The Content Junkyard (and Why So Many Articles Fail)

The Content Junkyard (and Why So Many Articles Fail)

Reader Comments (51)

  1. I keep trying to write an outline, because so many people say how important it is. But, I find it frustrating and like it is constraining me. It doesn’t feel like it flows when I actually go to fill in the outline.

    Is there something I’m doing wrong? How can I write an outline without feeling like it’ll interrupt the flow of my article?

    My articles aren’t really how-tis or things like that. I have a spirituality blog. So sometimes it’s hard to know where the article is going.

    • Brandon, one way to think about the outline is that it doesn’t have to be too many layers deep in order to work.

      Sean may have a different opinion on this, but even if you just start with the headline and the subheads, that tiny bit of structure will help guide you as you write.

      And your readers will sense the structure: they’ll see how the information develops and builds as they read.

      • Pamela and Brandon,
        Here’s something I often do. After getting my research done and determining the one big idea or topic, I start writing potential headlines. Not one or two, but sometimes as many as 30. The best headline is usually near the bottom. And many of the first ones become my subheads with a little tweaking.

        The headline and subheads become a roadmap for the article. And, as you know, good subheads let “scanners” know if they want to invest their time in reading the whole article.

        Sean, great article and spot on! Just shared it on LinkedIn. Suitable for framing, my friend!

    • I agree with Pamela — a headline and some subheads are a form of outline that I use a lot when I write for Copyblogger. If I ever wrote anywhere else, I’d use it for that too. 🙂

      Looking through your blog, you definitely have a point to make and within each article, sub-points along the way.

      You might try starting with what you want the reader to come away with, then what are the steps that will get him/her from the starting point to the ending point you recommend.

      Creating structure with outlines doesn’t feel natural to all writers, but like Sean and Pamela, I recommend giving it a serious try, because it gives a strong shape to your finished work and makes it a more effective form of communication.

      You might also enjoy starting with mind maps to find your outline points. Mind maps for many feel less “constricting” and can be a great way to spark new content ideas.

    • An outline is a map. It’s not restricted to how-to writing. And when you feel it’s constraining, you’re perfectly right.

      An outline is meant to constrain.

      Take this answer to your comment, for example. It doesn’t have any constraints. I could weave and duck; go randomly charging ahead and there’s a good chance you’ll read it. It’s a lot like a cafe conversation. The lack of structure is taken for granted, even appreciated.

      When you write, however, there needs to be a structure because if you don’t, then I have no clue where I’m going (as a reader). I might follow along (as I’d do with a comment or rant) but after a while I’m not really sure whether it’s a good use of my time. The reader (more so than ever) is focused on their time. And an outline is designed to keep the reader slip-sliding from one point to the other.

      That’s only one purpose of the outline. The second purpose is to make sure you don’t miss out stuff you wanted to say. The outline becomes a check list and even the best writers, movie makers etc., they all use outlines.

      When you use outlines well, it seems almost like you’re riffing. Like you’re playing a jazz piece. And you probably are, but to play that jazz piece you need to have some basic structure in place already.

    • Well, I try too. And when I ignore it, I pay the price. I’ve learned to avoid driving myself nuts. Just yesterday I had to write content for my podcast (that was 3,500 words), two articles, and then answer posts in my membership site. If I go about ambling through an article, it would take me all day (and the podcast would never get done).

      So I’ve learned.

      Took me a long time, but I learned.

      • I feel you on this point. Kinda goes hand in hand with Parkinson’s Law: the task will expand to take up the time given to complete it.

        An outline gives you parameters to work within so that you stop dawdling and actually get some writing done.

  2. @Brandon,
    Here is a way to look at it.
    Look at the outline as a vision, a revelation, or a prophesy of the article you are planning on writing. You may also find it useful to write out a “pre-summary” of the article highlighting what you believe the article will the like. This is essentially something in paragraph form that describes what you want to communicate.
    LAST WORD-If what you write currently communicates with your audience effectively, dont worry too much about things others say are important. For some, writing is an art, for others its a science, and for many others, its somewhere besides. All the best!

    @sean- Neat and use-worthy ideas. Very refreshing read.

