As I come off this epic cold, I’m struggling to get my writing mojo back. Before, I was in a nice groove where the ideas were flowing, and I could finish a post in a little over an hour. But now, I find myself struggling to come up with topics to write about and abandoning drafts a few paragraphs in.
In college, creative writing was my major, and no matter how much I didn’t want to write that day, the need to maintain my GPA to keep my academic scholarship was ample motivation. In my agency days, I got accustomed to my manager calling and asking me to send a press release over about such-and-such occurrence within the hour. The ticking clock ensured my productivity.
At this stage of my career, nothing is holding me accountable to writing other than knowing it’s what I need to do to keep my business growing. I’ve had to come up with my own strategies for coming up with ideas and the get the creative juices flowing.
What I’ve found is that it’s very hard for me to write content that doesn’t feel urgent in some way — I find the greatest motivation in feeling connected to a real question or problem that some segment of my readers is facing.
As the end of the year approaches, I expect you’ll be taking some time off. I certainly am — I’m going to Seattle for New Year’s Eve! You might find yourself needing to overcome a little holiday-induced writer’s block of your own, or maybe you’re struggling to find the motivation to write now.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you three questions I ask myself to come up with relevant content ideas, no matter how blocked I feel.
1. Is there anything in particular my clients are struggling with right now?
The highest compliment is hearing “Your post came at exactly the right time. It feels like you’ve been sitting around the table with me and my advisors as we’ve been working out what to do around xx…”
Obviously I don’t receive these emails every week, but my aim is to make at least some readers feel this way with every post I write.
Here’s the key to relevancy: in any given culture (business culture or community), there are seasonal ebbs and flows to certain types of questions or issues. Right now is a clear example, as a lot of businesses are doing what they can to reach their year-end goals or to plan for the new year.
When I am struggling to come up with post ideas, the first thing I do is try to ground myself in an awareness of what’s bubbling up for my audience right now. I want to see if there’s anything I can help with that’s most useful in this very moment.
2. What’s in the news?
The analysis I described in the first prompt only works when you’re feeling connected to your audience. Sometimes you get back from a break and feel totally removed from your work.
When this happens, I look outside myself for inspiration. Bloggers and magazines and podcasts are all excellent sources of content ideas.
I don’t like to rehash the content I find online, not because it’s wrong or somehow unethical to cover an idea I’ve seen elsewhere, but because it’s boring.
And if I’m bored doing this work…well…why would I continue?
So what I look for are two things:
- What topics feel most relevant to my audience right now? Traditional media nearly always prioritizes timely content. So if you’re not sure what’s relevant to your audience right now, looking at media coverage is a good way to figure it out.
- How can I put a fresh spin on the topic? Like I said, writing the same-old thing is boring. And it’s also the fastest way to fit in with the crowd. That’s the opposite of what you want to achieve with your content. Instead, what you want to look for are the ways you disagree with the messages you’re finding in the media.
For me, this process is energizing. It’s intellectually stimulating to think through why I disagree with a particular piece of advice, and interesting to think through what I would offer instead.
3. What have I learned recently or failed to address?
Sometimes even my media research fails to inspire. Maybe most of the articles I find are fairly evergreen (could be published anytime), or I don’t have a strong disagreement with the advice I’ve come across.
This is where I turn the lens back on myself. I can almost always find a topic by looking to my own experiences, or even looking through my archives to see what I’ve missed.
Often I’ll realize that I never covered an important concept on my blog, or write myself to a solution for my current problem. Funny enough, even if I’m not aiming for timeliness, these are the times I’m most likely to hear from someone in my audience, “I’ve been struggling with this exact same thing.”
If you’re struggling to get into your writing groove, I hope that one of my strategies will help you get out of your slump. The more you’re in the habit of writing, the easier your content flows.
A quick note before we get to today’s content. Today is the last day to save $100 on the 50 Day Blog Boost. We kick off January 9th, and if this is exactly the program you need in the new year, I hope you’ll take advantage of this amazing early bird offer.
