How to Grow a Blog Post in 7 Easy Steps

Seven Lead Plant

My friend Tom thinks I should create a how-to product on “writing for the paralyzed and confused.” He’s a very creative and articulate guy, but writing kills him. Knocking out two pages can take him hours. And when he’s done, he second-guesses himself for a couple more hours about whether it’s any good.

Since I don’t have a spare month right now to create a complete information product for you, here’s a blog post to get you started. A step-by-step guide you can use to write as many blog posts as you need, without tears, frustration, or brain damage.

People think that writing is a magic skill, because you’re creating something valuable out of nothing. But it’s actually more like gardening. Begin with a given set of resources (in this case, ideas and a little time), learn the right way to put those resources together, and you’ll grow something good.

1. Start lots of seedlings

Getting in the mood to write generally comes from having an interesting idea you want to expand on. Every time you get the seed of a post idea, even if you’re not sure it will work, plant it right away by capturing it in a system. Even noting a single sentence fragment will help.

I’ve mentioned before that I use the 37 Signals product Backpack to keep post ideas and reference materials together, which works extremely well for me. A commenter on this blog suggested something even simpler–just create a draft post in WordPress. You can do it from anywhere in the world, and you can keep growing it bit by bit until you’ve got a full-grown post that’s ready to publish.

2. Make sure you’ve got soil, water and sunlight

Every writer has different basic needs. (And no, none of us needs a Tuscan villa with a glass of Barolo and views of vineyards. We might like one, but we do not need it.) You’ll have to experiment to find what works and doesn’t work for you, but until you know your own basic needs as a writer, you’ll never be able to work easily and in flow.

You probably need some privacy. Some writers can work in cafés, but the mental energy you spend tuning other people out would probably be better used on improving your ideas and the rhythm of your words.

You need ideas that excite you–that’s what your seedling system is for.

You need to work without distractions or interruptions. Turn off your email program. Power down your iPhone. Close your Twitter app. Shut the door and put up a do-not-disturb sign. If you have to lock yourself in the bathroom to get interruption-free time, do that.

Even 15 or 20 minutes can produce good work, especially for a short piece like a blog post. Lately I’ve been working in 50-minute sessions, which is terrific. The key is to find any uninterrupted chunk of time at all and defend it.

3. Growing the post

The easiest way to start growing the post is to write 3 or 4 subheads that expand on your basic idea seed. More may come to you while you’re writing, which is just fine.

When you’ve got some subheads captured, if you don’t feel like writing any more on that topic, put it aside. Save the post as a draft, or capture it in Google docs, or whatever you do to keep work in progress. The boys in the basement might need to do some more work with that particular set of ideas.

Or you may find that you’re ready to start writing a few paragraphs. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Just jump in wherever feels right, and write 2-3 paragraphs per subhead.

The post might start to coil off in some crazy kudzu direction you never intended. That’s fine. Keep writing. If the new direction isn’t any good, you can prune it out later and no one will ever know.

(But don’t throw those snippets away. Keep your rejected clippings somewhere and look through them every once in awhile. You might find they’ve composted into good stuff.)

4. Just write

Thinking about writing is like thinking about planting, watering, and weeding. Sure, creative noodling time can make your writing better. But noodling is not writing. Wii, Twitter, Solitaire and long walks in the rain are also not writing.

During your writing time, write. Noodling time is separate. It’s nice when you can noodle right before you write, but sometimes you don’t have that luxury. Noodling will happen on its own, so when you’re putting your priorities together, put writing time first.

A lot of what you write will be awful. Please understand that every writer you admire produces a lot of garbage. Cultivate what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.”

In fact, try to write as horribly as you possibly can. Break all writing rules. Use lots of clichés and redundancies. Be trite. Write about stupid ideas. Insult your readers. Make no sense. Make simple ideas as complicated and obtuse as possible.

If you can’t find the right word for something, or a particular word or phrase just bugs you, [put it in brackets] and come back to it later.

Keep writing.

5. Talk to yourself

Assuming you can hold a conversation with another person (or yourself in the shower, for that matter) about a topic that interests you, there is no reason you should let writing tyrannize you. Blog writing is just a conversation, with the added benefit that you get to cut out all the parts that make you sound dumb.

