What’s the best process to write something? The answer depends, more than anything else, on how long it is. You need a plan, but that plan depends on the length of what you’re aiming for.
(This advice is for nonfiction. If you write fiction, I’m curious how much the process differs for you.)
This post is a guide on how to write anything and how much planning and research to do first.
1-10 words: Research words and brainstorm
Short punchy word pictures like book titles and tag lines are crucial to get exactly right. “Just do it” didn’t just happen.
Discuss the concept with other folks who’ve got a stake in it. This makes you smarter about language and can help shakes loose the best words to try in this pointed piece of prose.
Then write down two or 10 or 30 versions of what you’re aiming for. Futz with the language and look for related words on a site like wordhippo.com.
Tweets are often this short, too. Don’t research them; draft, edit, post, and go on with your day.
10 to 100 words: Write a narrative in a few sentences
You’re writing a paragraph. Start drafting.
Start with a provocative statement. Take the reader through the next few key ideas, and conclude with something strong. Keep sentences short.
Here’s an example that I helped write:
About iZotope, Inc.
At iZotope, we’re obsessed with great sound. Our intelligent audio technology helps musicians, music producers, and audio post engineers focus on their craft rather than the tech behind it. We design award-winning software, plug-ins, hardware, and mobile apps powered by the highest quality audio processing, machine learning, and strikingly intuitive interfaces. iZotope: the shortest path from sound to emotion.
The best way to get to a piece like this is to write sentences or phrases down and fit them together. It helps to have an intuitive idea of what the narrative is, so you know where each sentence fits. Think of each sentence as a step on the way to the end, both of the piece and of the process.
100 to 1000 words: Gather materials, then draft
Now you’re writing an article, an essay, or a blog post. This length also describes some marketing copy, such as the flap copy for a book.
It pays to gather your source material and figure out what might go into the piece. While you can start at the beginning and write to the end, it helps to have your ingredients laid out in front of you.
That source material might include a sentence or two about some illustrative examples, a bulleted list of steps, and a list of concepts to hit on.
Start with a striking opener (for example, “What’s the best process to write something?”). The first paragraph should tell the reader exactly what the piece will promise.
Structure helps with the rest. For example, take me through a narrative. Make a logical argument in steps. Explain the three elements of your concept.
Each paragraph should cement an idea and lead into the next.
Conclude with an observation that ties it all together.
For pieces of this length, once you’ve done the research, write the whole thing from beginning to end in one sitting. Then edit.
1000 to 10,000 words: Plan carefully before writing
Now you’re writing a book chapter, a white paper, or a research report.
Never start a piece of this length by just writing from beginning to end. Crappy first draft my ass. If you want a piece like this to be worthwhile, you’ll spend the first half of your time on research.
What kind of research? Any of the following apply:
- Do Web research; find passages online and in books that you’ll be quoting or referring to. (Keep track of the URLs, so you can create links and footnotes properly.)
- Identify people to interview, set up interviews and get quotes. If there are case studies, nail them down and get everything in place to be able to tell their story.
- Develop ideas. Every piece of this kind needs key ideas. What one concept ties things together? What are the subsidiary concepts?
- Open a document up and write down the order in which you’ll be lining up the ideas. Are there five main steps to explain? Is there a story to tell chronologically? Are there a set of logical conclusions to connect? Are you going from broad to detailed, or simple to complex? It helps to have some sort of logical sequence to pull the reader through.
- Don’t write yet. Put your ingredients (quotes, case studies, concepts, statistics, arguments, witticisms) into a fat outline that follows your logical sequence. You can do this by dropping detail into your headings from the previous writing step.
- Now, get yourself a few uninterrupted hours and write. Depending on the length you should finish in one to five sessions. Try to write at least 1000 words at a sitting. Writing will go faster because you have the fat outline to work from.
- Once the draft is complete, let it sit. Then go back and edit it from beginning to end. Don’t be afraid to rearrange blocks of content.
10,000 to 100,000 words: Break the task into chapters
You’re writing a book. And you can’t plan a 50,000 word manuscript the way you plan a 2,000 word chapter.
Instead, write down a table of contents. Here’s a great example of an author who did that masterfully.
Now you broken the writing task down into five or ten or 15 smaller tasks to accomplish: book chapters. Work on them using the method I described in the previous section.
ROAM rules all
The process is very different for all these writing challenges, but no matter what you’re writing, ask four questions before you start:
- Readers: Who is the audience?
- Objective: How will you change the reader?
- Action: What will the reader do?
- iMpression: What will they think of you?
And now you know the fifth question: how long is my piece going to be? That tells you how to prepare and how much effort to put into it.
Don’t start writing without a plan. I only tell you this because I love you and want to spare you pain.
Let me know how it worked for you.
A note for pedants: I know my categories overlap. I like round numbers. Deal with it.