Here’s how I turn a blank page into a powerful thought leadership piece.
I never thought my writing would make such a difference.
After starting on Medium just three years ago, my essays for entrepreneurs have reached millions of people and launched my career as a CEO coach.
But it hasn’t come easy. Each article takes me between 15 and 45 hours to produce, from idea to edited essay, depending on its complexity. And it’s not always obvious which took the longest to write. The simpler the idea, the more work probably went into it.
Over the course of writing more than 100 essays, I’ve run a lot of experiments to try and improve the efficiency of my writing, but many of them haven’t worked. For example, I tried hard to work with a ghostwriter, but I just couldn’t get comfortable with another person’s words. It was quicker — and more satisfying — to write it myself.
So here’s what goes into writing one of my essays. I hope it inspires you to share your big idea with the world.
I started my first few essays by opening a blank Google Doc and staring at the big white canvas. I’d write the first sentence. Then delete it — it sucked. I’d write another first sentence. Then I’d delete that one too — not powerful enough. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam.
I quickly realised that the first sentence wasn’t the most efficient place to start. The pressure was way too high.
And yet, when I discussed the idea for an essay with a curious friend or colleague, the material flowed from my lips far more easily. Why was this the case?
It turned out that answering questions was far easier than wrestling with a blank page. I just needed the right questions to get me started. But given that every idea is so different, how could I find questions that would apply to any given blog post?
While each blog post is different, the most successful tend to follow a pattern. This diagram from Social Triggers describes an ideal structure for a blog post:
The Perfect Blog Post by Social Triggers
I realised that if the ideal structure of a blog post could apply to any idea, maybe I could reverse engineer the questions I needed to ask to end up with the right material. That’s when I came up with the following questionnaire:
All of my essays started with answers to these eight questions. I used a Google Form to capture all my blog ideas and every time I had a new idea, I’d submit another entry.
That is, until I found an even more powerful way.
I’d always assumed that dictation was expensive, but Rev.com makes it cheap and easy. For $1 a minute, you can record your voice with their mobile app and receive a 99% perfect transcript within hours (and sometimes minutes).
Incorporating Rev.com into my writing process has made it even easier to get ideas out of my head. Here’s a step-by-step of how I use it:
1) Answer the questionnaire. For each piece, I spend 5–15 minutes talking into the Rev app, answering in detail each of the eight questions above.
2) Curate the best bits. When I receive the transcript, I highlight the most interesting and powerful sentences, and then remove everything else. This leaves me with 30–40 sentences.
3) Reorder sentences under subtitles. I’ll spend some time thinking about the different parts of the blog post, giving each section a subtitle. Then, I’ll organise the relevant sentences under each title.
4) Write out the first draft. I experimented with re-recording at this point, but I’ve found that it’s easier just to write it. There’s no getting around the fact that you have to write at some point. This is by far the most time-consuming stage since it often requires further reading and evidence hunting. It’s not unusual for me to read dozens of other blog posts, or to consume a couple of books while researching an essay.
5) Edit and re-edit. After sleeping on it, I return to the first draft and read it over with fresh eyes. I’ll also pass it through Grammarly, the best spell-check out there, although it’s no substitute for a human proofreader. However, if you’re serious about improving your writing, you need to hire an editor.
My editor, Paul Fairbairn, goes beyond merely correcting grammar, he helps me tweak the flow of a piece, check my sources, and clarify my message.
‘I read this twice . . . did you mean to say X?’ he often asks me.
‘Ah yes, that’s so much clearer,’ I usually reply. ‘Thank you!’
It was only when I started writing professionally that I fully grasped how little good writing we’re taught at school. Over the years, I’ve picked up some great advice from more experienced writers.
Here are the ten best pieces of advice I’ve received:
Writing has helped me in numerous ways. It’s forced me to clarify my ideas by capturing them in writing and exposing them to the outside world. As Cunningham’s law states:
The best way to get the right answer on the internet is not to ask a question; it’s to post the wrong answer.
Publishing a consistent flow of ideas has also helped me build my personal brand, a huge asset to any business leader, especially in the B2B space. Only your best articles will be shared, so the majority of your readers will only see your best bits.
But perhaps the best part of writing is the ability to make a difference to someone, to provide ideas that help them in their life and career. And that’s a cause worth writing for.
Thoughtful essays on growing teams, building products and raising money by Serial Entrepreneur and Investor, David Bailey.