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.