The Stages of the Blog Writing Process
Recently, I hosted an ask-me-anything (AMA) webinar with two developers. The topic of making time to write blog posts came up, and one of the participants shared a pain point they experienced (paraphrased):
I’ll have done the research [for a blog post] but when I have to sit down to write something, nothing happens.
It took a bit of prodding to figure out what the source of the problem was, but I learned that this participant sits down to write and is already thinking and worrying about the voice and tone of a post, the structure, and being clear and concise before they’ve written a word. A lot of writing advice (including some that I’ve given!) emphasizes all of these elements, which are indeed important. But what isn’t explained is when we should focus on these things.
In this post, I’ll break down what the blog writing process looks like to help you get unblocked.
The three-stage writing process
If you consider the writing process to be solely about writing, you’re not alone. The blog writing process can be broken down into three, distinct stages:
Stage one is the research stage. This is the first stage in the writing process after you’ve decided what you’re writing about. In this stage, you’re collecting information and sources, investigating, and learning something new in preparation for writing your first draft.
Stage two is the drafting stage. This is the stage we often associate with “writing”. The drafting stage consists of getting the information and ideas you collected down on paper. You may already be structuring your post as you’re writing or it may be a wall of text — there’s no single correct method to writing a draft. But the focus is on synthesizing the information you collected into your own words.
Stage three is the editing stage. Editing is where you review, refine, and refactor your draft. It’s the stage where you check for completeness, accuracy, grammar and punctuation, and formatting. This is also the stage where you finalize the structure of your post and give it the final polish before you hit publish.
Together, these three stages represent the writing process. While research and editing don’t “sound” like writing, we’re doing quite a bit of writing at these stages; we jot down notes and create outlines while conducting research, and we add new sentences, paragraphs, and sections when we’re editing since we now have a new perspective on our work. And in practice, we jump back and forth between each of these stages. It’s not always linear.
What’s the “right” way to write?
Before I started writing professionally, my mental model of “writing” meant sitting down for hours in front of a computer or notebook, devoid of distractions, thinking very clearly, and almost dictating what my inner voice was saying onto paper. The words, sentences, and phrases would come out perfectly, with little need for editing.
I now know that this is not the case. Writing for me looks like any one of these things:
Coming up with blog post ideas in the shower and adding the ideas as blog titles in a Google Doc
Adding URLs to articles for future research to a note
Researching while in bed, switching back and forth between Google and Twitter
Writing a bulleted list consisting of words, phrases, and half thought out sentences
Writing whenever I have time: after work and on the weekends, often in 20-30 minute increments
Writing the first few sentences of a future blog post on my iPhone’s Notes app
Finding a typo after I’ve published a blog post and making a quick edit
This is to illustrate that there is no one “right” way to write. You don’t have to produce an entire blog post in one sitting, and you can fix things after they've shipped. You can capture notes and thoughts for as long as you need to before you’re ready to begin a draft. And that’s the real goal of the drafting stage: to get our thoughts out of our heads and onto the page. This is not the stage where we need to focus on sounding polished; that comes later. Before we can think about what the finished product looks like, we have to have something to work with.
Self-consciousness, self-doubt, anxiety, and our inner critic (the one who recites a checklist in your ear of everything you need to do) make us tense up and prevent us from getting the information out. We end up becoming our blockers and find it increasingly more difficult to work on a draft. As a result, we either take much, much longer than planned to finish a draft or become so discouraged that we give up altogether.
How to unblock yourself
The good news is that you can get unblocked. Here are two tactics to try when you find yourself unable to get through a draft:
Walk and talk. Pretend that you are giving an interview or were invited to speak at a conference on your blog topic. Start talking about your topic as if there were an audience present, or if you were teaching a concept to a friend. In my experience, I’m sometimes better able to get my point across when “talking” because it’s much faster for me to express a thought while talking than it is to write it out without sacrificing my unique voice and tone. (Kind of like that one colleague who hates reading emails and prefers meetings!) It’s perfect if you’re experiencing self-doubt, if you’re not sure that you know enough about a topic to write about it, or if it takes you too long to write a thought out the way you want it to flow. I’m often surprised at how much I’m able to recall when I practice the “walk and talk'' method. I’ll sometimes record myself giving the talk and will transcribe it (with a tool like Descript or Otter.ai). Use the transcription as the “basis” for your post, especially if you aren’t a comfortable writer. As long as the transcription captures most of the information you wish to convey, you can spend time refining it from a stream of consciousness conversation into content. (I’ve done this in the past with developers who want to blog and it’s always worked well!)
Revise the scope. Have you ever had a content idea that ended up being way too big to execute the way you wanted to? This happened to me recently. I had an idea for an eBook that ended up being way too big; the topic was expansive and I was having a hard time narrowing it down; I was discouraged. I wrote an introduction and parts of the first chapter but not much else. A few months later, I read through what I had written and realized that there was enough content for a useful blog post. It took me thirty minutes to clean it up and publish it on my blog. Narrowing scope and changing plans are one way to beat discouragement. Sometimes, it’s not until you begin researching that you realize your original scope and goal was too big to be done in the manner you wanted it to. But we don’t have to give up on that entirely. In those instances, consider breaking it down further — do you have something that can be shipped? If you still aren’t sure how to break it up, set it aside and come back to it at a later date. Pick up something new in the meantime.
If you’re still struggling to write or are afraid of finally pressing “publish” on your post, read this blog post with tips on managing the fear of publishing new content.
What we call “writing” is a multi-stage process comprised of research, drafting, and editing. At each stage, we’re collecting information, synthesizing and processing our ideas, writing down our thoughts, and editing for readability. There is no single right way to write; when, where, and how you begin this process depends on individual circumstances. In the drafting stage, we may find ourselves blocked due to scope creep or difficulty synthesizing our ideas concisely enough in writing form. In those instances, it helps to either come back to our work later and decide to narrow the scope or to “walk and talk” as a means of conveying information more freely.
Ready to put these tips into practice? Purchase The Developer's Guide to Content Creation for more content-related tips, exercises, and templates.