Writing a first draft: the why, what and how

The relentlessly helpful® blog by John Espirian

19 October 2017
The messy first draft

📚 This post is part of my business blogging guide.

You’ve decided to write something to promote your business. You’re at a keyboard and there’s a blank page in front of you.

You don’t want to produce boring garbage but you just don’t know what to write.

It’s an awful feeling and for many people it’s enough to stop them from continuing. But you’re not here to quit. You’re here to get stuff done.

Follow my tips and you’ll soon fill that blank page. Ready?


Before you write anything, you should have an idea about what you want to write about and why.

When it comes to most web content, the “why” is more important than the “what”.

Once you’ve got those nailed, you can move on to the process – the “how” – of writing that content.

But let’s start at the beginning. Without a good “why”, there’s really no point in doing any of this.

The “why” – what is your purpose?

There should be purpose behind each article and web page you write, and that means you should have in mind the key point that makes the content valuable to you and your audience.

Mark Schaefer quote about creating content
The wrong reason to create content is just because someone else is doing it.

My content marketing mentor, Mark Schaefer, has written a great piece related to this: take a look at Random acts of content.

The content you produce should be:

  • valuable to your audience: they learn something, they see you as a thought leader, they’re entertained, they save time or money, etc.
  • valuable to you: you drive an action through the value you provide, you strengthen the audience relationship, you sell more products, you gain more subscriptions, you improve your search engine rankings.

Here are some real examples of how that works:

Content example: Technical writing prices.

I wrote a series on how much technical writing costs, the factors that determine price, the level of research that goes in to writing projects and the common charging models associated with this sort of work.

From the audience’s point of view, they learn and understand more about the topic, which helps them make an informed buying decision if and when they need a technical writer.

From my point of view, I share my knowledge and experience about something I know potential customers will be interested in (because most people’s first question is “how much does it cost?”).

The result is a well-ranked set of articles on Google and some value for the audience.

See Technical writing prices.

Content example: MicroMacTips.

I’ve shared dozens of tips on how to do various things to improve your experience of using Macs, iPhones and iPads. The audience picks up practical, actionable advice. I demonstrate that I’m able to explain how techie things work. Explaining how stuff works is a pretty important skill for technical writers, so this series is a good way for me to showcase my skills.

See MicroMacTips

Content example: LearnPlentyIn20.

I’ve used this video series to explain facts and tips in 20-second chunks.

The audience learns something quickly, and the format works well for those who don’t want big blocks of text.

From my point of view, the content is great for showing that I can communicate ideas quickly and clearly. And the format is perfect for sharing on social media, with each video pointing back to my website.

See LearnPlentyIn20

Content example: UnclogYourBlog.

I’ve written a series of posts on how to create blog content (this post is part of the series).

Again, this teaches valuable tips and demonstrates that I know something about the process. Guess who serious business owners are going to approach if they need such content written for their organisation?

See UnclogYourBlog

The “what” – which topics should you write about?

Tony Markwick – a pretend business owner
Tony Markwick
Pretend business owner
Markwick SprocketCo

I don’t know what to write about.

That has to be the most common response I hear when I talk to people about their plans for content creation.

Tony Markwick – a pretend business owner
Tony Markwick
Pretend business owner
Markwick SprocketCo

Everything I would write about has already been written about.

And that’s the second most common response.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • If you sell a product or service, you know more about that product or service than your intended audience. If you can share content that will be of value to that audience, you’ve got a piece worth writing.
  • You have your own authentic voice that will appeal to a slice of the internet. Your natural personality is what’s largely responsible for your friendship group. Put that personality into your writing and you’ll produce content that your audience will enjoy and identify with.
  • There are well over 2 million blog posts published each day. Most of that content is terrible. If you’re one step up from terrible, you’re already doing better than plenty of others (especially those who were too scared to even try).
  • There are almost no original ideas left. Even works of fiction fall into genres and follow general formulas. Does that mean we should all stop writing?

Perhaps these points will give you some confidence that you really can do this. But even with that confidence, bear in mind that it takes a while for content to have an impact. I’ve written about this in the 30-month mindset.

Now you need to think about the specifics of what value you can deliver. I break that down like this:

  • List the skills and knowledge you have.
  • List the pain points, problems and questions your ideal customer has.
  • Find the intersection of those lists and start writing valuable content on those topics.

If you’re struggling to find a creative spark, take a look at 5 ways to think of ideas for your blog.

From my point of view, I know my strength is turning complex ideas into simple content – the sort of explanations that make people go “oh, I get it now.” So, I use my blog to demonstrate that.

Sometimes I write about the mechanics of writing. Other times, I’ll share advice on using social media. And yet other times I’ll put down something about the way websites work or how to market your content.