  3. Excellent points Sean. The same process is important for sales copy too. When I first started copywriting, I used to think (naively) that I could just write a sales letter straight through (planning felt like I was wasting time when deadlines were so tight). Often, the copy would end up in a muddled mess, and it would take me twice as long to complete. Always plan!

    • Yes, I remember those day well. I too thought I could write sales copy off the cuff. My first book, “The Brain Audit” seems like a book for clients, but it wasn’t. I wrote it for me. Just so that I wouldn’t ramble all over the place.

      I still write all books for me. 🙂

  4. I see this advice over and over again, and I know I struggle to do it and I’m not sure why. But I will keep working on it because I so see the value of doing this. I guess it’s a question of discipline, when it comes right down to it. Perhaps that’s my bigger problem? 🙂 Thanks, again, for the reminder. It will sink in sooner or later I’m sure.

    • It’s not because it’s a discipline. It seems like it’s a pain. It slows you down when you just want to write. Yet, I teach a writing course and I can tell you that 100% of the clients would convince you that the outline is critical to their writing. Many of them take 45 minutes just to write the outline and then the article is quick work (less than 2 hours).

      As they get better that writing time comes down to an hour or so. And the outlining part can go down to a few minutes. But it depends. If I’m outlining for my podcast, which is often over 3,500 words long, then I have to spend over an hour in outlining. But you can hear the final result of coherent thoughts when you listen to the podcast. Without the outline, I waste so much time it’s not funny.

      It’s not that I don’t try to avoid outlining.

      I do.

      But it always comes to bite me in the bum when I’m sloppy 🙂

  5. Thanks for the great article. There are a lot of good “checkpoints” here to use when creating content. One lesson that I learned about a year ago is that content for the web is a whole different animal than it used to be. Since I started re-writing and reformatting some of my older content, utilizing some of the techniques above, I’ve noticed many more social shares, etc.

    • Rewriting is cool but often takes as much time (if not more) than creating new content. Older content was written by a “different person”. I always recommend a fresh write even if it contains the very same points. You’ll be amazed how much better your article appears to be when you write it afresh.

  6. Great insights Sean. I agree. It’s taken me a long time to pin it down but my writing has improved because of it. A well outlined article will always flow. An outline simplifies the writing process and will save you a lot of time. I cannot remember how many times I have forgotten a key point simply because I had not cared to prepare an outline.

  7. Sean, excellent article and something I can relate to. I am a typical example of “tired and deadline-driven content producer” but I am changing this habit now.

    I only write an article a week but rather than splitting it over stages and assign tasks for every day, I end up writing everything at the last minute, a tense and tiring process. I am now changing things, I write skeleton first day, intro second day. Then actual body on day 3 and 4 and finally editing and polishing on days 5 and 6. I am seeing good results and more fire and power in my writing this way.

    Cheers for a great article. Sharing as well. Thanks

  8. Thank you for the article Sean. I personally don’t write a lot of my own articles any more, but if I do, I will surly use this as a guideline for my writing. Great piece of advice!

  9. I love the great debate about outlines.

    What part of this out process to you find the trickiest Sean? Normally I’d guess headlines but after reading the comments I can see with you, that’s not the case.

    My process is similar to Sonia’s.
    At the top of my page I always write the “transformation” I want readers to have after my article. Then it’s outline the subheads – (all my post start as list posts), develop the core message, write the intro & outro, edit, create visuals, edit again, format, post, promote.

  10. Headlines are dead easy.

    But that’s only if you don’t buy into the “cut and paste” mentality that pervades the Internet. Headlines are as easy (or as tough) as learning to ride a bicycle. You have to learn the technique. Once you learn, you don’t fall off and you don’t forget. And no one has to “test” to figure out if your headline is good or bad (any more than you’d have to test if you’re on the bike or falling off).

    The content isn’t hard either but at first that would be the hardest of all. Why? Because the content may appear to be just content, but embedded in it are the First Fifty Words, connectors, subheads, objections, examples, summary, next step etc. So unless you’ve got all these as second nature, you’re going to struggle to complete an article in an hour or two hours. And by “an article” I mean a really good article.