If the act of actually writing is slowing you down, start talking and see what comes out. (This is partly why you want some privacy. Talking to yourself aloud in a café might get you some odd looks.)

Keep talking and writing. Fill in all of your subheads, and maybe some new ones if you come up with any. You’re allowed to delete subheads that don’t prove productive. Do this all at once, or in separate sessions. Keep as many posts going as you want, in as many stages of completion as you want. Different posts grow at different rates.

6. Prune and thin

Ever grown an apple tree? If you never have, you might assume that you stick it in the ground, water it every once in awhile, and the thing just makes apples.

But an apple tree needs to be pruned and shaped every year. Diseased and dead wood needs to be cut out. Healthy wood needs to be cut away, too, to encourage the tree to grow in the right shape. Some of the apples need to be removed, so the rest of them grow up into beautiful red shiny images of apple perfection.

Take your saved draft and start pruning. (Remember, you can cut ruthlessly because you’re saving your clippings for the compost pile.)

Figure out what the main idea of this piece is. It might be a very different main idea than the one you started with.

Cut everything that doesn’t fit that main idea and throw it on the compost pile. Or briefly go back to step 1 and plant those ideas to grow into new posts.

Read the post aloud. If anything sounds stiff or awkward, rewrite it so it sounds like something you might say to a friend.

All those clichés and stupidities you indulged yourself with can go now. They’ve done what they needed to do, which is to loosen you up and keep you from paralyzing yourself. A few of them will actually be pretty interesting and cool. You’ll keep those, or spin new posts off of them.

Pruning can take a long time. I spend two to three times as much time shaping posts as I do drafting them. For me, pruning works best when I do it a little at a time. Take a pass and cut or fix stuff that doesn’t work, then let the post rest. Take another pass later this afternoon, or tomorrow.

7. Plant more seedlings

Writing, like gardening, doesn’t end until you do. There will always be new ideas you’ll want to grow. The more you write, the more ideas you’ll get.

You are not an air traffic controller

If you write a post that’s not very good, or that people just can’t get into, the world will not come to an end. No one will be maimed or die. No innocent puppies will suffer.

The only one who will really be bothered by it is you, and that’s optional.

As a gardener, if you keep yourself busy enough, failures aren’t a big deal. In fact, failure is an interesting data point. “Hm, all my potatoes rotted this year. Maybe that soil’s no good for potatoes. Or I’m overwatering, or I got a bad batch to start with.” Think of some different ways to try potatoes next spring, and move on.

Along the same lines, successes are delightful, but they don’t make you a genius. There is no Nobel prize for gardening. Great harvests make you proud and they’re fun to consume. You might even win a prize for the biggest pumpkin in Schenectady. But you don’t get a giant head about it. You’re too busy putting up new flats of seedlings.

Smart gardeners plant more of what worked well last year. The particular conditions of your garden will be better for some crops than for others. Do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

How about you?

Since gardening is a metaphor that can be extended to a degree that is both ridiculous and sublime, I’ll leave it to you. Have you found something about the rhythms of blogging that reminds you of gardening? Tell us about it in the comments.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is an Associate Editor of Copyblogger and the founder of Remarkable Communication.

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Comments

  1. Great post Sonia. I actually use no.5 to make sure I have commas in all the right places i.e. work out where the breaks should be ;)

    Cheers,
    Glen

  2. The nice thing about being a writer is that talking to yourself becomes a professional technique. :)

  3. Sure, the four seasons:

    Springtime motivates me to plant seeds and anticipate the fresh sprouts and ideas that burst through in the process.

    Summer blooms brighten my day because these is usually more time to prune.

    Fall invigorates me with the clean, crisp air and fresh ideas. Raking up the ideas so that I can sort them during…

    Winter is my productive time. I can sort through things with less distractions–except for when I have to go out and play in the snow–or shovel out as the case may be.

    BTW I am looking for a high altitude gardening person for one of my blogs.

  4. I think I have a multi-commercial greenhouse with booster lights and fertilizers. I have no time for garden tending – I have posts to write!

    ;)

  5. The forgotten step that turns good writing into great writing is the pruning. You mention it and underscore it with the emphatic factoid that you spend more time pruning than creating a draft. A lot of bloggers, and writers, would benefit from remembering the Hemingway quote, “If I had had more time it would have been shorter.”

