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If public speaking and death rank as our two biggest fears (in that order), then writing would have to come third — or at least rank in the top five.
Why are so many people intimidated by writing? To me, calculus is hard. Hanging sheetrock. Changing a diaper on a plane.
Those are three skills that take a certain level of God-given, natural ability. Writing? Sure, it comes more easily to some than to others. But I believe almost anyone can master enough skills to be good at it. And just like exercise, it gets less painful the more you do it.
I wrote for newspapers for close to 20 years, which means I dealt with word counts every day. It’s funny how quickly you get a feel for how long 400 words is — the typical length of a standard, daily news story.
Depending on the font size and column width, 400 words equates to 10-12 inches. In the old days, that would literally be how long a story was; you could take a ruler and measure it.
So a reporter staring down a deadline would know exactly how to break down those 400 words: my lede (yes, “lede,” not “lead”) is a certain length, the body another, and I can fit in two to four quotes. Done.
What is 1,500 Words?
Today I’m going to walk you through the steps of writing a 1,500-word article. This is a meaty length, giving you plenty of room to expound upon a topic in detail for your blog.
This is feature story length, the type of piece you’d read on the front page of the local Sunday paper. It’s a short magazine article.
And it’s exactly the type of word count that’s going to help you rank better in Google searches, not to mention give your readers a lot of value — provided you do it right.
But don’t let “meaty length” scare you. This isn’t like high school, when you’d be assigned a 10-page paper and find yourself propping it up with double-spaced lines and fluff.
Here’s the basic formula we’ll use to get there:
- Talk to yourself
- Chunk it down
- Conclusion/Call to Action
Step 1: Talk to Yourself
Chances are, if I asked you to tell me about your topic, we could easily have a 20-minute conversation about it. Do you know how many words THAT is?
In fact, that’s one of the first — and best — pieces of advice an editor ever gave me.
I was agonizing over a lede, as all writers do, and was having trouble nailing down the focus of the story. And the editor said, “Just tell me what happened.”
As in, say it out loud.
That was it. If we were having a beer at the bar and I asked you what happened, what would you say?
Start there. Step away from the blank screen and have a conversation with yourself. Record it if you’d like.
It’s amazing how quickly you can cut through the clutter by stepping back and asking yourself what happened or what the point is.
Stop Thinking and Answer the Question
Let’s look at an example.
Say you’re writing a blog about training for a 5k. Pretend we’re hanging out and I say, “Man, I’ve always wanted to do that but I stink at running. How do you do it?”
Then answer the question, without thinking about it. Say it out loud. See where your brain starts.
When we talk, we haven’t had time to overanalyze. Often, you get right to the point, to the main idea. You’re letting your subconscious have a go at it, before your conscious mind interferes.
Of course, you might also decide that’s not where you want to start at all! But the point is, you’ve gotten some thoughts rolling. You’re not getting intimidated by a blank screen.
In the example above, you might answer with something like, “Well, first off, you’re not gonna just run 3 miles. You’ll probably start by mixing in walking with some really slow jogging. You basically just want to learn how to breathe and teach your body what it feels like to go for a certain amount of time or distance.”
See how many ideas just came out? We have a possible intro (you don’t just launch into 3 miles) and some concepts that we can easily flesh out (mix walking and jogging, learn to breathe, teach your body what running feels like, choose whether to go for time or for distance).
Keep it going if you’d like. Sometimes I keep talking to myself, and sometimes that one answer is enough to get my fingers moving on the keyboard.
So now that you have some ideas, we’ll move on to organizing them.
Step 2: Chunk it down
Now that you’ve verbalized the main idea and jotted down some thoughts related to it, it’s time to expound and organize.
Everyone has their favorite way of tackling a story, but mine includes a few stream-of-consciousness moments. I start writing down anything that comes to mind, regardless of order.
For example, for this post my main idea was that I’d break down the components of writing a long-form blog post.
And my thoughts related to that main idea included things like: lede, body, conclusion; say it out loud; word count; intro (draw reader in); chunk it down; paragraph length; short words; how to break it up.
You’ll see those thoughts get fleshed out in this article, along with others.
After I scribble or type some random thoughts, I start to firm them up: Which do I want to lead with? What points do I want to include with my intro? What are my primary topics? In what order will I arrange those topics?
Those primary topics will comprise the “subheads,” or sections, of the article.
You’ve already seen what I came up with for this blog. It included my lede and those five topics (Talk to yourself; Chunk it down; Intro; Body; Conclusion/Call to Action).
I will typically take those topics and then jot down more details for each. Now the framework is coming together.
why do people find writing difficult/scary
anyone can learn
what is 1,500 words
See how uncomplicated that looks? And now I have plenty of ideas to flesh out.
