Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Making Writing Easier



You're Not Writing Enough

Writing isn't easy. Even for those to whom writing comes a bit more naturally, it is still a discipline that requires regular exercise. But successful writing doesn't have to always look the same; it can be done in a variety of ways depending upon the way in which you are best suited to engage with ideas. Finding your natural engagement style is the first step toward satisfying the discipline of writing—by doing so on a regular basis.

 

Talkers

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*Note: This is not an actual video, just an example of what a talker might do to create blog content.

If you are a talker, you are probably most comfortable developing ideas as you speak and perhaps feel comfortable doing so with or without an audience. One simple way to capitalize on your natural engagement style would be to start recording audio or videocasts and publishing them on your blog. Doing this will still require regular practice, just like writing, but if you are naturally inclined to work out ideas by talking about them, simply recording yourself speaking may allow you to develop good content much more quickly than struggling with words on a page. Once you've done this enough, your recordings could also be transcribed and turned into written posts. Even if you end up only using your recordings as drafts towards writing, they will be critical to improving the regularity and quality of your articles.

 

Listeners

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Listeners do well in dialogues, being able to bounce ideas back and forth and shape them through conversation with others. For a listener, the idea of solitary writing is probably such a challenge that any potential for working through ideas is stifled at the get-go by the presence of an empty page rather than a living, thinking partner. Like talkers, listeners might do well to start with what comes naturally—create an opportunity to have a conversation, and record it, either with video or audio. The recording itself may be good enough to post, but you could also transcribe it, giving you the opportunity to edit out the parts of the discussion that are less germane to your core topic or enhance it by linking to other content that may be referenced by you or your conversation partners. By the way, I saw a great example of this done recently by Portigal Consulting at Core77.

 

Visual Thinkers

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Realizing that many of our agency partners are truly visual thinkers was the seed thought to this entire article. No wonder they can't write—they force themselves to start with words rather than the images their mind has already created! When considering an idea, visual thinkers will often see a picture in their mind—one that could actually be quite complex—that is more articulate in and of itself than the words they may choose to explain it. For visual thinkers who don't take advantage of their own innate ability to envision images, writing will be frustrating and likely less fruitful. One way to use your natural engagement style would be to begin by simply describing the images you see, then going back to sort out how those descriptions should be edited and structured best for an article. On the other hand, why not begin by actually creating those images and then writing responses to them? Storyboarding an article may be the best way for a visual thinker to get to the core of their idea and remain engaged with it long enough to complete the written portion (a portion of my "storyboard" for this article is shown in the example above). Some (if not all) of the images you create may even end up serving as helpful and engaging illustrations for readers. In fact, some readers are more likely to read your articles if they have a strong visual component—more on that later.

 

Good Old-Fashioned Writers

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Perhaps you're naturally inclined to engage with ideas as you write, but lack of time and abundance of distractions keep you from getting those ideas down in writing before they slip away or the moment of inspiration passes. The simplest solution to this is to keep an ideas document handy. Whether on your computer's desktop or in a physical journal, give yourself a place to jot your ideas down when they're fresh so that you can come back to your "idea bank" when you need to "make a withdrawal."

folder.jpgIf you're interested in writing, we have a lot more information on making professional writing a priority at your firm and planning for writing, as well as a presentation on professional writing for the unprofessional writer.

 

Planning

No matter what your engagement style is, you'll still need to do some planning in order to ensure that you are thoughtfully shaping your blog and actually following through with your intention to write. Create an editorial calendar, and, in addition to identifying who will write and how often you will publish, plan out the kinds of posts you will write. This could mean the various topics you'd like to cover (i.e. technique, current industry issues, general philosophy of work, or recounting specific work you've already done) or the formats you'd like to repeat (i.e. mini case studies, dialogues, interviews, reviews, etc.). A calendar like this should serve as an accountability tool when you encounter what every other writer in history has struggled through—boredom, indifference, confusion, or writer's block—and a guide by which to remain on the path of regularly creating quality content.







Comments

Mike | April 1, 2010 10:34 AM
Hi Chris,

Great post. Before switching to the Web I did print (primarily magazine design) for 10 years and image placement, sidebars, pull quotes, subheads, etc were all critical design elements to guide the reader and create various "entry-points" to the story. When I made the switch to the Web I was surprised to see an overall lack of consideration for (or improper use of) these elements, especially in blogs. Often times very small formatting changes can make a huge difference!

