How to write if you suck at writing

Bryan Harris —  Bryan Harris - June 13th, 2014

It’s 5:02 a.m. on Friday as I am writing this. The dog is on the floor licking…something (he likes to lick ALOT!) and my wife is asleep beside me in bed.

Don’t let his cuteness deceive you

The last 10 minutes have gone something like this:

• What’s happening on Twitter? Boring.
• How about Facebook? Someone else got engaged. Yay for them.
• Any new emails? Delete. Delete. Inbox Zero!
• Hmm…

Then I opened up the Buffer iPhone app (forgot I even had that installed).

When you are looking for mindless wastes of time, you get desperate.

That’s when I ran across the analytics section of the app and had a light bulb moment.

See, writing has been harder lately. I’ve still been ‘hitting publish’ twice a week but it’s been a struggle.

There have been two core issues:

  1. Coming up with topics that my audience is interested in
  2. Beating writers block and writing above a 3rd grade level

1. Enter…The “Buffer Validation Method” 

After spending 15 minutes in the app, I realized I could see the exact topics that my readers are interested in by looking at what they interacted with on social media.

For example:

Most of the tweets on my personal account get 3-5 clicks. They might get a retweet or the occasional favorite or two.

While I was thumbing through the analytics in the app, I ran across several anomalies.

Some of my Tweets were 5-10x more popular than others.

While most tweets got 3 clicks others received 15-30.

Here is an example:

The lightbulb moment was this: These traffic engagement spikes validate that my audience is interested in reading about this topic.

So, if I write a post about this subject the chances of it getting traction are high.

Buffer analytics = Blog Post Ideas

Just schedule tweets in Buffer about topics that you THINK would be popular and measure the response.

The exact workflow to do that

I am playing around with the idea of doing an in-depth analysis post on Facebook Ads next week.

It would show you examples of 20 Facebook ads and break down the posts into a simple framework so you could create effective ads yourself.

It would also include a gigantic swipe file of 200+ Facebook ads as a giveaway.

Seems like a decent idea right?

But, what would it look like to validate that post before I spent all that time to write it?

  • Step 1: Goto Quora.com and find someone that has asked a question around that topic
  • Step 2: Buffer a link to that Quora post with their question as the body of the Tweet
  • Step 3: Wait a day and look at your analytics to see how many people interacted with it.

I put together a video showing you this process.

If there is above average interaction (2-3x normal), write the post.

If not, reform the question, pick a different headline and Buffer it again.

Do this 5-10 times until you find the right ‘hook’ to form the post around.

As soon as you see a spike in interactions, start writing.

2. Ok, great. But how do I write the freaking post?

Now you have a headline and are reasonably confident your audience will resonate with it.

But you still have a problem…writing the actual post.

As soon as you start to try to write, everything freezes up.

How can you fix this?

Don’t write.

Instead, answer questions.

Think about it like this:

If my wife asks me “Bryan, why do you think most people never act on their ideas?”

I would answer in less than 5 seconds with at least 3 minutes worth of dialogue.

No prep. No outline. No research.

However, If I were trying to write an article entitled “The 7 Reasons Your Idea Will Never Become A Business”

Gridlock. All dry. Words … are … hard.

There is something fundamentally different with writing about a TOPIC as opposed to answering someone’s specific QUESTION.

What if instead of writing ‘blog posts’ you just answered questions.

Then format those answers into blog posts.

(Seth Godin agrees)

How do you turn a topic into a question?

Let’s use the tweets that I found in Buffer analytics and try spinning it into a question.

This was the original tweet.

Spinning that tweet into a question would give us something like this:

“What was the biggest influence in quitting your job and starting your own business?”

OR

“Is there a single thing you could identify that gave you the kick the butt to quit your day job?”

I can answer that!

To take it one step further I went to Quora to try to find an actual person with that exact problem.

Example question I found on Quora

Note: I’ve found that the more specific the person is and the more real they are in my head, the freer the words flow.

The absolute easiest way is to have an actual person ask you the question. However, answering peoples questions online can work just as well.

Now that I have a question how do I start writing?

Step 1: Don’t write, record

First, fire up your iPhone voice recorder app.

Next, have your wife or roommate ask you the question you came up with in the last step.

Last, press record and answer the question.

Just have a normal conversation about the topic. Give your answer, ask for questions and then answer those too.

Step 2: Transcribe your audio

Take all of the audio you just recorded and write it down word for word into a Google Doc.

It’ll take a few minutes, thats fine.

Step 3: Pretty it up

Edit out all of the “umm’s” and “ahh’s” and format it so it looks pretty (I’d suggest grabbing this $3 book to help you with that).

Include pictures to further describe the question.

PRO TIP™: If you don’t need pictures to describe what you are discussing in your post, go deeper until you do.

Step 4: Write 5 different headlines

Your headline is VERY important. Quality is huge but your headline is even more important.

Here is a simple process I use for coming up with headlines:

Step 5: Publish

You are done.

Proof it and hit publish.

I wanted to test this workflow on someone else

So, I enlisted Videofruit intern AJ and asked him to “answer a question” about a recent project he completed.

Instead of asking him to write about it, I flipped on my webcam and started recording.

Here is the raw footage:

Then he transcribed the video and cleaned it up. (see the transcription)

Next, he read this book and went through a short copywriting course.

He was able to go through the transcription and rearrange it to a blog post friendly format.

Then he brainstormed 5 headlines using the method I mentioned above.

  1. These 4 Easy Steps Will Have Your Logo Set In No Time
  2. How Logos Should Actually Be Created
  3. What Should Your Design Process Be?
  4. Creating What YOU Want: Cheap and Simple
  5. Steps Non-Creative People Take To Create A Design

He spent a total of 2 hours writing (and 3 hours on learning about copywriting).

