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Choose Your Next Article Topic With This Exercise

When I fall out of my writing habit, most often it’s because I can’t decide what to write about. Choosing an article topic can be paralyzing. Here’s an exercise I use to come up with new topics. Afterward, the issue is not that I have too little to write about, but too much.

When coding, you don’t let “not knowing what to code about” stop you, do you?

No, you have a process to turn bug reports and feature requests into code. Having a process for problem-solving, like design thinking, get’s you unstuck and gets you moving forward.(For more on solving coding problem deliberately, check out this post from Justin Fuller: How to understand any programming task.)

Writing can be the same. And it’s important to keep up, It’s been one of the best skills I’ve leveraged to improve my career.

Brainstorm Article Topics

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

First, identify your topics.

There’s plenty of places to look for initial topic ideas:

  • What have you learned about recently? You could think of treating your blog as a public “personal wiki” of knowledge. Some of my most popular articles have come from me writing about problems so I’d remember how to solve them if they came up again.
  • What problems from recent projects have you tackled? Related to the first, but looking at a slightly different lens can lead to more ideas.
  • Has anyone asked you a good question recently? Think in and out of the office.
  • Have you had any interesting conversations, either online or offline?
  • Have your written something else that resonated? Maybe another blog post, tweet, or comment on a forum?
From there, you can build a list of potential topics. Think wide here. Your goal isn’t to come up with the best idea, but instead a list of possibilities. We’re brainstorming here.

Then, apply some “design patterns.”

Here’s a content marketing secret: There are only roughly a dozen different flavors of an article topic. Once you have a topic in mind, you can decide on a format.
  1. Question & Answer
  2. How-tos
  3. Next Actions
  4. Mistakes
  5. Lists
  6. Resources
  7. Sample
  8. Philosophical
  9. Motivational
  10. X vs Y
  11. Quick tips
  12. Case study

Now: Apply the Design Patterns to a topic

Once you have a topic, run it through the format gauntlet, and voila! Several new starting points for posts. Let’s take “refactoring a react components” because that’s one I pulled out of “recent challenges from work.”  Your topics might look something like this:

  1. (Q & A): When is refactoring a component a good idea?
  2. (How-to): How to refactor your complicated components into smaller, more manageable ones
  3. (Next Actions): Explaining the value of refactoring
  4. (Mistakes): Common mistakes that lead to less maintainable components
  5. (Lists): 7 signs your component should be refactored
  6. (Resources): Install this Atom Plugin to make Refactoring a breeze
  7. (Sample): Example of a component refactoring
  8. (Philosophical): Where Refactoring fits in the development process
  9. (Motivational): How to refactor legacy code without feeling overwhelmed
  10. (X vs. Y): Refactoring vs. Rewriting (oh wait, I already wrote that one: Should you repeal and replace your legacy code base?)
  11. (Quick Tips) 5 quick refactoring wins
  12. (Case Study) How refactoring shaves two weeks off of our next four feature releases
[content_upgrade cu_id=”2301″]Here’s a worksheet you can use to make this exercise easier: [content_upgrade_button]Download Worksheet[/content_upgrade_button][/content_upgrade]

Overcoming Common Stumbling Blocks (AKA Debugging)

“My topic doesn’t mesh well with one or more of the formats.”

No worries. Skip it and continue moving forward. You’re going to come up with more potential topics then you could write so don’t sweat it.

“I don’t know how many points my list will have.”

Write “X” instead. You don’t have to know the exact count until the end.

“I started writing, and it went off the rails.” 

You don’t have to commit to these ideas. Sometimes I end up starting one article and finishing another.

“This topic is too long; I’ll never finish this!”

If something seems daunting, hammer the scope to a more specific topic. Sometimes the result is better. Would you rather read: “How to fix ‘ _reactNavigation.getNavigationActionCreators is not a function‘ error, or “How to debug JavaScript?”

“Writing about technical stuff is boring.” 

Articles don’t have to be technical. Plenty of developers also like reading about topics like soft skills and career tips.

“I’m not trying to be a guru here. Why am I acting like I’m the expert?” 

Your goal should be above all else, to be helpful. You aren’t writing for yourself; you are creating a small thing that can help someone else in the world. And isn’t that something we all enjoy doing?

“I Don’t know which topic to pick.” 

Short answer, whichever one you can write, finish and publish. You can’t help anyone if you don’t ship. The whole goal here is to get over the paralysis of not knowing what to write about. Just take some inventory, sketch out some ideas, and get started! The more you write, the more you’ll find you have to say. Writing is a marathon, and you can switch lanes at any point.

