How to Write Articles, Reports and Other Long-Form Content Using the Law of Least Effort

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The Writing Problem

If your work time is limited, the Web can be a dangerous place for your schedule. Doing research online means navigating around “rabbit holes” of interest. Before you know it, you somehow ended up on Facebook, commented on a dozen friends’ posts, debated with an Internet “troll,” and watched a few cute videos of babies playing with iguanas. But what about your research? Oh yeah, that.

by Sergey Zolkin
source: unsplash

Obviously, you need to prioritize, and you probably already know that. But why do some projects slip through the cracks?

From my years of writing experience, I’d have to say that it comes down to early planning… or not. Essentially, procrastination can ruin your later efforts. The sooner you plan out your work efforts, the sooner the subconscious part of your brain can start thinking about completing your current block of work.

If you leave out any projects from this process, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have trouble with these later, especially if their planning falls on days in which you feel unmotivated to plan. Us creative types particularly “feel” those days. I’ve learned to utilize such days to do more structured, less creative work (e.g., admin, finding references, catching up on reading, etc.) At least, that’s how it is for me. But that doesn’t mean you can’t split your planning into two or more parts, if you have a lot of projects in queue.

The Planning Solution

Some people like to plan one article/ piece of content and take it through its lifecycle (plan, outline, research, rough draft, edit, final draft) before touching another article. Not me. My brain prefers options, so I try to plan out several writing projects before actually writing for any of them. I don’t know why, my brain just prefers this process, and I’m more productive this way. (Though there is a limit to the number of projects I prep and can mentally manage simultaneously, but that varies by season, workload and personal situation.) If this is also you, then this list of steps may help you. What works for me, after a considerable number of years writing for employers and clients, is as follows:

  1. Prioritize your list from highest to lowest, in terms of your delivery dates.
  2. Within the highest priority category, which articles need the most time? Push them to the top of your “to plan” list.
  3. Start outlining the articles that will take the longest to write, and/or which require some extended thought before writing.
  4. When you’ve outlined articles in the highest-priority block, start on finding some basic references to supplement your outlines
  5. Start working on the highest priority article.
  6. When you find your mind wandering, take regular breaks.
  7. If your mind is still wandering, repeat the relevant steps above to start planning projects from your next highest priority category.
  8. Return to your active project and repeat any of the above steps as necessary until you are done.

The basic approach is that you do focus on one project at a time while writing (or at most two), but get some variety by planning several projects in one or two work sessions. This allows you to get the benefits of both focused attention and variety.

This approach works for non-writing projects as well. I’ve been a professional writer for almost as long as I’ve been a professional software developer, and I use a similar workflow for writing code. This process is likely to work for managing marketing/ social media efforts as well.