Note: This post is another peek inside our company playbook. We've also published how we choose content topics, how we edit first drafts, and what you should know if you're creating your own playbook.
Overview: Not sure how to translate what's in your brain into a first draft? This page will help. It covers turning a content idea into a ready-for-review draft.
What's on this page:
- What goes into a first draft
- How to create a detailed outline
- Researching before you write
- Shaping a lump of clay (writing the draft)
- Self-editing and why it matters
What goes into a first draft?
What goes into a first draft? If you're not a writer, more than you think. A good first draft usually includes:
- A detailed outline
- Initial research
- A pretty bad first draft (really)
- Some self-editing to make it better
Here's how to do each of those.
How to create a detailed outline
"Process is one of those things that in many parts of life I consider hopelessly boring and mind-numbing. Like peeling the skins of raw tomatoes. Or scrubbing dirts from beets. But in writing, process is necessary, because you need a road map to get you to where you need to be." Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
Once you've got a topic and you know it's a good one, you might be tempted to word vomit all over the paper. DON'T*. Create a detailed outline instead.
(*Unless you're a seasoned writer with a track record of producing amazing pieces using this approach.)
Why? An outline forces you to slow down and consider:
- The one big idea you're writing about
- The one reader you're writing to (hint: it's not you)
- Why that one reader should care about that one idea
- What you'll need (research, data, argument points, examples) to make a compelling point
And a detailed outline forces you to consider:
- Where your biggest holes and knowledge gaps are
- What objections the reader may have
- Whether you're being too ambitious or too narrow in your approach
So, how do you outline?
Where to start your outline
We use a template that's a mix between a creative brief (something content marketers give writers to define an assignment) and a traditional outline (a rough sketch of the article).
Here's the first page of the template, which is mostly "setting the stage" information. This page is similar to a creative brief:
And here's the second page. It helps you translate the first page into a coherent outline.
How to use the outline template
- First, open it up and make a fresh copy. Title the copy the name of the article you're working on, "YOU CAN DO IT!"— or whatever you want, really.
- Next, fill in the first page. Fill in sections relevant to your piece and delete the rest (e.g. not every piece will be SEO-focused, so sometimes you can skip this part).
- Note: It's a bad idea to skip this page. A horrible, no good, very bad idea. If you know all of it already, fine, then it should only take 3 minutes to fill out. So, you've no excuse not to do it.
- Then use the overview to build out a detailed outline (page 2 of the template). Keep in mind, more details now usually mean a faster, easier draft later. What counts as "detailed?" Here's an example from How much does it cost to build an app?
- Use comments to explain your thought process and any non-traditional approaches you're taking. This will help your team members review the outline, plus remind your future self where you were headed. (You'll "lose the plot" every now and then when you write—good outline notes help you get back on track.)
- Share a link with editor access in the #content channel for approval. Identify a deadline for review (e.g. "I'll start drafting on Monday, so you'll need to add any comments by EOD Friday."), so team members can plan ahead.
Once the team reviews and approves your outline, you can move on to research.
Researching before you write
As you outline, you'll probably identify some things you'll need to research. For example:
- Places where data or studies would help prove your point
- Potentially dry sections where a story could color in a "how to"
- Tips that'd be more compelling/clear with screenshots
- Areas where you want an expert quote to back you up
✋ If you didn't identify any of these bullets, go back and check your outline—see any research opportunities now?
Depending on how well you know the topic (and how well we've covered it in our archives), research may take you an hour or less. Or, it may take you 5-10 hours. The latter is often the case with pieces like teardowns and case studies.
Much like other parts of writing, there's no one "right" way to research. But here are a few tips that may help:
- Start with what you don't know. The point is to head off in some direction. You'll fall down plenty of rabbit holes and find all kinds of treasure that way. But you'll need a direction to start in, as well as a direction to return to after you've hopped out of your hole.