    Good solid stuff here.
    ennyman

  6. Ed, I agree. I think it might have been someone other than Hemingway who said the quote you reference, but here’s something he did say for sure:

    “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit,” Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

  7. I think the key is like you said, sit down and just write without any distractions. To me that’s the most difficult challenge and in today’s world is probably the same for most people. Once you can get to the point of sitting down distraction free and just get to writing, it doesn’t matter what the content is at first. As long as there is some concrete content, the rest can be reworked after the fact.

    Craig
    http://www.budgetpulse.com

  8. Sonia,

    What a stellar post! Your friend was right.

    I love to write but I’m new to writing copy for blogs and articles. This is insanely helpful to me! The perspective and mindset that underlies your post is remarkable to me.

    You’re growing people and human potential… may you reap the rewards of all the good that you grow in others.

    ~ John Cannon

  9. I use the first point a lot and mostly use wordpress to create drafts. That, combined with windows live writer, makes it easy to put in whatever thoughts I have, and it doesn’t matter if I’m in the office, at home or somewhere else.

    Of course, actually sitting down and writing without distractions is a given but for me sometimes even that doesn’t work :-) I have to write bit by bit and so the drafts method work for me :-)

  10. Nice post. I often have a lot of ideas on the backburner (using the Post Ideas plugins and drafts). Sometimes though if I don’t write a post relatively soon, the idea goes stale on me – I forget what I was going to write about, lose enthusiasm for it, or just decide that the post wouldn’t end up being that good

    The sad thing is, if I had started writing the post when I first had enthusiasm for the idea, I’m sure it would have turned out well!

  11. Sid, I have my share of those too. Posts that grew to a certain point and then just didn’t go any further.

    Let’s call them bonsai. :)

  12. Yeah sonia, I’ve recently started making life easier by jotting down little snippets I notice or think of or remember – to be used as blog posts.

    I find starting is the hard bit…once I get going it’s easy.

    Let me know when you have that spare month – I’d love to read your product

    ;-)

    Alex

  13. I thought it was Lincon. But my Googling says the “I would have made it shorter” quote is from Pascal, and before that St. Augustine. At least it wasn’t GHW Bush’s “Thucidides fella.”

    I couldn’t write in an Internet cafe if my life depended on it, but in the shower, the ideas just flow. Something about hot water beating down on my head.

  14. Sonia,

    I agree, great post. I’m working on copy for our company web site and fear the bald spots I am getting from pulling my hair out. Great suggestions and I feel much better about myself now that I know talking to myself is perfectly acceptable (in this context of course).

  15. Hi Sonia,

    I’ve just started to keep my ideas in draft form on WordPress. So far this is working great. When it’s time to draft for the following day, I always have a handful of starters to choose from.

  16. Hey Sonia,

    Great analogy, and great post!

    Here’s one I would add: relax in the shade of your tree once its grown.

    It’s always good to take a moment and look back at the work you’ve done. It can be a great mental booster to see how far you have come — especially during those times of self-doubt.

    Another great boost is to review your own testimonials or other words of praise you’ve received.

    So enjoy some time under that tree. But not too long — the grass underneath will need seen to eventually.

    ~Graham

  17. Excellent post. I just stumbled across this blog today and this was a great introduction!

    I often find myself coming up with ideas for posts, but I never get round to actually writing about them because they get left at the back of my mind. I’m definitely going to follow some of your advice on creating a ‘seedling’ system.

    I’ll be trawling through your archives over the next few days.

    Adam – Balkan File

  18. Thanks again for the great advice Sonia! I often talk to myself out loud when typing. It does really make the tone more conversational.

  19. I heard something yesterday that was very helpful. They said the number one thing to being creative was just sitting down and doing it. Most people start checking emails, or emptying the dishwasher, etc. Writer’s call this BOC (butt on chair) time.
    So many people think they have to have the perfect idea. Instead, they should just sit down and write badly (as Anne Lamott) would say.

  20. I think we are all on the right path when we are trying to think of an idea for a blog post. I like to sit down with a pencil and paper and write quick little notes that come to my mind when I’m thinking about my blog topic.

