How to write content faster – and better

by Danielle Styles

According to legend, in April 1951, Jack Kerouac sat down with purpose in front of his old beat-up Underwood typewriter.

There followed an intense creative splurge, in which, fuelled by coffee and benzedrine, his thundering fingers racked up close to 110 words per minute. Three weeks later he emerged with the complete text of On the Road inscribed on an 120-foot-long scroll.

Now that’s fast writing.

It would be incredibly fast, if the story were strictly true. But once you start looking at the evidence, and adding back in the details of the thinking he’d done, the notes he’d made, and the drafts he’d written – all through a period of years – the creation of On the Road suddenly seems a lot less of a miracle. As Kerouac’s brother-in-law John Sampas once remarked, the novel wasn’t written, but ‘typed up’, in 3 weeks.

Of course, three weeks to type up a book is still enviably quick. There’s little doubt that Kerouac was a fast writer. But was he a good one?

I’m going to leave you to decide that for yourself. (Opinions vary: on the one hand you have legions of Kerouac fans, and on the other, accusations of ropey sentences, chauvinism and a lack of depth.)

The point is that if you want to write fast and well (which you’ll need to do to produce regular, high-quality content), you’ve got to develop ways of becoming more efficient. That means getting organised, focussing your mind and letting go of inhibiting perfectionism and doubt. And Kerouac has a thing or two to teach us about that.

Once you’ve got a handle on all this, you’ll probably find yourself not only writing faster, but with more confidence and creativity. And you might just see the quality of your writing improve as a result.

Sound good? Right, then here’s a step-by-step plan for making it happen.

 

Step one: prepare

Think ahead

On the Road didn’t come to Kerouac in a bolt of inspiration. His journal entries show that he’d been incubating the idea of a road-trip novel for at least two and a half years. As a content writer, you’re unlikely to have the luxury of such a massive stretch of time. However, if you’re in the routine of creating regular output, you don’t have to leave your information gathering until the point you sit down to write.

As you go about your daily life, keep your eyes and mind open for topics, anecdotes, and interesting stories you can use to frame your content.

Take a leaf out of Kerouac’s (note)book and carry one with you. Get something mini and light that you can slip into your pocket – this one works a treat. Then, whenever ideas come to you (in waiting rooms, on bus journeys, while walking the dog) you can capture them.

 

Step two: plan

Construct a skeleton

At this point you need to be a little more rigorous and organised than I suspect Kerouac was, and get the organisational structure of your piece down.

Focus on your audience (what do they want to know?) and your aim (what do you want your audience to feel and do as a result of reading?) With this in mind, write out your main headline, subheadings and all the points you want each section to include. This will give you a skeleton text, which you can then simply flesh out without having to worry about where you’re going.

 

Step three: write first, then edit

Write without judgement

Kerouac was an advocate of spontaneous prose, a style of writing in which:

  • Language flows freely from the mind
  • There’s no pausing to think of the proper word, no improving expressions and no afterthoughts

This writing style is uninhibited, fearless – and swift. Although I don’t subscribe to the ‘first thought, best thought’ notion held by Kerouac and his cronies, I do think spontaneous prose is a brilliant method for getting your first draft down. Not only does it make you more productive, it also frees up your brain to make the creative connections that a judgemental mind might suppress. 

When you write your first draft, don’t spend time looking for the right words – use the first phrases that come to mind, no matter how clumsy and inelegant. Relax, don’t judge yourself – just allow the words to flow.

Scrutinise

This is the quality control stage. The truth is it does take time (you can’t expect to write high-quality content in a flash). But to avoid letting your inner perfectionist get carried away, allot a time for the editing stage that’s in line with your deadline, other priorities and how important you consider the piece to be.

While you’re reviewing what you’ve written, put yourself in the position of the reader. Is anything else needed to make your text clear, cohesive or compelling? Do the ideas follow logically from one another? Can anything be omitted (repetition, unnecessary words, etc.)? The more you practice doing this, the better and more efficient at it you’ll become.

 

Step four: optimise your performance

Take breaks

You’re not a machine. To keep working effectively, your brain needs regular breaks, so make sure you take them. Of course, the myth of On the Road would have us believe that Kerouac eschewed breaks in favour of coffee and amphetamine, but by all accounts he was not a happy man. If you want to keep your sanity, this approach is best avoided!

There doesn’t seem to be any true consensus on how often you should take breaks or how long for, so you’ll need to experiment. I’ve found 50-minute writing sprints with a 10-minute break in between to be pretty effective, but you may want to vary this depending on how fresh or brain-weary you’re feeling.

Alter your mind

Not with amphetamines! I’m talking about the skill of mindfulness, which helps you develop an engrossing focus on the present moment.

Formal mindfulness is done through meditation, but it can also be practised informally, by simply concentrating fully on the task at hand.

The idea is that when you notice your mind has wandered from your writing – to working out what to buy for dinner, getting caught up in distracting sounds, or worrying about how you’re going to pay your bills – you gently bring your attention back to refocus on what you’re doing.

Mindfulness combines concentration with acceptance – a bonus in helping you to write without inhibition or judgement.

You can learn more about mindfulness here.

Write from your life

It’s well known that On the Road is an autobiographical account of Kerouac’s travels, thinly veiled in fiction.

Whenever possible, write from your experience and what you know. This will speed up the writing process, reducing the research and thinking time you have to put in. It will also give you a more vivid and authentic voice with which to compel your readers.

What techniques have you used to become a more efficient writer? Please share your experiences with us in the comments.