- Keep your research in one place. This could be as simple as dropping links into your outline with notes. Or using another Google doc. Whatever you choose, have one place to track what you find so you don't lose all 30 of your tabs when your computer reboots.
- Do "just enough" research. Unless you're writing a historical narrative (highly unlikely), you don't need to spend weeks turning over every stone. In fact, this is a mistake new writers often make—they "over research" as a form of procrastination. Of course, there are far worse ways to procrastinate (candy, for instance), and it's fine to spend 20-50% of your time researching. More than that though, and you may just be putting off the work ahead of you.
- Remember, you can always come back to research if you hit a new hole while you're drafting.
But, where do I look?
You can look just about anywhere. Here are some useful starting points:
- Google. A great place to start. Make sure you dive past the first page of results for well-written but under-optimized (in terms of SEO) posts.
- Twitter. Use advanced search to find interesting takes on your topic, or see what a specific subject matter expert has to say about a term.
- Books. Most folks who write books put a lot of effort into them—or their ghostwriters do. So, it's worth skimming available previews and occasionally downloading some ebooks for research. Or, visiting ye olde library.
- Your inbox. If this is a topic you follow, you may have some saved (or undeleted) newsletters with interesting links or related perspectives.
- Slideshare. Depending on the topic, you can sometimes find relevant presentations. These often have compelling stats or handy visuals/framing.
- Experts. Whatever you're writing about, there's an expert in that topic. See if you can find them. Then check out their site, podcasts, newsletter, etc. for relevant quotes and insights.
Shaping a lump of clay
"There is no one way to write—just as there is no one way to parent a child or roast a turkey. But there are terrible ways to do all three." Ann Handley, Everybody Writes
Once you've gathered a bit of research, it's time to shape everything into a somewhat coherent lump of content.
I like to think of it this way:
- You're a skilled potter who's about to make an ambitious piece of pottery.
- You've sketched a detailed picture of what you want to build. (That was the outline.)
- You've also gathered a big hunk of quality clay. (This is your research.)
- Now, it's time to throw that hunk of clay on a wheel and start shaping it into the pot, pitcher, or sculpture you sketched. (This is the draft.)
- Later on, you'll smooth it out, add finishing touches, and fire it in a beautiful glaze. (This is editing.)
Let's talk through shaping your hunk of clay.
If you have a detailed outline and a pile of research, you're off to a great start. The next trick is gluing your butt to a chair and writing the draft. Please know even the best writers find drafts intimidating, so you're in good company if this makes you a tad nervous. Here are some tips for writing your initial draft:
- Remember, everyone writes a shitty first draft: In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott notes, "All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts...I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts." So, don't expect your first pass to be brilliant.
- With that in mind, set a timer, and get as far as you can: Block out one hour or three 20-minute increments and get as far as you can in that time period (I prefer one-hour chunks). Take a break, reward yourself, and complete this process until you have a rough draft.
- Jonathan Rogers, author and English lit Ph.D. advises, "Perhaps the most important thing in writing is to get your pen moving and keep your pen moving. You’ve got to get yourself immersed in the work and trust that good things are going to happen once the neurons start firing."
- Use [TK] to move through your draft: Steal a play from journalism and insert [TK] every time you come across a name, source, or example you don't have yet. E.g. "In the last decade, Cyber Security has grown by [TK amount] according to [TK source.] The opportunities are only expanding." This little trick helps you get an entire draft down instead of pogo-sticking between writing and research.
- Also, try not to write and edit simultaneously: Meaning, resist the urge to correct grammar, adjust phrases, or move sentences around when you draft—save all that for the editing phase. Draft when you draft; edit when you edit.
- Note 1: To get good at this, you'll need to ignore your inner critic—that small voice saying, "it's not good enough...go back and fix it." Of course it's not good enough to publish! But it's good enough to be a draft, and that's all you need for now.
- Note 2: This will be easier if you can kill your perfectionism. Anne Lamott cautions, "Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft."