    An article that just has lists. e.g. 17 ways to attract clients is an article that is far simpler one because you’re really embellishing 17 points. It’s not good or bad, it’s just a lot easier to write an article of that nature. It’s when you get to write an article that’s really deep and covers only a few points—or even just a single point—that you realise that the elements above need to become second nature.

    Think about what you do when you’re walking. You put one step ahead of the next. And you balance, twist, turn etc. You walk on several types of surfaces and your brain adjusts for every surface. That’s not second nature. All of it has to be learnt. And the same applies to the bulk of the article. If you want to write really well, you have to have reasonably fluency over the start (most starts are crummy), the connectors, etc (see the list above).

    Then once you’re done with all of the above, you edit for clarity. If you write a lot, you’re editing in your brain (yes, just like you do when you talk to someone and choose your words). You can “edit at the speed of write”. Even so, you have to go back and edit for style.

    Style is probably what takes the most time of all. You may find that the part you wrote at the bottom is better suited for the top. You may tweak stuff in a way that makes the very same content a lot better.

    I’d say the last bit is the biggest “trouble maker” and if you don’t restrict your edit time you can edit endlessly. An article that takes 2 hours to write is a good article. An article that takes 6 hours isn’t 300% better. It’s way better to write three average articles (at 2 hours each) than to write one article taking 6 hours.

    Eventually, the secret to any creative enterprise is simply the management of energy, skill and confidence. But energy comes first, long before skill. And that’s the tough part because editing is energy based and outlining is energy based. The skill is like riding a bike. When you get it, you get it.

  11. Sean, thanks for putting a lot of my thoughts into words. 🙂

    I follow a process similar to yours when it comes to blogging: first I’d do the research, then outline, then write the post and edit. However, the fastest I can finish a post is 1 per week (of about 2,000 words).

    While I enjoy polishing my content to its’ best version possible, do you think it’s better to try and challenge myself to write faster, or to follow my own pace?

  12. Thank you Sean, for sharing an awesome article. I used to think after writing with Lindbergh method that, “I spend so much time on it, still it’s not the best”. This article gave me what I was looking for, but I didn’t know what I was looking. This article is what I needed.

  13. Brilliant.

    Most of the writing I do is in a snap.

    Copyblogger and other sites which I follow are opening my eyes and shocking me.

    This is great. I love how you did the introduction paragrpah and twisted it to get the message across.

    Sean – superb Article. Stay Awesome. 🙂

  14. Hello,
    Very good article, it is well researched. I like your point about writing a good introduction for the article. The introductory paragraphs are very important as the visitor upon reading it decides if to read further or not so it must be good. The examples you have given every time are also good.The introduction to your article draws the reader into your content. I also liked your approach towards the What
    Why, Where, When, How type questions they are very much important. Overall this is a great piece of content. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  15. I am actually an intern at a marketing company, and a handful of my assignments are writing articles, so this article was very beneficial to what i am doing. I feel like when i write articles and complete my assignments, I am very deadline-driven due to the workload, and this article makes me realize that I sometimes could be cutting corners. This article was very useful for beginner writers and even advanced/experienced writers.

    • Anyone who calls themselves an expert is just fooling themselves. The real experts know they have a lot to learn. It’s a beginner who believes there’s a finite end to learning.

  16. Great advice here. As a constant blogger and longtime internet marketer I’m always starting big blogs but rarely finishing them. I like the idea of breaking blogs into multiple posts and releasing them one at a time.

    • It’s not just true for blogging. It’s true for just about anything in life. You can take any activity and break it down and it’s less draining—far less draining.

  17. I love blogging but at times my mind can go blank and it’s hard to develop great content day after day. I like your 4-step process for writing blogs, especially getting out of your house and going to a coffee shop to come up with new creative blog ideas.

    • The office is easily the worst place to do anything but execute your ideas. I make clients go away from the office. Just the ability to walk makes your brain function better. Humans were not really made to slump on chairs.

  18. For step #4, always get a colleague, and if you didn’t know I’d say that you haven’t been paying attention. We do not see what we wrote. We see what we think we wrote. They’re not always the same thing. That’s why it’s so easy to catch the mistakes of others but so difficult to catch our own.

