Tom Wolfe is considered to be one of the greatest and most influential journalists and writers of the 20th century. He is credited with leading a revolution in American journalism in the 1960s. He popularised the term ‘The New Journalism’ to describe what he was doing. But did you know he very nearly gave up before he even started?
In 1962, Wolfe was working as a reporter in New York and pitched a story idea to Esquire magazine. Magazine feature writing was a high-prestige job back then, the first step on the road to becoming a famous writer. Wolfe wanted to write about the new hot rod culture in Southern California—but couldn’t get started.
As the deadline loomed, the editor at Esquire, Byron Dobell, was on the phone, pressing for details of when the story was coming in.
After procrastinating for days, Wolfe finally gave up. He realised he had to write to Byron Dobell, saying he couldn’t make the story work. The letter was long, sometimes chatty, sometimes over-the-top, sometimes like an essay, sometimes like a piece of reportage.
When the letter arrived, Dobell cut the words “Dear Byron” off the top, and sent it to print. That letter became the article “The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby”, which also gave its title to Wolfe’s first book.
How to get started
Wolfe was suffering under one of the enduring myths about writing, which is you have to wait for inspiration to strike before you do anything good. But most successful writers will tell you the way to write is just to sit down and write—and don’t care whether it’s good or not.
Another myth about writing is that the inspiration just comes to you, fully formed. Stories rarely if ever come to anyone fully formed—they wash up in clusters, and your choice is really to either grab every idea and sort it out later, or sort on the spot. Our brains aren’t really designed to do the latter efficiently—as a species, our brains are energy-hungry organs that need to shut down and switch to day-dreaming mode to operate efficiently and effectively.
Embracing that, and just throwing ideas into a big pot to sort out later, is a wonderful way to gather the raw material you need to start later on. Neuroscientist, musician and best-selling author Daniel Levitin talks about this in his latest book The Organised Mind (which is a great read, by the way). He says the best way to achieve the focus you need to do stuff is to outsource all the other things that would normally occupy your brain.
And what is his simple, clever tool for outsourcing that? Write a list. Hence this four-step plan.
First establish a routine
The simple idea driving Daniel Levitin’s book is that idea of externalising your memory. Writing a to-do list, he argues, means you don’t have to think about what you’re doing. So mark out in your diary your writing time for each day. Then write out a to-do-list for your routine.
If this sounds a bit anal, console yourself with the knowledge that best-selling author John Grisham had a detailed daily routine. Every morning at 5am, he would wake up and jump into the shower. He knew exactly how long it took to get to his office, and exactly what time he had to be there.
At 5.30am, he would be sitting at his desk, a cup of coffee on one side and a legal pad in front of him.
No matter what, he told the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2008, he would write the first word of the day at 5.30am. He’d do that five days a week. Stephen King was similar—he famously told biographers that he needed to be sitting in the same chair, surrounded by the same objects, every day in order to start writing. It’s like giving your mind permission to daydream by setting boundaries.
The great thing about a routine is it allows you to NOT think about what you’re doing. You just agree with yourself that this is what you will do for that hour or half-hour each day.
Then audit existing content you have
You still don’t want to write anything yet!
Have you ever given a talk to a group about anything? Have you ever written a paper you were proud of? Have you written an email or a letter to a colleague explaining something you’ve done? Ever written a note to yourself?
Many people, at some stage in their career, have written a speech or paper for work, or even an explanatory email to a colleague, that they were proud of.
Take a few moments, then, to remember those. Hunt them down. Gather them all into a folder.
One of the most stressful parts of coming up with a creative idea for a blog post is the start, when you’re faced with the terrifying blank page. But you don’t have to start there. Any of those old notes, emails, speeches and so on can (and should) be repurposed into a new piece of content.
Don’t worry if the old notes seem a bit rough—we’re not gunning for the Nobel Prize for literature here.
Then come up with a plan
You shouldn’t be writing yet. You’re planning, not writing. Put that pen down!
By coming up with an overall plan for the next six weeks, you avoid the trap of writing too much on one topic, or letting yourself get distracted if you’re suddenly fascinated by something you’re researching (it can happen, honestly).
Write the plan out in an Excel spreadsheet. In the first column, write the day and date the post will be published. The second column is for the subject of the blog. The third should be a one-paragraph description of the contents (it’s only for you, so should NEVER be longer than one paragraph). The fourth column should have the keywords you’re targeting with the post. The fifth column should indicate which social media outlet or outlets you’re going to use to promote the fact that you’ve written the post.
Hubspot offer an excellent free version of a very similar chart (you’ll find it on this page), although theirs is more oriented towards a large blog with daily updates.
There’s probably more ways you can refine that plan in the future, but in the short-term, plan to publish one piece a week to your blog for the next six weeks.
Now start writing
Now what you should have in front of you are:
- Notes and rough drafts for your first six posts based entirely on things you’ve done in the past;
- A list of keywords which will be included in each one, to help search engines and potential readers find your blog;
- A list of possible headlines, which can be refined later; and
- A schedule to work to, and time set aside to complete the job.
Suddenly the task of writing will seem significantly less overwhelming, and you can start sharing your passion with the world!
You’ll probably be curious now about how other writers generate story ideas—you’ll find out when you follow that link.
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