Now one of the lessons we took was that Tiger breaks down his golf game into constituent parts and practices on those parts individually to try and raise the quality of those different parts of his overall game.
And I suggested some areas that you could break the process of written content creation down so that you could practice those areas and make a deliberate and focused effort to improve your written content.
In Part 1 I gave an overview of some areas you could work on. In Part 2 – this article – I’m going to give you a detailed list of areas you could work on to improve your content creation. In 4 distinct areas.
In Part 3 we’ll look at the applying Deliberate Practice to one of these areas to show you how the process of practicing with the goal of getting better actually works.
Before we get started, I just want to take you back to the previous post and remind you of something important:
When Tiger Is Playing A Competitive Game – He’s Not Practicing, He’s Playing
This is important. You need to split your content creation activities – where you’re actually creating a blog post or a website article – away from your practice activities. For sure you’ll find that as you practice certain activities that they’ll start to creep into your writing.
But when you write you need to get into the mindset that you’re writing. And try not to be aware of the mechanics of what you’re doing. You have to trust that if your practice is done the right way, then the results will show up in your content creation organically.
Because that’s what practicing is for – it’s training the brain to execute certain shots out on the Course. Or it’s training the brain to create better content. The overall topic that we’re really talking about here is called Deliberate Practice – which could be sub-titled How To Acquire Talent.
Deliberate Practice is a topic I’ll be talking about on the blog section of the site over the coming weeks and months – it’s an incredibly important topic in my opinion that few people understand, and fewer people write about.
Applying Deliberate Practice to Written Content Creation
What’s important with applying Deliberate Practice is that we’re creating practice exercises that are focused on improving our writing. And it’s also important to drill down on one area at a time. So I’d recommend that you spend a ‘practice week’ on one topic. Then move to the next topic for a week. And on. And then when you reach the end of the topics you can start again at the beginning and do it all over again – this time from a higher ability level.
Repeat this over and over and you’ll make yourself a better writer over time – and you should see this improvement in your ability level reflected in greater comments on your posts, improved rankings as people become aware of your posts or articles and link to them, higher subscriber rates, and higher traffic levels to your blog or website.
So let’s dive into this a bit deeper and start chunking down the process of written content creation into more elemental units that we can isolate and specifically practice.
The First Layer
If you look at the process of creating a piece of written content for your blog, you’ll find that there are 4 specific areas that all need to be done to complete the content. These areas are:
- 1) Idea Generation
- 2) Headline/Outline
- 3) Writing
- 4) Editing
Here’s the process as it probably occurs for most of us.
We get an idea for a post or article. (Idea Generation).
From that idea we generate a headline – even if only a ‘working’ headline. Then we work downwards from that headline and create an outline to hang our article on (Headline/Outline).
Then, armed with our outline, we sit down and write the actual post. (Writing)
Finally, prior to publishing, we go through and edit the article and make it read better, correct spelling mistakes, look at our usage of grammar, and generally give our article the once over. (Editing).
So that’s the overall process. We can break down each of those processes further into more elemental units and increase our skill at each unit progressively. I’m going to give you an idea how to do this – but please be aware this will be relatively brief as a detailed exposition of this process, along with suggested exercises for all the elements, would result in a Course lasting 26 weeks or more.
Let’s start with Phase 1 – which is Idea Generation.
Phase 1 – Idea Generation
Creating ideas for posts and articles is something that I’ve talked about before. But here are three exercises you could use to create a list of ideas.
(i) Head over to Amazon. Search for your market area and pick a book at random. The only criteria are that you’ve not read the book, and that it displays the ‘Look Inside’ graphic next to the book. Look inside the book, and go specifically to the Table Of Contents. Copy down several chapter titles to a blank word doc – and then sketch out in a couple of lines an article you could write with that chapter headline as an imaginary headline.
Note that you’re not breaching anyone’s copyright by doing this. All you’re doing is simply gathering topic titles – and turning them into Article snippets. Remember you’ve not read the book (that’s one of the criteria), so you can’t possibly be breaching the copyright because you’re not copying the book’s contents. Ideas are not copyrightable.
(ii) Get a friend to pick 10 films at random that they know you’ve seen. Then create an article based on lessons from that film. Or 10 Pop Stars. Or 10 Actors. Or 10 Sports Stars. Get your friend to choose something that you know about and are interested in – but isn’t superficially related to your market area.
This is a popular type of post by the way – go and scan some Post titles at somewhere like Copyblogger and you’ll see articles with titles like: Lessons In Marketing From Eminem. Or Lessons in Writing From Lady GaGa. That kind of thing. I’ve created posts like this- with a film theme. Some examples:
Which Pill Would You Take – Red Or Blue (based on The Matrix of course).
