the person who reviewed the draft
- Press publish
- Feel so pleased with myself for actually finishing something that I don’t feel the need to write anything else for several months
You’re not alone
Over the years, I’ve written *deep breath* speeches for government ministers, briefings, website content, reports, job descriptions, and book, TV, film, and standup comedy reviews. But this is pretty much the drill every single time I sit down to write anything.
So, if you find it difficult to know what to write about, or you’re not sure if what you’ve written is any good, or you have a fear of clicking publish, please remember that you’re not the only person who feels this way, and what you’re writing is probably absolutely fine.
Although Hemingway was right when he said, “the first draft of anything is shit.” I think he should have added, “but no one needs to see it, and it doesn’t mean that the finished result will be too.”