    • I agree. I have been writing for close to 20 years and I use three different editors (especially for books). Three different editors come up with three separate sets of suggestions.

      I’m almost scared to go to four.

  19. I never use an outline, and I still manage to write compelling articles, e-books, etc. (ghostwritten, so you won’t find my byline anywhere, but you will find 5-star reviews). I have this theory that outlines are for left-brained people. Actually, I’m ambidextrous – so highly creative and mentally organized at the same time.

    Btw, it’s not that I can’t write an outline, either – I just don’t feel I need them. The first time I wrote one in a study skills class, the teacher asked me if I’d done it a lot. Not. When I worked with a guy who required them at first, he eventually said to just do what was most efficient for me.

    Bottom line: Do what works for you. Rules can be helpful, but ditch them if you don’t need them.

    Caveat: To be fair, I evidently have a real gift for writing (not that I ever cared), so the other part of “do what works for you” is “know thyself.” Are a kick-ass writer by nature, or are you fooling yourself if you think you need a little more work (not that that doesn’t help regardless)?

    But I will also say this: if you can train yourself to focus and think clearly, you will have already won half the battle.

    • I cook without a recipe.
      But a recipe is an outline.

      And I disagree that it’s for left-brained people. It’s a scaffolding that is needed for people to follow a direction. I was also ambidextrous (as a child), and left-handed. That’s as much right-brained as you should get, but I also happen to be a very good cartoonist (among other things). The reason why I’m saying this isn’t to impress any one, but what you’re describing isn’t the lack of outline.

      What you’re describing is an outline in your head that you’re following. It’s a pattern just like a Pollock painting. If you’re not familiar with Pollock, here goes (from the NPR site).

      In 1949, when Life magazine asked if Jackson Pollock was “the greatest living painter in the United States,” the resulting outcry voiced nearly half a century of popular frustration with abstract art. Some said their splatter boards were better than Pollock’s work. Others said that a trained chimpanzee could do just as well. A Pollock painting, one critic complained, is like “a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out.”

      Yet Pollock’s reputation has outlived his detractors. A retrospective of his work several years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City drew lines around the block, and an award-winning film of his life and art was released at the end of 2000. Apparently “Jack the Dripper” captured some aesthetic dimension—some abiding logic in human perception—beyond the scope of his critics. That logic, says physicist and art historian Richard Taylor, lies not in art but in mathematics—specifically, in chaos theory and its offspring, fractal geometry.


      People might say: Well, Pollock didn’t follow an outline. And maybe he did and maybe he didn’t. But Pollock had a pattern. That’s how you knew it was a Pollock and not some random person. That’s how you know when it’s a Picasso painting, or a Mozart piece. And the same would apply to your work, even if it is ghost-written. You follow a precise outline in your brain, and I’d bet you’re more than aware of it.

      What you’re really describing is what I’d call “science at high speed” or to put it another way what the world calls “talent”. Talent is a reduction of errors, and what you’re doing at relatively high speed is reducing the errors as you write. With time, any writer can do this feat if they train themselves to do so. It seems relatively clear that you’ve worked out the pattern at a very early age.

      So that gift is the ability of the brain to decipher a pattern, which has served you very well in writing without an outline. But what gives the pattern away is that someone looking for the pattern would find it even though the books you’ve written are anonymously done so.

      Very few people on the planet would have figured out a pattern quickly. Hence, the need for scaffolding.

      Of course the moment you’re called on to do an illustration, cook a complicated 30-ingredient dish, etc., that need for outline would most certainly pop right back up again. The gift would then be in the hands of someone else (a chef who was cooking for ages, or who figured out how to cook without a recipe early on).

      I realise you say “do what’s good for you” but I’ve been training writers for well over 12 years and almost always I see writers struggling over their work at the start. That’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is the end point. When writers go through about 12 weeks of using outlines as training wheels, all of them (yes, all) do something magical.

      They all write in a fraction of the time and all write amazingly well. To me, that’s good enough reason for making outlines a priority.

  20. I agree with the comment, “if you train yourself and focus” you will achieve half the battle. However, you’ve hit at the very core of the problem. Many people can’t train themselves and find themselves distracted.

    Which is why “training wheels” are precisely what’s needed.

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