This is a guest post from Cory Edwards, a web copy and content writer who works with Spencer Web Design. You can learn more about him at his website, coryedwardswriter.com
If you have an idea you’re trying to get across, a product you want to sell, or a service to explain, you’ll have to put it in writing from time to time. From web copy and content to letters and emails, you have to write in such a way that moves people to take action.
But writing can be painful. Some of the most famous writers who have ever lived — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Herman Melville, and even Charles M. Schultz — have suffered from writer’s block.
In his groundbreaking work on creativity, writer Stephen Pressfield calls the force that works against all forms of creativity “resistance.” How do you fight it and win?
As a professional web content and copywriter, I’ve had days where just getting started on a project brings unreasonable anxiety. One thousand words on Title Insurance? Seven hundred words on Lighting Production? I open up my computer believing I’ll have nothing to say, that I can’t get coherent words on paper, and that I’ll never be able to do it again.
However, I’ve found several tricks to get me going. Time and again, following a simple task list I’ve created, I always find the words I need when I need them.
My hope is these tips will help you if you’re stuck on a project.
Step 1: Do Some Research and Take Notes
Before you start writing web copy or content, do some writing-related tasks. Research is a great way to get started, especially with all the information you need so readily available on the web.
First, the Keywords Everywhere plugin can help you refine your Google search and your keywords. If you know what your topic is, look for high-volume search terms to focus on.
Then, click on the articles at the top of the search and start reading. Copy stuff you’d like to include in your article. Of course, you’re not planning on plagiarizing, but you’re not writing yet. You’re stocking your mind with ideas you’ll use later.
As you copy and paste your notes from the website into a document, keep links to your original sources, and type out any other ideas that come to mind.
Step 2: Interview an Expert
I love talking to opinionated and smart people! I’ve written articles for lawyers, real estate agents, audio engineers, physical therapists, and many others. My friend Sue Spencer has, as the saying goes, “forgotten more about web design than I’ll ever learn.” A good long talk with a subject-matter expert will fill out your knowledge on a subject long before you ever have to write a word.
When I talk with an expert, I usually just take notes because I’m a fast typist. If you’re not, you can use a journalism tool called TapeACall. Either way, interviewing a subject-matter expert will give you plenty of grist for the mill.
A note of caution: When interviewing an expert or doing research, it’s easy to jump ahead to structuring and writing your article. Don’t worry about structure now. Let the work go where it wants to. Ask questions when you’re confused. Figure out what you can research later. An don’t get nervous! It will all work out in the end.
Step 3: If You’re the Expert, Free Write!
In many cases, you’ll be the person who knows the topic you’re writing about better than anyone else. Set a timer for ten minutes and write down everything you know on the subject as quickly as possible. In this case, you’re merely taking notes for yourself, the same as if you did research or interviewed someone else.
These notes will likely not be readable for anyone else but you. For example, if you were writing this particular article, you might write:
- Notes from others
- Notes from self
- Free writing
This is not an outline, a finished article, or even something you’ll want to show a friend. These are merely notes you will employ when it’s time to outline and then write.
Step 4: Talk Through the Article with a Believing Mirror
Wherever you are in the process of writing an article, you’ll often find yourself totally stuck. You’ll need to find a person to talk it through with.
But don’t choose just anyone! Often, good friends or family members will be the last people you’ll want to talk to. You’re looking for a “believing mirror,” a term probably coined by creativity guru Julia Cameron. Believing mirrors are insightful and helpful people who know how to give great feedback.
- Who in my life would want to talk about this topic with me?
- Who believes in me and the work I’m doing?
- Who will point out my poor logic?
- Who can tell me when I’ve crossed the line and said something I’ll regret?
A conversation on the topic you’re writing about with a believing mirror can go a long way to helping you get started on a project you’re stuck on.
Step 5: Find a Good Template
In almost every case, the thing that you’re writing has been written before. If you’re writing your company’s about page, for example, you know you can find several other examples of compelling about pages in your industry within seconds. There are probably a couple of articles that provide a template for you as well.
I spent a good part of my career writing songs for others and myself. The first big realization most songwriters have, after quite a bit of struggle, is that songs are written within a few templates (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus). Once a songwriter discovers song form, she doesn’t feel like she’s starting from scratch with each new song.
Find two or three examples of what you’re trying to write. Pick your favorite and steal the outline. Write the outline in a new document.
See? You’re working on the piece you have to write and still haven’t had to do any actual writing! Exciting, huh?
Step 6: Copy and Paste Your Notes into Your Template
The next step is to match the template you created with the notes you took from research, conversation, or your freewriting. Evaluate every note, copy it, then paste it into the place you think it should be in the template.
Voila! You have an outline!
Step 7: Write a Bad First Draft
It’s hard to tell whether the first or the second draft is more painful to write, but they both can require some deep breathing and a lot of patience.
Thankfully, your first draft can be bad. Actually, it’s going to be bad. Unreadable. Something you’d never share with anyone. This is good news because it means the pressure is off! (Read Anne Lamott’s encouragement from her book Bird by Bird, which is a slightly more colorful phrasing of this advice.)
Your first draft can be considerably longer than you need it to be. This is especially helpful when you’re trying to come up with a USP, tag line, or other kinds of short copy. Narrowing down what you’re saying comes in the next step. For now, just get it all out.
Step 8: Read It Back to Yourself
Often, it helps to do this out loud. If you read a sentence that doesn’t work, fix it. There will be a lot of them, but it’s not because you’re a lousy writer. It’s because every first draft needs work. Don’t be afraid of the process: read, fix, read, fix, get coffee, read, fix ….
This can be frustrating, but remember, no one sees the work you’re putting in at this point. No one is judging you. Fix what you can. Even when you’re done, you’re still not going to show this to the whole world. Relax. It’s not going to be perfect yet.
Step 9: Find a Good Editor
I used to bristle at the idea of working with another person. As a “creative,” I hated the idea of having someone critique my work. I told myself that I didn’t want anyone to destroy its purity.
The truth was a lot less attractive: I was afraid of looking bad in front of another person.
A good editor, however, is one of those “believing mirrors” we discussed earlier. He or she gets you, knows what you’re after, and can make suggestions to improve your work. This person, usually not a family member, is someone who either (a) writes a lot or (b) understands the subject.
Editors are your first audience. Because writing copy and content is communicating with other human beings, you must create a feedback loop at some point. It’s best to rely on an editor for this work.
Are You Struggling Writing Content or Copy for Your Site?
It’s the words on the website that sell your product, service, or idea. It’s the words on a website that tell Google what you’re all about. Along with quality web design and graphics, the words you use communicate the quality of your service.
If you’re stuck in the process, Spencer Web Design can help. We work with writers and editors who can either write the content and copy you need or help you edit it. We can serve as a “believing mirror” when you need it.