I had a meeting with my supervisor today. She congratulated me on writing such thoughtful posts 🙂 She mentioned that she had a hard time writing posts herself. So, I thought I’d write a blog post to discuss the procedure I use to write posts. It’s the same process every time. I’m proud of the results. The difficulty of just getting started can be daunting. The “tyranny of the blank page” is terrifying. Read on to learn about my process.
TLDR; Follow these steps to get over your fear of writing a blog post:
- Read a lot
- Highlight the good parts while you read
- Transcribe the notes you made from the book
- Identify the quotes that speak to you the most
- Copy and paste the best quote at the top of the post
- Freewrite for 20 minutes by elaborating on the quote
- Don’t even think of posting this online
- You did it! Now get comfortable with shitty first drafts
- Read it over 3 times
- Take out the redundancies. Add more quotes.
- Embolden your most salient points
- Tell them what you taught them
- Leave the reader with a challenge or a question
I hope that by the end of this blog post you will have learned how to find blog post ideas, get over the fear of the blank page, learn how to format your post for easy scanning, and ideally start posting regularly.
Read a lot
Here’s a list of the books I recently finished reading:
How do I manage to read so many books?
- Schedule an hour of reading time every day.
- Split your time between 3-7 books so you never get tired of one.
- Don’t read books that suck.
I read nearly every book on the history of computing that I can get my hands on. One book keeps coming up: “Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age” by Michael A. Hiltzik.
Sorry Mr. Hiltzick. I’ve tried getting through this book multiple times. But the writing is so stilted I had to finally just say, “I pass.”
Most books aren’t required reading after college. Don’t waste your time. Find another book that holds your interest. Life’s too short to waste time reading dull books.
Highlight the good parts while you read
I don’t read without a mechanical pencil. If I don’t have a pencil to take notes while I’m reading there’s no point.
Here’s a photo of the mechanical pencil I use to do my bracketing:
When I find a great quote, book recommendation, or a wonderful turn-of-phrase, I draw a bracket in the margin curling around the quote that I want to remember.
If it’s a book that I want to read, I draw the bracket with my mechanical pencil in the margin and write a little “b” to remind myself that I was interested in borrowing this book in the future.
If it’s a word I don’t know, I bracket the word in the margin and write a little “d” next to it. This reminds me to look up the word I didn’t know.
Transcribe the notes you made from the book
My friend’s mom was my English teacher in 12th grade. She said something in class one day that I didn’t understand at the time:
You only really understand a book the second time you read it. While you’re reading the book the first time, you don’t know the points the author is trying to make. Only, once you’ve finished the book, do you have the full picture of what the author was trying to say.
This advice didn’t made sense to my high-school-brain. It only made sense when I started bracketing out the quotes, book recommendations, examples of good writing.
Transcribing the notes later give me a chance to reread the book. This way, I’m not re-reading the entire book, I’m reacquainting myself with the best parts that are now clearer having read the entire book.
As I reread through the book I transcribe all the good parts into my notes. I like to call these notes my “Takeaways.” These takeaways are the gold I’ve uncovered by reading the book. By transcribing these takeaways, the points have a chance to hit me again.
Identify the quotes that speak to you the most
I read through my list of takeaways and fix any typos along the way. During these error correcting passes, I pay attention to which quotes provoke a reaction.
I highlight these reactionary quotes and continue to fix the typos. Now you have the list of quotes that will be the starter for your blog post.
Copy and paste the best quote at the top of the post
Open up your favorite writing program. Mine is Sublime Text. It’s free and great for writing. Sublime Text simplifies the process of writing.
Got your writing app open? Great! Now copy and paste the quote at the top of the page. Got it? Good, let’s keep going.
Freewrite for 20 minutes elaborating on the quote
Set a timer for 20 minutes. Now get started. Free write. Do not stop freewriting until that timer dings. No. Matter. What.
Sit with the problem. Stare it in the face. You’re not on stage. This private time with the page is for screaming your crazy ideas into a pillow.