    Also, another good way to think up a good blog post idea is to go to other blogs that are about the same topic you are writing about and just read some of their posts. Usually you will get an idea right away.

  21. Talking to myself in the car works and horrifies or amuses other drivers.

    Obviously writing down a useful idea at 65 mph is insane and perfectly stupid. So to avoid loosing useful ideas, I keep my recorder handy.

  22. Some great suggestions there, I often find myself struggling to write articles for my various blogs and I think there’s a couple of things here that just might help.

    Thanks
    Matt

  23. I use Jott to record ideas as they occur to me. It’s on my laptop and iPhone so where ever I am, if an idea pops into my head, I can record it. Later, I flesh it out, initially on the commuter train and then in WP drafts.

  24. Sometimes flowers bloom and sometimes they don’t. Blog posts can be very similar to this: some (usually controversial or fantastic posts) bloom with replies quickly, some bloom slowly, and some don’t bloom at all.

    In addition, the hardy plants are the ones that we don’t spend much time with. The sickly ones are typically the plants we tend to the most: at times they die because they weren’t strong enough to begin with, but more often they grow more robust than plants that started out hardy because of our attentions.

  25. This is an interesting gardening twist on how to grow your blog. I like it

  26. Great advice and right on the money. The art of writing is the art of doing it, over and over and over and amazingly on the 4th draft or the 9th draft, something brilliant dribbles out of nowhere. Occasionally it flashes out of your head in one hit like a comet. But mostly it dribbles. If you don’t love rewriting, you should never be a writer. No one ever wrote anything brilliant on the first draft…well hardly… anyone…ever. The more you do it, the better you will become.

    I think it was Ernest Hemmingway who said something about writing is the art of filling the wastebasket. Someone else said you have to be willing to kill all your little darlings if you want to write to inspire people. And Sonja, you just inspired me. I’m going to back to my posts and get to work. Thank you!

  27. Great post. I am fairly new to blogging. I decided to start a blog so I could loosen up and not be so “serious business” all the time and I certainly don’t consider myself a “writer”. I will try out your tips and see if my blogging improves. Thanks.

  28. Very Nice Posts. Every point is true. But perhaps some people have the natural talent for writing others don’t. So not everyone can write such beatiful posts like this.

  29. Defend your uninterrupted time. I like it!

    If I ever get stuck, I write myself a mail as I would a friend, telling them the secrets of success on whatever.

    Tuning and pruning is an art, but probably the most important one. it takes a lot to say so much with so little.

  30. Sonia, I just wanted to say thank you for such a great article! I am a wannabe writer/blogger. I’ve been writing for about a year. I still think my writing stinks but for some reason I am just pulled to write. Thank you CopyBlogger for awesome information! Loving it!

  31. Sonia, you’ve got to be my most preferred writer about blog writing! I love the gardening metaphore, and especially like your “boys in the basement” references througout all your posts I’ve read.

    Another point I’d add is to trust your inner dialogues. When I “set them free” through a post, I have a great time and the readers seem to enjoy these posts more as well. I guess it harnasses what’s most original about us all- how we digest the world.

    Looking forward to your next post! kate

  32. I really like this post.

    In particular ‘shitty first draft’ bit. I think this part is really important because the process itself creates lots of ideas.

    And, also, ‘just write.’ It’s, obviously, important to feel inspired to say something interesting and useful. But just forcing yourself to write does, also, produce results in the long-run as well.

  33. I enjoyed this post. Having a metaphor like gardening makes it easy for readers to relate to. Writing as much as gardening is an act of love. Time, effort and inspiration are required for the seeds to grow continuous and lovely fruits and blooms.

  34. Amazingly simple and nice suggestions.. thanks

  35. I flow with the four seasons, too:

    In summer, I’m slow, less structured, allowing my writer’s mind to drift and ebb as it wishes and without extreme focus on the end product.

    In the fall, I’m full of energy, motivated, a production Energizer Bunny. I produce a lot that I’m satisfied with, partly because the crispness of the air tends to freshen up my ideas. I expect more and plan more for myself and my business in the fall because I am capable of doing more at this time of year than any other.