All of these topics come back to having the ability to communicate complex ideas so that the audience gets value, doesn’t feel stupid and occasionally thinks “you know what, I could save a lot of hassle by getting this guy to write my content for me.”

The “how” – what are the mechanics of the first draft?

If you’ve got the “why” and the “what” sorted, the rest is usually straightforward.

My best advice is to write everything you can think of about the subject matter you want to cover.

Then leave the writing alone long enough so that it feels fresh when you return to it.

Finally, cut all the fat from the content and leave only the lean muscle in place.

It’s important not to stress about editing when you write your first draft. Just get your thoughts down.

That might mean that you write in bullet points, and that’s OK. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar or any of the usual stuff that you were taught at school. Ideas are the only things that matter at this stage.

You may find it easier to write by following a template. For example, for blog posts you could use the following:

  1. Headline
  2. Question or problem statement
  3. Intro and summary of key points
  4. Key points in detail
  5. Wrap-up and call to action

Whether you follow a structure like this or prefer to do things a bit more freeform, get those thoughts down and then leave the text alone.

It’s a bit like kneading bread and then leaving it to prove – when you come back, it will look and feel a bit different from how it was when you created it.

You’ll hear this initial stage referred to as the “messy” or “ugly” first draft. Don’t worry about what the text looks like at this point. Remember that a marble statue starts out as a rough block of stone.

The editing stage is where the real magic happens. That’s where you bake the bread, polish the statue or do whatever other metaphor suits you.

Rather than editing their own content, some people invest in paid help from an editorial professional. In many cases, you can do a pretty good job yourself. Look at my proofreading tips and writing tips for some practical guidance.

Here’s some general advice:

  • Keep it tight: if sentences or paragraphs in your first draft don’t support the key point you want to make, delete them. Make every word count.
  • Tight doesn’t mean short: longer content performs better than shorter content. Generally, the most popular blog posts are now 1500 words long. On my own blog, my most popular posts are 2000–3000 words long. Fluff doesn’t work. But if you provide value, people will read longer posts. Hey, you’re reading this.
  • Focus on the outcome: when the piece is complete, look at it and see whether it serves the purpose it was made for. Will the audience understand the key point? If you want them to take action at the end, will your words have convinced them? Is there anything you could do to make it easier for the reader to do what you want them to?

Concentrate on the essence of what you want to say, and make sure that the way you say it represents your authentic voice.

Karen Elwis
Founder and Tutor
The Learning Cauldron

What sets John apart in the current heaving mass of social media activity is that he not only possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of writing, editing and proofreading but that he also shares it "relentlessly" with his copywriting peers and the public in general.

His rise to bloggy stardom is richly deserved and is a glowing testament to his superlative knowledge of his subject.

A trick for discovering your authentic voice.

Use voice dictation to record what you want to say in your piece of content.

Smartphones make it easy to turn audio into written notes. For example, if you have an iPhone:

  1. Engage Siri (usually by holding down the Home button).
  2. Say “take a note”.
  3. Wait for a couple of seconds.
  4. Start speaking.

The result will be saved as a text note in the Notes app.

Read the note. What patterns appear in your natural speech? Are they things you could include in your written content?

You might worry that using a conversational approach in your writing will make you sound too relaxed and unprofessional. My answer to that is that most readers will appreciate content that is simple, relatable and human. For me, that wins over stuffy, buzzword-filled content any day.

If you know your audience well enough, you’ll understand what tone will hit the right note. But remember: give them what they need and want, not just what they expect.

Let’s wrap up.

It’s important to spend some time understanding the “why” behind creating content. What are you trying to achieve? Once you know what you’re aiming for, you have to think of what you can deliver that will be of interest to your intended audience.

A bit of thought will reveal the topics you know about that you could share with others. Don’t fall foul of “this isn”t an original idea’ thinking. Create something that’s earnest, helpful and written in your authentic voice. That’s how you’ll find an interested audience. But bear in mind that it can take a long time for this content to have an impact.

Whether or not you follow a structure, get your messy first draft written. Then leave it to “prove” and finally edit it without mercy. An editorial pro can help with this – especially if it’s something of strategic importance to your business – but in most cases you can do a decent job yourself.

The best advice I can give you if you’re thinking about writing content is this: go and write some content. The more you practise, the better you’ll be.

So don’t delay: get that messy first draft underway.

Continue the business blogging guide

This post is part of my definitive business blogging guide.

Need business blogging help?

Hire me to coach you or write content for your business.

Get in touch


Be part of Espresso+

The community for freelancers & small business owners.

119 recommendations
for John

John Espirian

I’m the relentlessly helpful®️ LinkedIn nerd and author of Content DNA

I teach business owners how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.

Espresso+ is a safe space to learn how to ethically promote your business online and get better results on LinkedIn.

Follow me on

Share on
social media