I once asked the Copyblogger community to name their biggest writing challenges.
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 five-step process you can work through that will help clarify your objectives, which leads to greater clarity in your writing.
This method 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 #1: Begin with the end in mind
The most important step in the process happens before you even 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 can often lead to a half-finished train wreck.
What’s the “why” behind the idea? Figure this out first, or move on to another idea.
Step #2: 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 concepts your audience does not understand yet, but must accept by the time they’re finished reading. These are the questions you must answer before you can achieve the goal you’ve identified in Step #1.
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 #3: 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 a word processor during Step #2; 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 of content? What will you teach them? 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 this technique helps you compose a focused draft.
Take some time to decide if a particular question is its own subhead or part of the content below a subhead. It’s simply outlining at this point.
Step #4: 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 #5: Now … edit
If you’ve followed these steps, you’re not likely suffering from fluff.
Rather, you might find that you need to add more details or rephrase for clarity.
This is also the time 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 opportunities for better, more precise word choices.
- Does your working headline still reflect the fulfilled promise?
- Does your opening keep the momentum going?
- Can you revise the headline, opening, and subheads so that they are even more compelling?
Over to you …
Everyone’s approach to the writing process is different. 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 content marketers?
Let us know in the comments.
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Editor’s note: The original version of this post was published on October 6, 2011.