Every writing conference I’ve ever been to has a breakout session titled: PANTSER OR PLOTTER?
Beginning writers flock to these things because they think it’s an important part of the writing process when the question is really a matter of personal work habits.
Many successful writers plant their tail in front of the keyboard and start pounding out copy while others need a detailed plan before the muse flickers to life. Plotters take the risk they’ll plan until infinity before rolling up their sleeves and working; writing from the seat of your pants can lead to rambling pros in need of heavy editing.
The longer the work the more need for at least a few details before you start. Novels need a plan (which usually changes several times before reaching the conclusion) while a short story can start as a vague concept and move to the page rather quickly.
Bloggers are desperate to get something published. Once upon a time you had to write until your fingers bled to improve your voice and acuity on the page. The only true way to master the writing craft is to write. A lot!
Traditional publishers want polished work. Polish comes from experience. Experience comes from practice. It takes heart to write endlessly perfecting your craft without much reinforcement.
The publishing world has changed tremendously over the last several decades. Self-published books were universally bad in the past. Today many of the best books on the market either are self-published or started as a self-pub.
Bloggers are like any other writer. They want to see their stuff out there as soon as possible. Rushed work looks, well, rushed.
I’ve received several requests to discuss my writing habits. Most people realize publishing a half million words a year on a personal finance blog is a lot of work. They want to know where I get my ideas, do I plot or write by the seat of my pants, when do I write and how fast do I write.
I imagine the Plutus Award for Best New Personal Finance Blog of the Year has something to do with it. Another part is my story telling. People expect boring facts when they see “Accountant” in the title. Surprising the reader with engaging storytelling mixed with useful information grabs them early and keeps them.
Some questions are hard to answer. One reader asked how I come up with such awesome post titles. I didn’t have an answer.
Writers have a difficult time explaining what makes a good piece of writing a good piece of writing. At first glance it appears I just sit down and peck out a story, hit publish and people get Ooooo lips.
Rather than give you stale, dry description on how to write an engaging blog post people will want to read and will keep coming back for more, I will show you how I do it. My way isn’t right for everyone, but it does give you an idea on how my creative process works.
How I Write
Ideas hit me all the time. Reading a book, watching a movie, talking with friends, thing jump out at me and demand recording. The working title of this post was the title of this section. Of course, if I want anyone outside my regular readers to become “engaged” in this post I had better come up with a better title.
When ideas hit I take notes. At home, at the office, on the road, I keep paper and pencil handy. Yes, even beside the bed is paper and pencil. I sleep on the couch about half the time and in bed the other half. On the couch I’m surrounded by books and papers. When my creativity is highest I wrap myself in the literature and recording utensils.
Rarely do I sit and write spontaneously. After a long day, writing a quality post requires some advance planning. If I had no previous ideas to mull you wouldn’t see a new post the next day.
There are 64 unwritten posts in my WordPress queue. You need a title to save the idea, but every title is accompanied with a few sentences outlining a theme I wish to address. Sometimes the notes are detailed and run several hundred words and links to resources. Most descriptions are short. This post has two sentences as the material for pumping my creative energy.
Most ideas die in my little notebooks. After thinking about them for a few days it becomes clear the idea doesn’t work or the project would be 20,000 words. (As an example: I had planned a post on climate change and why it doesn’t matter, plus how it affects personal finances. The material I gathered kept growing until I realized it would be a veeeeery long post. It would also cause people to throw things at me since it’s such a politicized topic. I had planned a second post on mass extinctions and why we are not in the sixth great extinction. The natural world is becoming more diverse even as people think humans are killing everything off. The work on both these posts would have ended up short books in their briefest form so I shelved the projects. I did get to read several really good books on the subject so all wasn’t lost.)
(Good blog posts also try to avoid long paragraphs.)
Three times a week I publish on a topic of interest in the personal finance community (I hope). On Saturday I give readers a glimpse inside my personal life.
Every day I am thinking about writing! When I take a break or eat I’m thinking about what I’ll write in an upcoming post. The thoughts are never more than a few inches away.
By the time I punch the first words onto the digital screen I’ve played the idea through my mind countless times. I start the story and then toss it when it goes down a dead end road. As I work around the farm or workout at the gym I’m playing with possible scenarios.
The Fun Part
Most days I have a good idea which posts I’ll be writing for at least a week out, including the “Stalking the Accountant” post on Saturday.
This gives me time to work the idea out in my head. Plotting is something I rarely do even when writing a long novel. (Eight years ago I wrote a 180,000 word science fiction novel from a three sentence note. I knew where I wanted to go and started building the story. It ended up someplace different and a better story that is now the first book of a trilogy.)
