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My Favorite Tools of the Trade for Writing, Content Planning, and Creative Collaboration
4th August 2015 • Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer • Sonia Simone
00:00:00 00:26:15

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Tanya, from our Authority community, asks about tools for writing and organizing content.

I originally intended this as a wider Q&A session — but it turns out I had a lot to say about tools for writing, content planning, and creative collaboration!

In this 26-minute episode, I get into:

  • My favorite tools for writing blog posts
  • What I use to plan content strategy
  • A caution about quotes and plagiarism
  • The tools I use when it’s time to start writing
  • Tools you probably don’t need
  • How to keep it all organized

Listen to Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer below ...

The Show Notes

  • Subheads, my Copyblogger post about the useful magic of the simple subhead
  • Evernote, the ultra-useful remember-everything app
  • WordPress Editorial Calendar plugin
  • My post on the power of Small Habits
  • Trello, the compact but robust collaboration tool we use at Copyblogger Media
  • Basecamp, another option I like for collaboration and organizing tasks
  • Kapost, enterprise software for managing content marketing strategy

The Transcript

My Favorite Tools of the Trade for Writing, Content Planning, and Creative Collaboration

Voiceover: Rainmaker.FM is brought to you by the Showrunner Podcasting Course, your step-by-step guide to developing, launching, and running a remarkable show. Registration for the course is opened August 3rd through the 14th, 2015. Go to ShowrunnerCourse.com to learn more.

Sonia Simone: Greetings, superfriends! My name is Sonia Simone, and these are the Confessions of a Pink-Haired Marketer. For those who don’t know me I’m a co-founder and the chief content officer of Copyblogger Media.

I’m also a champion of running your business and your life according to your own rules. As long as you don’t lie and you don’t hurt people, this podcast is your official pink permission slip to run your business or your career exactly the way you think you should.

Today was going to be a Q&A episode, but I had a question that had so much depth that I’m just going to riff on this one question from Tanya, who’s a member of our Authority community, which is an online community of content marketers, writers, bloggers, podcasters, business owners — basically anyone who really needs their content to be good and to hit their business goals.

Tanya enjoys creative writing, but she’s not what you would call a ‘pro-writer.’ Here’s her question:

What e-tools should I use for writing blog posts? Is there an app that word counts, checks spelling, checks grammar, proofreads” — wouldn’t that be nice — “makes you laugh, organizes itself, is so amazing that it makes you want to go in there and write?

Tanya bought Scrivener, which seems too complex for her needs. By the way, if there’s anybody out there who can explain to me why Scrivener’s so wonderful, I would love it if you would leave me a comment and let me know. You can catch me on Twitter @SoniaSimone, or you can swing on over to the comments at PinkHairedMarketer.FM.

I haven’t tried it yet because I don’t get it. Looking at it from the outside, I don’t get why it’s cool, but I know so many writers who absolutely love it. Sell me on it! I’d love to hear more about Scrivener and why Scrivener’s cool.

However, that didn’t seem to be the right tool for Tanya. She also bought something called Byword, and that seemed almost too simple.

Here’s my take on tools for writers and content creators: my colleague, Pamela Wilson, and I were talking about this in the Authority member forum. We agreed that the most important thing about any kind of tools for creativity — music, podcasting, writing, whatever it might be, art — is that the tools can only do so much.

What you mainly want the tools to do is to get out of the way — not to make you jump through a lot of inconvenient hoops to get your writing done, not to be hard to use, clunky, complicated. You want something that is as lightweight and transparent as possible, so you can get your words and your thoughts from inside your brain onto a page, onto some pixels, or some ink on a piece of paper.

What I Use to Plan Content Strategy

I realized when I was thinking about answering this question that I have tools for different parts of the process, which makes sense. I’m going to start with what I use to plan content strategy. You will find that, if you prepare your writing day, you’re going to get more writing done. It’s going to be more on point. It’s going to be more relevant to what you’re trying to get done with it.

The first thing that I use in any kind of a content strategy is some form of editorial calendar. If you’re on WordPress, I quite like the WordPress editorial calendar plug-in. It’s just very simple. It works well.

