How To Generate Content

March 19, 2020 § 27 Comments


“Start a blog!” agents say. “Write a newsletter!” announce publishers. “You’ll build readership and be more attractive to agents and publishers!”

But what the heck do you put in it? Hey, I got rejected again by the same magazine?

Yes.

Absolutely.

(I do.)

The daily grind of your writing life is indeed fodder for bulletins every week or two. More than once a week gets annoying; less than once a month and people forget who you are and unsubscribe. Try to share your work the same time and day, so that people have a subconscious expectation of reading you, say, Tuesday mornings.

I have to write something every week? What if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

And a blog post or email newsletter is not a lengthy, many-drafted essay. In fact, the best content is:

Brief,

Personal, and

Useful

Be brief.

Chances are you’re not the only thing they’re reading that day. They want to be provoked, or made to laugh, or learn something, briefly.

Newsletters max out around 600 words; under 300 is better. Blog posts’ sweet spot is 600-800 words. Ideally, write the amount you can write, polish, and post in 60 minutes or less. At first, that may be 200-300 words. Once you get a rhythm down, you’ll be able to get closer to your target—or turn out shorter pieces in less time.

Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Get personal.

Whatever you do, make it yours.

Blogger Penelope Trunk‘s break-out fame came from live-tweeting her miscarriage during a business meeting, shattering the image of work-life balance. She personally attacked a guy on Twitter who criticized her parenting, and “I Hate David Dellifield. The One From Ada, Ohio” is still one of the most popular posts on her site. Some days, I read Penelope and think, “She’s a loon!” Other days I think, “Wow, I’m glad she’s brave enough to write this.” I’m not showing up to her blog for pure information, I’m reading because I’m fascinated by her.

If your news today is, “I got rejected by the same magazine again,” write that. Write about how you made 100 copies of the rejection, folded paper airplanes, wrote “Never give up!” on the wings, and flew them into the playground from the elementary school roof. Or how you dreamed about doing that. Or how you added another hatchmark on the bare plaster of your crumbling bathroom wall, how every day you sit on the toilet and count rejections like a prisoner counting days. No matter which of those is closest to your own experience, someone reading will gasp in shock and recognition and say, “Me too!” And then they will read you again next week.

Be truly useful.

I was speaking with another retreat leader (If you’re an academic working on breaking through writing blocks, check out Inkwell Retreats, this woman is ah-mazing). We discussed how conference speaking, online courses, and blog posts could intrigue and connect with potential retreat guests. The big question: How much should we “give away”? If people could take a video course at home, or read a craft blog for free, would they still come to an expensive retreat or day-long workshop?

What I (rather indelicately) said: People watch porn for different reasons than they hire a sex worker. “In-person and focused on me” and “conference session” and “watching a video at home” are all different experiences.

Give away the secret recipe. Genuine interest in the well-being of your readers means sharing truly useful, specific information. The more you show you care about your readers, the more engaging you become. Karmically, this is an excellent thing. Cravenly, generosity makes you look powerful. That person has so many resources she can just give them away! Passing on information shows you as connected; a visible part of the writing world.

Trust that there is enough: Enough money, enough readers, enough students, enough to go around. Re-posting a prime contest or sharing a submission opportunity doesn’t lessen your own chances. Instead, it builds your authority as a source. (Check out Erika Dreifus’s excellent newsletters full of writing opportunities.)

Generating content is not an immediate return. Musician Amanda Palmer (artistic nudity at link may be NSFW) did a lot of free YouTube concerts before running the first million-dollar Kickstarter. Cheryl Strayed wrote a lot of Dear Sugar columns for free before Wild broke out.

Blogs and newsletters make us our own gatekeepers. We slowly build our reputations and our readership. Start small. Take on only as much commitment as you can regularly deliver. Respond to comments. Engage with all four of your readers—they’ll bring friends.

Stay brief. Get personal. Be useful.

Share.

__________________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Manager. She offers travel stories and writing tips on Instagram.