- End draft sessions mid-sentence: If you're drafting over several days or sessions, end each writing spurt mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, or mid-thought. Why? Because when you come back, you're starting with momentum instead of a blank page. This makes getting over the initial "where do I begin?" hurdle much, much easier.
- Finally, know when to throw in the towel for the day: Writing is hard for everyone—especially writers. If drafting feels like walking uphill, that's normal. Keep going. But if it feels like walking uphill with swelling blisters, a ripped 50lb pack, and a sleety headwind...well, you probably need a break. Do a different task, take a walk, or eat lunch. Refresh and come back later. Writing is a hard discipline, but (most of the time) it shouldn't feel like self-inflicted torture.
Once you have your shitty first draft down on paper, you can do a bit of self-editing to turn it into a pretty good second draft.
Self-editing and why it matters
"Humor comes on the rewrite. So do the best analogies, the clearest construction, the best writing—period." Ann Handley
Ideally, you'll have someone else review what you've written before you publish. But before you hand over your piece to that person, you want to do some self-editing.
Why bother with self-editing?
- To save yourself some embarrassment. You do know the difference between "your" and "you're," after all.
- To ensure your editor doesn't hate you. Editors know when you don't take time to improve your own work—and they don't appreciate writers who skip this.
- To become a better writer. As you look through your own work and ask, "how can I make this better?" you'll learn a number of things: your writing idiosyncrasies, what comes easiest and hardest for you, and how you can improve. All of this helps you write better drafts in the future.
- To better serve the reader. You're writing this piece for a specific customer or reader. In your first draft, you wrote a lot of things for you (we're a self-indulgent species). When you self-edit, you figure out how to make it all about them. This is a critical improvement.
How to self-edit
Regardless of how well or how much you write, here are steps you can take to improve your shitty first draft.
- Let the body heat go out of it. If your deadline allows it, set aside the piece for at least 24 hours and then come back to it. You'll see it more clearly when you return.
- Read it out loud. As you do so, you'll "trip" over certain phrases or sentences. Highlight those. These are rough patches readers will trip over, too, and you need to improve them.
- Make it skimmable. Pull related ideas together. Break long paragraphs and sentences into shorter ones. And use bullet lists and headers liberally. Remember, you rarely read a full article line-by-line. Your readers are no different.
- Simplify. Make your writing easy to understand. Break down complex ideas with analogies or stories. Shorten long sentences and paragraphs. Use simple words wherever possible (write vs. compose, get vs. obtain, use vs. utilize).
- Note: if you're struggling to explain an idea, you may need to take a step back. As Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
- Use customer-centric language. Replace "I" and "we" with "you" wherever you can. At all times (or nearly all times), keep the focus on the reader and the value they're getting from this piece.
- Add in specifics. Pair an abstract idea with a concrete example. Illustrate a best practice with a screenshot. Specifics make your writing more relatable, interesting, and memorable.
Once you've made the improvements above, it's time for a final proofread. Use the two free tools below to correct simple grammar mistakes and improve sentence structure:
- Grammarly: Use the Chrome plug-in to proofread your blog post in Google docs or paste your article into their web app.
- Hemingway Editor: Paste your piece into this tool. It'll highlight complex sentences, passive voice, and adverbs (delete most of these).
If you use these tips and resources, you'll have turned your shitty first draft into a good second draft. And from there, an editor can turn it into an excellent ready-to-publish third draft.
One last tip...
It's easy to self-edit your work into infinity. So, it's very useful to know when you've gotten as far as you can. In the self-editing process, you're going to hit a point of diminishing returns and, beyond that, a point of negative returns:
I've found the point of diminishing returns is a good time to hand my draft over to an editor or team member for review (that is, if the deadline hasn't arrived first!). This is because I'm not going to make much more progress as is—I've started spinning my wheels in the mud, and I either need a long break from the piece (a good option) or another set of eyes to make the piece better (the best option).
The better you get at recognizing your own point of diminishing returns, the more efficient you'll become at drafting.