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How to Generate Great Content Week After Week


Need … more … post … ideas!.

By Leo Babauta

It’s no secret that I’ve been saying (here on Write To Done and elsewhere), over and over again, that the secret to my success at Zen Habits — and the secret to any blog’s success, actually — is to consistently create amazing, useful, interesting content.

That’s a pretty simple idea, in theory, but much harder to implement on a regular basis.

I know because I sometimes struggle with it myself. I think I do a decent job at creating great content on a regular basis, but just like anyone else, I have trouble from time to time trying to keep the quality and frequency of my content at a sufficiently high level.

When I face those dry spells, I go back to the basics — I remember the things that got me where I am today, and they work every time. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Keep an idea list. This is essential. Whether it’s a small notebook or a text file or a Google Document, keep a simple list that you call upon often for ideas. Whenever you think of something, add it to the list immediately. I’ve been doing this since the beginning and I always have a surplus of ideas — I’ll never be able to write all the ideas on my idea list.

2. Reflect on your life often. The main source of ideas for my posts is my own life. That’s not to say I don’t get ideas from the lives and writing of others, but it’s my belief that you should write what you know about. If you don’t live the stuff you write about, it’ll show in the writing. And so I reflect on what I do. On Zen Habits, that means I reflect on how I’m changing my habits, or being productive or getting fit or whatever it is that I’m working on in my life. On Write To Done, that means I reflect on my writing and blogging practices. Your posts will be excellent if they contain advice from the trenches.

3. Write from the heart. My best posts, judging from reader reactions, are ones where I reach deep into my heart and write about something truthful. Not every post will be like that, but when I run out of advice, I talk about life, my outlook on it, what I’m learning, what I’m failing at. Honesty can make for great reading.

4. Answer reader questions. This is a can’t-fail way to come up with great post ideas, especially if you have a few dozen readers or more. Your goal as a blogger is to solve the problems of your readers, and if you can do that directly by answering their questions … you’ve accomplished that mission. Readers often ask questions in comments or in email, and on Zen Habits I even have a comment thread dedicated specifically to reader questions. I’ll never be able to answer all of them, but it’s a fountain of amazing post ideas that I dip into all the time.

5. Look for inspiration. When you’re feeling uninspired, look for inspiration. I often turn to the same sources over and over again: my favorite blogs, magazines, books, and social media sites such as Digg and Delicious. I’ll also get inspiration from people I talk to, the news media (which I rarely watch or read), and other things in my life. But the ones above are the best sources of inspiration, in my experience.

6. Write when inspired. There are times when I come up with a great idea and I just have to start writing. I’ll open up my trusty WordPress and just start a new post, jotting down ideas or writing the post from beginning to end. If you have that inspiration, try to write immediately — or as soon as possible if you can’t write right away. Catch that inspiration while you can!

7. Get others to contribute. I run guest posts about once a week on Zen Habits, and I also have a regular contributor once a week. That means I usually write about 3 posts a week myself (sometimes more, sometimes less). Those contributions by other writers not only help take the load off me, but give my readers some different perspectives and writing styles, which I think is a nice change of pace.

8. Take breaks to recharge. Sometimes you get drained from writing too often, for too long. You need breaks every now and then — not only to stop you from crashing and burning, but also to allow you to come back from the break refreshed and rejuvenated, more inspired than ever. When I’m feeling drained, I take a week off and just run guest posts. I did it recently and do it every 2-3 months or so.

9. Don’t be afraid to write short posts. Often my best posts are long posts crammed with tons of great info. But sometimes my best posts are also short ones — just a thought, a reflection, a way to get people thinking and talking. Just a few paragraphs is all it takes, if the topic and thoughts are interesting enough. This also gives you a break from writing, allowing you the extra time you need to think about upcoming posts.

10. Repurpose old content. I’m not saying you should do a bunch of reruns all the time — your readers will call you out on it. But once in awhile it’s good to dust off one of your oldest but best posts, that most of your readers haven’t seen, and rework it with fresh content. Don’t be afraid to say that this is an old post that you’ve updated — there’s nothing wrong with that. Or do a link post, to some of your best posts from the past on a certain topic. It’s a great way to showcase your best content to your newer readers, while taking some of the burden off yourself.

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44 thoughts on “How to Generate Great Content Week After Week”

  • Great timing for me with this post. I’ve hit a point of needing to up the frequency again with my postings and this gave me some good ideas.

    Having a regular contributor has helped me a great deal. She has forced me to up my quality and quantity.

    Thanks Leo.

  • AbooZaid says:

    Curious how you do your notes? I’m conflicted between traditional pen and paper and the pc.

