Last week David left a very nice comment for me about my writing and wondered where I found the time to write in-depth posts. I thought I’d take today to talk about my process for creating posts and how I think that process has helped improve both my writing and this blog.
I’ve written about this process in the past for Search Engine People and it comes from some ideas I had a couple of years ago about assembly line blogging. The main ideas behind it haven’t changed much, though some of the details have.
Years ago I would sit down at night and try to take a post from nothing to finished all in one night. Some nights the writing flowed and other nights I struggled for ideas. I think the overall result was to have an uneven blog. Quality would vary from post to post. Some of the writing felt more like an obligation than a passion.
In general I don’t think the blog was very good. There are what some very good posts from those days, but for the most part the blog wasn’t anything special. If I had to answer the question at the time would I read my blog if it weren’t mine, the honest answer would have been no.
Then I hit on one of those creative blocks where I felt I had absolutely nothing to say and stopped saying it. Since writing had become an obligation it felt great to be relieved of that obligation. This blog sat empty for a few months.
I came back with a new direction, a passion for the new direction, and a process to help me be creative and productive. I’m certainly somewhat biased, but I think this blog has become something worth talking about over the last year or so. If I have to answer the question today, I can honestly say, yes I would read here even if this place wasn’t mine. A large part of why I think this has become a better blog is the process that follows.
- Outlining and Note taking
- Writing a First Draft
- Editing, Proofing, and Linking
- Adding Images and Media
Working on each of the above on different days or times helps me be more productive and as a result I think helps me create better content.
I generally don’t brainstorm on a regular schedule. I tried, but it didn’t work for me. What I typically do is collect links and scraps of information while I’m reading and surfing the web that I think might make for an interesting post. I do have a list of post topics and every so often, maybe once every 3 weeks or so, I’ll sit for an hour and think up any new ideas that I can.
This is one area of my blogging where I’d like to do a better job.
Many of my posts for the last year have come from the design books I read and reread. When it’s time to begin a new post I’ll flip through the books and see what topics are interesting and that I think I could cover reasonably well. At times I’m focused on one aspect of web design and I’ll be reading books and sites about that topic and I’ll pull a few related ideas on that topic.
If possible I try to look for ideas I can write several posts around as either a series or a related set of posts on a single topic.
Thursday posts are mainly coming from something I read online that makes me want to write a long comment.
Outlining and Note Taking
Once I’ve chosen a topic to write about I create a new entry in my blog editor (I’ll review the editors and other tools I use in another post) and start by making a quick outline. The outline is mostly to get me to start thinking about the topic and an angle to write about, though I often expect the outline to change as I put together the post.
As I build the outline I’ll jot down any thoughts I have as the start of notes for the post. If the idea came from a book or two, I’ll read through the pages in the books, taking notes as I go. The next step is to start searching online for any article or post with additional information that I can link to and as I go I’ll usually skim/read and take more notes.
My initial outline changes as I take notes. Ideas that hadn’t occurred to me arise. The information I find might suggest a different angle for the post. Maybe I couldn’t find much information on something I thought would be a main section or find more information about something I thought would be a minor part of the post.
Writing the First Draft
I write the first draft in one sitting. Ideally I’ll have done a good job taking notes and organizing them and when that’s the case I can often fly through the first draft. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of working through each section and turning my notes into complete sentences and paragraphs. I’ll usually spend a few minutes organizing the notes for a particular section and then turn those notes into a few paragraphs before moving onto the next.
More often it takes longer to write the first draft and even though it takes more time there’s only so much to say about how I write a draft. At this stage I just write, not worrying much about the writing. The idea is to write enough words that can be shaped later. This helps separate the creative writer from the critical editor.
A few thoughts about writing in general. The only way to become a better writer is to write and write as often as you can. One reason I spend time posting at forums and commenting on blogs is simply to practice writing.
Reading is the other component. Read the best writers you can. Go through the literature section at a bookstore and take down the collected works of Hemingway or Faulkner or any other writer you’re supposed to read. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and any other form of writing you can, always looking for the best authors. As you read great writers you’ll develop an ear for their rhythms, which will find its way into your own writing naturally.
Develop a writing voice. Write naturally. Don’t force words onto the page for style or because you think they make you sound more literary. The don’t. Start by writing in your own voice, the one you speak with and develop out from there. Your writing and speaking voice will grow differently, but they should start in the same place, that being you.
