The 5-Step Process that Solves Three Painful Writing Problems

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Recently, I asked the Copyblogger tribe over on Google+ to name their biggest writing challenge.

From the many responses, a pattern developed:

  • How to get started
  • How to cut the fluff
  • How to finish

These three issues are really symptoms of the same painful problem, which boils down to not clearly understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with your writing. Don’t worry … it’s a fairly common ailment.

There’s a process you can work through that will help you achieve greater clarity of your objectives, which leads to great clarity in your writing.

This process also helps you kick-start any writing project (and finish it) with only the necessary elements, because you’ll know exactly what you’re after and how to make it happen.

Step One: Begin with the end in mind

The most important step in the process is right here, before you write a word.

You must understand your objective for the content.

You have an idea, but what’s the goal? From a content marketing standpoint, you’re usually seeking to educate or persuade (often both, and as we’ll see in the next step, they’re actually the same thing even when intentions vary).

Having a “great idea” and sitting down to write often leads to a half-finished train wreck.

What’s the “why” behind the idea? Figure this out first, or move on to another idea.

Step Two: Identify questions

Okay, so now you have a goal in mind; a mission if you will.

What’s standing in the way of your mission?

The obstacles you face are the things your audience does not yet understand, but must accept by the end of the piece. These are the questions that you must answer before you can achieve the goal you’ve identified in Step One.

In copywriting circles, we say an unanswered question (an objection) is a barrier to buying.

With education, an unanswered question is a barrier to learning. Education is persuasion (and vice versa) when you realize this fundamental truth.

Step Three: Write the headline and subheads

With your goal in mind and the questions you must answer identified, now you start to put things down on virtual paper.

Some people open the word processor at step two, I do everything up until now in my head. Do what works for you.

What promise are you making to your audience with this piece? What will you teach them or convince them of? And why should they care? That’s your working headline.

Then, each of the major questions you must answer to achieve your mission (and the promise your headline makes) becomes a subhead. Your subheads don’t ultimately have to be phrased as questions, but it’s a decent place to start.

Take some time to decide if a particular question is its own subhead or part of the content of a subhead. It’s simply outlining at this point.

Step Four: Fill in the blanks

Want to write lean copy?

Answer the questions designated by each subhead, and answer only that question.

Do not digress. Do not go off on a tangent.

Just answer the question. Do it as simply and clearly as possible.

Step Five: Now … Edit

If you’ve followed these steps, you’re not likely suffering from fluff.

You might rather find that you need to add additional information or rephrase for clarity.

This is also the point to refine your language. Experienced writers can often pull the perfect turn of phrase in some places of a first draft, while in other places there are better word choices to be made.

Finally, review how the piece turned out:

Does your working headline still reflect the fulfilled promise?

Does your opening keep the momentum going?

Can the headline, opening, and subheads be stated differently to be even more compelling?

What about you?

As Seth Godin said in our recent podcast, everyone’s approach to the writing process differs. This process works for me, and I wrote this article fairly quickly using the process as a demonstration.

What works for you?

Any tips you can pass along that might help your fellow scribes?

Let us know in the comments.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Google+.

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Comments

  1. “You must understand your objective for the content.”

    You’d be amazed at how many people sit down to write and don’t think about WHY they are writing. They know they are supposed to, but they don’t really “get it.” If you don’t have an end goal in mind your content is just going to waste.

    • The lack of any kind of strategy is one of the reasons, IMO, people find content marketing so difficult.

      It’s always challenging to consistently put out good work, but when you have a framework, at least you know what it’s supposed to look like when you’re done.

  2. Nice piece.

    As part of the final ‘Edit’ phase you mention checking your ‘opening keeps the momentum going’ of the headline. Following on from this, you should review the full piece to ensure the overall ‘rhythm’ or beats of your writing are consistent.

  3. I know that my writing style is more free style and stream of conscious, but I still see the value in having a ‘why’ or a goal for each piece.

    With everything I write I want to convince readers that writing and the written word is transformative, but this is best done for my readers by just showing and what I have recently stumbled upon through Gwen Bell as ‘Experience Telling.’

    I have to be careful how many marketing sites and writing blogs I follow because many of them take the flame out of my creative writing fire. I do follow Copyblogger though, because you guys seem to cut through the haze I sometimes live in. No BS – here is how it is.

    Cutting the fluff is a hard one sometimes. My only rule is that I write and walk away from it. It is amazing how much I cut when I come back.

  4. Perfect timing as I head back to a piece I arm-wrestled all afternoon yesterday. Thanks for the reminder about thinking through my conclusion.

  5. You know, I’ve been writing for 16 years, and I’m still learning new stuff about writing to this day.

    This is why I friggin’ love writing, it’s an art that will never grow stale :-)

    • I just wanted to add that not only do I agree, but I am beginning to see why.

      Not only do the topics to write about never cease (this much is obvious), but there are so many things to write FOR, as I’ve been learning myself.

      As an example, I’m beginning to do podcasting and videos in order to mix up blog content, and I’ve found that writing mini-scripts for both of these is a totally different game.