  • I actually keep a Word file and when inspiration hits, I type up my idea. I may post it right away or save it for later, but it’s been a great way to collect my thoughts and finesse my words before I share them with the world :^)

  • Miguel says:

    Leo,

    Ye Yes! I’ve recently done some writing about capturing your thoughts by keeping a notepad with at all times. :) What with the fear behind writing short posts? Less is sometimes best or “Less is more.” But do people really believe it? I’m not so sure we can escape the voices that tell us we have to write a novel every post.

    We bloggers know how to overachieve! I like having others that are willing to contribute. As far as looking for inspiration, I understand your point about catching it while you can. There are moments when the juices are flowing and I can write for hours.

    Nice, re-purpose old content… something I haven’t given much thought about. I imagine that that might help to stir up creativity. Thanks for sharing.

    -Mig

  • I remember Skellie (Skelliewag.org) saying she always wrote posts about six days in advance. Somedays she could write several and others write none because she always had that reserve. Seemed like a smart plan, and something you allude to when you say to write when the ideas are flowing.

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s good to develop systems to keep our work flowing; safety nets are important.

  • Leo Babauta says:

    @Aboozaid: I definitely use the computer for notes, only because I can type faster than I can write by hand. My two current note-taking methods are 1) text files saved into one folder; or more commonly 2) just start a new post in WordPress and start typing. I don’t have to finish the post — I have a couple dozen posts that have been started and saved with notes that I can work on anytime.

  • About number 3, “write from the heart”: Just curious, do you ever come up against any limits here? Do you feel that sometimes you’ve gone too far into the personal and you have to pull back? Is there a line you don’t cross?

    Thanks for the post, Leo.

  • This list of advice is excellent. For taking notes wherever I am I use a tool called evernote. It allows me to take notes with my mobile or my PC, making a photo, keying text or simply by voice.

    Coming from your own experience makes your writing very authentic. I last year struggled with my own time management and then started writing about it. Writing was very useful for my own reflection process and sharing the ideas with others just adds value to it.

    Nicolas

  • Leo Babauta says:

    @Beth Partin: I think there are limits, but they’re different for each person. Some people might be comfortable writing about such intimate things as their sex life, their depression, a suicide attempt, their abused childhood. That’s tough to do, but when it’s done it takes courage and it makes for brutally honest reading.

    Personally, I think about the different kinds of people who might be reading the post and ask myself if I’d be comfortable telling it to them directly. And if I’m comfortable having it up on the web forever. That comfort level is different for each person, but so far I haven’t had any problems with that rule of thumb.

  • Great Post!

    I have another Tip:
    write as long as you are inspired! This way you can even write 3 posts at one day. :)

  • Daphne says:

    Hi Leo, thanks for this post. I started running dry on what to write after a few months of blogging (which were easy because at first there’s so much we all want to say!) and need a better, or any, system now.

  • Chase says:

    Many of my posts start in my blackberry. I am never more than 6 inches away from my BB so whenever an idea comes, i can put it into text within seconds. I also keep my list as a note in my BB.

    I would love to put my thoughts on paper more, though.

  • “Get others to contribute”

    I actually believe guest posts are a great asset to a blog. If done too often, they can be detrimental. But done on a regular and reasonable basis – it’s a real plus.

    We, at Pun Intended, are hoping to have more guest posts in the future. And I think another benefit is… most people who submit guest posts are submitting material that is among their best. And that’s awesome.

  • Hey, I actually use a lot of those ideas myself!

    For example, I keep a small notebook in my pocket at all times to jot down ideas in. I often come up with my best article ideas at the weirdest times… like in the middle of a conversation :p

    My main “trick” for writing consistent quality content? Have a life, and always be learning. Those two principles are an amazing source of article ideas that can be useful to others :)

    Then there are a few of your tips I haven’t considered much, like encouraging guest posts. I’ll look into that a bit more!

  • Try Mind Mapping – it really unlocks hidden ideas from deep within you. It also encourages fresh and vibrant thinking. If Mind Maps are new to you or you need inspiration to get started pop over to my Blog to view some examples.

  • Some great tips Leo, I did a little exercise recently which helped me come up with around 30 ideas (not exact titles) in about 20 minutes. Basically i asked myself “What journey do I want to take my readers on, and what will they face along the way?”

    That question allows you to map out certain things, so for us they might be interested in health – travel – goals – relationships – social life – productivity – then you pick points of those that might need encouragement, advice or support.

    It can work out quite nicely

    Stumbled!

    Cheers,
    Glen

  • Zoe says:

    “Reflect on your life often” — though this is often the fodder for my posts, I’ve never thought about it directly. Seeing it on this list helped me write my last post, as it reminded me to do what I find always works best.