Still don’t want to blog, but want to improve your professional writing? Check out the valuable writing package for templates & resources, available for free.

Writing With Siri

I’m writing this using Siri’s dictation feature on my iPhone. This new method of writing first draft has been a game changer for me. It’s more accurate and sophisticated than I was expecting. Once I got used to the cadence(Saying “Period. New line.” and stopping every 30 seconds because due to technical limitations ), it’s starting to feel smooth. Although, I’m a little nervous about saying something like “.“ In real life.

As long as I don’t develop that weird habit, this is going to make me a lot better at talking I feel. Talking on podcasts and online videos always feel awkward to me. It’s odd to speak to an audience that isn’t there. Also, working from home had led to me developing a bit of a mumbling habit. I don’t have many people to talk to except for the dogs, or are currently perplexed by my pacing and rambling into a black rectangle. Speaking of the dictation requires me to be more articulate,  and also not talk too fast. Another bad habit. I blame that one coffee.

Benefits of this writing technique: 

Writing like this is fast! It takes a bit more editing, but this is the third piece I’ve written today. 40 minutes have passed.

I can write while walking. I spend all day gazing at a screen, desk-bound. “Sitting is the new smoking,” they say. But now I can write while standing or pacing. I’m also drinking more water because doing this a lot dries out the throat. I haven’t tested it outdoors yet; it says Siri requires internet access to work well. I don’t know how well the system will work outside but if it does, will be great to be able to write articles while I’m taking the dogs for a walk or when I have a random idea away from home.

I can feel what I’m writing more. I know it sounds cheesy, when you say something out loud that resonates with you it’s more obvious. It’s been my experience that the more energized I get when writing something, the more it resonates with others.

I get to edit my speech. There are all kinds of speech patterns you have that don’t notice until you have to sit and read them back. It’s like the feeling of listening to a recording of your voice but worse. However, facing these shortcomings is how you fix problems.

Are you need to use it is a decent Internet connection an hour and an app with a text box. I’ve been using Bear, syncing it with my MacBook, copying it in the Hemingway to do everything. Once I clean it up, I can publish it wherever.

If you have an iPhone or similar tool, and you like to write, or even if you hate to write, I recommend giving it a try.

Process Documentation: The First Step to Eliminating Tedious Work

Looking for ways to spend less time doing parts of your job that you hate? You have three options:

  • Eliminate.
  • Delegate.
  • Automate.

I’m a minimalist. I like to take a Marie Kondo approach in business and life. Tasks get on out plate more quickly than they get off, and we don’t always stop to reflect and ask: “Does this work provide value? should we do it at all?”

Let’s assume for this article that the task has passed the sniff test. You can’t eliminate it. Then move on to the next two options: If a computer can do it automate, else we delegate the task to someone else.

There’s an important step before you can productively do either: document your process. Documenting your processes is something that you should be doing at any stage of your business, for a company of any size. I was documenting new processes on day 1 of my one-man shop.

Everyone has systems in their heads, whether they realize it or not. Do you have a morning routine? A strategy for handling your inbox? These are almost a process. However, I’m a firm believer that:

If Your Process Isn’t Written Down, It Doesn’t Exist

Ideas in your head are fuzzy and abstract. Getting a system out of your head and out into the real world has several benefits:

  • It forces your mind to bring clarity to ambiguity. Sometimes the simple act of writing a process can help you improve it.
  • It frees up mental RAM. You don’t have to remember every step of the process.
  • It improves reliability. A process means you do the job the same way every time.
  • You can iterate on the process. Once something is created it can be improved.
  • You can attack the work with greater confidence.
  • You can share your process with other people (the first step toward delegation)
  • You can find ways to streamline, eliminate, or automate parts of the process (the first step toward automation.)

So How Do You Write a Process?

Many people get hung up here.  Don’t. It can be anything that lays out how the job gets done. Some common examples:

  1. A numbered list of steps that you follow.
  2. A flowchart of if-then logic.
  3. A checklist that you go through.
  4. A rubric or heuristic you use to evaluate something.
  5. A template or swipe file you can use to kickstart a creative process.

You don’t have to pick one, choose the one that makes the most sense for the process at hand. Don’t try to force too much uniformity or rigidity. It also doesn’t have to be just one of these; it can be a mix.

