Here’s a well-known secret: Writing fast and writing well are all about pre-writing.
I’m not a particularly fast writer, but I have a little system that helps me write faster and more coherently. The system is simple: headline, mind map, outline, draft, revision; this allows me to create a publishable post in a few hours. These steps are also useful for non-fiction outside the strange world of blogging.
Fiction, however, is an entirely different beast, requiring extra steps like character development, astral projection, and marmot sacrifices. Needless to say, that’s the subject of another post.
Before I give away any more trade secrets, let’s take a look at the easy way to write blog posts. Hopefully you’ll find something useful.
Most posts start with a headline. Like blinders on a horse, writing to one headline (usually) keeps me focused. A post may contain several supporting ideas, but any more than one main idea and the result is a train wreck.
I keep a running list of headlines in my knock-off moleskine.While most ideas and headlines won’t make the cut (Why My Head is Actually a Turnip, for example), I usually have at least ten or more headlines to draw from.
After revisions are finished, I may tweak the headline a little bit for clarity and SEO purposes, but the final headline is usually pretty close to what I started with.
If a headline is an acorn, a mind map is the soil in which this acorn grows into a tree, different ideas and points radiating out like roots and branches.
Starting with the headline in the center, I try to generate as many good and bad ideas as possible. Whatever I think might be associated with the topic, I’ll throw it in. As with headlines, the goal here is quantity as well as quality.
At this stage, I can usually determine whether or not a post idea has legs; if I can fill up a page with ideas, I’ve probably got a solid post. If not, I set it aside until a) I forget about it or b) I think of some new angle or sub-theme I had yet to consider.
For more on mind maps, check out this post.
If I feel like I need to do more research, I do it at this stage. This usually gives me a few more ideas worth including.
Writing the outline is simply a matter of organizing all the information from the mind map into a cohesive series of ideas that support the headline. The outline is like a set of cabinets, with each shelf being labeled and awaiting its contents. You can build as high as you like, but each idea (and shelf) must rest comfortably with the ones above and below it; otherwise the whole thing could come crashing down, pinning you under underneath its terrible, crushing weight.
The outlines I make are not terribly complicated, just three to seven points in bold or <h3>. Sometimes they get sub-points, sometimes not. Depends on how feisty I feel. Outlines are so useful…I think I smell a follow-up post, and it won’t involve roman numerals.
Once I have a headline, mind map, and outline, the hard work is finished. If creating the outline is like building the shelves, then writing the draft is simply a matter of stocking the shelves with the right products. The labels are there, so you already know where everything goes. Most of the stock is either on the mind map or floating in the ether, you simply have to retrieve it and put it where it belongs.
Again, I like to throw in all but the most ridiculous points from the mind map. Often as I’m writing the draft I’ll have a couple new points or ideas. If they’re relevant to the post, I’ll include them in the draft; otherwise they are duly noted in the headline list and temporarily forgotten.
Only after all the shelves are stocked, after each subheading has enough supporting material, do I write the introduction, conclusion (when applicable), and the call for comments. This is usually a matter of asking a couple questions and tying everything together. Sometimes I’ll use an old editorial columnist’s trick and reprise something from the intro in the conclusion, giving things a sense of close. For an example, see this post on Accidents of Birth and Early Success.
Revision & Proofreading
Revision is like making a topiary; you pick up your garden shears, step up to he big round myrtle, and proceed to snip away the excess until you have something that looks like a dinosaur (or whatever animal you fancy). Revision is all about removing the excess and polishing what you’ve got. I generally use a three-step process. These steps are:
- Cutting the excess, usually 15-30%, but sometimes 100%. Several times, I’ve finished a piece only to realize that I completely flubbed a topic. At this point, it’s best to pour gasoline on the myrtle and just burn the damn thing.
- Rewriting awkward phrasing.
- Proofreading and copy editing. I find this step the most difficult.
I’ve left this last step intentionally spare. Why? Because my next post is on painless revisions, and I have to give you a reason to come back!
Over to You
- If you’re a blogger, what does your process look like? How much pre-writing do you do?
- Are you able to stare at a blank screen with no pre-writing and write something readable? If so, tell me your secret. The imbecilic fringe wants to know.
Photo credit: bronnies_shots