In this article I’ll share the specific process I use to write articles, from initial concept to final publication, including the step-by-step details. If this topic interests you, hopefully you’ll gain some insights that will help you improve your craft of writing.
I don’t write the way I was taught in school, nor do I write like many people would expect. I can’t guarantee that my approach will work for you, but there’s no doubt that it works well for me.
Obviously I write a lot, and I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Within the past six years, I’ve written more than a thousand articles and a book. In total that’s a few million words of published content, enough to fill about 25-30 books.
How Fast I Write
Typically I create publishable content at a rate of more than 1000 words per hour, and this includes idea time and editing time. A 2000-word article usually takes me around 100 minutes, and a 4000-word article typically takes around 3.5 hours. The longer an article is, the more complex the structure tends to be, so speed doesn’t scale quite linearly with length. When I get to 8000 words for a single piece, that might take around 10 hours.
Sometimes I’m slower, and sometimes times I’m faster, but these figures are about average for me. Most of the time I’d say my writing speed is within +/-25% one way or the other.
I write most of my articles in a single session, maybe with bathroom or food breaks if I need them. I rarely spread the writing of an article over more than one day, regardless of its length. Once I get an idea for a new article, it’s like a race to get it written, edited, and published as quickly as I can.
If I get an idea for a new article while I’m exercising in the morning (a common occurrence), I usually want to see it published on my website by lunchtime. My most common writing period is between breakfast and lunch, which is sufficient to write and post an article of 2000-4000 words.
The Process I Abandoned
In school I was taught to write using a process that looks something like this:
- Choose a topic to write about.
- Identify the key points.
- Create an outline that includes the key points and supporting ideas.
- Turn the outline into topic sentences.
- Build the topic sentences into full paragraphs.
- Edit the content for unity, coherence, and flow.
- Proofread to correct mistakes and typos.
I’ve written a number of articles using such a process, but I largely abandoned this approach years ago. The main reason is that it’s too slow. If I wrote using this approach, it would take me at least 3-4x as long to write each article. This process may have made sense back in days of typewriters, where error correction was tedious. But it’s a poor choice in the age of reliable word processing software. When was the last time you even used a typewriter? I haven’t used one since the 80s.
Secondly, this method bores me. Partly that’s a side effect of its lack of speed. I’m not a particularly patient person. If I get struck by a cool idea, I want to express it ASAP. An idea that’s imperfectly expressed immediately provides far more value than an idea expressed perfectly but delayed indefinitely. Not true for a NASA space mission perhaps, but it holds true for most human communication.
Another problem with this process is that it tends to produce stunted writing that lacks style. Articles I’ve written this way come across as academic and over-engineered. Usually they’re flops in terms of effectiveness. They don’t connect well emotionally, they don’t impact people much, and they don’t do a good job of generating referrals. These are the kinds of articles that look nice on the surface, but a week later you won’t remember that you read them. If I turned them in for a college writing class, I’d probably get an A grade though. English professors often reward structure and grammar. The real world doesn’t care much about those things; it rewards writing that connects emotionally and impacts people.
Many of us have been educated to produce work like Peter Keating, but if you want to be an effective writer, I suggest you model Howard Roark instead. Write for the love of writing. Find a way to write that you truly enjoy. This may require abandoning what you were taught in school. (If you don’t know who Roark and Keating are, then you should read more too. Google them.)
My Actual Writing Process
The actual process I use for writing articles looks like this:
- Receive an idea and feel inspired to write about it. I get the feeling, “This would make a cool article,” or “I’ll bet people would like to read about this.”
- Go to my computer, open the editor in WordPress, type a working title for the piece, and immediately begin writing whatever flows out of me, in full sentences and paragraphs. Keep going until I’ve completed the first draft.
- Edit the draft from top to bottom to improve structure, flow, and readability. Proofread and fix typos in the same pass. Keep going till I’m done editing and the piece is 100% complete.
- If it’s a blog post, select the categories for the post (takes about 20 seconds).
- If it’s a blog post, click Publish, or set it to be published at a future date/time.
Usually I go through all these steps without any breaks (other than bathroom breaks as needed). If I do need a break (usually for food but sometimes just to stretch), the best place to take it is between steps 2 and 3.
