You sit down in front of your laptop, your cup of tea is ready, all your other jobs are mentally set aside, you look at the screen, you concentrate, and… nothing. It’s not like you don’t know what to write about – beautiful ideas keep floating in your head with admirable grace, but they just don’t line up into words and sentences. Sounds familiar? We’ve all been there.
Starting to write a new document, a new article, a new chapter can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. I once attended an event at BBC Media City in Salford (UK) where screenwriters presented their raw ideas to the audience. The purpose of the meeting was for the BBC to engage with local digital agencies, so that collaborative work on digital marketing campaigns could start about a year prior to the TV shows being on air. There was little time for the writers to develop their stories, so there were no slides, no fancy visuals, just spectacularly unrefined ideas, and yet the presentations, as well as discussions that followed, were fascinating all the same.
This experience gave me the courage to start looking for early feedback on my own writing ideas too. Screenwriters I met at the BBC event didn’t seem extraordinarily confident, they came across as very human, not particularly prepared, and somewhat vulnerable. If they can share their ideas before anything tangible has been created, why can’t I? Early feedback is now the first step I take when I’m writing, followed by five further steps which transform my embryonic ideas into a finished article.
Step 1: Supportive feedback
Feedback is a gift. You can’t overestimate the value of supportive, kind, thoughtful reflections from a trusted colleague. My preferred way of getting early feedback is sharing my thoughts in the format of voice messages. Speaking is easier, faster and more authentic than typing up raw thoughts. It’s also a more flexible way of communicating than a scheduled call is, because both participants can record their voice messages at their convenience, without having to find a time that suits both parties.
To increase my chances of getting useful feedback, I frame my request using these four questions:
- What peaked your interest?
- Where did you fall asleep / get bored?
- Anything confusing, missing or unclear?
- Does it serve the purpose?
Step 2: Format and structure
How many pages, words or slides do you need for your message to be effective? Can it be broken down into clear, meaningful parts and what subheadings would you use for each? What would reader’s expectations be with regards to different angles covered, and how can you provide a balanced picture of different perspectives? What examples or case studies can you provide to illustrate your point? Are there figures and facts that can add weight to your argument? Who are the main experts in the subject matter you’re writing about and would it be useful to include their findings or quotes? If the reader wanted to ignore your advice or disagree with your main point, what would the consequences likely be?
You don’t need polished paragraphs of text at this stage, bullet points and scribbles are just as good. This step is about making sure that you know what you need to cover, and that there is substance and credibility to your story.
Step 3: Research
Once you have outlined the structure of your work, you can identify areas that will benefit from more research and fact finding. Be smart about the level of depth you want to go into. It’s easy to get lost in researching topics you feel particularly passionate about and overlook other areas you need to write about in order to provide a balanced view. Set a time limit on how much research you can afford to do.
Step 4: Writing a Draft
Write your first draft in as few sittings as you can. My personal limit is about 500 words in one sitting. I then feel restless, need a drink, need a snack, need to water my plants, need to text a friend… the list goes on. At this point I accept that I need a break for my productivity to return, and I aim to come back to writing the next 500 words or so in 10-20 minutes.
Getting through the first draft quickly matters, because this is the hardest part of writing. Savannah Gilbo, an editor, book coach and the host of the ‘Fiction Writing Made Easy’ podcast, recommends to use TK (indicating ‘to come’) in places where more information is needed. The abbreviation is TK (not TC), because it’s easy to scan for TK in your draft – very few English words include this letter combination.
Step 5: A personal touch
A personal touch in writing is like an accessory that completes an outfit – it makes your writing unique. Think about why you chose to write about this topic in the first place. Why would other people value your opinion on this matter? I find it hard to find a personal angle initially, but once I’ve got some writing done, and have built up my confidence, I find it easier. For example, in the beginning of this article, I refer to a BBC event in Salford. However I wrote this part of the article in the end, after I finished writing about the six steps of productive writing.
Step 6: Final review
Depending on how good your first draft turned out, you might need to do a second draft, or even a few more rounds of wordsmithing. Once you’re done, it’s best to step away from your creation before doing a final review, so that you can look at it with fresh eyes and read it as a reader, not a writer. This is when you realise that some of your writing doesn’t make sense because you missed something seemingly obvious. This is also a good time to focus on spelling and grammar mistakes. If you need to cut your writing to a required length, you can do that too. These final touches are so satisfying – they never fail to remind me how much I enjoy writing.
Even though writing has a reputation of a lonely job, you can speed up your writing greatly by seeking early feedback from trusted colleagues. Before you write your first draft, remind yourself what the requirements are, what format, word count and other parameters you need to adhere to. Outline a structure that supports a balanced coverage of the topic. Research what you must, but watch out for rabbit holes! Aim to write your first draft in one breath, no matter how painful it feels. Add a personal touch, leave to marinate, do a final review and submit. Then, celebrate – you deserve it!