This is the first draft: How to create a logo if you suck at design

Not bad for the first time to ever write a blog post.

Wrapping it all up into a pretty package

That’s a lot of stuff, so lets review what we’ve learned

  1. Use your Buffer account analytics to get post ideas by looking for engagement peaks.
  2. Don’t start your post by writing. That encourages writers block.
  3. Instead repurpose the ideas in Step 1 into a question then answer that question (record yourself).
  4. Transcribe your answer on paper and then reformat it and pretty it up.
  5. Press publish.

I have used the “record first” workflow for the past two weeks and it has been great.

It saves 1-2 hours per post and helps me to write even though I suck at writing.

PS: Do you have a writing hack that you use? Share it below. I need it! 🙂

  • Melinda Todd

    Great ideas! The link to the $3 book gave me a 404 error. A lot of times my writing prompts come from books I am reading or a discussion I see online. Thanks for sharing all those tips!

  • Jason Croft

    Love it, Bryan. A great tweak to get flowin’ with writing. I can attest to this method for sure. If I sit down to write about “How to market for your business” or whatever: crickets. But if a friend comes up and asks me what she should do to market her new counseling practice, I go for an hour straight on everything she needs.

  • Has anyone experimented or compared Buffer with Klout?

  • Joel Widmer

    Awesome process Bryan! I’ve been doing the questioning process for five years to help clients create blog content so I can attest it works 🙂 One handy tool you can use in the transcription process is https://www.voicebase.com/ you can upload your recording for free and it will give you a raw transcription and allow you to search any keyword in your audio so you can skip around without guessing when you said what.

  • Loved your idea of recording first. But, how practical will be that in office? Any workarounds?

    • Brandon

      One suggestion would be to take a walk and then come back to the office and use headphones to transcribe. Draft.in is a great tool that allows you to upload your audio, listen to it at slow speed, and type at the same time (it does not cost anything and I’m not affiliated in any way).

      • Appreciate your comment, Again, Going on a walk and talking to myself, Seems a little weird. But I will try this out. Thanks 🙂

        • Guest

          Hey Boni, you could treat it like a phone call, without someone on the end… People around you shouldn’t be surprised!

    • Just think of it like talking on the phone. Throw some apple headphones on (they have a built in mic) and start talking.

  • Tim Aton

    Bryan, this is SUCH a great idea for getting past writer’s block! I struggle with this often and I’m excited to give this a try!

  • Sigurdur Gudbrandsson

    Whenever I need to do some writing, I use this simple tactic:
    1. Paper + Pen + Beer at the bar. (You’ll get some looks your way – works if you’re single) Leave your phone, tablet and laptop at home.
    2. I think of a topic to write, then I write 25 different headlines for that topic.
    3. I choose the best headline, then proceed to create a simple outline for the article
    4. I start writing … it’s amazing how effective a beer is to get your creative juices flowing!
    5. When I’ve stopped making sense, I stop writing and either order another beer or head home for some rest.

    Works like magic .. and the best part? NO DISTRACTIONS from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit (or your favorite procrastination method).

    You see, my paper pad doesn’t have any Social Media tabs or an internet connection. This works like magic when I’m writing!

  • That’s a great way to find new topics using easily available sources. I’ll give it a go today. Thank you!

  • Catherine Hewitt

    I’ve never used buffer, may have to give it a go after reading this.

    As for Hacks, you could use the assignment template. It works for me when I’m starting with a subject or topic.

    Step 1: Write your working title.
    Step 2: Write first paragraph as a rewording of title and the subjects you’ll cover .
    Step 3: Write a paragraph/section for each subject.
    Step 4: Conclusion – A recap of what you’ve talked about and relate it back to the title.
    Bonus Tip: If you know how many words, you can divide by the number of sections/paragraphs and make it look like you have much less to do 🙂
    Just don’t make it sound like it has to be handed in on Friday.

  • Hey Bryan, I implemented most of what you taught in this article over here: https://siosism.com/how-to-develop-a-network-database-of-all-your-contacts/. However, instead of going to Quora to find a question, I took a question straight from my Facebook feed that someone had about CRMs and such. The switch in thinking on writing an article around a QUESTION vs a TOPIC was a significant one. When I looked through my own history of articles, I noticed that the ones that get the most traffic are those that answer specific questions (e.g. https://siosism.com/how-to-properly-export-quicktime-in-flash-cs4).

  • Carissa Magras

    Bryan, I am so glad Jeff Goins shared you with his tribe. I’ve clicked through at least 6 posts, one after another, and I learn something from each one. You are doing a great job! Keep it up!!!

  • Dave Huckabay

    Maybe the reason this works so well is that the question is specific, while a headline like “What you should do for XYZ” is too general. It has to do with how we store information. For instance, If I ask you to list the books you own, you’ll miss a lot of them. But if I ask you if you own “A Walk in the Woods” you can answer immediately.

  • Hmmm, this type of writing is great for 1-off reading. What I feel that it’s lacking is a strong voice. I do subscribe to your blog and occasionally read your posts, BUT I only read them if I feel compelled to. If it has an enticing enough title that connects with me, or if I need an extra tip on how to do something, then I take a look.

    What I should feel is, “Aw yeah! Bryan posted another post, I can’t wait to read it! I love reading his stuff! It’s compelling, interesting, and I always learn something!” I think strengthening your voice with interesting stories and your specific way of writing would do this 🙂

  • Liz Burkholder

    There’s a cool app Dragon Dictation that transcribes your recording for you, saving even more time! 🙂
    Thanks for this post, Bryan! I do love to write, but don’t do it often because I get writers block so bad!
    I’m going to try this method for a blog post TODAY!