(iii) Pick 10 blogs from different market areas (and preferably blogs you don’t read). And preferably blogs with a ‘Most Popular Posts’ section. Write down the titles of the top 5 popular posts. Now you’ve got a list of 50 popular post titles to convert to your market.
Once you’ve worked out an idea you need to flesh that out with a Headline and then an Outline.
Phase 2 – Headline And Outlines
Headlines and Outlines are vital components of your content creation activities. The success of most of your articles – in terms of people reading them and liking them – will be fashioned here.
You need a compelling headline to attract people to actually read your finished article. And a well-constructed outline allows you to actually write the article that’s promised by the headline.
Here are some important resources on headlines for you to go check out:
- Head over to Sean D’Souza’s site at www.psychotactics.com and sign up for his mailing list. Make sure you download his free Headline report. And then go to the /blog section of his website and read all of his articles on Headlines.
- Head over to Glenn Allsop’s Viperchill site and read this specific post: http://www.viperchill.com/blog-post-headlines/
- Head over to Copyblogger and download their ‘magnetic headlines’ Webinar. Here’s the page you need: http://www.copyblogger.com/23823yuv/
- Head over to Tristan Higbee’s Blogging Bookshelf and read his take on headlines here: http://www.bloggingbookshelf.com/writing/write-great-blog-headline/
Once you’ve read and/or listened/watched to these resources you should have a much better understanding of what makes a headline work. What you need to do is start creating some specific headline exercises.
I don’t want to go into this too much in this article as I took a specific Headline Creation Course with Sean D’Souza and as much as I’ve tried to come up a different slant on Sean’s Course, I can’t really.
So for headlines I’ll have to leave you with some suggestions – try out ‘how to’ headlines. Try out ‘why’ headlines. Try out headlines that evoke curiosity. Try out headlines that include specificity (e.g. 10 Ways to Do something, or 17 Ways to do something different). With each of your headline ideas, reverse engineer what Tristan did in his post and do it to your headline.
Outlines are a vital component of writing. A good headline followed by a good outline will almost always ensure that if you make sure you apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair that you’ll finish the article that you set out to write.
Here are several different types of outline that you should be familiar with:
(i) The Rudyard Kipling Outline. Here’s a quote from Rudyard Kipling: “I kept six honest serving-men. They taught me all I knew. Their names are What and Why and When And How And Where And Who.” By applying these basic questions to a topic you can come up with an outline in double-quick time.
(ii) The ‘Inverted-Pyramid’ Outline. If you’ve ever studied any journalism courses you’ll know about this outline. This structure puts the most important part of the story/article first, and then continues on presenting the points in descending order of magnitude. This means that if the reader stops reading the article he will still have been presented with the most important point(s). And if an article needs to be trimmed for space reasons, then rewriting is kept to a minimum as the main points are covered first.
(iii) The List Post Outline. This outline is obviously for a list type post or article – these posts are incredibly popular. The outline merely consists of the numbered bullet points that will form the post.
(iv) The 3 Act Structure. Screenwriting can be an incredibly rich source of information for writers of all types. The 3 Act Structure – as popularized by Syd Field – can be translated to non-fiction outlines.
(v) The Hero’s Journey Structure. See (iv) above – the Hero’s Journey is another story structure that can also be used as an outline structure for non-fiction outlines. (As can John Truby’s Story Method. Or Blake Snyder’s ‘Save The Cat’ method. )
(vi) The Review Outline. I use reviews extensively on my other web business. And it has a simple structure: What’s This Book About? What’s Good About This Book? What’s Not-So Good About This Book? How Could This Book Be Better? Would I Recommend it? And A Summary of the above. Answer each of those questions, and boom, a review article.
Headlines and Outlines play a big part of the success of your articles – but the quality of your writing is where your articles can really shine.
Phase 3 – Writing
Improving your actual writing for the kind of content we use for Content Marketing can be split down into three further sub-sections: there’s improving your actual writing itself, improving the writing of specific sections and incorporating multi-media.
3.1. Improving Your Actual Writing
Improving your actual writing is something most people think is best done just by writing. But as we saw with the lessons we learned from Tiger Woods – practicing and playing a course are two different activities. My suggested order for these seven sub-topics is to work on the first sub-topic until you’ve got it – then go through sub-topics (ii) to (v) in sequence, one week per sub-topic. And keep repeating this 4 week cycle. Topics (vi) and (vii) are advanced topics.