I don’t outline first. I just start writing. It’s too difficult to create an outline when I don’t even know what I’m going to be writing. I have to see what flows out of me before I can figure out how to organize it.
Ideas are everywhere. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that you get struck by interesting ideas all the time. You probably just don’t act on them. Maybe you actively talk yourself out of them, or you just let the energy of those ideas fade away.
Where do I get ideas for new articles?
Sometimes ideas just pop into my head. This often happens when I’m exercising, going for a walk, running errands, taking a shower, or eating a meal. When I get a cool idea, I note it and then do my best to write it as soon as I can. Since I spend so much time thinking about personal growth, my subconscious has a pretty huge knowledge bank in this field. Almost every day it brings new insights and patterns to my attention.
Sometimes a new idea gets triggered by a forum post, email, Facebook message, conversation, book, or some other interaction. The seed idea combines with my existing knowledge and triggers a stream of thoughts in a new direction. I soon realize those thoughts could be expressed as an article. Sometimes I’ve been in the middle of replying to someone in the forums or typing an email, and it strikes me that other people would probably benefit from reading it, so I cut and paste what I’ve got into WordPress and turn it into an article instead. That way it can benefit more people.
Sometimes when I feel like writing, but I don’t have an inspired idea at the moment, I sit down with my laptop, take a deep breath, relax, and close my eyes. Then I simply say to the universe (usually out loud), “Give me a kick-ass article idea,” or “Show me what I can write that will help people.” I quiet my mind and wait. Occasionally some weak ideas pop up, but if they don’t arrive in an envelope of inspiration (i.e. if they don’t grab me to the point that I feel excited and motivated to express them), then I simply nudge them aside and let them go. I return to the blank slate.
It rarely takes more than 2-3 minutes for the kick-ass idea to arrive. When I get the idea, I may let it slosh around in my mind for a few minutes as the full idea streams in. I usually start typing within 3-5 minutes after I start receiving the idea.
If no idea is forthcoming within 5 minutes, then I accept that I don’t need to be writing at that time. There’s something else I need to attend to. So I say aloud, “Show me what would be better than writing right now.” Then I go through the same process. Eventually I get an inspired packet to go do something else, and I jump into action immediately.
If I still don’t get any ideas coming through, then I imagine that the universe is saying to me, “There’s nothing important that you need to do at this particular time, so go ahead and enjoy some downtime.” So I take a break from writing and big projects and enjoy some time away from it. Usually I start getting more inspired ideas within a few days.
I don’t maintain a list of article ideas, I don’t actively brainstorm ideas in advance, and I generally don’t ask for suggestions. I’ve done all of those things in the past, but they don’t work well for me in practice. At one point I had a list of about 200 new article ideas. When I scanned it for something to write about, I was usually bored by everything on it.
If I get a suggestion from someone for a new article, I’ll normally write about it that same day if it excites me. Otherwise I simply let it go. Ideas by themselves have no value to me. There’s an infinite supply of ideas. The present-moment inspired ideas are the ones worth exploring.
Inspirational energy has a half life of about 24 hours. If I act on an idea immediately (or at least within the first few hours), I feel optimally motivated, and I can surf that wave of energy all the way to clicking “Publish.” If I sit on an idea for one day, I feel only half as inspired by it, and I have to paddle a lot more to get it done. If I sit on it for 2 days, the inspiration level has dropped by 75%, and for all practical purposes, the idea is dead. If I try to write it at that point, it feels like pulling teeth. It’s much better for me to let it go and wait for a fresh wave. There will always be another wave, so there’s no need to chase the ones I missed.
Sometimes when I miss an idea, it comes around again, perhaps months or years later. And usually the timing is much better.
Writing articles is very much like surfing. Each wave is unique and different, and it’s a fun ride to shore. As soon as I get to shore though, I want to swim back out and catch another wave.
I wouldn’t say that my articles are divinely inspired, but I frequently receive inspiration from what seems to be the collective superconscious mind. After I publish articles based on inspired ideas, someone almost always mentions that my choice of topic is a major synchronicity for them. This doesn’t happen, however, if I select topics for reasons other than present-moment inspiration. For whatever reason, the article that’s an inspiration for me to write is also an inspiration for someone to read.