Mike
Chris Butler | April 1, 2010 11:06 AM
Mike: Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you chimed in given your background--this stuff is really critical to how we are able to experience content on screens. In fact, perhaps even more critical given the radical increase in the volume of available content. Being overwhelmed with content will turn anyone into a very discerning (if not cutthroat) consumer, so paying attention to even the smallest details will be necessary to improve the likelihood of that kind of person actually reading through it.

One thing that occurred to me as I though about your experience in magazine design is that new devices (like the iPad) will create more opportunity and demand for this kind of attention to layout detail in web content.
Mark O'Brien | April 1, 2010 11:25 AM
That oatmeal cookie recipe example on page 3 is just perfect. There is no way I'd make the recipe on the left, but I'm pretty excited about trying the one on the right.

For those of you who aren't privileged enough to know, that is actually Chris's own recipe. When it comes to confections, his mastery of cookies is surpassed only by his mastery of muffins.

I really enjoyed this newsletter. It "walked the walk" in that it was a very approachable but also informative tour through this important topic.
Richard | April 1, 2010 12:05 PM
Chris, this one really excited me. I've been struggling with writing for so long, but the pointers you've layed out really make sense. I'm in the visual camp, there's no doubt about that, and the storyboarding process comes naturally for so many other kinds of work--I can't believe I never thought of doing this for writing, too. Can't wait to try it out.
Jillian Kuhn | April 1, 2010 12:15 PM
The different styles are interesting to me. As you know, Brian and I have been experimenting with screencasts, and it's gotten me thinking about other formats we could explore. He's definitely more of a talker/listener, while I'm more of a visual thinker/writer (sorry if I'm speaking for you, Brian!). I definitely think I can pick and choose elements from all four styles to create a variety of compelling content.

Also, I knew this newsletter topic was coming up, and I let some of our clients know to look out for it. I've seen all sorts of blogs that aren't living up to their potential, and I love that you've pared it down to 2 main reasons that really are the root of most blog problems. I do wish you'd touched a bit on how to come up with topics that will interest and attract users, and how to keep readers engaged through comments, discussions, social media, etc.- but maybe next time! Overall, great advice!
Chris Butler | April 1, 2010 3:19 PM
Mark: You're being too kind about my baking skills. I'm really an amateur, plus I stick to simple stuff.

Richard: I'm glad to hear that this was helpful to you! I've been enjoying using the storyboarding approach for some of my articles, as well. Thanks for commenting!

Jillian: You're right, I intentionally left out engagement, mostly because we've covered that repeatedly in so many other articles (Who Are You Speaking To? and A Practical Guide to Social Media among them). But one thing that I think is pretty essential is for blog authors to always respond to comments they receive—even to go a step further and find out more about the commenters and participate in any discussions (whether via blogs, Twitter, and the like) that they create.

As for getting topics together, in an article from last year about writing newsletters, I mentioned how I use social media to organize my research and query readers when I'm developing my topics. LinkedIn, in particular, has been a great way to make an initial approach to an article.
Ed | April 1, 2010 4:02 PM
Chris,

When you talk about "identifying rules" for the image sizes, are you meaning a particular pixel size that you use every time? Would that be something you do in advance or couldn't you just use the wysiwyg editor to crop/resize your images? Also, is it really best to set hard rules, I mean, might that not get boring or too predictable?

Cheers,

Ed
Mac Heller-Ogden | April 1, 2010 5:16 PM
The content layout examples you give are really great -- must read for anyone getting started at blogging. By the way, my first thought when I saw this post was, "how timely?!", because we just (last night) launched our new blog over at http://dreamerlabs.net/ ... Anyhow, thanks for the great advice as always. Keep up the good work. Cheers, Mac
Dan Hinmon | April 1, 2010 6:09 PM
Hi, Chris:
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but I am definitely impressed with how well you have thought through this process. I really appreciate your ideas -- and as someone who has been involved in newspapers and magazines for decades these ideas make perfect sense. I love the reminder that much of what we need to do -- in content, layout, and information -- is common sense. Sometimes we make it harder than it needs to be! Keep up the great work.
Dan
MaggieB | April 1, 2010 7:52 PM
I do really like the concept of determining your best fit for engagement style. Writing skill is one thing, but it's a mechanical process that delivers ideas to the reader. Sometimes the real talent is handling ideas. Finding ways to translate those ideas in the current vernacular. Shaping them and spreading them. Some other people can write beautifully about anything and make even the most uninteresting idea fascinating. But for those that don't already know that they have this talent, your approach of diagnosing how to tap in to our existing idea-grappling proclivities is straight out of the educator/mentor playbook. I like your style.
Chris Butler | April 1, 2010 9:10 PM
Ed: By identifying rules, I mean general ones. For instance, I tend to stick to using images in my blog posts or newsletters that are either the full width (or close to it) of the content area, or half that width, aligned left or right. I try to keep that as consistent as possible in order to create a rhythm to the post. For people trying to scan the post in order to discern whether its content is relevant to them and worth a deeper read, having a rhythm is essential. Without that, they're likely to give up without really knowing what the article was about. I suppose I run the risk of making the layout boring by doing this—at least for some people—but I'd rather have the consistency and lose a few than have no consistency and lose even more. In any case, I'm far too much a control freak to not do this ;-)

