Have you ever reached a plateau with your content? You come to a point where you have a predictable amount of traffic, that traffic creates a predictable level of response (comments, clickthroughs for your product, number of back links, whatever), but your response doesn’t seem to budge past that point.
It’s fun climbing to that spot, but less fun to get stuck there for weeks or months on end. I’m going to share a painful secret with you. It isn’t your layout or your banner. It isn’t your SEO. It isn’t your lack of the perfect WordPress plugin.
It’s your content.
Specifically, your content has become flat and routine. You’ve found a modest audience that likes you, but your ideas and your writing aren’t sharp enough to pull in, energize and keep new readers.
Over 20 years as a professional writer, I’ve developed a method to take my writing to a stronger, deeper level. I originally got this technique from my dad, who’s a disciplined and talented jazz musician. I’ve tweaked it to apply to writing, and more recently, to apply to online content.
This isn’t something you do just once. I’ve done this exercise dozens of times — three times with my blog alone — and it never fails. It’s not “quick and easy,” but it is a virtually guaranteed way to become a stronger writer in 30 days.
I’ll start with something that might sound a little wacky. Good writing (or music or painting or computer programming) is strongly influenced by your “right brain,” or what is sometimes called your unconscious mind. Your linear, logical left brain is great for structure and grammar (and it’s in charge of language), but it’s lousy at coming up with fresh, striking ideas. It’s also painfully slow compared with your right brain, and it has no feeling for the rhythms and deep structure of good writing.
Stephen King calls this mysterious part of his brain “the boys in the basement.” This is a technique to boot the boys in the basement in the hindquarters and get them busy working on good stuff for you. There are just three daily steps, and none of them takes much time.
Step 1: Write every day
Every means every. You don’t get to skip Christmas or Earth Day or National Administrative Assistants Day.
Relax, I’m not insisting you write every day for the rest of your life (although that would help you get much, much better). But you’re going to make a commitment to write one blog post — or whatever kind of writing you do — every day for the next 30 days.
If you’re a Dosh Dosh-style writer and your posts tend to run pretty long, feel free to rework this commitment to writing one section of a post every day. But each piece of daily writing needs to be something that is complete in itself. A scene for a novelist, a sonnet for a poet, a post for a blogger.
This time around, I’m using the Seinfeld productivity technique, which I like a lot. Get a big wall calendar and a marker in some color that makes you happy. Mark a giant, satisfying X for every day you write. After a couple of days, you’ll find that you don’t want to break that beautiful string of Xs.
If you get to 29 days and then you contract Ebola or the plague and have to skip a day or two, you start over. Write every day for 30 days. No excuses, no exceptions.
In every kind of creative work, practicing every day will create breakthrough improvement — if you do it enough days in a row. It will give your work a depth it didn’t have before, a maturity and a new clarity.
You don’t have to write for three or four hours a day — 20 minutes is fine. And you don’t have to post everything you write. In fact, you shouldn’t.
When you write every day, you’ll find yourself sometimes writing utter junk because you have to get the day’s words out. Congratulations, you’re on your way to becoming a pro.
There will be many days when you can’t sit down to work at all unless you give yourself permission to write complete crap. Sit down and write a crappy post that day. Crap is just fine. Skipping a day is not.
Step 2: Post every two or three days
Depending on your blog, your readers’ expectations and your topic, you might actually publish two, three, or four posts a week. One really strong post a week may be plenty, if you can fill in with a few short link posts that don’t take much brain power.
Polish every piece before you publish it. The editing and polishing will probably take as much time (or more) as it did to write the post in the first place. Only publish good work. Good work doesn’t (often) come from first drafts.
If you don’t actually have someplace to publish your writing right now, polish up a few pieces a week anyway. Post them for yourself on a Tumblog no one knows about. Rewriting is probably the most critical part of writing.
I know writers who can crank out volumes of first draft but get completely stuck when they have to rewrite. Serious writers don’t have that luxury. Polish your work every week.
If you write seven posts a week and publish all seven, you’re going to post writing that isn’t very good. Don’t do that. The boys in the basement have to know that you won’t betray them by sharing work that isn’t ready. And your readers have to know the same.
Step 3: Capture two ideas every day
Every day, write down two ideas for blog posts. Keep these somewhere you can always access them. I use the 37 Signals program Backpack because it’s cheap and easy, and because I keep everything there. You could use Google Notebook or a text file on your laptop or a bunch of 3×5 cards held together with a rubber band. It doesn’t matter at all.
They don’t have to be two good ideas. Many of them will be terrible. But if you don’t make the commitment to capture two new ideas a day, you’ll run dry after a week or two. (You actually have hundreds of ideas every day that could make good blog posts. You just have to catch two of them before they fade into the mist. If you want to catch a few more, that’s ok too, but only commit to two.)
If you get completely stuck on ideas for the day, think of two different angles on the post you just wrote. Or riffs on two current events. Or load up magazines.com and capture a couple of Cosmo headlines.
Why it works
That’s it, that’s the whole program. It’s both very simple and very difficult.
It works for a couple of reasons. First, you can’t write well unless you can learn to ignore the part of your brain that wants things to be perfect. The boys in the basement hate perfect. Perfect is actually the enemy of damned good. Writing every day gets you out of the illusion of perfection and into the daily practice of damned good.
Second, you’re learning a habit not only of writing daily but of original thinking daily. After about a week, the boys will get the message that you’re serious. That’s when it gets fun and they start sending you increasingly good ideas.
The boys also occasionally send you entire paragraphs or pages, and you’ll feel like you’re just taking dictation. This is when professional writers say stupid things like “I can’t believe they pay me to do this.” 95% of the time you don’t get to take dictation, but it’s pretty fun when you do.
Be careful — if you don’t show up to accept what the boys in the basement send your way, they’ll get stingy again. Yes, this sounds like some kind of new age baloney. It doesn’t matter how logical or analytical you are, this is still how it works. Some of the most hard-boiled, no-nonsense writers you will ever meet have found this to be true.
Third, you’ll learn what every serious writer knows — there is no such thing as inspiration. There is work and there is a commitment to show up, and then there is the alchemy that lets you create better writing than you thought you could write. These things are a result of daily commitment and practice, not positive thinking or feel-good visualizations.
Finally, you’ll have a whole bunch of posts you can keep in reserve for when you’re having a Bad Brain Week. This sense of bounty will keep the boys in the basement happy enough to keep sending you a steady stream of good material. Don’t ask me why they would rather send you stuff when you don’t really need it. The boys in the basement are nothing if not perverse.
What happens after 30 days?
You may want to continue this practice forever. Plenty of people do.
But if you want to take a breather after 30 days, that’s fine, too. Many writers find it’s useful to take short breaks and let the well refill. Whatever you do, you’ll have a healthy reserve of blog posts and post ideas. (Never throw ideas away. I get some of my best posts out of ideas I thought were dopey when I came up with them.)
Much better than your reserve, you’ll find that your writing is smarter, sharper, more cohesive, and takes less effort. The improvement is permanent — every time you do this, you’ll get a little bit better.
Successful, compelling content depends on damned good writing. Make a commitment to doing the work and getting the boys in the basement on your side.
Your “pretty good” content will break through to “damned good,” and you’ll be on your way.
About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Share your content blues with Sonia on twitter.