Write better headlines with these 2 essential rules and 5 top tips

by Danielle Styles

My last post explained how effective headlines hook in the reader with the promise of a juicy benefit. Once you’ve grasped this key principle, noticed how it works in practice and begun to apply it to your own writing, there are a few straightforward techniques you can weave in to really ramp up the pulling power of your headlines.

We’ll begin with the 2 essential rules that will help ensure the success of every headline you write. I’ll then go on to outline 5 tips you can use quickly and easily (where space, style and relevancy allow) to make your headlines even better at drawing prospective readers into your content.

2 rules for the success of every headline

1. Write your headline first 

As a writer, you’ve probably taken the decision at least once in your career to write your title or headline last. It seems logical – the act of writing can help you generate ideas and even hit upon a focus for your piece.

This makes a lot of sense for more literary works, but if you’re in the business of plucking people’s attention out of nowhere, writing your headline first gives you a big advantage.

When you write your headline before the rest of your text, you’ve got carte blanche to pinpoint the most attractive benefit for your audience you can possibly think of. Having chosen a benefit that really appeals, you can then structure your entire article around it. Keeping the promise of your headline as a sharp focus when you’re writing is the best way to make sure your article delivers.

By writing the headline first, you should end up with a better headline and a text that’s more effective in giving people what they want.

2. Make sure your promise is credible

For a headline to work, your potential reader must believe in the promise it makes. Time is a truly precious commodity (no one ever has enough), which makes the time it takes to read an article a real investment. What you don’t want to do is allow any doubts to crop up about whether the investment people make in your text will be worthwhile.

  • Don’t be tempted to exaggerate or make outrageous claims. Truth isn’t only a virtue, it’s what people want and need. They’ll shy away from anything that doesn’t sound genuine, and therefore genuinely useful.
  • Be specific. The more specific you are, the more credible the headline becomes. Precise details indicate that you’ve got real substance behind the title. Looking back to the four model headlines from my last post, that’s one reason why ‘3 easy ways to organise your workspace and get more done’ is more compelling than, say, ‘3 easy ways to be organised at work’. (The first version is also more explicit about the benefit.)

Sometimes you’ll want to reign your headlines in a bit by adding words that make them a little more tentative.  This is why, in model headline no. 1 (‘Why some people almost always achieve their New Year’s resolutions’), the word ‘almost’ is a vital one.

Ever met a human being who always achieves what they set out to do? Nope – and your audience won’t have either.

5 top tips for tweaking your headline to perfection

Here are 5 tips which are simple to apply and can instantly give your headlines extra oomph. For reasons of style, subtlety and brevity, you probably won’t always want to employ all of them. But you’ll often find that adding one or two of them gives your headline just the kick it needs.

1. Highlight easy solutions

We’re all time-pressured, so quick-fixes are invaluable. ‘3 easy ways to organise your workspace…’ makes for a more tempting offer than simply saying ‘3 ways’. Low-cost or free answers are also a big draw, so if you’ve got a solution that’s easy on the brain, body or wallet then go ahead and state that fact in the title.

2. Focus on newsworthiness/scarcity

Little-known information is more valuable to us because it’s likely to be telling us something we don’t already know. If you’ve got something new to say, then try to use your title to emphasise this. Phrases like ‘the secret of…’, and words such as ‘introducing’, ‘discover’, ‘new’ and ‘news’ work a treat.

3. Promise to reveal something the reader didn’t already know about themselves

You can do this with a leading question, e.g. ‘Are you selling your services short?’; ’Are you making make this mistake with [an important activity]?’ People love to focus on themselves – it’s human nature. Useful (or entertaining) revelations on the subject of ‘you’ and ‘your’ are bound to attract attention.

(Take care with question headlines – remember that a question with a clear and obvious ‘no’ answer could make your article sound irrelevant and actually turn people off.)

4. Use a list format

Lists work because, in the words of Copyblogger founder Brian Clark, they give a ‘nice, quantifiable return on attention invested’ (see 7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work). Because they’re specific about how many ‘hints’, ‘tips’ or ‘ways’ they’ll provide with, you start to get a sense either of how quickly you might be able to digest the information (small-number lists), or how much valuable material you could get out of them (large-number lists). Plus stating a quantity indicates that you’ve got some real substance behind your headline.

Use digits rather than words in your list, and try to put them at the beginning of the sentence, where they’ll have more impact.

5. Include attention-grabbing words

Some words simply have more attention-grabbing power than others. We’ve already touched on ‘you’, ‘secret’ and ‘new’, but here are some others that can help your headlines stand out:

Now
Win
Promise
Instant
Proven
Enjoy
Thank you

As long as they’re relevant, and including them doesn’t cause you to say something that’s untrue, using these words is an easy way to give your headlines more punch.

Now to announce your headline-writing skills to the world…

That’s just about a wrap for my two-part headline masterclass. But your headline apprenticeship has only just begun.

Now that you understand how to construct, frame and tweak a headline for maximum impact, it’s time to go forth and write some.

Seek out tried-and-tested headline formulas to give you ideas for structure (just type ‘headline formulas’ into Google and see what comes up). And remember to keep your eyes peeled for headlines that are pulling in crowds in practice.

Write them down. Analyse their structure. Identify the reader benefits. Ask yourself what makes them compelling – and how they could be improved. Then apply this insight to your own headline-writing.

I bet you’ll improve out of sight.

What have you learned from observing and analysing real-life headlines? Please share your top tips with us in the comments.