Mac: Ahh, the quality-cost-time trilemma! I read the production triangle post on your blog and was thrilled that it was my first choice. You're right that it applies every single time. Anyway, my point was to say that you've done a nice job with the Dreamer Labs blog! Most of what I mentioned in this article is already being put to use. So, yes, timely indeed--Thanks for commenting!

Dan! Thanks for stopping by! I was glad to receive your comment—it brought me right back to our table at the last ReCourses New Business Summit. I enjoyed our time there and was hoping you'd show up here at some point. You're right, much of it is common sense. Sometimes I think we assume that we don't know anything when we start entering content online, but for anyone who reads books, magazines, and newspapers regularly (and at this point, online content too) you really do know more than you think about what works—what enables you to make the jump from scanner to deep reader, and then from there to a returning reader of content from a single source. Thanks for the compliments!

MaggieB: You know, I think writing is, in and of itself, an art. It's true that the ideas that are translated by the writing are not always easy to come by, nor simple to comprehend, dissect, or explain, but it seems to me that it's also true that a truly novel idea is quite rare—as it's written, "there is nothing new under the sun." Just the other day, after finishing The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton, I was thinking of this very subject. See, de Botton is extremely thoughtful and insightful—he thinks through the meaning of work in a way that I have never—but he's also a wonderful writer. I imagine I could be quite satisfied reading instructions on how to operate a lawn mower, provided he wrote them. So, my point here is that, sure, writing is a mechanical process as compared to the comprehension and shaping of ideas (though one could argue that the shaping of ideas for human beings is done verbally/pictorially, which is a lingual practice just like writing, which erodes the mechanical/non-mechanical dichotomy), but it counts for a lot!

Here's another analogy that actually came up this morning in a discussion between Mike Boulet, Brian Chiou and I: Right now, researchers at Microsoft continue to work on parallel computing in the hopes that we may someday have technology that allows us to converse—literally—with our machines. This endeavor is grounded upon the idea that part of our "computing" is unnecessary in that we are bearing a portion of the processing load that we shouldn't have to—writing our ideas by means of a keyboard, which puts them in a language a machine can "comprehend" enough to display them as we desire. Parallel computing would allow a machine to translate our speech simultaneously with executing commands, so, in theory, we could simply ask our computer a question, rather than do the work of typing word-base queries into a Google search field. So the tie-in to your point is that our typing is the mechanical process here, but I wonder if it's actually that simple. Our intent is conveyed through the tool. Thinking that our intent wouldn't be radically shifted by no longer using that tool would be naive. In other words, the mechanics are often as substantial as the intent and the result. In any case, this is a big discussion!

Thanks also for the subtextual compliment in comparing this to education. That's really what I want to be about.
Alex | April 2, 2010 1:53 PM
Interesting discussion around writing--writing is an art (as @Chris says), but it's also a mechanical thing (like @MaggieB says) that serves a pretty simple purpose--informing others. Sometimes all you're looking for is instruction on how to do something or how to do something better. This article, for example, is a "how to do better" kind of thing, though the content in the comments string is much more idea oriented. It's nice to be able to serve both, and in this case the contexts are well suited to each: the post instructional, the conversation inspirational.
Richard | April 2, 2010 3:18 PM
@chris, @maggieb, @alex, et all, yes, but what I like about this piece is that the writing advice is not just how to get it done. it's more than that. it's about how to invest in and get in the right frame of mind for writing so that what comes out is valuable. for a listener, that won't happen without getting input from others in a natural context, for a visual thinker it won't happen without sketching things out. sure, all of these suggestions lean on a mechanical process, but it's the underlying purpose that makes this tow the line between the mechanics and art of writing. anyway, blogs that just write in a vacuum aren't likely to be of interest to many people for very long.
sarah | April 2, 2010 5:16 PM
@MaggieB, @Alex, @Richard: I think some of what's been posited here as an art-vs-mechanical-process distinction is just as much a distinction between thinking and implementation. This line from Richard's comment resonates: "it's about how to invest in and get in the right frame of mind for writing so that what comes out is valuable."