The way I see it is that when people vibrationally ask for help, meaning that they’re holding that desire strongly, and those people are within my sphere of influence, and it’s within my expertise to help them, then I’m able to pick up their collective vibrations. People are like radio transmitters, and if they’re transmitting loudly enough, I can receive those signals. Sometimes I notice those signals by intentionally listening out for them. Other times they arrive as strong, short pulses while my mind isn’t heavily occupied by something else.
I don’t see this as a woo-woo thing but rather as a real physical phenomenon, perhaps one that can be instrumentally measured someday. I suspect that modern neuroscience simply needs to catch up to it. The discovery of mirror neurons may be a step in the right direction. Our brains are more connected than we once realized, but what’s the true nature of that connection? I don’t fully fathom how this works, but that doesn’t stop me from using it.
I would say that my #1 strength as a writer is that I’ve gotten good at listening to the voice of inspiration, and when it speaks, I act on it fast. You cannot ask a passing wave to wait until you’re ready.
When I get an inspired idea for a new article, it’s like watching a 2-minute preview of a movie I’ve never seen. I only get a brief glimpse of what it’s about. I can’t tell you exactly what the story is or how it ends. If it’s a good preview, I think, “I totally want to go see that!” Similarly, when I get an idea that inspires me, my reaction is, “I totally want to go write that!”
When I begin writing a new article, I’ve only seen the preview. I don’t know what all the key points will be. I don’t know how it will be developed. But I have some overall idea of what the premise is and what it’s about. I could tell you if it’s likely to be humorous or dramatic or compassionate in its tone, much like you can tell from a movie preview whether it’s a drama, comedy, romance, etc.
The act of writing the article is pleasurable. It feels at least as good as watching a really good movie. Just as every movie is different, the experience of writing every article is different too. If I write something funny, it often makes me laugh out loud. If I write something deep and emotional, I sometimes cry. If I write something that’s likely to push people’s buttons, I might cringe a bit, especially when I click “Publish.”
Writing doesn’t feel like work to me — unless I use the old process, that is. When I write using my preferred process, I feel more like a witness to the writing rather than the one doing the writing. It’s like watching a movie from the inside.
Imagine if you could watch a movie in immersive 3D, like a virtual reality version. You’ve seen the preview, and it looked cool to you, but you don’t really know how the story will unfold. You step into that virtual character and let go. It immediately takes over and controls your physical body, directing all your words, actions, and interactions with the other characters. At any time you can consciously stop it and take a break or quit, just as you can get up and leave a movie theater at any time. But it’s more fun to relax into it and enjoy the ride. You know it’s a temporary experience that will end on its own if you simply let it play out.
That’s what writing feels like to me. I step out of the way and let the content (i.e. the story) flow through me. I feel like an immersed observer.
When you’re totally immersed in a good movie, it’s like you’re really there. For a while you forget who you are. You become the experience.
When I’m writing an article, I lose myself in it. I become the experience of writing. I relax into it, and my fingers start pushing buttons without my having to consciously think about what I’m doing.
I wouldn’t say it’s passive, but it’s about as passive as watching a very immersive movie. You still need to pay attention to what’s happening on the screen, and it won’t be the same experience if you zone out, but it definitely doesn’t feel like work, The English Patient notwithstanding.
Much like you’d experience while watching a movie or reading a novel, I experience story-like elements such as foreshadowing and flashbacks when I write. As paragraphs flow onto the screen, I catch glimpses of what’s coming around the next bend.
It’s only after I’ve written the whole first draft that I actually know what I’m writing. Only then could I tell you what the article is about.
The editing phase typically takes me about as long as the initial writing does. So if it took me an hour to write the first draft, I can expect to spend another hour doing the editing.
Here’s what I do during the editing phase:
- Read what I’ve written in linear order from top to bottom, rephrasing sentences and paragraphs as I go, to increase overall clarity and flow.
- Make cuts to reduce redundancy and verbal flabbiness.
- Add personal stories, anecdotes, and examples to make abstractions more grounded, so people can more easily relate to and apply the ideas.
- Add section headings where transitions occur. (Sometimes I’ve already added them during the writing phase.)
- Move paragraphs and sections around; give the piece a logical structure that makes sense.
- Turn paragraph-style lists into bullet lists if I think it would improve the flow.
- Fix typos that were introduced by the Typo Gremlin.
- Add more humor if I feel so inclined, and remove humor that I feel was too weak or inappropriate.
