Do you often get stuck when trying to come up with article topics?
One of the reasons why we tend to struggle is because we get stuck at the “topic” level. However, when you write headlines, not only move along to the sub-topic level, but headlines give you more precise direction. To find out how to use headlines—even not so good headlines—listen to this podcast.
Back in 2003, I was in real trouble when it came to writing articles.
I’d just started the 5000bc membership site, but it contained absolutely no content at all, which was fine, at first, because the reason why many early members joined was to have a place to meet and have a conversation online.
However, even in those very early days of the internet, it was clear that conversation alone was not enough. What made matters worse is that I was extremely slow at writing articles. Every article would take me at least two days—if I were lucky.
The writing was only part of my problem
The second, more significant problem, it seemed, was getting topics to write about. In marketing, you can write about sales, websites, headlines, pricing, conversion—that list seems to go on and on.
You’d think having such a broad scope of topics would make things easier, but instead, it drove me crazy. I had to find a way to solve two problems all at once. I had to not only become a faster writer, but I needed a constant, and very predictable stream of topics to populate the early version of 5000bc.
I decided to go deep instead of wide—and headlines came to my rescue.
Instead of writing articles, I simply wrote “headlines”. I’d choose a topic like “strategic alliances” and then write every possible headline I could on that topic. Almost immediately, a sense of calm came over me because I realised I already knew a lot, just based on the headlines.
I also realised that writing articles on a single topic allowed me to create a series of sorts. And I loved series, and I’m pretty sure most people like series too. Series bring out a sense of sequence and order, and I could see no downside.
I concentrated on writing headlines about things I already knew
For the early strategic headlines series, I wrote the following:
- How to create strategic alliances from competitors
- The discipline of strategic alliance acquisition
- Why you need to investigate alliance bonuses carefully
- The shortcut to get a strategic alliance’s attention
- How to punch above your weight and get superstar strategic alliances
- Whom to approach in an organisation
- Spotting shady alliances
Some of the headlines weren’t headlines at all
They were just points, but with a little bit of HOW and WHY, and some specifics, I could quickly turn them into headlines, which is to say that instead of writing articles, I went through a brainstorm of topics.
Then as a secondary step, I created headlines—to make things more real. And when I think back about those days, it was important not to have the topics alone.
Something about brainstorming with headlines made things more concrete. I usually tend to write headlines for the article after I’ve completed it, but writing the headlines first gave me a feeling of quiet confidence, because it made me feel like the article was already done.
However, there are times when I'd get stuck and not have topics
Which is one of the reasons I love e-mail. I know how people detest e-mail, but I love it to bits. Today I subscribe to just a few newsletters in my field of work, but back then, I had at least a dozen different newsletters in my inbox every single day.
Maybe one e-mail would talk about “how to create presentations”. I'd jump on that topic that would be my theme for the day. The next e-mail might be be about cash flow, or Excel spreadsheets, which would make me want to take a quick nap. 🙂
However, by and large, it wasn't hard to channel the power of someone else’s topics to get my own brainstorm themes going.
When I ran out of newsletters, I’d check the e-mail for questions from clients.
Admittedly I don't always get a lot of questions, because clients can be respectful of your time, but from time to time, I'd get a few questions in e-mail. Instead of discouraging them from asking questions, I’d ask clients and subscribers to send me a list.
Then I’d sit down and write headlines and my brainstorming Choo Choo train would be on the move again. If that method failed, I’d read comments on blogs or forums, or look at the topics being covered in forums.
And talking about forums, just this morning in 5000bc, here are some topics:
- How to start up a coaching service
- How do I position myself in a crowded market?
- Looking for ways to improve my writing
- E-mail writing style
- Where to focus first
- So I have been blogging, what next?
- I need help selling a presentation offline
- Three more things about learning (Okay, that was my post).
This kind of “topic opportunities” are not restricted to 5000bc alone (as you’ve guessed)
You can find topics of this nature on any forum, on blog posts, on podcast lists, on YouTube—and just about anywhere. However, what’s important today (and was important back when we first started 5000bc) was that the topics and sub-topics were not enough.
It was the brainstorming of headlines on a specific topic such as “strategic alliances” that made things real. Which takes us to what you can do next.
If you’re planning to write, why not write a series?
Step 1: Pick a topic—just one will do for now.
Step 2: Brainstorm a series of headlines on that topic (without evaluating the headline itself).
Step 3: Organise the headlines, so they look like a series of sorts
Step 4: Start writing short articles
The last point—writing short articles–is crucial as well.
Today I can turn out a 4000-5000 word article in a single morning. This article took no more than 45 minutes to write. Back then, however, I needed a lot of time to write a detailed article. Hence, once I was done with the headline brainstorm, I’d write short articles and move from one to the other. It gave me confidence that I knew enough, and it helped me to keep going when my writing skills were less polished than today.
When I look at those articles from 2003, I want to take them all down
Yet clients read them today, and find them extremely useful. My writing and editing skills have changed a lot. My storytelling has improved in leaps and bounds.
I might find those articles to be not to my taste, but clients love them. What they also love are the series. And how did those series come about? Yes, it all started with topics and a good dose of headline brainstorming.
Ironically, I’ve given up this method of headline brainstorming and had gone back to the slightly confusing process of finding new and different topics. Guess what I’m going to do right after I finish this article? Yup, it’s headline brainstorming for me too.