You want to be able to look at, let’s say, a month’s worth of content ideas at one time and just make sure that the mix feels right. Honestly, you can do this on a whiteboard. You can do this any way that makes sense. You want to hit your different cornerstone topics. You want to hit different approaches to the topic — some long form, some short form, maybe some humor, some serious, some in-depth, and some light inspirational material. You’ll see at a glance if it’s been awhile since you did an infographic or if it’s time for another interview post, that kind of thing.

The other thing that’s really important for writers and any creative worker is you need a place to store your idea seeds. The more you write or the more that you create, the more that you podcast, the more ideas you’re going to get. Very often, you get them when you’re somewhere inconvenient. You’ll very often get them in the shower. The other place that you get a lot of ideas, if you’re a creative person, will tend to be on a walk. Sometimes when you’re out running errands, just doing silly things, like you’re at the grocery store.

I really like Evernote for a couple of reasons. It’s cheap or free. It’s very robust. It’s simple, and it works. I can make notes on my phone. I can make notes on my laptop. Anywhere I am, I can make notes. They’re all centralized. I can always find them again no matter how long it’s been. It’s just very easy to use, simple, but it’s really robust.

What I do is I’ll capture the idea. Let’s say I get a post idea, and if the idea really has some energy — it really has some legs — I will often write some subheads. Subheads are the larger text that breaks up a piece of writing, like mini-headlines inside the writing. They’re a really simple, easy way to make your content more readable online — more skimmable, more accessible.

They’re also a really simple way to make sure that you’re sticking to the point, that everything you are writing has a good basic shape. It all is pertinent and relevant. Of course, you can also use a paper notebook for your ideas. You can use both.

I actually have a little portable traveler’s notebook I always carry around. Sometimes it just feels good to scribble on that. If I’m in a coffee shop or something, sometimes I just want to do a little physical writing. Some people like to use both. Other people are strictly paper people or strictly virtual tool people. But it’s essential that you always have something with you to capture ideas. Some people do really well just carrying around a couple of 3×5 cards, but you have to have a way to capture the ideas as they come to you.

Evernote’s also a place to store what I call your ‘thinnings,’ or your ‘prunings’ from your writing. What happens with a blog post is they tend to get bloated out with all kinds of tangents, side roads, ‘oh by the ways,’ and this and that.

When you’re writing, when you’re sitting down, doing the writing, and doing the creation, go ahead and let those side roads happen. Just go ahead and write them down. Get them done. Get them onto the page. But a blog post, for example, it really wants to be about one thing at a time. Ramble-y blog content is really hard on your readers. You want to have it contain one idea at a time.

When you’re editing your blog post, trim all of those out. Trim all the side roads out, but keep them in Evernote. I call this the ‘compost pile.’ Let these things cook together in there. Let them cook in the back of your mind. A lot of times, you’ll find really good things in there later when you need a post idea. That is a very useful way to use Evernote to continue to generate content ideas from the piece of writing that you do today.

A Note of Caution on Quotes and Plagiarism

One cautionary note about quotes and plagiarism: It’s a great idea as you’re reading anything that interests you — things in your topic, things outside your topic, blog posts, books, magazine articles — if something excites you, copy it down in Evernote. Copy down a quote, but make incredibly sure that you know it’s a quote.

The first thing is — and this is a slight ‘duh’ moment, but it’s funny how people get out of the habit of doing it — put quotation marks around it. That will just signal to you that this is not something you wrote yourself. It’s something you found. Of course, always make a note of where you found it — the author’s name and the publication it appeared in.

A really smart process and habit you can get into would be to always change any quoted material that you put into Evernote to another color, maybe blue or purple, something dark purple. Something that’s readable, but that stands out. I personally believe that people do sometimes accidentally plagiarize other writers, taking a quote and thinking it’s something that they wrote.

From the beginning, you want to have a process to make 1000 percent sure that never happens. That is not a good experience. You are not going to feel good about it. The other writer’s not going to feel good about it. It’s bad for your reputation. You just don’t want that to happen. Be scrupulous about noting quotes. Of course, you would always want to attribute a quote properly anyway, so it’s important that you capture that writer’s name.

The Tools I Use When It s Time to Start Writing

The tools that I use when it’s time to actually start writing a piece of material and this could be an outline for a podcast like this one. I outline all my podcasts in some detail. Otherwise, I will ramble all over the place, which is entertaining for about a minute. Then it gets old. Of course, all my blog posts that I write, scripts for content — like the educational content in the Authority forum — this is the same process I use for all of my writing.