With any of these forms of production, there will be some development of ideas and some execution. Being personally both verbal and introverted, I use writing as a way of developing thoughts, not just the means of getting them out to the world. Even once the ideas are there, the process of getting them down in words will continue to shape them--development is intertwined with execution. I think this is true for most or all of the methods suggested in this newsletter. Talking it out, like in the video example, can be a great way of thinking. But making good use of video also has to include the mechanical-process stuff too--taking the ideas that are developed, organizing them, finding the best words to convey them, producing a watchable recording. Once the ideas feel sound, the implementation part in any form hopefully becomes less daunting (OK, sometimes still painful). It is true, though, that writing won't be the optimal way of thinking for everyone, and trying to force it can make the mechanical aspects can feel stifling to the idea aspects.

@Alex, agreed that sometimes the product of writing can be something simple, like instructions, instead of something that would be generally recognized as art. But I would want to distinguish between writing as a noun (the simple text the reader sees) and writing as a verb (the process it took to produce it), and argue that the process of creating clear informative writing is still a craft of its own. It still requires some sort of development process to identify what needs to be conveyed, and also some thoughtful implementation to make sure that it's conveyed clearly. The experience of following bad instructions speaks to the failures that can happen when either level is neglected.
Chris Butler | April 5, 2010 9:44 AM
Alex, Richard, Sarah, et all, This is a good discussion. I heard a broadcast of To the Best of Our Knowledge this weekend, which was timely in light of your comments. The subject of the program was Writers on Writing, and the segment that caught my attention most was one toward the end in which author Jane Hamilton was interviewed about her most recent book, "Laura Rider's Masterpiece," a satire about a woman who is inspired by a local radio host to write a book. Hamilton talked a lot about her concern that our culture is diminishing the power of writing by making it a practice that everyone expects they should be able to do. She asks at one point (I'm paraphrasing), what happens when everyone is a writer and no one is a reader? What's relevant here is that, as has been said a few times already in this discussion, there are many different kinds of writing—some more aesthetic than others in terms of stylistic beauty and elegance—yet none are "easy." The writing in this article (and all of my articles, I'd say) is not any more remarkable than other examples of web writing, but that isn't to say it's easy to do. It requires practice, dedication, and, of course, lots of time. But, less on all counts than writing a book would require. So, I suppose it's less relevant what the purpose of the writing is, and more about recognizing that even lowly web copy requires much of its author (more than its readers, anyway). This is why there are people that build their entire careers on writing the copy you find on a prescription bottle, or within the instructions on simple electronic devices. All writing serves a purpose, and requires particular knowledge and attention to that purpose in order to do well.
Bryan "SK" Longoria | April 6, 2010 3:30 PM
Wow, that was a really insightful read. I loved the graphic explanations. Thanks!
Chris Butler | April 8, 2010 6:32 PM
Bryan, thanks for the compliment!
Evelyn Ogilvie | April 8, 2010 10:02 PM
Thanks for such helpful pointers. The recipe example was perfect in showing how formatting really does make reading online easier. I'm going to try this out soon, and I'm going to squint really hard and try to make those cookies!
Chris Butler | April 12, 2010 4:41 PM
Evelyn, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Let me know how those cookies come out...
Russ | April 18, 2010 6:29 PM
Great article and info, and I agree with what you have said... but one of my recent problems is finding a blogging platform that I can use on Windows servers. I used to use Blogger, but they are ending all FTP access and now require you to host all your blog content on Google's server. I would rather not do that and am trying to find a solution. These blogs have been around for awhile and utilize ASP pages.... any ideas??
Chris Butler | April 19, 2010 9:39 AM
Russ, I'm really not sure what the best blogging platforms using ASP are. I did a quick search and found http://www.dotnetblogengine.net/, but I didn't look into it very deeply (just searched for "asp blogging platform").

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