Tools For Documenting Processes

  1. Google Docs— It’s used by most organizations so getting others on board is simple. You can share documents as read-only. You can easily link between docs or link to a doc from another tool.
  2. Screenflow — Screenflow makes it easy to record your screen and your voice simultaneously. I use this to record processes instead of writing them out. You can use the video as documentation, as a supplemental aid, or you can hand it off and have someone else for transcription. The free version of this is using screen recordings with Quicktime
  3. Trello — Trello is great for keeping track of processes that have multiple steps that take place over time. You also get checklists and links to Google Docs within a Trello card. The order of columns acts as a high-level documentation of the steps of the process. I’m also a fan of keeping a resources column on the far left, with cards linking to other processes and resources.
  4. Things —  Things is my de-facto to-do list. My ur-checklist. Every project, both personal and professional, is in there. I also find the scheduled and recurring tasks useful for turning processes into habits.
  5. Context-Specific Tools Every process doesn’t have to live in one place. You’ll see in the next example.

Case Study: Outreach

Recently I had to consider the following facts:

  1. Outreach, when done correctly, is an effective strategy for generating new business.
  2. I’m not a big fan of doing outreach.
  3. I am a big fan of building systems.

So the conclusion was obvious. I shouldn’t be doing outreach; I should be building the outreach system. So I decided to tackle the problem in that way. The process is broken down into three parts.

  1. Email Templates I created a Google Drive file with templates for reaching out. There are a couple of different ones depending on the context. Also worth noting that I’m not advocating for sending the same, impersonal, boring email to everyone; each template is still manually customized depending on the situation. In a way, it’s a mini-automation of the process.
  2. Recurring Task in Things Outreach is something I’ve made part of my daily routine. I keep two recurring tasks on my to-do list every day: One to do new outreach and one to do follow up.
  3. Track Progress in Pipedrive Pipedrive is my CRM of choice. It’s Trello + A Rolodex. I have a pipeline for keeping track of who I need to follow-up with and when.

By creating a process, I  turned outreach into something fun instead of being a chore. Now I’m not just sending emails; I’m testing and iterating on parts of the process. I was able to shrink down the amount of time I spend doing the outreach so that I can spend more time doing work I enjoy.

Getting Started

Try documenting one of your systems today. It shouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes. Pop open a Google Doc, and write down the steps or create a template for just one task. See how much easier that task feels the next time you go to tackle it. How much more confidence you have. See how many minutes you save. Once you get over the hump and get started working on processes and see the benefits, it’s almost addicting.

How to Write A Software Program Roadmap

You know what one of the most common causes of failure is for software projects? You don’t have a plan. Unlike building with more solid materials in construction, you can start making software before you know what the hell you are doing. Writing a program roadmap helps you make decisions earlier when they cheaper, and give you a reference point to make sure everyone involved is working towards the same goals.

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A 9-Step Content Process That Will Grow Your Business

People have probably told you that two things every business should be doing is generating content and building a list. The problem with this advice is that it usually comes wit no “how” or a “why”. Writing content as a marketing strategy is a slow burn with abstract benefits. But a solid strategy can bring in more customers, help you build relationships, and help you position yourself as an expert to others. And writing content that does this is not as hard as it looks.

One of the scary factors of creating a content strategy is that publishing consistently is valuable, but that requires a commitment. When you don’t knowwhat to write about, how to write about it, or how to get readers, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Here’s my 9-step process I use to generate content; A Roadmap you can use to start mapping out your content strategy.

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Why Multiple Packages in Your Proposals Instantly Increase Conversions

The 3 Tiered Approach That Closes More Sales

When a freelancer submits a proposal, they will often only include one offer. They will set the deliverable, and the price, and throw their proposal over the wall. When you do this, you give the client a binary option: Hire you or don’t.

By giving the client a few different options, you are changing the conversation into one that is more likely to end with the client hiring you.

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How to Write More Personal Emails to Your List That Get Open and Convert

My Email Marketing Strategy In a Nutshell

Email marketing converts better than social media or content marketing. Nathan Barry has a great write up with the numbers. You can build a list by giving people incentives in exchange for their email address, reaching out to them directly, or offering people updates on an as-yet-unreleased new product. But once you have built that list, how do you write emails that people on that list will want to read?

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How I Used Writing to Double My Freelancing Rate As a Programmer

 

When I left my job to become a freelance programmer, I was charging $50/hr in the beginning. I met other freelancers, consultants, and agencies in town, and a few of them charged $150/hr. Even the agency that I had worked at previously billed my time at $120/hr, which means that my level of programming skill was not the deciding factor. If they could charge that much for my services, why couldn’t I? There was a broken record in my head asking me the same question:

“what’s the difference between a $50 freelancer and a $150 freelancer?”

So I decided to start spending time learning about pricing, value, and all that “business stuff” programmers and designers love to avoid.

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