The most important tool other than the thing that makes marks — of course, my computer is my most important tool because it’s how the letters get into the document — but after that my most important tool is a timer, a simple timer. It can be the timer on my phone. It can be a cheap, cheap kitchen timer that I keep on my desk in my office. If you’re like me, to tell you the truth, you’re never really going to feel like writing. You’re just never going to say, “I really feel like doing some writing today.” The more you write, the less you ever experience that feeling, in my opinion.

But you can sit down and make yourself write for 20 minutes. You can just about always do that. Then just think, “Okay, after 20 minutes, I’m going to go do something mindless, fun, or whatever I want to do.” It’s amazing how often you end up spending two hours and ending up with a strong, completed piece of writing — just by sitting down and making yourself write for 20 minutes.

The starting is the hard part. So the timer, I still use it. Almost every time I start a piece of writing, I’ll use some kind of a timer. It’s a very, very key tool for me and for a lot of writers that I know. I like to have a piece of scratch paper and a pen because I like to scribble notes. Sometimes I might do a very simple mind map. I’ll talk more about mind maps in a minute. Just have some words, some arrows, lines, stars, it’s almost like I’m sketching the words. That can help me start to form the shape of what I want to write.

I happen to write in a text editor, just a plain, no formatting text editor because I write in HTML, which I totally understand, is extremely weird. I got into that habit when I started blogging, and now it’s second nature to me. If I want to have a piece of writing appear in italics, I will just automatically type in the em and end em tags. It’s weird, but it’s what I do.

A text editor is great for me because it has very minimal distractions. And writing tools, you want to make sure that you don’t have a ton of distractions. You don’t have a ton of functions. My son is hilarious when he’s trying to write a paper for school. He’ll write four words, and then he’s got to highlight it, make it purple, and make it in a calligraphy font, and then he’s got to make all the capital letters green. He’s very distractible.

We all have a little bit of that in ourselves. You want a tool that is, again, transparent and minimizes distractions rather than giving you new ones.

I happen to write on a MacBook Air because, if I’m feeling fussy or I’m feeling off-kilter, I can take it somewhere else. I can take it to the coffee shop, the library, or just another room at my house. For me, it’s the perfect writing tool. It’s lightweight, but it doesn’t have that real stripped down functionality of a tablet. It has a full keyboard. If you’re curious, I think it’s a great machine.

Then talking about maybe some processes in addition to actual tools. As I said before, I start with the subheads, and I may have scribbled those out by hand. For some reason, that sometimes jumpstarts me. Then I fill them in. I’ve got the subheads. I’ve got the main parts of what I want to say, and then I start filling in the gaps.

Then I write the introduction. Then I write the outro, the last paragraph. And then I write the headline. You do not need to do it this way. A lot of very strong writers do not do it quite this way. Many excellent writers, including Brian Clark, start with the headline. They start with where they want to end up. That has a lot of benefits. There are a lot of very helpful things about doing that.

Just realize that, very often, you do need to tweak it later. You may need to change the premise a little. You may need to shift it around a little. Be willing to revisit the headline. For me, my headline will often come about two-thirds of the way through the writing when I start to really understand what I care about the most in this piece of writing, what matters the most to me in the piece of writing.

Some process tools, if you will, that I also use, I’m a big believer in the ‘Rule of 24.’ I did not come up with that phrase. A really smart guest writer did for Copyblogger. I will give you that post because it’s very good. The Rule of 24 is just that, after you finish a piece of writing, no matter how you feel about it — if you feel it’s great, if you feel it’s not great — let it sit without looking at it for at least 24 hours before you do the final edit and publish.

You will see things that you cannot believe were there. It’s really important to give your writing a little bit of a rest. If 24 hours is not going to happen, then at least try to leave it overnight. At least try to finish it up, sleep on it, and then wake up in the morning and do that final polish.

Another processing element that I have because right now I’m quite spoiled — you might have this, you might not — is I have other pairs of eyes that can look at the writing, let me know what’s clear or not clear, what needs some help, where I might have made a silly typo. We happen to have full-time editorial staff. A lot of organizations don’t have that. If you don’t, maybe you can partner with another blogger or another content creator. You can...

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