It’s 9 p.m. and once again, you can’t think of a damn thing to write.
But you’ve got to get your next [assignment/blog post/business article/autoresponder campaign/etc.] out the door. Preferably yesterday. Writer’s block, right?
Nah. “Writer’s block” is a bit of a cop-out, isn’t it? No knock on writers who believe in the muse, but I think it’s silly to suggest that all good writing starts with an epiphany. Worse, it makes writing seem esoteric and scary to the many people on this planet who write daily — not for pleasure, but for business.
To paraphrase William Zinsser, if you can think clearly, you can write. (Editors help!)
And truth is, most of us have at least a few ideas banging around at any given moment; that’s why having a content swipe file and an editorial calendar is so valuable. It turns a disorganized process into a strategic business activity. No matter how strategic you are, though, sometimes you draw a blank. I’ve been there, trust me.
At other times, you may have a very good idea, but you’re paralyzed by the challenge of crafting a lead, hook or headline. You’ve got the nuggets but no structure.
But there are a few very simple questions you can ask yourself to get the ball rolling — whether you’ve written 1 or 1,001 articles. They’re not hard. They’re not industry- or level-specific. And yes, even the most talented career writers can leverage them on those brick-wall days:
#1: What’s Your Most Recent (or Painful) Failure?
When’s the last time you failed at something — big or small? Say, the last disappointed customer? The last deal that fell through? The last time your business once again overran your personal life and caused a relationship meltdown?
This is the stuff of great human interest. But it’s also where we learn the most. Turn these moments into a “lessons learned” post — but be specific about the action items and the story that inspired your list. FYI, failure posts that fail to deal with the raw human reasons things didn’t go your way (and instead focus on your brilliance in the moment) tend to ring a little false to the reader.
We want to see your guts, OK?
#2: What’s Your Most Recent Success?
Same question, in reverse. This could be little picture (how you chose between Facebook and LinkedIn for your latest ad spend) or big picture (that you finally opened your new restaurant’s doors after months of financial problems). The key is to find a business-related success story that has some value for readers, whose motivation in reading this sort of piece is to get YOUR expert tips for achieving the same success.
A word of caution: the success angle is not an opportunity to congratulate yourself or show readers what high esteem you hold yourself in. We get it — you’re successful. (That’s why we’re reading your story, actually.)
Rather, this is an opportunity to dive deeply into your latest career-changing moment and figure out why in the world it went right this time. What did you do differently? What strategy did you employ that put the client over the moon? How did your customer interaction change? What steps did you take that were unusual/unorthodox/different? What would your average (or ideal) customer/consumer/strategic partner — insert your own reader profile here — want to know about how you did it?
#3: What’s the Last Business Question You Answered?
This could be related to your niche or it could be related to something you do exceptionally well. Or it could be some slice of little-known industry knowledge you possess (and people are constantly asking you about).
The bottom line is this: what is the last question you answered? Preferably one put to you by a potential or actual customer?
The key here is not to give away the whole cow, but to provide some insight into your process.
Double Bonus: By writing an article or post sharing your how-to advice or tips for dealing with X subject, you’ve just cut your inbox down to size. Next time someone wants your expertise on X, you can just link to your article or post. (Even smarter, link to it in your email signature — it drives clicks and also fosters trust.)
#4: What’s the Last Interesting Business Article YOU Read?
Because if you still remember it, chances are, there’s a reason it’s sticking — and there might be an opportunity here for you to respond or present an alternative view/advice.
For example, see this recent PandoDaily recap of an HBR article for an amusing version of this approach (best reserved for skilled writers with a built-in audience!). A few good rules of thumb if you take this route:
- Refer to and clearly acknowledge the source. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this is omitted. Do not omit it unless your article is standalone.
- Offer a good reason — new research, personal experience, etc. — for your response. There’s a BIG YAWNING difference between a response, recap or version 2.0 and plain old scraping. There’s also readers to consider. Are they bored to tears by responses to this particular piece/topic already?
- Do your homework — Google related blog posts and stories. Your response may not be as original or as timely as you think.
#5: Which Industry Trend/News Item/Regulatory Issue Is Affecting Your Biz Right Now?
What is affecting your business decision making right now? What will affect it tomorrow? Think policy, regulation, trends, new markets.
If you have either: (a) a solution or (b) a totally unique perspective in the industry or (c) an evidence-based disagreement, this is a great opportunity for thought leadership. That is, it’s a good brand-building opportunity, both in terms of developing your reputation with customers and with your competitors/colleagues.
(In fact, there may be two articles in here: one that’s customer-facing, one that’s destined for a trade publication or industry audience.)
Let’s say you’re introducing an app that leverages big data for a particular business process (HR?) and you just took a look at the Gartner trends data for 2013. Well, jump in, and let’s hear why what you’re doing is a service that’s a good investment now (vs. last week or 2 months from now). Again, there’s a fine line between bragging and being a commentator.
My suggestion? If you can’t articulate your arguments in such a way that you’re providing a valuable or unique slant on the topic at hand, stick to something tips-based instead; e.g. “how to incorporate X trend into your business in Q2” (vs. the infinitely more challenging “here’s me weighing in on X” approach).
P.S. If you’re keen on the latter, route, though, check out these cut-and-dry resources on writing a timely, compelling opinion piece first — 1, 2, and 3 (from OPEN Forum and 2 universities, respectively).
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Your turn: What questions would you add to this list? How’d you find your last big story or blog post idea? I’d love to build this list out.