    In the winter, I keep a master plan in front of me at all times with my big goal broken down into smaller chunks. This keeps my writing goals (and all my other goals) in front of me as I trudge through the time of year I like the least. I have less inspiration at this time of year, so I pull out the drafts and lists of ideas I have scribbled down in the spring and use them to create my writing.

    And spring is again re-invigorating, giving me relief from the drudgery of winter, filling up my senses with lots of things to write about. I experience again the ease of writing and lots of satisfaction with what I produce when I am surrounded by all of nature waking back up.

    Lara Galloway
    http://www.mombizcoach.com

  36. A terrific post. One item you forgot though. Someone famous, a writer once said, “In order to become a writer, the first thing you must do is to place your ass on the chair.”

  37. Better than a Smith Hawkins catalog. ;-)

  38. Brilliant post, thanks very much. I will be defending my 50 minutes this evening.

    As for the gardening analogy… replanting those rosy red apples’ seeds is often very fruitful. In my experience, one good post tends to lead to another.

  39. Another gardening analogy I find helpful which relates to your “start lots of seedlings” idea is to not rush the process. If a particular post is not “coming together”, leave it alone for awhile and go write something else. Just as you can’t yank on a seedling to make it grow faster, neither can you force a great post.

  40. John, that is indeed a very useful one. Perhaps it should have started #2. :)

    Totally agree, Suzanne. Sometimes the damned things just want to take some time.

  41. This is an excellent post, and a great analogy to think about. A good farmer knows a lot of techniques to have a good harvest, and they are patient enough to wait for the result of their hard work.

    I think that this is a big problem of some bloggers who tend to be impatient, but do not realize that they did not really gave their best.

  42. Super awesome post!

    I always have these great ideas and subjects I want to write about, but I never get beyond a few sentences because I start editing right away, get frustrated, and then go look in the fridge! I’ve heard it all before, but this is concise and digestible. I think this new blogger will really be able to apply these principles. Thanks!

  43. From time to time I find myself tryng to use Word (or in my case Open Office) like I suppose it is meant to be used. I erase, rewrite, copy and paste. It doesn’t do my texts any good.

    My experience is that it is far better to print the document, and put it on the table next to my computer. As I read it I also rewrite it, and somewhere along the way I stop looking at the print-out. That way my brain picks out the good parts and pooints kinda on its own. I also find that this makes it easier to kill darlings and keep the text focused. Working in the word processor I tend to screw up the flow and logic of the text. And from what I’ve seen this is true for other peole too.

  44. Man, I been writing so much I need one of those things to kneel on that the oldies use…

  45. Marna Reinhardt :

    Loved this post. It contained many elements that are often discussed with regard to successful blogging. Most of those elements I have read about right here at Copyblogger and they include the use of: Bits of humor, Sub-headings, Benefits to the reader, Metaphor, Quotations, and the Invitation for feedback. By following your post example as a template, and by putting into practice the steps you discuss within the post, a writer can realize true success. A great resource here!

    And, oh, I am not a gardener. I pretty much kill everything I plant! However, I am a chocolatier…and like gardening, there are ideal conditions that make for successful chocolate work. The elements of time, temperature, agitation, and environment are key. As with gardening, patience is required, wherein instant results rarely happen. In the chocolate world, “tempering” is the operative word…and the term alone speaks to the creation of an ideal environment both within, and outside of “us.”

    Ultimately there can be no results without action…and if the conditions are manipulated to fit the desired result, then the odds of producing something of quality are higher. Even agitation, with its negative slant, is a good thing…for it helps to create the revered beta crystals in tempered chocolate, it forms the pearl from the speck of sand, and it loosens the dirt in order that roots of any given plant can grow and deliver nutrients.

    So whether gardening is our thing, or chocolate, or auto-mechanics…we can each find a divine connection between the rules and tricks of our trade, and writing. How wonderful!

    Thanks again for this terrific post,

    Marna Reinhardt

  46. Another great and helpful post!! Thanks a ton for giving such useful words and motivation for many noobies like me.

  47. I’m a teacher and a writer. I think one reason people feel paralyzed is that they don’t feel that their writing is “good enough,” the way some people get paralyzed because they are perfectionistic, so can never get started.

