Just write it

Document 1. Just write it.You sit in front of the blank screen. An endless sea of white, like the ice planet Hoth. If you could just write like Hemmingway — right now, please — life would be a lot less stressful.

You want the copy to be perfect — snappy, on target, compelling. But it’s soooooo hard. And the clock is ticking. And a million other things are clamoring for your attention.

If this situation sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many writers — even seasoned professionals — struggle with getting a first draft on the page.

The solution? Stop caring about getting it right in one go. Just write.

The perfection problem

I’ve argued in the past that writer’s block is a myth, and I still believe it. But sometimes writers get in the way of their own success by focusing too much on knocking out a perfect draft right away.

This is different from not knowing what to write, because the “perfection problem” often shows up when you already know much of what you want to say. What messes you up is agonizing over what to say when, or how to say it in the first place. You’ve got all the background information crammed into your head, but don’t know what to do with it. It’s crazy-making.

Stop worrying and just write

There are a lot of details that make writing great. Don’t think about any of them when you’re writing a first draft. Don’t think about SEO, how many units you need to sell, how well the last promotion performed, or how soon the deadline is looming.

The only thing to worry about, if you need to worry now, is this: will the reader keep reading?

To answer that question, you need to know who are you writing for. Try to get into their head and think like they do. What will motivate them to take the action you want them to take?

With that in mind, do a brain dump. Write down everything you think you want to say, in whatever order it comes to mind. If it helps, you can make an outline first, or re-arrange everything later. What matters now is to get letters on the page. You can make everything perfect in subsequent drafts. That’s what they’re for.

Don’t start at the beginning

It’s tempting to try and nail the lead (the first headline or sentence) before you write anything else. Yes, it’s the first thing the reader sees. And yes, it’s the most important part of the copy, because if it doesn’t catch their attention, they’ll ignore everything else.

Unfortunately, the first thing you put on the page isn’t likely to be your best work. Most human brains start to “warm up” as they begin writing, making the words on the page more compelling after you knock out the first few paragraphs. Often it’s best to just start a brain dump, then go back and re-arrange things later.

In fact, it’s often more effective to think backwards, or to quote Stephen Covey, to “begin with the end in mind”. When writing, this means to focus on the response you want your writing to create, then figure out how to lead your reader to the same conclusion.

I once took this idea to extremes by writing the first draft of an entire direct mail promotion backwards. First I wrote the final call to action, then the second-to-last paragraph, and so on, finishing up with the lead. I don’t recommend doing this every day, but this type of thought process makes it easier to stay focused on where your writing needs to go next.

Don’t be afraid to cut stuff that doesn’t work completely. I often delete the first two or three paragraphs I write in a given session, or move them later in the piece. There’s no shame, and no one will ever know.

I won’t tell your readers. I promise. 😉

  Relevance still beats SEO

Analytics reveals the power of relevance!I recently started using Yoast SEO, one of the leading search engine optimization plug-ins for WordPress. I have to confess it’s making me a better writer. But it’s also validated something I’ve told clients for years: relevance matters more than anything else.

Many of you know that I think SEO has its limits. Still, clients and prospects keep asking about it. So lately I’ve been diving in and learning more about the art.

The proof is in the numbers

A month or two after I had a few super-optimized blogs posted, I did what every good marketing pro should do: I checked my analytics data. I was eager to see how the new posts were performing. To my surprise, my best-performing story since the beginning of the 2016 was something I wrote two and a half years ago.

In fact, nine out of ten of my top-viewed blogs in the last four months were pieces I had written before I started worrying about SEO. Some of them were written this year, but several dated back to the early days of my current website. Many were pieces I haven’t promoted or linked to in a while. And the SEO-optimized one? It ranked tenth on the list.

Relevance trumps everything

When I looked back over the top performers, I started to smile. They didn’t read like they were written for robots. There were no obvious focus keywords, no “optimized” subheads, and no dehumanized corporate-speak.

What they all had in common was relevance. Every one of them dealt with stuff my readers (mostly designers, writers, freelancers and other marketing professionals) care deeply about. How to get better clients with less effort. Why it’s okay for you to outsource your own marketing. Five ways to stick to deadlines. And a personal favorite: 13 Traits of a Great Ghostwriter.

The top performers were also pieces I really enjoyed writing. They cover topics my readers and I are passionate about, use personal stories, and they speak in my most authentic voice. I firmly believe relevance, not SEO, is the secret of their success — especially the older ones that have been on my site for 2–3 years. And the numbers back me up.

Now I’m not suggesting you throw SEO out the window. In fact, the content you’re reading now makes every indicator in Yoast SEO light up green.

But I will continue to plant my flag in the sand and champion the cause of writing for humans instead of search engines. SEO can lead people to your content, but it can’t make them read it, like it, or pass it on to their friends. The most important part of the process is still knowing your reader. All the hits in the world won’t do you any good if visitors don’t find content they care about when they arrive.