And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
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As a PR pro, I have a complicated relationship with blogging. On the one hand, the proliferation of voices is an overwhelming positive phenomenon. The structures that existed before blogs and podcasts often were not welcoming to small business marketers, not to mention people of color, women and disadvantaged communities.
If you weren’t already a part of the power structure, it was difficult to break into the conversation being facilitated through traditional media. Part of this was a simple space issue — before media went online, there was a finite amount of space that could be dedicated to rising voices.
At the same time, it’s been hard for me to witness the erosion of traditional media. I’ve been in this business a long time, and I can tell you that the life of a journalist is hard one. They work long hours for very little pay, with virtually no job security and in the face of constant criticism.
When you look at career rankings, journalists are always put at the bottom. For 2016, newspaper reporter is ranked at the bottom of a list of 200 careers due to the stressful working conditions and terrible pay.
In many ways, the rise of blogging has directly contributed to worsening conditions for journalists, as advertising dollars have been re-allocated. This is really hard for me to watch.
Despite that, I feel strongly that the good outweighs the bad. And clearly, I believe blogging is a powerful tool for your business.
But there are signs that blogs are about to hit a rough patch, if we’re not in troubled waters already.
As blogging has gone mainstream, I’m seeing a homogenization of voices online.
Five, ten years ago, blogging was still largely a casual thing people did for fun. It felt easy for newcomers to jump in, because it was all so experimental. Everyone was figuring out the platform, and that gave rise to so many different styles and topics.
But what I’ve seen in the past few years is a leveling out, a flattening of the platform. As more and more people recognize the potential in content creation to market their businesses, there is a great clamor for the magic formula that will build up your audience. All our blogs are starting to look and feel the same.
I’ve been guilty of this, too. It’s so easy to subconsciously mirror content models you see online, especially when you’re a fan and get a lot out of them.
I strongly believe we should collectively guard against this tendency.
As small business marketers, we’re starting to lose what made blogging so great to begin with.
The reason so many flocked to blogs early on is that you could find your people — those creators that were tapping into the feelings and interests you thought no one else shared. The writers and artists and business leaders that felt like a breath of fresh air in a sea of sameness.
The pressure to conform and to “do it right” is especially strong if your blog is a marketing channel. The stakes are higher, because you need to see a return on your effort.
But what gets lost along the way is your voice, and for a small business or nonprofit, your voice is your most valuable asset.
Why is it that a customer visits a local coffee shop and not Starbucks?
Why do they hire an independent designer and not a large web studio?
Usually, it’s because of the point of view you represent. You’re able to communicate your company’s values and priorities much more clearly, because you know you can’t appeal to everyone.
Mass market is crazy expensive. That’s why only the big brands do even attempt it.
It’s much more cost effective to be exclusive with your marketing than to try and include everyone.
But make no mistake, it takes practice to find your voice, especially if you’re well-practiced in saying what others want to hear or have been criticized for being too loud or opinionated.
In blogging, the practice is putting your work out there. You have to be willing to test out your ideas in public and prepared to fall flat a few times.
And so you retreat into what feels like safety.
Not lending your voice to the conversation. Or bending it to someone else’s formula.
But there is no such thing as a safe choice in staking out a claim for your work. Everything you put out tells a story — and the biggest story of all is told when you stay silent.
People trust companies and organizations that they can rely on to be there when they need them. If you don’t have a physical storefront they can visit, that’s what your content offers. Proof that you show up, that you’re reliable. That you’re on their side.
If you’ve been blogging a long time like I have, or are just starting out, I want to encourage you to guard against the tendency to flatten your voice and to conform your content.
Here are some thing I’m personally watching out for:
- Feeling like I “should” do x, y or z with my content.
- Prioritizing content that can be backed up with data or third-party sources over my own ideas.
- Editing out my personal story and experiences.
- Asking, “Does anybody care?” or even “Is this useful” instead of “Is this thought provoking?”
- Feeling like I can’t implement new ideas, or ticking too long to formats that don’t work, because I feel like I have to follow through.
I’m renewing my commitment right here and now to keep pushing forward. I hope you’ll join me.
And hopefully we can have some fun along the way, too.