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§ 27 Responses to How To Generate Content

  • Brilliant. I keep meaning to set a regular weekly posting schedule for my blog . . . and then not doing it.

  • Reblogged this on IMPERFECT PATIENCE and commented:
    This is such excellent advice I decided to figure out how to “reblog.” Perhaps I will even try to take this good advice. I keep thinking this might be the time to share my best writing prompts, especially since Willamette Writers has postponed events (well, of course they have) so I don’t know when my presentation will take place.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      That sounds like a great idea!

      • My first Monday Prompt went up this week and the Revision today. This is the only fiction assignment, 500 words, and it was a relief to get it posted and to force myself to write it. It didn’t have to be good, only a way to get myself to look away from covid19 statistics.

  • Thank you. This is a nudge I need, especially the reminder to be brief and imperfect. I keep thinking, But I don’t have time to get it right, which keeps me from getting it down at all.

  • Love this, thanks Alison!

  • eruing08 says:

    Thank you for your blog advice and I have greatly motivated to once aga

  • Allison’s posts on the “Brevity non-fiction blog“ epitomize the generosity she describes above. Reading her words helps me to feel connected in these harrowing times of enforced social distancing. The phrase “Trust that there is enough” resonates (contrasting images of shoppers frantically stockpiling loaded carts). Count me among your readership, Allison! All I can manage is a comment… Best, Debra

  • Margaret says:

    I think this is some of the best advice you’ve ever given and just what I needed to read today. I recently published a couple of slightly more polished blog posts and received some nice comments/feedback. Whilst this was unexpected and lovely, I haven’t been able to post anything since becauseI felt that the new pieces weren’t good enough. I also knew that I should post something fairly quickly or I would lose momentum. So what have I been doing? Nothing apart from being hard on myself. Time to act. As you say, there’s always at least one person out there who will identify with whatever ideas you are sharing.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Yes! And I think – judging from what I get in my inbox – plenty of writer newsletters are casual in tone.

  • Hmmm. When I started a blog a few years ago, I posted a well-crafted essay weekly. I was very new to writing, and it took all week to get that essay out. After a year, I cut back to monthly blogs, because not many people were reading them (although I did have good engagement from those who did read them). I thought I was overloading my followers, so I decided to “underload” them. I still spend many hours writing a well-crafted essay, with no improvement in my read rates. And you’re suggesting I write less formally and more often, and more people will read it. Hmmm. Interesting, Allison. I’m curious if other readers here have the same recommendation?

    • Allison K Williams says:

      I’d be curious to know too! I do know that what comes into my inbox (I’m probably on 15-20 lists?) is usually casual and personal. There’s often a beautiful “moment” but it’s definitely not something I’d expect to see in a literary magazine.

      • Very true. I’m on about the same number of lists, all of them casual. Hmmm. You’ve given me much to ponder!!

      • Margaret says:

        I’d be really interested in finding out what newsletters you subscribe to. I am really enjoying reading the ones that do arrive in my inbox and wouldn’t mind reading more.

  • Wonderful post! Never, ever have I been more grateful for my super-engaged, tight-knit blogging community!

  • Alexander McCall Smith sent out a “newsletter” to his followers on the weekend. It was a poem about coping with the Covid-19 crisis. It was personal, heartfelt, and very encouraging. Each of his mailings makes me want to hit “reply.” He writes as if he were chatting with an old friend. We get enough ads in our inboxes. We want notes from friends.

  • […] How To Generate Content […]

  • Susan Keefe says:

    What a TERRIFIC blog! Thanks for sharing some great ideas and for offering some encouragement to a blogger who has not been faithful recently. Now is the perfect time to get back on the horse!

  • Allison – I’m reporting back to say I took your advice about doing more personal blogs, as opposed to well-crafted stories, and I’ve gotten replies and comments from people I didn’t even know were on my list!! (I don’t require a name to subscribe, just an email.) So I’m a convert!

  • […] Tips on generating content for your blog and/or newsletter, courtesy of Allison K. Williams/the Brevity blog. (And if you’ve found your way to me via that post: Welcome!) […]

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