I suspected I was about to hit the bottom of the pit earlier that day. By early afternoon, I was lying, broken, in a crater. The lesson (spoiler alert!): yes, writing should take that long.
I was working with much shorter writing deadlines to produce new articles than I usually have. I was sceptical that the deadlines were feasible. At the same time, I thought that if journalists could produce articles on ridiculous deadlines, I should be able to do the marketing writing equivalent.
I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong.
Bending space-time while writing
I started my morning at a sprint. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to say in the article and I was determined to meet the new deadline: researching and writing a medium length opinion piece in a standard working day (effectively 5 to 7 hours).
I finished the initial piece an hour or two over my deadline and shared it with my manager to review. She read it the next day and we discussed it shortly after lunch when I was in the middle of another article-in-a-day.
The critique of my article began with my manager saying she couldn’t quite understand what I was saying. I wasn’t too disturbed by this because I wrote the article a little more creatively than usual.
When we discussed more of her comments it became clear that the facts and assumptions which I relied on to make my point were utterly irrelevant and devoid of any practical value as parts of a case study.
There was no doubt: I had produced well-written crap.
Writing isn’t easy, there is a process
The challenge is an expectation that it shouldn’t take long to write a clear, insightful and effective article about some or other business topic. By “clear, insightful and effective”, I mean that the article should have certain qualities:
- It should be well-written and easy to understand;
- The article should contain more than a simple reporting of its subject matter. It should contain something interesting and, well, insights into some valuable aspect of the topic; and
- The article should fulfil its purpose which, in my case, is to attract prospective clients to our blog and persuade them to sign up to use our products.
ThatDasia, aka Patricia, described the problem nicely in her blog post titled “Are Writers the Most Disrespected Creatives?”:
On the surface, our job is something everyone learns to do when they’re seven.
Everyone who gives us work can write (they write briefs, don’t they?)
Everyone who pays us can write (they send us emails, don’t they?)
Everyone uses words, but the heartbreaking thing (to me) is that most don’t care about them.
Everyone writes. But not everyone is a writer.
Surely it shouldn’t take more than a couple hours to research a compelling topic, write a brilliant piece of between 500 and 750 words that converts targeted prospective customers into paying customers? They’re just words. Writing is easy. Writers just sit there in front of their screens typing stuff. How hard can it be?
Something like that, right?
Here is the thing: what seems like the simplest of tasks is really not that easy. We just make it look easy because most of the work occurs in our heads.
Perhaps if there were tears, strained muscles and blood seeping out of our ears, it may be easier to perceive the difficulty involved? Thankfully writing doesn’t usually have that sort of physiological effect but you can pretend it does if it helps.
Picking the topic takes time
For me, finding the topic is the first step. Some people like to sit and brainstorm 10 articles about 3, 7 or 10 things prospective customers absolutely must read to make it to their next meal and thrive.
That sort of approach can be useful if you have interesting topics in mind already but I much prefer researching what is going on in my industry and identifying relevant, topical themes. That takes time because it involves a lot of reading and processing.
Then, once I have a topic I find more information relevant to my topic. Other perspectives, data to work into funky infographics and quotes to inspire and amaze. That also takes time because it also requires me to test my hypothesis against what is actually going on in the world.
My well-written piece of crap skipped this stage and that came through pretty strongly on review.
Putting words on a page
The most visible part of the work is when I start typing. This is when observers can see Progress happening. If it looks like there are a lot of words on a screen then it means Things Are Happening. This is a risky time for us writers, though.
The process of writing the article is a lot like that metaphor used for launching a business: you leap off the cliff with your materials and build your plane on the way down with the goal of powered flight before you hit the ground.
Writing isn’t a mechanical process. At least good writing isn’t. Just producing words in some sort of coherent form isn’t enough.
You always have to keep the article’s flow or story in mind and keep it all consistent. Add to that all the keywords, phrases and links that we like to include in marketing writing and it can be a lot to keep track of.
All of this while appearing to Make Progress.
For bonus points: picking the winning headline
The Experts say you should dedicate about as much time to writing a great headline as you do writing the actual article. The reason for this is that your article’s headline is your hook to capture your prospective reader’s attention (and Google’s).
I don’t spend nearly as much time as the Experts say I should when I come up with a headline. I can image the consternation if I sat there at my desk with a largely complete article and a blank headline field for a couple hours while I appear to stare blankly out the window.
Yes, it really should take that long
Once the article is done, a brilliant headline formulated and it is all paired with great images (that is another process in itself); the article you spent A Lot of Time working on has to perform. It has to have the right combination of keywords, headline and other mystical stuff to draw the crowds.
Remember the movie “Field of Dreams”? “Build it and they will come”? It’s a lot like that except this isn’t a baseball field on a farm somewhere. It is one of a gazillion articles published on the Web that day, many of which are written by other marketing writers aiming for the same audience with a very limited attention span.
Somehow our article has to reach through the noise and grab our audience’s attention. We then have to hold their attention long enough for some of them to invest their time in our companies.
Achieving that is part marketing technique, part talent and part luck. The proportions vary but our talent as writers, as a storytellers, is what will persuade prospective customers to become actual customers. Actual customers are convinced by our stories that what we offer holds the key to their success. Our marketing technique and luck show them the way and, perhaps, open the door. We still have to help them believe, to see the light.
No production lines here
That takes time and it isn’t something that can be simply cranked out on a production line like engine parts.
These creations we give birth to on keyboards (there’s an image for you) must find their way across the Internet, blind, and connect with someone who may have no idea who we are or what our companies offer. It must then persuade that person to take the time to listen to us and, more than that, trust us enough to sign up and pay our employers money.
That requires more than pounding a series of keys to produce 500 to 750 grammatically correct words. It requires insight, creativity and talent.
It also requires time.
How much time is required for for clear, intelligible, insightful and effective writing, you may ask? Easy, as much time as is needed. No more and no less.
So, yes, writing should take that long.
Image credit: Kaboompics