- Smooth out the language to give the piece an overall style that meshes well with the subject matter (friendly, challenging, compassionate, gentle, satirical, etc).
- Refine the opening and closing.
- Look at my working title. If I think it still works, keep it. Otherwise replace it with a more suitable title.
This process is similar to editing a movie. However, I don’t have to spend as much time on the script up front because I don’t incur heavy costs for mistakes made during the filming. I can easily go back and re-film scenes or add scenes during the editing phase. So my process involves blasting out a script as quickly as I can, filming all the scenes in linear order, and making a rough cut ASAP. It’s only when I’ve watched that first cut that I really begin to understand what the movie is about. After watching it, I get plenty of ideas for how to make it better. Then I take that knowledge to the editing room and turn that rough cut into the movie I feel it’s supposed to become.
Usually I make a single editing pass only, but for fairly complex pieces or for pieces where the first editing pass was unusually heavy, I may make a second pass. During this second pass, I’ll tighten up the wording more and try to catch typos I missed on the previous pass.
Typically the piece will grow 20-30% longer during the editing phase, mainly because of the extra stories, examples, and analogies I add. So a 2000-word article might expand to 2500 words during the editing.
Editing an article isn’t as much fun as writing the first draft, but I wouldn’t say it’s tedious or painful. When I get to the editing phase, I know I’m on the home stretch towards publishing the piece. I often glance at the scrollbar on the side of the editing window as I edit, using it like a progress bar. I like seeing that little blue bar move from top to bottom, signaling mini-milestones along the way such as half done, 75% done, almost there, and 100% complete.
When I reach 100% completion, I often verbally acknowledge that I’m done with a ”Whew!” or “Awesome!” or “Yeah, baby!”
The Typo Gremlin has long been my greatest nemesis. It’s rare that I publish an article without at least a few typos slipping through. Partly this has to do with the process I use.
Mac OS X includes a built-in real-time spellchecker, so if I make a typo that’s also a spelling error, it gets flagged as soon as I hit the spacebar to move on to the next word. I fix those typos right away. So you’ll rarely see these kinds of typos in my articles, but occasionally one of them will slip through.
Since I normally make just one editing pass, I usually miss a few typos because I’m focused on other things during that editing pass, such as improving the flow and structure.
If I wanted to do a better job of catching typos, I’d do a second editing pass just for proofreading. I rarely do that, however. Catching and correcting typos is boring and requires slow and careful reading. Usually I feel the effort isn’t worth it. I’m willing to let a few typos slip through in order to save time.
If I do that extra proofreading pass, I can rarely limit myself to just proofreading. I almost always feel drawn to make higher level edits as well. I tend to get sucked into over-polishing. I could spend an extra hour on an article just to make it 5% better. I don’t think that’s a good use of my time. I’m better off publishing it and moving on to the next article. Once I see the feedback, then I can decide whether or not to write a follow up piece.
Typos are rarely so bad as to obfuscate the meaning. If I type the word “it” instead of “if,” for instance, people can still figure out what I meant. A word or two out of place will rarely mess up the meaning so badly that it confuses people. And no single sentence is usually critical either.
Writing is a very fault-tolerant medium. With computer programming, one character out of place could easily prevent your code from running at all. But the human brain is very good at error correction and pattern matching. U cn mk lts of mstks, nd ppl cn stll ndrstnd U.
After I publish a piece, if there are some glaring typos, people will often point them out to me. I always fix typos when people point them out, but I don’t go out of my way to solicit typo reports.
I think it’s better to write 10 good articles that include a few typos each vs. writing 7 good articles that are typo-free. I use the law of diminishing returns, and the return on typo correction drops off massively beyond a certain point.
For a book that’s going to be in print, I’ll put more effort into fixing typos, and there will be other sets of eyes looking at the manuscript too. But after a book goes to print, you have to wait till a future printing in order to fix typos, and it takes more work to do so. For a blog post that’s already published, I can fix a typo and update the public version in less than a minute.
When I give the piece a working title before I start writing it, I use whatever pops into my head first. I rarely think about it for more than 10 seconds. I know I can always change it later.
After I’ve written and edited the piece, then I put a bit of thought into the title. Perhaps 20-30% of the time, I feel that my working title is fine, so I keep it. This is more likely to happen with very short and obvious titles. If I get inspired to write about gratitude, then I may simply title it Gratitude.
