I probably don't need to tell you that writing is a major pain point for many entrepreneurs and small business owners.
It takes forever. Can cause serious angst. And leaves very smart people going in circles for days. Which is an inconvenient truth considering there's more pressure on us than ever to produce content (thanks, social media.)
Many people for whom writing does not come easily (mistakenly, but understandably) think they're just not great at writing. But the truth is, there’s a decent – if not fantastic – writer in just about all of us.
It's just that the vast majority are going about it wrong. The crux of the problem is one simple - but critical - mistake...
Trying to write and edit at the same time. You probably don't even realize you're doing it – but this one little habit is the mortal enemy of good (and EASY) writing.
Why? It boils down to this: Writing is a creative pursuit, whereas editing is a logical pursuit. In the words of Daphne Gray Grant, the fantastic writing coach I worked with waaaay back at the beginning of my career, “if you let your editing brain start to drive, your writing brain must move to the backseat – and in so doing, it loses the ability to choose your route.”
So basically: when you write and edit at the same time, your logical brain gets in the way of your creative brain, which slows you down and makes for clunky, difficult, and disjointed writing.
Stopping this habit is the single best thing you can do for your writing (not to mention your sanity and time management) - but I’m going to do you one better.
I’m going to share my 5-step writing process with you – which includes how to prepare, write, and edit in a way that separates the creative and logical parts of your brain. This is tailored for small business writing (especially when we get down to the editing tips) but it can be applied to just about any type of writing.
It sounds like a lot of steps but I guarantee that following them will save you time and SO much angst.
Ready? Here we go!
My 5-step writing process
1. Define your objective and your audience
Promise me that you won’t write anything – ever – without first considering who you’re writing for and what you want the piece to achieve. I wrote more about the importance of understanding the WHY of your writing here, but in a nutshell, it’ll keep you on track, and act as a measure of success.
Also, don’t ever write something ‘just because’ or because everyone else is doing it. Every piece you write should have a distinct purpose. Mkay?
2. Create a mindmap
This trick is courtesy of Daphne. Here's how it works. Once you’re clear on your objective and your audience, take a piece of paper and turn it sideways. Put your topic in the middle – and just start writing. Write ideas, thoughts, and pieces of information as they come to you. Draw circles around each one (if you like - I actually skip this step because it slows me down!), and connect them to the centre – and to one another – using lines. It's not meant to be organized, and it's definitely not meant to be neat - nobody else is ever going to see it.
Whatever you do, don’t stop. Doodle, draw – do whatever you need to keep your pen moving until you feel like everything is on that paper. You will reach a point where you feel quite certain about what you want to say. That's your cue to start writing!
3. Write your first draft
Schedule a set amount of time – no more than an hour – for this. For a lot of reasons, the early morning hours work great (I wrote a bit about why they work so well for me here). And I do think it makes sense to mindmap and write your first draft in one sitting so you don't lose your inspiration.
Repeat after me: do not write an outline. Instead, start writing – and don’t stop. Write quickly, without going back, looking things up or re-arranging.
Don’t worry too much about format at this point – you’ll have lots of opportunity to come back and fine-tune. Your only goal at this stage is to get everything you want to say on paper. If there are spots where you don’t have all the info, leave yourself a note - like this: [MORE HERE ON X] – and move on.
Finish up, close the document, and walk away.
4. Edit #1: The strategic once-over
Wait a day if you can – or at least a few hours – before re-visiting your document. You’re going to edit in two passes – a high-level strategic edit (this one), followed by a nit-picky edit.
First, read through your piece from start to finish without tinkering. Sit back and ask yourself: does this piece of writing achieve what I set to out to do (see step 1). If it does – or if it’s on the right track – you can go ahead and start moving things around, deleting, and filling in the blanks to get it over the finish line. At this point, focus on flow and clarity, and resist the urge to get nit-picky about particular words and sentences.
Some things you’re looking for:
In the event your piece is way off-base and doesn’t achieve your objective (which is unlikely, if you did a mindmap), do not pass go, do not collect $200 – go straight back to step #3 and start your first draft over again. Don’t beat yourself up – some things are harder to write than others. Odds are, your second draft will be come easily and hit the mark, as its had more time to percolate in that lovely brain of yours.
5. Final step! The nit-picky edit
Now that things say what you want them to, it’s time to fine-tune. Here are some things to watch for:
Once you're finished this step, give your piece one last once-over and call it a day. Writing isn't an exact science and there's no such thing as perfect, so don't waste your time trying to find it.
It may seem like a lot of steps but - trust me - following them WILL save you time - and a ton of angst. You can do the creative elements (mindmap and first draft) back-to-back, as well as the logical steps (the two phases of editing). The key is not to mix the two.
To help you remember these steps - and remind you to follow them - I've created a handy little downloadable cheat sheet. Print it, post it, follow it!
I realize this post doesn’t cover everything – you may still be wondering how to write a great intro, or how on earth to focus your words on your customer. Some of that is on my blog – but I’m also going to run through ALL OF IT in my Small Biz Copy Course, which launches this fall.
If you want to stay in touch, I'd love it if you'd join my email list. In addition to occasional emails with advice like this, you'll receive more details about the course, as well as invites to some awesome free webinars. You’ll also get a 10-page document outlining 5 super common mistakes people make on their websites and how to fix em so your visitors read more, stay engaged, and ultimately become loyal customers.
Janet Nielsen is a communicator with a passion for helping small businesses succeed.