Free Writing: When Writing Crap Can Actually Be Productive

Keeping a notebook with you is a great way to work on developing your writing voice.

Caption: Keeping a notebook with you is a great way to work on developing your writing voice.

Content creators often miss a crucial step in the process. This step comes between the initial idea and the moment they hit “publish” on the finished product. I’m not talking about doing keyword research, optimizing the content, or proofreading the post.

I’m talking about failure. I’m talking about total crap writing.

Read a few blogs. You can tell right away which ones have a good command of voice and which ones sound like they were possibly written by Ben Stein (which is to say flat and pretty boring). You probably much prefer the ones with a strong voice, right? It gives the site character.

The difference between the blogs that are informative as well as fun to read and the ones that make your eyes glaze over with the generic-ness is that the good ones learned from being bad. In reality, everyone starts as a bad blogger. This is perhaps not in writing skill, but we all struggle to find our voice and our purpose for creating content.

I love Gini Dietrich’s site, Spin Sucks. In a recent post on keeping content fresh, Gini made a little aside about how she didn’t start out as a great blogger, and was recently reminded of that when she looked at some of her early posts. You’d never know it to read her blog now, though. Her posts are fun to read because of the way in which she’s developed her voice.

UntitledIf you’re doing the content creation, having a strong voice humanizes your brand — whether it’s personal or corporate. If you want to make your content stand out above the others, you need to let a little personality shine through.

This is where free writing can really be a useful exercise, and it’s one that many content creators and new bloggers could benefit from practicing. When you free write, you’re basically mind-dumping and getting ideas down with no regard to form, grammar, mechanics, or any of those other English-y things you learned in school.

The trick is in realizing that this kind of writing isn’t necessarily publishable (although there is certainly no shortage of evidence in the blogosphere to indicate that everyone understands this). What it does do, however, is help you find your voice.

Think of it a bit like journaling. Quick anecdote time!

My grandmother bought me my first journal when I was eight years old. It came from the Dollar General Store and it was hideous, but I loved it. I started filling the pages with third person accounts of my day, telling them like stories. Over the next sixteen years, I filled a diary and several other journals (you know, just diaries with more writing space and without chintzy locks) with first person accounts and observations. At first they were really weak. For example:

Today my mom yelled at me. My sister is annoying and my little brother cries a lot.

But at some point between the ages of 9 (when I might have written that entry) and 25 (when I stopped journaling my life on a daily basis, either in written form or via LiveJournal), what happened was that I’d written enough crap to develop a voice. My entries were no longer sterile, boring anecdotes. I employed some creative writing techniques and realized it was a lot more fun to write in conversational tones — the same way I might tell these stories to my friends or family.

It had all been one gigantic free writing exercise preparing me for bigger, better things.

And when I started freelance writing and blogging for a wider audience, those lessons served me well because I was able to apply them across the board.

So if you’re writing crap…

Writing is a skill. It’s something you can hone and become better at doing through practice. Some people are naturally better at it, yes, but that doesn’t mean that working hard won’t pay off. In fact, I’m a big believer that hard work is the only way.

So take a look at your content. If you’re creating a lot of crap, start working to identify the good ideas among it. Have some other people read it and help you to identify those points if you like. When you’ve extracted the strong points, target them. Then work on writing for no one in particular — a lot of unpublished free writing to help you develop your voice. Sure, it’s extra work and you’re undoubtedly very busy. But in the long run, I really believe you’ll see a return on your time investment. Your voice will be more distinctive and your content will be stronger.

photo credit: Amir Kuckovic via photopin cc

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  • Gini Dietrich

    It’s so funny I’m reading this now (instead of when you published it) because I did a webinar yesterday where someone asked if he should start writing content now or wait until he becomes an expert. I said you can’t become an expert without writing every day. Case in point: Me. Wow. I’m not joking when I say those early blog posts are terrible. Maybe I’ll get up the guts to publish some of them so everyone can see you have to start somewhere.

    • Renee DeCoskey

      So true! When I started transitioning careers, I read as much as I could, but I really feel like writing about it is what helped me to process and retain. There are so many benefits to doing some kind of writing daily. If I were going to write this post again, I’d probably also talk about the importance of developing that critical eye for one’s own work, which is really what takes writing from good to great. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Gini!

      • Gini Dietrich

        You can totally rewrite it in a few months with a new perspective. Bam! Repurposed content!

        • Renee DeCoskey

          Right you are! Marking that down in my notebook of blog ideas right now :)