When considering titles, I don’t do keyword research for search engine placement. I do, however, give some thought to keywords. I ask myself if I think it’s likely that people will be actively searching for information on this topic. If so, then I’ll often use a simple keyword-rich title that should align with what they’re looking for.
I’m not particularly precise about which keywords I use, but I aim to make reasonably intelligent choices.
I tend to rank high on the keywords I select almost immediately. Quite often, my new articles will rank in the top 10 on Google for their titles within minutes after I publish them.
Google seems to give me a lot of initial credibility no matter what I write about, so even before people have had time to read and link to my newest article, it’s already showing up in searches. Then over a period of weeks, the article will settle into a more stable position. That long-term position is probably based on more typical SEO factors like the article’s content, the number of backlinks, and how much competition there is for those keywords. But it appears that Google loves me enough to give me an initial ranking that’s very high much of the time, which gives each new article some quick exposure there. If the article picks up a lot of backlinks, then it may soon displace some of the long-term position holders for those keywords. This happens quite often.
It’s as if Google’s algorithm says, “Okay, Steve. You’ve written some good stuff in the past, and much of it has become popular, so for each new piece you write, we’ll take our best guess at where you probably deserve to rank, based on your past performance. If your article proves that it belongs there, such as by picking up a lot of backlinks or generating buzz in some other way we can track, then you’ll retain that position or move up higher. But if not, we’ll drop it down hard and fast. Have a nice day!”
I don’t use black-hat SEO tricks or get involved in crazy schemes. I never use those “we can help you rank #1″ SEO services. In my opinion the SEO field is largely a sham, motivated mainly by greed. You don’t need it. Search engines like Google have teams of engineers figuring out how to list the most relevant, quality material for a given search while filtering out what doesn’t deserve to be there. They aren’t perfect, but they keep improving at it. Work with them, not against them, and you’ll find that time is on your side.
I don’t go back and revise the content of articles or the subheads to try to punch up the keyword frequency. I simply aim to produce the best content I can. I do my job, and I let the search engines do theirs.
I’d say that the main reason my articles tend to rank well on Google is that they deserve to be there. Google seems to do a pretty good job of settling my articles into the positions where I might objectively agree they deserve to be listed, if I may be so objective. Let’s just say that I’m rarely surprised.
I know that if I want to rank into the top 10, then it’s up to me to write a top-10 worthy piece, but that part isn’t completely up to me. I handle the writing, and I let others decide the ranking.
I don’t worry about what other writers are doing. I don’t do market research or look at what’s already been written on a topic. I simply write what I’m inspired to write.
I write for human beings, not for search engines. When I choose a keyword-rich title, I’m not doing it primarily for search engines. I’m doing it to make it easier for human beings to find what I’ve written. I recognize that many people find my articles through search, and it doesn’t serve them if I make my articles difficult to find by giving them cutesy, obscure, irrelevant, or misleading titles. When I write something that I believe has value, I want people to be able to find it, read it, and benefit from it. Clear, direct titles are a must.
If I feel there isn’t likely to be a lot of search volume on a particular subject, then I don’t fuss over keywords. I just give the piece a title that I believe will appeal to the people who would benefit from reading it.
I titled this article “How I Write.” That isn’t a keyword-rich title. I doubt there are a lot of people searching for this particular topic, so I don’t care about the search rankings for it. There may be a lot of people searching for information on “how to write” or “how to write an article,” but that isn’t the piece I actually wrote.
This piece is for people who want to know more about the specific writing process I use. I gave the piece a clear and obvious title that should catch their eye if this subject interests them, and if they don’t care about this topic, they’ll know they can skip it.
Because of the way I write and title my articles, I don’t have to shift tactics each time Google changes its algorithm or each time another technology shift happens. I don’t have to worry about my methods going sour.
My social media strategy is the same as my search engine strategy. I aim to give my articles meaningful titles that facilitate the delivery of value. It doesn’t matter whether people search for these topics explicitly or if they share a link with their Facebook friends or Twitter followers. I trust that the content I create will eventually reach the eyes of those who should receive it. If they don’t find it via search, then someone may share it with them.
