I’ve been a professional writer my entire career. I started in 1991 as a technical writer, and along the way I’ve created a successful online business built on affiliate marketing, other website income, and content for the web.
Sometimes, I think writing is the only thing I know how to do well.
So putting myself out there in a blog? No problem. Just watch me…
Imagine my surprise when, after more than twenty years writing for money, I find out don’t know anything about writing a kick-ass blog post. Wha?
Don’t get me wrong, I can put sentences together. Boy, can I ever. Long, complicated ones and short, punchy one-liners. But it’s the rhythm of the writing that’s got me a bit stumped.
In tech writing, marketing copy, and the bottomless pit of business comm in general, I feel good. I know exactly where to start and how to finish. I can see the structure of it (that’s the secret to tech writing by the way).
But I just don’t get feel of blogging yet. Maybe it’s the more casual or confessional vibe that really great blogs have, even B2B ones, like Hubspot and Moz Blog.
I keep asking myself, why can’t I do this? I write every day for other people, why can’t I do the same for myself?
The real reason for this post—masquerading as a sidebar
If you’ve reached a point in life where you feel you need to step sideways and do things differently—in fact, your happiness and sanity depend on it—chances are you’ll look to skills you already have that you can build on. For me, writing is my cornerstone. But shifting into a new domain with time worn skills can give you a bit of a shock. What you thought of as a thing you don’t need to learn, isn’t quite the same anymore, and and then BAM! you’re a beginner again. You start thinking that maybe, all this time, you really sucked at it. Not the case, friend! Take a deep breath and cut yourself some serious slack. Then, get on with it.
First, let’s define
To me, rhythm is part of your voice, the way you say things. When you talk to your friends you sound a certain way. You use different words if you’re talking to colleagues in a project meeting. It’s still you, but your tone shifts. Rhythm is all that plus structure, or how you develop your ideas. Some people call it flow.
Ways to find your rhythm
Since I need get my rhythm back, here’s what I’m doing (in no particular order).
#1 Write a lot
Yup, I mean write lots and don’t worry if it’s publishable. In fact I’d even say write it the best you can and put it out there anyway. See #4.
In every scrap of writing, I’ve found something I can use, like a word, a phrase, an idea. You will too.
#2 Write consistently
Write every day, if you can. That’s Jeff Goins’ advice to his community over at TribeWriters. I’ve taken the program and it’s the course I’ve returned to for a kick in the pants.
Even if you can only manage one or two sentences, or a page of fragments, that’s okay. Write everything down.
The other half of consistency is location. Try to write in a place that’s different than the one you associate with work. I have a home office with lots of space, bookshelves, a printer, and stacks of notebooks. But as I’m going through this exercise to find rhythm for new writing, I’m either on the living room couch upstairs, or at a coffee shop.
#3 Write like you speak
I’m trying this out, and it’s fun. Talk through your ideas, either aloud to yourself or to a friend. Record your conversation on your mobile phone, then play it back and transcribe.
You’ll start to hear yourself and your own unique rhythm.
It’s even better if you can get a partner to poke you a bit about your ideas, and force you explain yourself in different ways.
#4 Post the imperfect
I’m terrible at this. The reason why there’s so few posts on this blog up to now is that I get hung up on being perfect and never post anything.
Closely tied to perfection is this idea about being insanely useful to your audience. You may have seen this “golden rule” around. It says that every piece of content your produce must be so useful to your audience that you don’t waste one second of their time.
I don’t know about you but that’s a lot of pressure. For me it’s paralyzing.
I psych myself out worrying about how helpful I’m being. And you know what else? The quality of my writing suffers too. The sentences are there, but there’s no flow, no ease.
#5 Study headlines
You absolutely must do this if you relate at all to what I’m saying.
Find blogs and writing you love, and create a swipe file of headlines. And I mean, stop right now and create a Google doc.
Headlines are clues to structure, and for me rhythm. Start copying and pasting and don’t stop until you’ve got a couple pages worth. Yes, you could just read an article about writing great headlines, but something about the actively choosing your faves, the act of moving that mouse and selecting the text, gets you to feel it more (or maybe I’m just weird).
If you don’t trust your instincts, Copyblogger has a classic ebook on creating magnet headlines, and CoSchedule has a headline analyzer if you like tools.
#6 Study first lines
Create a swipe file for first lines too. I spent 30 minutes doing this and now (because my brain works that way), I can start to see the shape of the writing I want to do.
Based on this preliminary list, I’ve group first lines loosely under:
Statements your audience will take for granted as being true
Everything you’re working on is an investment in tomorrow (Seth Godin)
Going back in time:
Introductory phrases like “Recently,” “For years now,” “Over the last four years”, “When I was a kid”
When I was sixteen and a junior in high school, I felt extremely stuck and uninspired. (Pamela Slim)
Starting with a story or dialog
“I opened the door and walked into my small home in central Virginia. (Tim Grahl)
Is it possible to be ambitious and still maintain a sense of inner peace? (Marie Forleo)
Sums up your whole argument in one gulp
“Networking isn’t just something you do during an event. It is a process you must take part in before, during, and after.” (Jeff Goins. Okay, that’s two sentences)
There are tons more but this is what I’m starting with.
#7 Read great books about writing, but not too much
I am SO guilty of this. I have over thirty books on writing including books on grammar, genre, editing, creative non-fiction, and novels. I love reading how great writers get the job done.
But here’s the thing:
Reading about writing is NOT THE SAME as actually doing the writing.
Sorry folks. You don’t get rewards points for reading about the craft of writing (I’ve tried). See #1.
However, some advice from the pros can’t be ignored. Some newer books I’ve been coming back to again and again include:
Everybody Writes, by Ann Handley
Nicely Said by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
Business Storytelling for Dummies, by Karen Dietz and Lori Silverman
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (more about creative living than just writing)
I’m getting there with my blogging. Finding my rhythm means writing every day, studying structure and flow of writers I love, and cutting myself some slack. There’s still lots to learn, but armed with plenty of warm socks and tea, anything’s possible.
If you have any more tactics for getting your writing rhythm, I’d love to hear them.
Lots of great ideas here on finding one’s rhythm. I like the specific examples of first lines, and the links that you provide to other references and blogs. Looking forward to more posts from you!
Thanks Nancy! The wheels feel pretty rusty but it feels good to be moving again!
Mike Mahaffey says
What a great blog! I really enjoy reading your post, and surely aspire to write with rhythm as well as yourself.
I have trouble getting from giving directions like a sargent to sharing from an honest heart like yourself. Reading blogs like this gives me something to read over and over to learn to emulate.