How to Create Better Content With Constraints


Mark McGuinness reveals a cool technique for creating content that’s more productive and innovative than the “blank page” approach. It’s all about setting specific constraints on yourself before you start to write.

Mark’s article made me realize I do this all the time. I constrain myself to a particular angle or reference, and I start looking for a relevant association.

For example, after watching the film again at Thanksgiving, I really want to craft an article referencing The Princess Bride. I spot an association between a classic Inigo Montoya line and grammar, and away we go.

As a follow-up to Mark’s article, I wrote how creative constraints can both help and hinder an entrepreneur. Check out Creative Constraints: How to Use Them and When to Lose Them, and sign up for more free articles by subscribing to Lateral Action.

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  1. Quick read but a good one.

  2. Brian;

    This is really the key to creating any relevant content to a specific audience.

    Good food for thought.


  3. Twyla Tharp calls this thinking in the box. To be creative, you need both in-the-box thinking, as well as out-of-the-box thinking. It’s true.

  4. I’ve used constraints to create different “post formulas.” Each combination of constraints yields a new form. I have constraints like trying to be comical, having a moral of the story at the end, being brief, using dialogue, and using lists. My favorite combination has been the comical nonsense ending with a serious moral of the story. It’s a way to get attention and then make a point that is noticed.

  5. Thanks Brian

    One more way to practice writing with constraints is to write mini sagas (a story in exactly 50 words, not 49 or 51 but exactly 50)

    Here is a link to my manifesto on that topic


  6. I did this during the month I participated in NaBloPoMo. I had to make a list of 5 items every day, and I had to end each post with a relevant question.

    I struggled nearly every day to come up with 5 items, but usually the last two were the best, most unique ideas. And sometimes I couldn’t think of an open-ended question, even after considering and brainstorming for 10 minutes or so.

    It really stretched me and along with forcing myself to write every day–another constraint–I think I produced some touching, genuine content.

    I like the “thinking in the box” mentioned above! Catchy!

  7. I use short paragraphs and sentences to create content With Constraints.
    A Dawn Journal

  8. @A. Dawn, Those are some very strict constraints. lol. If Faulkner had constraints like that…

  9. This is useful information. The ideas are specific and most relevant.


  10. Stephen Sondheim, the award-winning American composer and lyricist, likes to work within tight constraints. I once heard that he wrote “Send in the Clowns” specifically for the show’s actress in a very particular situation, and he did it in record time. It’s one of his most popular songs. I don’t consider myself a Sondheim, but I too like to write with constraints. You have a tighter focus with a stronger point of view.

  11. Long time reader first time commenter.

    This technique applies in many places where creativity is needed. I wrote an article awhile back on using this technique for songwriting:

    Songwriting Tip: Constrained Writing

    Thanks for pointing out that post on Lateral Action

  12. Great post. I find that creating content with constraints has both its benefit and challenges. For one, the topic can be limiting as it may stop you from writing other stuff that you like. However, at the same time, it makes you creative in exploring and expanding the content within the limited subject. I guess those who are able to work comfortably within constraints are the ones who can succeed as niche bloggers.

  13. Lack of constraint while writing invites me to bail on the core concept/story/theme/or angle.

    This leads to tragedy because when I do this my prospect is being jarred out of the buying trance I might of had them in. No good.

    The basic constraint I remind myself of while writing is sticking to selling one thing and only one thing in an ad.

    Thank you Brian for reminding me of this key idea. It strengthens my neural pathway for writing influential copy.

    Note Taking Nerd #2

  14. I really think this technique works for almost every type of creative endeavor. Certainly in my own writing, it’s always helpful. Also, in my music it’s been essential…I tell myself, “write an eerie sounding song that in D minor.” and that writing session will become way more productive than one in which i just pick up a guitar and see where it leads me.

  15. Constraint-driven is the way to go.

    I’d like to hear more on your thought process from a meta-program standpoint.

    Did you know Edison had an “Idea Quota”? Talk about a constraint.

  16. May I be fussy a la my high school English teacher? You say that you wanted to draw an association between “a classic Inigo Montoya line and grammar”, when I believe you mean between Montoya’s line and diction.

    (I know, I know, for most people diction and grammar meld into a big, blurry mass they prefer to keep in their periphery, but I cannot forget the year I spent in Ms. Johnson’s classroom.)

  17. This is useful information. The ideas are specific and most relevant.