As an entrepreneur, investor or advisor these days you need a professional looking blog to maintain your credibility. You need a place to showcase your thinking and participate in longer conversations than you can on Twitter or LinkedIn. Participating on a social networking site is like being a guest at someone else’s party. It’s nice, but you’re not the boss. You need a place to host your own party. You need a blog. But it’s tough to keep a blog going when you’re not in the mood to write.
A blog allows you to share your thinking and the lessons you’ve learned. Becoming a “thought leader” isn’t something that you can just put on a todo list and will magically happen. You need to do the hard work of thinking and then putting that thinking into words that others can benefit from. Over the years, I’ve been inspired by several writers that I admire and I’ve tried to learn from how they write.
I’ve been complimented a couple of times on the writing in this blog, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable about these compliments because I just write what I’m thinking. There is no really deliberate style to it. I write to help myself (and my clients) codify the things that we’ve learned along the way about branding, design and innovation.
It’s a bit weird that I’m always telling my clients to adopt a deliberate brand “tone of voice”, but in my own writing I tend to just let it all flow onto the page. I think what’s happened is that I’ve evolved a tone of voice through sheer milage. The best way to improve your writing is to write. I’ve modelled writers that I admire such as Tim Ferriss, Mitch Joel, Seth Godin, Tom Peters and Tim Brown. Joel from Buffer (a social media tool we use with our clients) has a great post on Lifehacker about five realisations that helped him write more regularly.
I also get asked how I keep up with creating content for Peter J Thomson (my business blog), Coffee Hunter (about independent coffee around the world) and London Street Photo (about urban anthropology, street photography and camera gear). Part of the story is that I only aim to post once a month (on average and often even less than that). The other is to make the writing process itself as easy as possible.
Blog writing tricks
I have a few small tricks that make it easier to keep writing. I used to schedule time to write, but it always felt too forced. So instead, I’ve learned to create an environment that’s generally conductive to writing. Habits and systems beat goals and schedules when it comes to long term behaviour change. You’ve got to get in the mood to write.
1. Write to a friend
When I write my early drafts I put a salutation to a friend, colleague or client. I then imagine that I’m simply writing a personal letter to them with some casual advice. This particular blog post started out as a blank page with the words “Dear Mark…” at the top. Imagining a singular reader makes my writing more personal and immediate.
2. Write offline
I get the most writing done when I have the least connection to the internet. Trains, planes and small cafes all have poor connectivity. Ideal for writing without distractions. If you can’t find a nice local cafe, at the least try turning off your email notifications for an hour.
A good offline text editor can help. My friend David Clare likes IA Writer and I’ve long been a fan of the powerful simplicity of TextWrangler. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with the offline editing features of MarsEdit. You need to tweak the formatting menu and keyboard shortcuts in MarsEdit. But the easy synchronisation with WordPress is pretty awesome.
3. A background low hum
Another great feature of trains, planes and cafes is that they have a low, quiet, background hum of activity. Recent studies have found that gentle background noise can make you more productive (for creative tasks). (Thanks to my friend JP Morgan Jr. for this tip.) My own theory, is that you’re writing for people so it’s nice to have people around.
4. Mellow tunes
I like to listen to dub and mellow electronic music while I write. My favourites are Bonobo (thanks to Ward Lennarts for the recommendation), Ian Pooley (thanks to Jonathan Gunson) and the Hotel Coste compilations. Music is useful during the middle “slog” part of fleshing out a post and the final editing stage but I find music distracting during the early ideation phase. Sometimes I just sit with my headphones on but the music off.
5. Have posts at multiple stages of development
Writing isn’t a single task. You need to have the initial idea, form the idea into key points, write the outline, flesh the post out, edit the copy and finally add headings, images and taxonomy information. Each stage requires a slightly different mood and setting. My trick is to have several blog posts at each stage at all times so that I can always be pushing the ball forwards no matter which type of activity I feel like. My writing stages include:
a) I keep keep a running journal of any blog worthy insights that pops up while doing client work. Insights are often born from unrelated concepts that get mashed together to create something new during a high-energy conversation. I’d love to use Evernote to capture these insights but it’s too slow to load. My blog ideas and insights are usually just scribbles in a Moleskine or a sentence the default Apple Notes application.
b) When I’m in the mood to reflect on my progress, I can draw down from the bank of real-world insights to create ideas for blog posts. I often start by clustering the insights around a theme so that they become a coherent idea for a post. By this time, I’ll be collecting the ideas together as bullet points inside WordPress, TextWrangler or Evernote.
c) Actually forming an idea (set of insights) into a single post is a matter of fleshing out the bullet points into paragraphs with anecdotes and examples. One way to keep a coherent thread is to keep thinking about how to impart knowledge that is relevant and actionable. No matter what mood you’re in, always write for your audience in a way that is relevant to them and allows them to do something new as a result.
Don’t write a blog
One of my best kept secrets is that I don’t actually write most of my blog posts. I dictate them. Writing isn’t the most important part of blogging, it’s thinking. You can get a wonderful, easy tone of voice by using dictation or transcription to go directly from thinking to words. If you’re dictating then you can go straight from the original insight to the finished post in one step.
Brian Richards was early to the party with voice recognition software and taught me a lot about the importance of verbalising your thoughts clearly. But there is no software substitute for a professional typist who also has the skill to judiciously edit your work as it’s typed.
I tried outsourcing my dictation to China (using eLance) but in the end, I found a UK based transcriptionist who sends my work back better than when I sent it to her. For almost to the same price as Chinese outsourcing, I get a clean, well edited, paragraphed and nicely laid-out blog post in an almost ready-to-publish state.
Why do I keep blogging?
But is it even worth having a blog in this age of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter? I’ve found that a blog is still the most powerful way of building a professional reputation. If writing still isn’t your thing, then you can still have a blog style website but make the content from video, images or drawings. You can even use podcast recordings to feed your blog.
Having a blog forces you to clarify and articulate your thinking. Also, Google loves the written word, so blogs rank well and get good traffic. And a blog is entirely under your control so it’s a true online expression of your vision.
The world isn’t really at a shortage of boring articles from entrepreneurs, investors and consultants. But the world is always ready for someone who cares about what they are doing and has a unique take on their industry. You might not build a massive audience, but you’ll learn fast and the challenge of getting your thoughts out there will make you stronger.