OK. Blank screen.
No problem. I’ve already agreed with the editor what this article will be about, and I kinda know what it should say. All I need to do is translate those thoughts into words on the page.
Welcome to the first of the five stages of grief writing: Denial.
Writing always takes me longer than planned. The more creative or reflective the writing, the worse this time dilation becomes – and I know I’m not alone. Creativity doesn’t like to be measured with a stopwatch when it can be. It’s far better to measured in ice ages.
Each time I start a new project, I convince myself this time will be different. It won’t.
Before this article is done, denial will be followed by anger, bargaining, and depression. Eventually, I’ll reach acceptance that this draft is as good as it’s going to get and email it to the editor.
Writing is a game of drafts
In 1974, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “A typewriter is a means of transcribing thought, not expressing it.” (The Essential McLuhan, Routledge, 1997) Most people can write, and these days most people can type (after a fashion). But typing isn’t writing. If all I needed to do was type 1,800 or so words, I’d have finished this article in under an hour over a week ago.
One reason the art of writing is so often misunderstood – and undervalued – is that the same word is used to describe two very different activities. There’s writing in the functional sense of assembling letters into words, sentences, and so on – transcription. And then there’s writing in the sense of telling stories, conveying ideas, or composing poetry – expression.
Another reason is that the effortlessness of reading conceals the effort of writing. The opening lines to this article give no clue to how long I stared at the screen before that first tap of the keyboard, nor the days it took for the idea to mature at the back of my brain as I worked on other projects. The trick is to uncork the idea and decant it onto the page before it turns to vinegar – but not so soon that it hasn’t had a chance to mature.
Even then, the first words you read are rarely the first words written. I typed the opening lines you just read three days and 1,800 mostly deleted words after I began this article. As I write this, I can’t be certain they will still be the opening lines when I send off the article, never mind when it’s eventually published.
I added the Marshall McLuhan bit a few days later still, while assembling what I hoped would be the final draft. At every stage, new ideas keep turning up wanting to be included.
This article is (I hope) a seamless mix of paragraphs and sentences written and rewritten at different times; deleted, reinstated, rearranged, and rewritten again, as I play with ideas and try to assemble the most effective sequence of thoughts to carry you, dear reader, to the end.
The effortlessness of reading conceals the effort of writing, says @Kimota. And that explains why the best #ContentMarketing rarely comes from rushing the writer via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet
Writing is juggling
Don’t get me wrong; I’ve not spent the best part of a week writing a single article. I’d go broke if that were true. Instead, writing happens in bursts of a few hours here, a few minutes there, skipping between projects as I shepherd each to its allotted deadline. Right now, I’m making use of a spare half-hour after finishing that other thing and before the next Zoom meeting.
Content writing is typically a juggling act of projects, deadlines, meetings, phone calls, emails, and other commitments. Few writers get to start and finish a single project without interruption or distraction before moving on. And the brain isn’t great at switching from thinking about one thing to thinking about another and back again.
Each interruption carries a cognitive cost as well as a temporal one. According to a team of psychological scientists at George Mason University, even minor distractions can measurably degrade the quality of work.
Therefore, creative or knowledge-based work demands a greater level of sustained concentration and focus to …
The phone rings. A client has changed direction on a project I thought was finished a week ago and urgently needs new copy by this afternoon. I move things around my calendar to free up a couple of hours.
It’s now two days later. I’m trying to heave my derailed train of thought back onto the tracks after being consumed with other projects.
Should be fine. I’m still on the right side of the deadline. If I can just get a long enough stretch of uninterrupted time to …
The phone rings.
Writing is thinking
“Writing and speaking aren’t just about communicating; they’re also about thinking. They’re ways of working out what you think or what you want to say,” Joe said.
“I say to my students that writing is rewriting. The way we think about writing, certainly in academia, is a science model: You do your thinking and your research and then you write it up. When you do a Ph.D., there’s even a stage called the writing-up stage. That’s not what writing should be about. The writing is the work.”
Content marketing is often described as a way for brands to demonstrate thought leadership. If that’s the case, shouldn’t the writing of that content be, y’know, thoughtful?
“In good writing, you write a sentence, and then that sentence generates the next one,” Joe said. “There’s an element of surprise because you’re not always sure what the next sentence is going to say until you’ve completed the previous one.”