Write like a little mouse scratching at a wall to break through – blindly, passionately, like your life depends on it.
Get it all out of your system. Discover connections between different types of work, politics, money, ethics, favorite foods, behavioral psychology. Make connections! Dig deep! Mine that gold!
Write and write and write. Go off on tangents. This doesn’t even have to be prose! Make lists. Compare pros and cons. Come on! Just get started and keep going until that timer dings…
Don’t even think about posting this online
Finished writing? Immediately take a break. Close down the text editor. I mean it. Hell, shutdown the computer. Get away from it.
Go wash the dishes. Go do anything else that will take you away from the page.
Resist the urge to read through what you wrote. No one is going to see it. No one is going to judge you on it. Especially not you if I have anything to say about it.
This is not the time to revise. This is the time your subconscious has a chance to chew on the content you just created.
Feel like you need to look at the first draft again to refresh your ideas? NO! Keep away from it. Let it mature on its own. Trust your body to work on the content while you give your conscious mind a break.
“A watched pot never boils.” – Arcade Fire
You did it! Now get comfortable with shitty first drafts
Steven Pressfield is famous for writing “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The War of Art.” He’s a fantastic writer with a voice that cuts through the bullshit, addresses the lizard brain, and produces results despite an active inner critic. I reread his books and relisten to his audiobooks to “defeat the inner critic.”
Pressfield blogs too. He wrote a great post on accepting the shittiness of first drafts, getting them out, and allowing them their need sit untouched:
“If you start re-writing, you will despair. The reason is obvious. The first draft of anything, until you’ve written 10,000 stories, is usually complete shit. That’s just the definition of a first draft. If you despair, you will not finish the draft. Simple logic.”
Read it over 3 times
Now you’ve let your first draft mature like a fine cheese.
Your subconscious has been working overtime, redrafting your points, making connections between your writing and other disciplines, and things that have happened in your life that remind you of what you’re writing. You might even get flashes of lessons you learned growing up. If you’re lucky you might even get insights into your hidden culture.
After this proofing time, your subconscious has digested enough that it will guide your through the process of pruning your first draft.
Take out the redundancies. Add more quotes.
Remove passages that waste the reader’s time.
Take out the passive voice. Read it over and over and over. Craft it. Steer it. Feel where it’s going.
See points you made that need more examples? Find more quotes in your takeaways that support the point you are trying to make. The quotes don’t have to come from the same book.
Better yet, look for quotes from other books to reinforce the points you are trying to make.
Great! You’ve pulled out the shitty parts of the first draft and added supporting quotes. Now it’s time to think about the presentation of your blog post. The content is great. But we need to persuade the reader to read what you wrote. We do this by cutting the post up into visibly digestible sections.
Embolden your most salient points
What would happen if you opened a 200 page book and there were no paragraphs? I know what I’d do. I’d close the book and take it back to the library.
People are not willing to waste time reading something that has not been formatted for easy digestion.
Cut up long paragraphs. This is not a book. This is a blog post. Make it easy to read.
“Short sentences get read.” – Seth Godin
Tell them what you taught them
I learned this lesson from my professor. The hardest thing in your life will be communicating your ideas clearly and having the receiver (your readers) hear the message you intended to send.
This advice can be applied to blog posts, presentations, books, trainings, etc:
- Tell them what you are going to teach them.
- Teach them.
- Tell them what you taught them.
Leave the reader with a challenge or a question
Shitty first drafts are required. They are expected and thus acknowledged and accepted. Do not stop until you have made your point. It doesn’t have to be eloquent. It just has to exist.
I hope this has helped remove the “terror of the white canvas/page.” Finish your first drafts no matter what! Then let them sit. Clean them up, pretty them up, and add more quotes to reinforce your ideas.
Gambate! Go forth and write shitty first drafts!
Has this blog post helped you write a shitty first draft? I’d love to know! Email me a link!