    The second big problem is not having anything to say! I find the best way to get around this problem is to read what OTHERS have to say on the topic you have to write about. Soon, you will find something you respond to EMOTIONALLY. At that point, you WILL have something to say. For example, it could be something you agree with, or disagree with; something that makes you angry, something that calls up a personal memory (which could make a great opener as well).

    If you have no emotional feeling about what you are writing about, that is when writing is hard! So read what others have to say until you find something you have a feeling you want to respond to.

    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas
    elementaryteacher.wordpress.com

  48. OMG, when I started to read this post, it immediately shocked me how great you write. It’s a little frustrating you’re so much better than me, and the rest of the post was also great, well, at least I know this blog is worthy to visit more frequently…

    And sorry for not commenting about the post, but I was much more fascinated by your writing style :)

  49. It takes some discipline to make good habits. I often have to fight myself to write. Once I get going I love it.

    I just have to pull the weeds of distraction.

  50. Great post! Everyone who has had to struggle to come up with an article on a deadline knows its easier said than done. I find number 2 particularly useful where you talk about getting rid of distractions. As valuable a resource the Internet is, it also often serves as a distraction!

  51. Great Thought how to develop a post – Never thought that way -Thanks sonia for guiding us.

  52. I love this post and will inform my readers about it . It is really helpful!
    Have Fun and Success
    Yani

  53. TOP TEN BRIAN!!!!!!!!! Oh Wait TOP BLOG three Years Running!!!!!!! Congrats! :-)

  54. The metaphor of gardening weaves all the elements together.It’s comforting to know any healthy crop would involve tremendous efforts & creativity.
    Just for the spirit I remember an old & famous Chinese joke about a pupil who scratched his head & pulled his hair in desperate search for ideas to write about & fluid lines.When his pregnant wife wobbled by & it just flashed to him that he had an empty belly to give birth to…He could most definitely borrow tips from this post*_*.
    Alright,composing a sound article on a given subject with a designated format in a given time used to be sole vehicle to select a qualified official in the old dynasties in ancient China so every student had to go through the 9-month pregnancy in order to deliver a final product,quite similar to gardening:).

  55. I appreciate the license to write badly.

    “Allow yourself to have cliches and redundancies in your writing, just keep writing”.

    I don’t think i’m much of a writer, but i’m a heck of a blogger. I would like to be a better writer, though.

  56. Wow. Great comprehensive post. I am of the group that just writes stuff when it comes to my head. If I am away from the pc I am writing sentences down on napkins, notepads, and sending text messages to myself. My best writings are spontaneous ones that just guide me in certain directions!

  57. i love this blog because it’s realistic, show some the trurth about writing,. nice post! thanks for sharing..

  58. Great post!!!!!!!

  59. I fully agree with what you just post,
    Growing and maintaining your post is more like growing a plant inside your house, the more post you have the more your house looks grow, nice post m8 :)

  60. I agree with this article. Great information to know eventhough I already use some of these ideas.

  61. I have to agree with the point of immediately writing down any ideas or thoughts. As a very forgetful person it really does wonders to simply post a link or a blurb of anything that could potentially be a topic to blog about as a draft. Alright keep it up!

  62. Hi Sonia,
    This is my style of writing. I love allegory as a means of conveying what you have to say. And gardening resonates too. Really enjoyed your post.
    As the author of a number of books (long, long before I started blogging) the steps you’ve mapped out describe the way I write. Well done!
    Mel Menzies, Author of A Painful Post Mortem

  63. I guess the only danger with having all those posts on the go simultaneously is that you don’t ever finish any of them. I get what you’re saying about taking the pressure off yourself – it certainly works for me. But I think if you overdo it you end up mostly churning as you switch from one semi-complete post to the next – each writer has to gauge for themselves where their productivity peaks with this technique, and then be careful not to dip down the other side into lesser productivity.

  64. Every time I come up with an idea for a blog post, I use Gmail and create a new email and use the subject as my post title and the body as my post. Then I save it as a draft. I write for three different blogs so this comes in handy very often

  65. I am really intrigued and surprised by all the ideas that are here – I have just started by Blog website and have been wondering how to proceed further – I have got a few ideas here and would like to thank the guys here

    m n bhadresa
    http://www.japananimes.net

  66. The advises here sure can be useful for the beginner. I think you can also use some of the advises here to avoid writer’s block. Sure glad I found this page.