(i) Splitting your writing from your editing. IMO this is the best way for most people to improve their writing. When they write, they need to focus on writing. And not worry about spelling, or going back to make a verb and subject agree, or insert capitals. Just write. You can Edit in the Editing stage of writing. And you can teach yourself to do this – just as you can teach yourself to do just about anything.
(ii) Improving the rhythmic flow of your writing. There are two types of writing that will help with the rhythmic flow of your writing – writing stories, and writing poetry. I’d go with poetry to start with. Not only will it sharpen your appreciation of how to create a rhythmic effect with words, but it will also lead to the next improvement area too:
(iii) Improving your command of language. If you write poetry you’ll be forced to adhere to the rhythmic constraints of the meter you’re writing in – these restrictions, as well as the necessities of creating rhymes, will force you to expand your command of the written language. Read about how Benjamin Franklin taught himself to communicate better in his writing to find out more about this.
(iv) Improving the clarity of your writing. This is another one from Ben Franklin’s playbook of writing. Take an article written by a great writer, and isolate each sentence. Try to express the meaning of that sentence in your own words. A week, or two weeks later, try to rewrite the sentences from YOUR notes.
(v) Improving your understanding of structure. Go back to the previous example and take your notes on each sentence – but put each note onto a separate index card. In a week or two’s time, try and assemble the article in the correct order.
(vi) Conveying mood with word choices. This is a topic I found in a long out of print writing book by Dean Koontz. This is more applicable to fiction writing than non-fiction – but there are still instances you can use it. And it’s always great to have another tool in your tool box. (To summarize, if you were writing a scene where something creepy is about to happen you can include ‘mood words’ like sepulchral, bone white etc to create subliminal tension in your reader).
(vii) Method Writing. Take an article from a writer you admire – and now write it in someone else’s style. This exercise forces you out of your comfort zone in a big way – imagine writing an article in the (non-fiction) style of Stephen King. Or William Goldman. Or Malcolm Gladwell. Or anyone you admire – this is a great way to stretch your writing chops!
3.2 Improving The Writing Of Specific Sections
Whatever outline structure you use, there are specific sections that occur in most articles. Some of those sections are more important than others in terms of how effective your content actually is – therefore you won’t be surprised that I’m going to break it down and look at some of those individual areas that you can work on.
(i) The Lead. This is a term borrowed from journalism. The lead is the first sentence, or first couple of sentences, of a newspaper article and is designed to introduce the reader to the topic and tell the reader what the topic is about. Content Creators can be more flexible – our first sentences can introduce our topic, or set up a question in the reader’s minds (which hooks them to carry on reading to find an answer), or deliver a singular statement that makes the reader…umm read on. That’s the job of the lead – to get the reader from the headline, into the text of the article, and onto the next sub-heading.
(ii) Sub-headings. This can be cross-referenced with the headline and outline section above, but you can take the outline of each article and tweak every one of the sub-headings in the way that Tristan does in his headline article. The resulting outline of sub-headings will create a compelling structure to your article that will entice anyone skimming the article (i.e. reading the headline and the sub-heads) to actually read the full article.
(iii) The Call To Action. This is the very last section of your article. And it’s WHY you wrote the article in the first place. You want your reader to take a specific action. You want them to subscribe to your newsletter. Or leave a comment. Or email you for a quote. Or email you for a brochure. Or whatever it is that you want – but THIS is why you wrote the article, and every part of the article leads them to this paragraph.
3.3 Incorporating Multi-Media
Although we’ve been talking about improving our written content, we live in a multi-media world and our articles don’t have to include just the written word. Identifying non-written content that you can add to your articles to improve the reader experience is the first step in actually working on it.
(i) Graphics. This is the obvious area to start. Most posts these days have an image or two included in them. But how many people actually use images as integral parts of their content? Info-graphics is a starting point – and a great way for people to visualize process-oriented content. Graphics can also be used to help navigate through articles and make concepts clearer. Or you can introduce a multi-layered concept with an info-graphic, and then use sections of that info-graphic to thematically link different sections of the article and remind you of the relationship to the original info-graphic.
(ii) Videos. People split written content and video content into separate categories. There’s no reason why though? There could be scenarios where a 30 second video clip may save you a 1000 words and illustrate a point in your content far more convincingly. With YouTube’s unlisted feature you can do this and know that no-one will ever see the video clip out of context.
(iii) Text as Graphics. If you like really well written fiction books then head over to Amazon and buy ‘Control’ by William Goldman. Not only is this a gripping and exotic thriller – you’ll learn a ton from studying the writing style. In particular Goldman uses text as a graphical device in a way I’ve rarely seen. He manipulates text to convey ideas like time and distance by the physical appearance of the text, not by the words he uses. Reverse engineering this book is like taking a writing masterclass. But read it once for enjoyment first. (You may not use the techniques often – but you’ll put some great tools in your toolbox).