Pantser writing has a huge risk. Plotting is drudge work. I like to write. After plenty of time thinking the idea through (sometimes with and sometimes without notes) I set to work. Writing from the seat of my pants means there are times I write a post and get the dry heaves when reviewing. Yes, I have to start all over. The idea I regurgitated is dead and gone once that happens. Those are tough days when I have self-imposed deadlines.
Most of the deleting these days happens in the editing process. Maybe a dozen or so posts get completely rejected per year. Most can be salvaged with work. On good days (when the whisky is flowing freely) the necessary editing is light. Those days are rare.
What comes next is the part people seem most interested in. They want to know “how” I write.
Most posts, including this one, are written the night before they are published. The clock reads 10:05 as I type these words.
On a good night I can stamp 1,000 words of rough draft to the laptop’s memory banks per hour. On a bad night I start to wonder if I’ll get any sleep before sunrise.
Normally, rough draft takes two hour or so for posts on this blog. If more research is needed or if I want to add more links for readers to dig deeper into certain points I don’t have space to adequately cover in the post the time commitment increases.
It seems easy at this point. Some crazy guy from Nowhere, Wisconsin types for a couple hours and calls it a day. If only it were so easy.
Dozens of hours of thought entered the scene before the first word was typed. Sometimes I read entire books or pull information from several books to build a quality post. I don’t show books just to get an Amazon sale! These books really add to the learning process of the reader!
Writing rough draft appeals to beginning writers. I don’t know why. From the outside it must seem like that is all a writer does.
The hard work reignites the next morning. Editing also takes several hours as I rework the words until they communicate what I demand them to. Time constraints can be an issue.
I read every post out loud to Mrs. Accountant. Reading aloud is the most powerful editing tool I know of. If Mrs. Accountant will not sit still to listen to you read your work to her you can still read aloud to yourself. Trust me, it works.
Important note: Stephen King in his book On Writing tells a story of an editor who once sent him a note along with rejection letter stating: Final draft is rough draft minus 10%.
I don’t delete as much as I used to. As you build your writing skills you will delete less, yet still edit plenty. Sometimes you even add during the editing process. Remember the 180,000 word novel I mentioned above? In the editing process I highlighted 30 pages that needed to go and hit delete. I loved the story deleted, but it had no place in the novel. If you want engaging writing you have to do it.
Publishing a blog is more than words. I was never a picture taker. Now I’m always looking for possible images to add to posts. At least phones have cameras today and Google automatically downloads the things to “Photos” on my laptop. Don’t ask me how.
Formatting the post takes about an hour.
As soon as I finish I hit publish. Sometimes I finish a day or so early. In those instances I schedule the post. Most scheduled posts are written the day before versus the night before. This means Mrs. Accountant listens to the story at night. Before I hit the hay I format and schedule the post.
The information to this point is mechanical information. It tells you what you’ll see if you follow me around and read my mind. You see me mentally taking notes and planning. You see me writing and editing. My personal writing schedule will not produce engaging posts!
Engaging writing has a piece of you in it. Stories are vital! Most posts on The Wealthy Accountant have some element of story. A good writer knows which parts of the story to leave out. The same story can be told multiple times from different perspectives!
Your life is rich and full of stories. Your childhood, work, marriage, health and family are a cornucopia of stories to share.
No matter the subject, stories are important. Without a personal story the information is just rote formality. For crying out loud, kind readers, I write on taxes and personal finance! Story is the only thing I have to offer unless you think plagiarizing the stock quotes page of The Wall Street Journal is engaging material.
Stories from history or the news are interesting, but often told. Your story, told right, is one only you can tell and readers will find it near impossible to put down or stay away.
Stories are unique in communicating information. Story allows a message above the communicated information. Think of the power of Christ’s parables. They stood the test of time and are so memorable for a reason regardless your faith.
When you own the story the reader gets a chance to step into your world. That’s why a started publishing the “Stalking” posts every Saturday. Engaged readers want to know more about the person they are growing fond of!
Share a piece of you and readers will be engaged. Readers feel like they know you and in a way they do. Writing allows the author to share at a deeper, more intimate level than mere verbal communication.
Practice, kind readers. If you are looking to write an engaging blog you MUST practice. Practice is the only way to get good. Write every day. Never believe you must publish every word you smear across the parchment. The words aren’t that precious until you can string them together in a way that makes your readers swallow hard. They just can’t seem to get the lump in their throat to go down.
The clock now read 10:37. This post is coming to an end. I’ll read a bit before retiring for the night.
Tomorrow morning the hard work starts. If I do it right (or is it write) you’ll be thinking about these words for a lifetime.