The vast majority of the time I write my articles directly into WordPress via my web browser. I’ve tried external editors in the past, but I prefer going straight through the browser. I feel this actually helps me because I write each new article on the same website where I’ve already published hundreds of other articles. This creates some positive pressure to get the piece completed and published. It’s like the previously published articles are saying to the new article, “Hey there, new arrival… come join us!”
I use Google Chrome (Mac version) for my browser. I like Chrome because it’s the speediest and most responsive browser I’ve used. I know some people love Firefox because of all the plug-ins, but I can’t stand it because it’s too frakkin’ slow. It should be called Fireslug. It would be nice if Chrome had more features, but not at the expense of speed.
I don’t use any special tools such as mind-mapping software. I think that would just slow me down.
I’ve tried dictation software in the past, and from time to time I check out the newest versions, but I’ve never found it practical enough to use regularly. The error rate is too high, and the verbal interface is clunky and tedious — worthless for editing. I also find it distracting to hear myself speaking while I’m trying to listen to the ideas that are coming through. It’s like talking during a movie.
Sometimes I listen to music when I write, mostly New Age with the volume pretty low. However, if there’s music playing, it usually slows me down by about 10%. I write fastest in silence. If I listen to music while editing, more typos will usually slip through. Even so, I do like listening to music when I write from time to time.
Writing My Book
I did not use this same process to write my book Personal Development for Smart People. To write the book I used a different process that was basically a hybrid of the two approaches I mentioned above.
First, I did tons of research for the book and put lots of thought into it. That took more than two years.
Once I figured out the core ideas, I created a high-level chapter outline for the book. Then I brainstormed what would go into each chapter and figured out what the subsections of those chapters would be.
To write each subsection, I used a process similar to my current writing process except that I didn’t have to wait for an inspired idea since I already had the topics worked out. Writing each section, however, was much more difficult and time consuming as opposed to what happens when I catch the wave of an inspired idea in the moment. It took several days to write the same amount of content I could otherwise crank out in less than a day.
The actual writing and editing part took about 3 months, but I had other projects going on at the same time, so it wasn’t a full-time endeavor. It also overlapped the holidays, so there were some breaks in there.
When I was done writing and editing it, the book went through an editing process with the publisher. They were very thorough, even catching an attribution error in one of my chapter opening quotes. I think it only took me a day or two to make all those additional edits.
This process worked. The book got finished, and I feel good about the quality of the content. Others seem to agree since it still averages 4.5 out of 5 stars with about 80 reviews on Amazon. However, I wouldn’t use this same process to write another book.
I didn’t enjoy this process nearly as much as the process I use for writing articles. I also found it too slow. It forced me to try to organize my ideas before I fully understood what I was writing. That was painstaking work, and it took lots of discipline to get through it. If I didn’t have a signed contract with a respected publisher expecting a manuscript from me, it would have taken much longer.
On the upside, the book is very highly structured. The organization is really tight. It’s definitely not a flabby book. People have told me they gain new insights from nearly every page.
The book is also very unique. The ideas are presented and structured in a way that’s unlike any other book.
The main criticism I received about the book is that it’s a bit too mental and doesn’t have the same energy that my articles do. I tend to agree. I feel I could have put more humor into it and spiced up stylistic elements without compromising the content.
If I were to write another book, I’d use an adapted version of my article writing process. This would mean that once I get an inspired idea for a book, I’d try to clear my schedule as much as possible and get that first draft written fast. I wouldn’t worry about the chapter structure. I’d just write and write and write until I felt I had all the core content down. That would probably take anywhere from several days to a few weeks, depending on how much time I had to devote to it. I expect I could sustainably crank out 5-10K words per day if I didn’t have anything else on my plate. Then I’d go over all the material and do a complete editing pass, splitting things into chapters and sections and reworking the text much like I do when editing articles. This would take several days to a few weeks as well. I’d probably give it at least 2-3 more editing passes to increase the polish and correct mistakes. Finally, I’d get some other eyes to help proofread it. Then I’d either hand it off to a publisher or self-publish it.
* * *
My writing process has evolved over many years, but it’s pretty stable these days. I can go from initial idea to published content in a matter of hours most of the time. With this process I can express myself quickly and deliver value to others rapidly. It works well.
Hopefully you found some useful insights here that you can adapt to your own writing process. Writing is a very personal experience, so ultimately you should use whatever works best for you. Keep experimenting.