What Happens Before Writers Write?
by Joel K

There’s a prevailing belief out there that after a writer is given a project’s requirements, they  fire up Microsoft Word and just start writing.

It makes sense in theory: When you whip a horse, it runs. If it doesn’t and instead “charges up” before plodding along, it’s a lame horse — or a robotic one. Run, robot horse, run!

This line of thinking can lead to believing things like, “500 words should take a writer no more than fifteen minutes, even at a sluggish pace of 33 WPM!”

But there’s more to it than that.

If the only thing a writer needed to do was massage a keyboard, 15 minutes makes perfect sense. More goes into producing good copy, but the writing process can seem shrouded in mystery. Let’s waft away the smoke and smash a couple mirrors:

What the heck are writers actually doing before they start writing?

A lot of dilly-dallying? Finger warm-ups? Hard drugs!? I can’t speak for every writer out there, but the following are a few of the things I know a lot of us do before we start mashing our laptops:

1. Research

“Research” makes a lot of people gag, but hear me out: You are immersed in your business. A writer likely isn’t. Consider a writer like an alien who just crash-landed into your  lobby.  They need a few minutes to get their bearings — not a ton of time, but enough to get answers to questions about:

  • Your product/service
  • Your USP (the big “WHY?”)
  • How your business communicates – especially if you have a set tone and style already. Writers don’t want their writing to stick out like a zebra in a band of wild horses. It’s got to fit with your brand.
  • Your competitors. Not to copy them, but quite the opposite. Knowing how competitors have attempted to solve similar problems with content gives insights that will help your business one-up them and stand out.
  • Your customers.

Research informs the strategy moving forward; without it you’re at the whim of whomever is behind the keyboard or writing the brief.

2. Build a Lexicon

A what? A list of words used by your target market. A writer might also build a lexicon of industry terms and phrases as they relate to your brand. The “why” behind it all has been beautifully summed up here, but in a nutshell, this helps writers get in the head-space of the people who buy from you.

3. “Brainstorming” Concepting

People baulk at paying for “brainstorming” because we don’t tend to give ideas a lot of value. Businesses pay a writer to write, not to think – right?

Quick! Come up of 5 really unique, shareable blog post ideas for an engineering software company. GO!

Got ’em yet?

No matter how talented or creative you are, brilliant content ideas don’t always materialize right away. Sometimes it takes a bit of time spent playing with concepts before you find an idea that sticks. Good writers are “ideas people” – not just grammar nerds or typing hands.

4. Create an Outline

Once they’ve got a great idea to roll with, it’s time to bring a method to the madness. Outlines turn chaos into order and give creativity a roadmap. Depending on the goals of the piece being written, format can be really, really important.

5. Time to Write!

With those things finished, it’s time to get to writing – usually the fastest part of the process. During the initial draft, writers revise, rewrite and rearrange to get the best piece possible.

6. Edit, Revise & Discuss

After the initial draft there may be edits, discussions and additions to make sure the piece has accomplished what it needs to.

All of these things take time – and all of that time needs to be accounted and billed for, or the writer loses their shirt.

A Closing Analogy

If you were hiring a home builder, you’d expect (and likely demand) that they take the time to create a blueprint before they start pouring the foundation or putting up the walls.

Likewise, before writers jump straight into writing they need to build a blueprint to work from.

For writing that accomplishes what you need it to, expect – and demand – the same.

That about sums it up! I’d love to banter about this with you in the comments.

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8 Comments
  1. Anthony Pensabene says:

    hey dude, i like the mention of building a lexicon. i’ve been using wordle and wordmaps lately to try and pinpoint specific topics and semantics. for instance, been throwing gaps of text from yelp in wordle to see what people are discussing/concerned of/love, etc.

    • Joel says:

      Brilliant idea with wordle, Anthony!

      For myself, I hunt around competitor websites looking for phrasing they’ve used, but I also love informal discussion forums (Yelp, Twitter, Web Forums, etc.) to nail down how people talk about the business. At the same time, I’m also trying to identify pitches the competition has made so I can avoid putting together something tired or bland.

      Also – you’re my first comment ever! How does it feel?

  2. Love this—and you’re dead on! 🙂

    Research is soooo stinkin’ important—and I think it’s what sets the writers apart from the “word nerds”. Clients always find it fascinating that I dig so deep and spend so much time with them before I write—and then they see why with the copy.

    The lexicon concept is imperative, too.

    Great post, Joel!

    • Joel says:

      Hey Justin – stoked you stopped by my little shiny corner of the web. It’s true – the really great writers aren’t hired for their hourly rates or the time it’ll take, they’re hired because they’ve got the expertise to plan, learn and then execute on great ideas.

  3. […] This is because to most clients, the value of a blog post is seen as low and the writing process is poorly understood. People tend to assume blog posts erupt from writers’ fingers spontaneously, without any time spent researching, planning or organizing. (For more on how this actually works, see: What Happens Before Writers Write?) […]

  4. Linda says:

    Hey joel…

    Great ideas, thanks for sharing…..

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