And because we’re not computers, thinking doesn’t happen in a single straight line from idea to final draft. At times, writing can feel more akin to improvisation. It can be a mess of tangents and trying things out, exploring different ideas along with different ways to express them.
“The longer you can work on the actual writing, shaping the sentences, that in itself is the work. That’s the thinking about stuff.”
#ContentMarketing is a way for brands to demonstrate thought leadership. If that’s the case, shouldn’t the writing of that content be, y’know, thoughtful? @Kimota via @CMIContent. #WritingTips Click To Tweet
Writing is researching
I write articles and other content for several clients – some under my byline, some with no byline other than the brand. The latter are by far the easiest to write as they’re straightforward and functional pieces of content – listicles and other short factual pieces with little room for editorializing or opinion, let alone a more creative angle. They’re a necessary part of the content mix for most brands, can be reasonably quick to turn around, and keep my productivity (and invoices) up.
If I have to write a common-or-garden listicle on Five Cordwangling Tips for Greeble Mungers (obscure gag for any Kenneth Williams fans out there), half of the time is typically taken up with research. I skim-read a bunch of articles on the topic, making notes – perhaps aided by a few sources provided in the brief, perhaps based on my own Google searches – to come up with the tips that seem most interesting or useful to my mind. Then I try to gather a few stats or examples to back them up.
The remaining half of the time I try to convert and compress the information into a few hundred words of reasonably tight prose.
This split between research and writing is not so clear cut in practice. There’s always some back and forth between writing and research. Paraphrasing and summarizing complex information into a tight word count means I need to continually check I’m not veering into inaccuracy.
But the biggest frustration is usually the time wasted on wild goose chases – fact-checking information and confirming sources that turn out to be too old or inaccurate for me to use because not all content is written with the same attention to detail. Just checking a single fact can sometimes take 30 minutes or more.
On many occasions, I’ve begrudgingly deleted what seemed like the perfect fact from an article; not because it turned out to be wrong, but because I couldn’t afford any more time trying to confirm it.
And all of this time needs to be paid for. A smaller fee means less time for research, with potential consequences for the quality and accuracy of the information in the final piece.
If you’re happy for your content to be written after 10 minutes of research from the first page of the search results for the most obvious keyword, then feel free to rush as much and pay as little as you can get away with.
But if the writer can research the information that quickly, so can your audience. Content that merely curates and paraphrases information that’s already easy to find is hardly thought leadership.
Writing is editing
Mark Twain is commonly credited with the quote, “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.” It’s a corker of a line, but a little research reveals Twain never wrote it – illustrating why fact-checking is an essential part of the writing process. (I just invested 10 minutes checking that quote, by the way.)
Once I have a complete draft, with a beginning, middle, and end, I might need to cut some words out to fit the agreed word count. I just cut 600 words from the latest draft of this article, comprising two sections: writing is reading and writing is playing. The points in those sections were relevant (and they contained a couple of gags that I’m sorry to see go) but I needed to prioritize the best 1,800 words out of the approximately 4,000 to 5,000 I’ve probably written by now.
It also matters (or at least it should) that the grammar is correct, the styles consistent, and the details checked and checked again. The writer – and the editorial team you have in place – should obsess about such things so that no one else has to.
Crafting perfect sentences takes care. And time. If you haven’t gathered by now, the key ingredient at every stage is time.
But time does eventually run out.
Writing is knowing when to finish
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” (The Guardian, 2001. Fifteen minutes checking.)
My deadline for this article whooshed by a few days ago, despite my best intentions. Sometimes life gets in the way. That’s why it’s always a good idea to be clear about which deadlines have some give in them and which will thoroughly derail a project if they’re missed.
But I think this draft is ready. It’s done. Time to stop tinkering, stop rewriting, stop thinking of new bits to add. Time to let it go and give the editor a chance to read it.
Time for me to start thinking about the article I need to write tomorrow, and the interview on Thursday, and …
It’s a week later. There’s an email in my inbox marked “feedback.” I guess this article isn’t finished with me yet.
Jonathan Crossfield’s Creative License column in CCO magazine gives content leaders insights into the minds of their most creative team members. Sign up for the digital edition of CCO here.
Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute