Don’t kid yourself. Writing sucks. Sure, when you’re inspired by an article or fall deep into another world because of compelling storytelling, it’s easy to assume the creation process is smooth and fulfilling. It’s not. Persuasive, concise content that drives audiences to take action online and doesn’t make people think too hard is created through a slow, arduous process—often kicking and screaming the entire way until the deadline arrives.
Screenwriter Chuck Wendig explains it best:
“At a distance, writing is a magical thing: it’s candy-floss made of God-stuff. It’s the weaving of tales, the singing of bard-songs, the creating of characters that will gain life like Frankenstein’s monster with a bolt of lightning shot from your own magnificent mind. A lot of things look nice at a distance. Hell, I flew over Detroit once, and I was like — ‘Aw, what a nice-looking city.’”
The struggle is real. Don’t get me wrong, if I don’t wrestle with each and every paragraph the final content greatly suffers.
So when you’re trying to write an effective paragraph for a client or your own business, the question becomes:
How do I get from “I need to communicate X in this paragraph” to “Hey, that’s a pretty solid paragraph”?
Don’t ever jump into a blank screen. Good intentions quickly turn sour as the blinking cursor mocks you, daring you to procrastinate or even quit. Set yourself up for success by having a few documents handy.
This is basically all your research leading up to this point, including
- notes from source interviews;
- intended messaging, both internal and for any outside stakeholders; and
- gathered research notes.
This is the foundation of your final draft that you’ll add polished paragraphs to after they’ve undergone “The Hash System” (more on that later). At this point, it’s essentially an outline you can follow as you begin to write that includes
- a rough outline of the copy,
- word counts for headings and copy and CTAs, and
The Draft (a.k.a. The Hash System)
You have a loose outline and a ton of notes, so now it’s time to draft. You’ve probably heard that when you’re drafting copy it’s best to just keep writing, but I like to take it a step further. Don’t stop to edit, nitpick word choices, or even delete anything—everything is valuable even if you’re writing “bad” or cliché content just to get it out of your system. This is what led me to create what I call a hash doc for every project, no matter the size.
The hash doc
When you’re hashing out (namesake) a paragraph, the hash doc keeps a record of all the versions you created to arrive at the final copy. As you write, copy and paste (or type it again if you’re crazy like me) the parts that you’d like to retain and start the paragraph over again. It’s not uncommon for a hash doc to have more than 5,000 words with only about 500 words of usable, solid marketing copy. Sentences and ideas are formed, built up, broken down, reworked, and eventually polished enough to earn a highlight color.
After spending some time writing, refining the same paragraph over and over again, your screen can become a little overwhelming. Walls of text blend together, and it’s difficult to quickly deduce what copy you’d like to keep, what needs work but is close, and what’s unusable. Here’s the system I use:
- No highlight = message and wording is off—keep working
- Blue = there’s something there—explore further
- Green = ideas and message are there, still needs refinement
- Yellow = close to final, ready for edit/proof
- Purple = do not use under any circumstances
Ideally, headings, paragraphs, and CTAs would be yellow before moving from the hash to the copy deck, but often I’m still refining wording and transitions and the deck is a mixture of yellow and green.
Now that you have a bit of content you don’t completely hate, it’s time to get feedback. I like throwing the copy into Google Docs and inviting a few editors to give feedback on the messaging alone—that is, not focusing on how it reads just yet. If you do this, take their constructive (hopefully) criticism and go back to your hash doc with the sections in question. Rinse. Repeat. For the next pass, ask your editors to focus on sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and transitions—all that good stuff.
Again, this is all completely personal preference—just letting folks into the nitty-gritty details of crafting a paragraph (by all means, highlight with whatever color you want, man).