    People catch on quickly to what is genuine.

  • This point is really good: 1. Keep an idea list. This is essential. Whether it’s a small notebook or a text file or a Google Document, keep a simple list that you call upon often for ideas.

    My idea notebook goes with me to the karate dojo, to moose playdates, to school, etc. It’s really been very helpful indeed.

    Data points, Barbara

  • Why do I see the “recharge” point at #8 (reflected on another post on ZH)? :)

    I’m keeping myself back up into writing again ever since a 2 months exam hiatus. The #1 point on an idea list is really cool; I used to practice that, and will continue doing so again.

    Liked this list here Leo!

  • cruizen4u says:

    Hey Leo!

    These are the greatest tips I have read so far and just wanted to thank you for sharing them. I will definetly use them. Sometimes we just need a little
    refueling on the how-to’s. You are doing a great service, thank you.

    Cynthia Hernandez

  • ian says:

    My comment is a little off topic, but I think relevant to this blog. As a former journalist writing for the Financial Times, I was quite taken back by Leo’s self-satisfaction at his writing what he calls ‘great content’. One thing a writer must never forget is that only the reader can judge the true quality and value of one’s writing. Self-doubt is constructive. Forgeting this leads to trouble… And it’s not very Zen! That said, I enjoy Leo’s blogs and find that often there are worthwhile tips and reminders. Keep up the good work! Do your best but never be satisfied and don’t forget the humility along the way!

  • Lisa Dale says:

    This is a great list! Thanks for sharing.

    I’m a new novelist (and a blogger-in-training), and I appreciate these suggestions on a whole lotta levels. One thing I like to do when I’m stumped is stop writing! LOL! Sometimes getting away and doing something totally different gives new perspective to the same old.

  • Leo: What auspicious advice on maintaining a successful blog! You indeed write from your heart, which touches other hearts. I plan to become a frequent visitor here.

    My best to you.

    Bonnie
    http://esotericjournal.com

  • Tony says:

    Hello Leo,

    Something that works for me.

    Keep an eye on Google Analytics -> Keywords that are being used in Google searches that end up on your site.

    By doing this I get a sense of what is driving traffic to my site currently. It is sometimes surprising to find out what is the “flavour of the month” and draw inspiration from that.

    Tony

  • Leo Babauta says:

    @Ian: Great point! I should clarify, however: Great content is what I shoot for … I miss this target quite often, but it’s the shooting for it that is important.

  • Was thinking a lot about this lately so this post is very timely.

    My tip is to pump out as much as you can when you’re inspired. For example, I’ve prepared enough content for my blog to last nearly 4 months.

    Not being pressured to write makes it so much easier to clearly think about what you want to write. :-)

  • The hard part for some of us who write for other blogs — we want to save the best content or the other blogs yet we feel like we’ve used up all our blogging energy on those blogs leaving little for our own.

  • Generating lists is always a good standby ;)

  • Hi Leo:

    Although I haven’t started blogging yet it’s on my Goal List for 2009!

    This is a really good article & I found it incredibly helpful. I don’t keep up with my idea book like I should but this may motivate me to get better about it!

    Michelle Mangen
    Owner, Your Virtual Assistant
    http://www.TheVirtualAsst.com
    Neenah, WI

  • carrie says:

    Enjoyed the tip. thanks

  • You know you’re a writer when you can generate content on those days writing is the last thing you want to do. Thanks for this list.

    And I agree with you Leo on you’re view of ‘great content.’ It’s not that we’re patting ourselves on the back every five seconds – boy that’s great stuff! It’s that we’re trying to create great content for the audience. For the readers. It’s great content for someone else, not ourselves. If we’re always striving to provide the great, it makes us work harder, it makes us think twice about submitting the less-than-good…

  • Interesting topic!

    One point I want to add is that there is a correlation between creativity and output.

    For example, my best stuff pops on the page when I’m writing about 500 words a day consistently. When I’m in that writing rhythm, I’m in my flow and it seems easy. I jump out of bed in the mornings, all eager to write!

    I can write 1000 words a day, but that is a lot harder. I have to be very disciplined and write fast and good. That level of output feels a bit strained. I get up to write in the mornings – but dream of sleeping in.

    Just recently I got material ready for the Virtual Zen Retreat – which meant writing about 2000 words a day. I can do it, but have to drag myself out of bed and to the desk. Now, after the retreat has finished, my creativity feels a bit bruised.

    What about your output level? What’s your best range for creativity?

  • Nice ideas here Leo. Thanks. My favorite is your number 3. WRITE FROM YOUR HEART. That is where the magic is, isn’t it?

  • Will says:

    Thanks for the tips, but for me it’s easier said than done – English is not my native language.

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