Proofing and Linking
A day or two after I’ve written the first draft, I’ll go back into the post and read through it. I’ll fix any typos I notice, rewrite awkward sentences, remove some paragraphs and add some new ones. Here I’m in full editor mode and looking to shape the first draft and do my best to ensure it reads well and stays on topic.
After a quick break I’ll organize the links I’ve collected and begin working them into the post. Most of the time I’ve already done a little of this as I took notes and worked through the first draft, but the majority of links I’ll save to the end. I check each post I’ve collected a link to and decide which section of the post to include it. Some links get dropped. Maybe they don’t offer much more than what I have in the post or my post moved in a somewhat different direction than the post I was going of linking to.
Other links I feel are important to include, though they may not have a natural place in my text to add them. I might write a new sentence or paragraph mostly for the link or sometimes I’ll add in a resources section within a section of the post if there are a few articles I want to link to, but haven’t found a place for within the content.
One other thing I do when adding links is look at a preview of the post to see how balanced the links look visually. I prefer not having all the links in one section while another section gets none. Ideally I’d like a roughly even amount of links in each section since I think it creates a better visual flow.
It’s not always possible to do that and ultimately I place the links where I think they make the most sense in relation to the content. Often you’ll see the same word or phrase linked through a post. Usually this is because the articles I’m linking to are all general coverage of the topic. If I can, I put the ones I liked the most closer to the top or in a place where I think they’re more likely tot get noticed and clicked.
Adding Images and Other Media
I used to add images at the same time I proofed and added the links, but lately I’ve been doing this on a separate day since it can take significant time to either create or find the right images. Ideally as I’ve done everything above I’ve made notes about where images should go and what the images should be.
Images and other media are a great way to dress up a post. People are attracted to images and they tend to stick around a little longer when images and video are present.
Sometimes I’ll have to create images to illustrate a point. Other times the images are mainly there to dress up the post a bit, though I always try to create or find an image relative to the content near where the image will be.
With the images I don’t create I mainly search the creative commons images at Flickr since I want to make sure I’m not using an image with a copyright that prevents me from using it. Certain images I feel comfortable assuming are public domain and will grab those from anywhere. Images of famous paintings for example.
Anytime I use an image created by someone else, I’ll do my best to link the image back to the source to give credit where credit is due.
With the images collected I’ll bring them all into Photoshop to resize them, combine them, or work on them in any way necessary.
Once all the images are added the post is done. It’s all still in my blog editor at this point. I’ll give it another quick once over before sending it to WordPress. I always send the post as a draft to WordPress and give it one last look before finally hitting the publish button and hoping I’m not making a fool of myself. Even with all the proofing, I’ll still leave typos in posts and even worse the post titles.
Then it’s time to begin working on the next post.
That’s pretty much my process for writing the longer tutorial style posts that I publish on Mondays. I spend anywhere from 1-3 hours each day over 3 or 4 days to put them together. Call it 6-10 hours per post. One tutorial post a week is about all I can realistically publish, though lately I’ve been adding posts like this one on Thursdays.
These Thursday posts have a slightly different process. The topics are something that came up durning the week or previous week and tend to be posts that don’t require research and where I can share a little more about my thoughts and personality. For example this post came out of David’s comment last week and I’m writing the first draft Sunday afternoon during a rain delay in the Yankees/Mets game. Sometime later in the week I’ll proof and edit and add a few links and probably some images if necessary.
I continue to explore the process I described above and try to improve it as I can. I’d like to be able to put together the same quality in less time and I’m always looking to improve the quality any way I can. I’m looking for ways to mix in different kinds of posts like this one that take much less time to create in order to be able to offer more than one post per week.
One thing the process does is allows me to slowly build up a store of posts. I spend time every day working on this blog, but since it doesn’t take me 5 full days to finish a post, I can slowly get ahead. A month or so ago my brother came into town and I took most of the week off, but you never noticed, because I had a post at the ready.
A store of posts also makes it easier to have something when another site requests a guest post or to give me more time to work on book if I choose. Some thoughts for the future include working more with media like video.
I hope this look into my own process has given you some ideas for improving your own blogging. The key is to understand yourself and what parts of the writing process flow and what parts are harder for you. I found that by working on different tasks on different days it made things easier overall and allows me to improve each distinct part more than when I tried working on them all at the same time.
If there are any particular aspects of the above you’d like to know more about let me know with a comment. Also if you’re interested I’ll write something up about the various tools I use to help with most or all of the above.
Do you follow any kind of writing process or do you write everything in one sitting?