      That’s what I think keeps writing so interesting: a never ending source of topics and so many mediums in which to do it.

  6. Elizabeth Macfie :

    Step Three (Write the headline and subheads) also removes the difficulty of trying to draft the headline after completing the text: it’s easier to specifically articulate the point of the article while planning the message than while reading the finished product.

    • Writing the subheads is hugely helpful for me, esp. as I prefer to take a few days to write a post. My thinking is clearer when I can take a couple of days to think through the angles & examples I want to use. Getting the subheads pinned down lets me pick up easily where I left off.

  7. The Missing Link: Know Your Audience First

    Objective:
    If you know your audience, you can successfully choose the right objective in the first place.

    The Tip:
    Realize the tendency to talk about the features of a products you know really well. The audience does not know they need these features, so focus on the benefits first. Then use examples to show how your features bring benefit to the customer.

    Thanks Brian,

    P.S. This framework makes it seem so simple. Now I just have to convince myself that it can be this simple for me.

  8. All of this is helpful, but mechanical. I think the biggest challenge is making a piece sing: bringing it to life. I’m working on an e-book on that right now.

  9. OK, I’m willing to give this a try.

    But let’s not forget the wisdom of E.M. Forster, who wrote “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” In other words, you can use writing as a tool of discovery, one that can actually help you to find your message. For many people, writing to discover your message is probably going to be a prelude to the steps you suggest.

    And then there’s the wisdom of Anne Lamott, who reminds us to accept our “shitty first drafts”!

    Just my 2 cents…

    • Even within a framework like this one, I think there’s always room for discovery. But the structure gives those discoveries a shape, which often makes them much more readable.

      I agree that a period of “writing to discover your message” will often be a prelude to these steps.

  10. I use two of these techniques:
    - subheads first
    - think about the ending.

    But I also have an ideas book where I jot down ideas for posts weeks in advance. That way I never start with a blank sheet of paper. Often the heading I decided on way back, changes when I come to write the piece.

    Thanks for a great article.

  11. With regard to problem number one, sometimes you need to go with the flow. Even if you intend to write at a particular point in your day, if the inspiration hits, earlier get as much down as you can. If you think you’ll remember later, you probably won’t, especially if you’re a newer writer/blogger. You don’t have to finish it unless the words keep flowing, but you’ll have a jump start for later.

  12. To paraphrase a couple of great writers, ‘good writers borrow, great writers steal.’ (Eliot, Wilde and possibly others have expressed similar thoughts). To that end, I’ll be grabbing the excellent advice on ‘asking the questions your readers will need answered’, and adding to it my post on quickly generating copy. Sometimes we’re going for the prize. Other days we’re just lucky to get a new post up. Strategies for quick posts are our wind sprints.
    http://www.writingforfameandfortune.com/?p=248

  13. Learned this technique in school to write essays, simple, sweet and really effective but I forgot.

    Thank you Brian for a reminder and making my life really easy.

  14. Damn, I always start with step 3 first. Write the headline, then I start to outline my post. What do I want to say? And how can I say it in as few words as possible?

  15. Extremely useful information. I am in the process of building my own online business and your tips are highly appreciated.

  16. Awesome. I’m printing these out and slapping them up on the wall next to my computer. If I may suggest a Step #6: Proofread. Thanks.

  17. Great article. Going to print it out. Thanks…

  18. I found some similarities between writing and graphic designing. Before I start designing I need a good wireframe what is like an outline for writers. I have to set a goal and what do I want to achieve with the design. Next, I build layout what is like headlines and then have to fill in the blanks.

  19. Write subheads that tell your story! No matter how great the rest of the article is, (and no matter how much thought you put into it) 80 to 90 percent of readers will only look at the title and subheads. They must tell the story in a logical pattern. If the reader then wants to read the rest of the content (or not), that’s fine. He will at least have learned the main points on his initial sweep.

    Some of my most popular posts have been the ones where the subheads gave all the highlights of the message. :)

    5 dollars for anesthetic….I wonder what kind of medicine it was and how well it worked?!

  20. I’ve only just started writing and so far I’ve not really had a problem starting. But do sometimes lose my way. From now on I will definitely start with why.

  21. Very nice post. Although, I must be the only backwards person in here. Because, when I write – and I’ve been doing it for many years in Marketing/Advertising – I don’t think of my objective, my headlines or sub-heads. I simply think of the person I’m writing for and put myself in that person’s shoes, and write to convince them as I would myself.

  22. Best image ever!

    I’ve definitely written some train wrecks. Still do. I can definitely see how a solid framework like would make it easier to be constructive, productive and on-topic.

  23. Even though I’ve been working as a freelance writer for over five years, the hardest part for me is still sitting down and getting started. It’s just so much easier to click over to Youtube and watch “D*ck in a Box” for the hundredth time than to actually commit words to paper.

    I’m working on it, though – if I don’t think too hard, I can sometimes trick myself into getting started. Reading Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” has also been extremely useful – I’m hoping to put more of his tips into practice when I go back to being self-employed next year.

    Thanks for the tips!!!

  24. Thanks for the tips. Will this work for an entire book also?
    And would you use the same process for each chapter?