Once you’ve written your content, it needs to be polished. Or you need to separate the wheat from the chaff. Or the gold from the crap. Whichever analogy works for you.
Phase 4 – Editing
Editing is an area that is first on my personal list to work on. Writers should use words with the same precision as a surgeon uses a scalpel.
Here’s a confession for you – I barely do any editing at all. Most of what you read on the blog is pretty much first draft, with a skim as I copy and paste into WordPress to make sure I’ve not missed words, or spelt a word incorrectly that the spell checker has not picked up.
So I’ve been creating a checklist of areas that I can work on in the editing phase to tighten my writing and make it more effective.
(i) Specificity. Replace vague words with specific words that create stronger mental pictures.
(ii) Replace weasel words. I don’t remember where I heard the phrase ‘weasel words’ first, but it’s words that rob your writing of its clarity and strength. We’re talking words like ‘very,’ basically,’ ‘quite,’ and so on. I like a quote from Hemingway: ‘When you’re tempted to write ‘very,’ write damn instead. And your editor will cut it and your writing will read as it should.’ A great tip – blog writing can sound conversational, but we use those words in real conversations as words to give us a moment to think. By all means write them when you’re in Write mode. But cut them ruthlessly when you switch to Edit mode.
(iii) Clichés. These are longer versions of weasel words. Phrases like ‘at the end of the day,’ or ‘basically speaking.’ Again, in spoken conversation these phrases allow us to talk whilst thinking at the same time. As with weasel words, cut ruthlessly when in Edit mode.
(iv) Connectors. To make your writing flow more easily for the reader you can layer in some connectors that connect the different paragraphs together. This can be as simple as repeated motifs, repeated words, or ending a paragraph with a question which the reader has to keep reading to answer.
(v) Cut unnecessary words. Make every word count – if you can replace a four-word phrase with a three-word phrase, do it. A two-word phrase? Even better.
(vi) No showboating. Don’t use fancy-pants words like ‘expunge’ or ‘erudite’ – unless they are precisely the words to convey the meaning of the phrase or sentence you are writing.
(vii) Subject-Verb agreement. Word will do this for you.
(viii) Common Misspellings. Don’t use ‘affect’ if you mean ‘effect.’ The one that really annoys me – and I was guilty of it when copy typing something last week! – is their, when you mean there. Remember you should use words like a surgeon’s scalpel. A basic primer on grammar and spelling turned into editing exercises will take you a long, long way.
(ix) Spelling. Everyone with a computer has access to some form of spell checker. Make sure you use it. Every spelling mistake is a dent in your credibility. (There’s an exception though – you can get away with making spelling mistakes when you leave comments.)
(x) Active Voice or Passive Voice. If you don’t know how to write in Active Voice, then learn. Using ‘active voice’ will make your writing stronger and strengthen the communication with your audience.
(xi) Murder Your Darlings. If you find an eloquent turn of phrase in your article when you’re editing, be prepared to ruthlessly expunge cut it. Don’t write to impress the reader with your vocabulary – write to impress the reader with the uniqueness of your ideas and personality, and the clarity with which those traits are communicated via your writing.
(xii) To be or not to be. The verb ‘to be’ works mostly in conjunction with other verbs. Find all instances of it – and if it is used in conjunction with another verb then strike both out and replace with a single, stronger verb. You’ll find that this results in more active prose too.
How To Actually Use This Information To Practice So That Your Writing Gets Better
Whew! There’s a mountain of information in the post so far…and expanded out to the requisite length and breadth this could form the basis of a detailed course on improving your writing. (And there will be NO prizes for the person who emails in and suggests I create this!)
But the information above is worthless unless you put it into practice. As stated in the introduction to this article, the kind of practice that we’re talking about is called Deliberate Practice. And that’s going to be the focus of the next article in this series.
Improving the quality of the written content that you create for your website or blog is something that most people ‘do’ simply by writing regularly. That’s not how the champions get better at their chosen discipline – instead what they do is chunk their chosen discipline down into incredibly focused areas that they can work on in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail.
In today’s article I split the discipline of written content creation down into 4 main areas. Those 4 main areas are:
- (i) Idea Generation
- (ii) Headlines and Outlines
- (iii) Writing
- (iv) Editing
Each of these areas subdivides into smaller areas. In the next article of the mini-series I’ll introduce you to Deliberate Practice in depth. And then in the fourth article of the mini-series we’ll actually apply Deliberate Practice to one of the smaller sub-topics and create some exercises.
Please leave me a comment and tell me what you’ve learned so far – and what questions you have.