The intro to this blog was a little over 400 words. If I had sat down at my laptop and set out to write a 400-word introduction, it might have seemed intimidating. That’s far too open-ended.
Instead, I took the notes above and expounded upon them.
Try it yourself, and then let’s move on to the next section!
Step 3: Write an Introduction (250-500 words)
You have one job here: draw the reader in.
Yes, that’s pressure. It’s why writers will often spend as much time on a lede as they will on the entire story.
We already talked about how you figure out your main idea, and then jot down a framework for it. Now you’re coming up with the hook. The start.
In this blog, I decided my intro would have something to do with people finding writing to be scary or difficult.
This article would walk the reader through the steps of composing a 1,500-word blog post, which I knew was an intimidating prospect for a lot of people. So I needed to let the reader know I understand where they’re coming from.
I also wanted to make it clear that this post would be an easy read.
As I fumbled for a way to start, I was focused on that idea about writing being scary for a lot of people. That led me to public speaking (something else people find scary), and then I recalled reading that people rank public speaking above death when listing their fears.
Ah-ha! I could compose a tongue-in-cheek intro that would include writing in that list of scary things. Now I had a hook: writing can be as scary as death.
That should get the reader to at least the second paragraph, right?
So how long should the intro be?
If your blog post is 1,500-plus words, the intro will probably be in the 250-500 word range.
When you’re starting out, just write the way you’re used to writing. In other words, make your paragraphs as long as you want; we were all taught to start a new paragraph when we had a change of thought or topic.
So just write. Then when you format, break those paragraphs up so they look good visually.
That was another one of the first pieces of advice I ever received: ditch what you know about paragraphs. In the newspaper world, as in the online space, you’ll start a new paragraph pretty much wherever it looks good to do so.
This means you’ll have paragraphs that are typically only one to three sentences long. That’s ok. Your readers will thank you.
Step 4: Write the Body (1,000+ Words)
Now we’re into the heavy stuff!
If your job in the intro was to draw the reader in, your one job here is to keep things moving.
That can be tough in a long article. But this is where our framework comes in handy and where headlines are our friend.
Remember how we jotted down topics and then put them in order, with some details underneath each? That served as a visual to keep us on track.
When you start to get mired or bogged down, refer to your framework. Are you moving forward or did you just start babbling?
You’ll make things easier on yourself as a writer and on your reader if you continue using that idea of “chunking.” Small, manageable parts.
You came up with your topics/sections. Now come up with subsections as well. When you format, this is where you have different-sized headlines (often referred to as Subtitle, Header 1, Header 2, etc).
It’s up to you how you want these to look. But the idea is to continually break your ideas out into small, easy-to-read sections.
How to use Subsections
To return to the 5k idea, you might have a section or heading about teaching your body what it feels like to run. Related subsections could include a few paragraphs each on breathing, pace, mentality, giving your muscles and tendons/ligaments time to adjust.
See how that works? Instead of one long section, you’ve now broken it up visually.
And the sections make sense as well: I can focus on what I need to know about breathing while running, then read about how to pace myself to accomplish that, and read another section about how to focus or what to think about (or not think about). And so on.
The body of your blog will be in the 1,000-word range. Again, that might sound intimidating if you had approached it by just sitting down and starting to write.
Instead, we have our framework and our sections. We have three or four major chunks for that 1,000-plus words, so each section is a very manageable 250-300 words. And if you have subsections, now you’re looking at something even shorter.
See how much easier it gets?
We’re writing a series of short sections and piecing them together, NOT sitting down and penning an opus.
Step 5: Conclusion/Call to Action (200 Words)
You’re coming down the homestretch! Only 200 or so words to go.
Hopefully you’ve kept the reader engaged, and now you wrap things up.
This section can include some final thoughts that didn’t fit earlier, a recap, and a “what now.” That could include links to other blogs, an opt-in, a call for comments and the like.
If you were writing about training for a 5k, you might steer readers toward a training program like Couch to 5k — or maybe you have your own materials. Perhaps you started a Facebook group for newbies or you have your own training program to sell.
You might also provide links to an article on recommended gear, a calendar of upcoming races and other related topics.
The point here is to continue engaging the reader. Give them something else to read and to do. If they got this far, chances are they’d like to stick with you awhile longer! Keep nurturing that relationship.
With that in mind, here are a couple of recommendations!
For those of you who want to build a website or blog, or improve upon the one you have, check out Jessica Larrew’s 30-day website building challenge. Jessica has a great teaching style and breaks things down into manageable pieces; you’ll be amazed at what you’ve accomplished by the end of the 30 days.
Writing a long blog takes a lot of focus. For a great book on focus, check out this post about The One Thing.
Now it’s your turn. What helps you in your writing? What are some tips you can add?
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