    Just curious.

  25. My tip: knowing the audience is also important. Thanks for the post!

  26. Although I read the article Copyblogger by google translate ( English to Indonesian language support )… I can quite understand the lesson you write an easily understood and practiced… thank you Brian, I learned a lot from you and write science colleagues Copyblogger..: )

  27. Definitely agree with what you’ve shared in this article. To me, the biggest problem with any writing endeavors stem from the lack of an objective. I feel most people are writing for the sake of just wanting to put out a lot of stuff out there so that some will stick. But if we defined clearly what we want at the end of the day, and align that with our content, we will cover a lot of strategic objectives like building trust, credibility and ultimately, leading the reader into our sales funnel.

  28. For me, the act of writing is part of my creative process, and how I organize my thoughts, so I start with a vague idea of that I want the bog post, for instance, to be about, and then start writing down all my thoughts on the subject–in the process, I figure out what works and what doesn’t, and how I can streamline the message and make it clearer. Then I trim, tweak, rearrange and rewrite. Headlines don’t come until I’ve already written it, so I know exactly what to “promise” in the headline.

  29. Thanks, Brian for your interesting article! I am alway curious and seek others’ opins and experiences. Heres my new (unproven) approach to writing fiction. I read about this idea somewhere that seems to escape me at the moment…. I ask myself: “What if?” Answer with ANY subject matter that interests you and fill in the following blank. Here is the birth of your next submittal . Build on that that theme as you see fit, or your style. It is fun to begin this way. Taking a risk like this satisfys me and opens the window of creativity, so it seems to be working right now. Try it as an excercise. Can’t hurt.

  30. Brian is fascinating, as always. Even more so than his process, I dig the open-ended, er, ending. “What works for you?” Different strokes for different scribes, right? Me, I’m down with 4 of Brian’s 5 processes. And now for a shot at mine… I write like I cook, I guess. I’m a gatherer. I snag a recipe for inspiration. I get out all of the ingredients. I envision the result. But then, I make it up as I go along. I don’t want to repeat someone else’s creation. I want to put my spin on it. So, I flavor it the way I like. However, unlike a cook, I don’t usually serve it right away. I like to let it chill for a day. Then I edit it before I serve it. You know how flavors get more intricate a day or two later?

  31. Brian,

    I strongly disagree with your statement that “an unanswered question is a barrier to learning.” Quite the opposite. Some of today’s unanswered questions are, in fact, unbelievable propellers of learning – and will forever continue to be.

    Why do you think people read this blog? Because of unanswered questions in their minds.

    MM

  32. Brian,

    I’ve been reading here for a little while, and this is the first time for me to chime in.

    I’ve learned so much here from every single one of your writers, but this is probably the most valuable piece of information I’ve read on copyblogger so far.

    It gives me an extremely simple, practical formula for producing good content every time, and that’s precisely what I need.

    Thanks for enlightening me!

    Todd

  33. It’s true that every writer has their own technique in producing a good content. It really comes down on how the process fits the writer himself. For me, I’m not a good writer but I’m trying to write more and more, I don’t do some of these steps. And it makes me feel like writing in a “Happy-go-lucky” style. When ever an idea hits me, I try to put it down in paper. But I guess it will not hurt if I give this a try.

    I will not say “thanks for this great post” anymore Brian, everyone’s saying that. ;)

  34. Here’s my written response to Brian’s excellent post: http://bfinfosystems.com/how-i-write
    Thanks for the opportunity.

  35. Great information here. I’m going to print this out as I find myself always adding fluff that does nothing to help my copy.

  36. My problem has always been going on tangents. As I write, even if I have a specific purpose, I see how it can relate to another aspect of the given topic. This often deters me from starting the article (and falling behind on my writing).

    This article helps me remember that I am not the only one with a writing problem.

    Great Job! I shared the article with my fans and I wrote it on a post it note to make sure I remember :)

  37. I’ve been using a version of this for a little while now and it has helped me tremendously. One thing I do a little different, though, is to “chunk” stuff. So, for instance, I’ll do step 1 for all the blogs for the month, then step 2 and so on. It allows me to feel like I’m getting a lot of stuff done at once. If, while I’m doing this, a bit of wording from another part of the process comes to mind, I’ll go ahead and write that down so I don’t lose it. I try to keep the above as a “loose” plan. So far, it has worked for me. :)

  38. This is a very helpful guide for writing. I always struggle with writing content, mostly because I write as I go and go over it to make it flow together. This process seems better, as you have an outline mapped out in sub-headers which keep you from forgetting points you want to make, or questions you need to answer.

  39. I usually think through all the key points, note them down. Then I expand those key points. This way when I’m stuck, I just refer to the key points to have ideas.

  40. Very helpful guide. I use it now every time I write an article.
    Going through these steps saves me time, adds clarity into my writing and keeps the fluff out.

    Thank you!

  41. I find reading other material, whether it is a blog or a book can help break the hate.
    Getting together with other, like minded people can help. Being able to shoot ideas off of each other opens up a whole new world and brings the lust of the blank page back.