By now, you have a winning strategy for how you will use content to grow your business, effective idea-generating system in place, and an editorial plan for the content you’ll create over the next few months, give or take.
It’s time to start creating content.
But not just any content. We’re talking relevant, creative, engaging content that actually gets read.
And that’s exactly what you’ll get. Here we cover the six steps of the creative process, in depth and with specific examples showing you how to turn your idea into a finished piece of content.
Just to be clear. We’re talking primarily about how to write content. That doesn’t mean we think you ought to be creating blog posts only or that written content is somehow better.
It’s just that all content ultimately starts with the written word. The steps you take to present your ideas in a video are the same as you’d use in an article. It’s only in production that things change.
So no matter what type of content you plan to create, the processes you learn can help. Follow these same steps, no matter what kind of content you want to create, and you’ll end up with high-value content that gets your brand noticed.
The Creative Process
If you’ve studied writing, you may recognize this as the writing process. We’ve renamed it the creative process on purpose.
That’s because not all content producers consider themselves writers. But each time you produce a new piece of content — whether it’s a blog post, podcast or video — you follow the same process of organizing your ideas and finding the right words to express yourself.
You’re only limited by your own creativity. Which is why we think the term creative process works better.
Any time you sit down to produce a new piece of content, you’ll use these steps. You won’t always work through them in order, and sometimes you’ll jump back and forth between steps. But the best content has usually gone through all six:
- Select your topic and approach
- Cool off
Let’s take a look at each…
Select your topic & approach
Sometimes an idea springs to mind fully defined, with a great angle and unique approach. But that’s rare.
Most ideas start out as a broad topic, and you must massage them and play with them until you come up with an idea worth writing about.
Here’s how we do it:
Check your Editorial Planner to see what’s scheduled for production.
Look at the topic, the objective and any keywords you have listed. The objective and keywords will limit your options for developing the idea. But they’ll also direct your thinking.
Your goal is to find the right way to talk about the topic, first, to engage readers and, second, to help you achieve your business goals.
If preliminary research or idea gathering has been done, you have a head start.
Copy and paste the topic into Word document and skip down to the Research stage.
For example, this is a fully developed idea. No need for more research.
If all you have is a general idea or broad topic, you need to narrow your approach.
When writing is hard, it’s usually because you’re trying to cram too much information into too small a space. To keep that from happening, make sure you narrow your focus now.
Try to think of one aspect of the topic that needs to be covered or one question you will answer.
How do you narrow your topic?
Do some preliminary research.
First, search the Internet for other blog posts on the topic to see what others have written.
In our example, nothing was discovered in a Google search, so the writer began looking for examples of landing pages that use multiple clickable elements. She had been saving promotional emails from different brands and found a good example among them.
Look for the gap.
Your narrowed topic should provide an original angle for talking about your topic.
Do not recycle content produced by other brands. Google evaluates uniqueness as well as usefulness when ranking your content. If it’s too similar to existing content (yours or other brands’), it could be considered “duplicate content.”
TIP: If an original angle doesn’t come to mind quickly, move on to another project to let your brain simmer on it for an hour or two. Sometimes you’ll come up with your best ideas when you’re doing something unrelated to your problem.
Brainstorm your topic.
If preliminary research fails to turn up an interesting idea, a brainstorm may help. But don’t worry about it too much. In step 2, Research, you may get additional ideas. Do a brainstorm now or wait until after you’ve done more research — whatever feels right for the topic you’re writing about.
Write your best idea in your Editorial Planner, along with ideas for how to develop the topic.
If you do get an idea for how to narrow your topic or develop it, enter it in your Editorial Planner.
In the case of our example, the idea started as a general idea, that landing pages would perform better if they had more clickable elements.
Browsing landing pages from different brands turned up one brand that uses this tactic remarkably well. The writer selected one of their landing pages to use as a case study.
Then after evaluating the techniques used in that promotion, she decided on four main points for the article.
Whether you share opinions or fact, and whether you want to inform, persuade or entertain, you need to back up your ideas with relevant details. That’s why it’s so important to research your topics.
What type of research do you need?
Look for information that will prove your points and validate your opinions. Things like:
- Case studies
- Ideas from respected authorities
On a side note, this is one of the reasons we recommended you visit your Feedly stream every day.
When you find articles that share useful statistics or reports or that could serve as research for future content, save them. Then, when you need numbers or facts to back up your claims, you already have them on file.
How do you do research for content marketing?
Begin by copying the topic from your Editorial Planner and pasting it into the top of a new Word document. This will keep you focused on your topic as you research.
Next, perform an online search for your primary keyword.
We prefer Google, but you may use your favorite search engine. Type your primary keyword in the Google search bar and look at the types of articles that show up in the SERPs. As in Step 1 above, you want to see what other people are saying about your topic. But now, you’re looking for information that aligns with your message, so you can reference it in your own content:
- To back up what you’re saying.
- To bounce an idea off of.
- To give an opposing point of view.
Check the URL of the sites that show up in the SERPs.
You want to find sites that are recognized as authorities in the subject. That’s not to say that lesser-known brands don’t have anything to contribute. But you can save time by focusing on industry-leading websites.
Read or skim the articles on authoritative websites.
You’re looking for facts, quotes, statistics, or new ideas that could help develop your topic.
Not all content needs research. An opinion piece, for example, may be entirely made up of your own ideas. But be aware that every piece can be strengthened by adding statistics, including other people’s opinions (agreeing or disagreeing with you), or references to a book or other resource.
Copy and paste relevant sections of research into the Word document you created
Don’t try to copy entire sections of other people’s work. Simply collect the facts that can help you tell your story.
Always copy and paste the URL with your research so, when it’s time to write, you can easily link those ideas to the source material.
For example, this is what our research for a section in this book looked like. As in this example, your research may include snippets of ideas, facts or links.
Notice that our research consists mostly of links to articles that can be referenced when we write that section.
Notice also that these links are mixed in with our own ideas. Research and collecting your own ideas often happen simultaneously. Most writers move back and forth between brainstorming and researching during these early stages of the creative process.
Add your own thoughts
Research should never replace your own ideas. It should only strengthen and give credibility to your statements. So add your own thoughts to the researched facts you’ve collected.
Think about what your readers need to know about your topic, and jot down your ideas.
As you work, be careful to mark researched information so you can easily see which ideas are yours and which ones need to be attributed.
There are two ways to do this:
- Next to information that you copied and pasted from research, type in italics where you found it. Then paste in the URL.
- In front of any information that you found in research, highlight the text, “Not mine!” At the end, paste in the source URL. Or highlight, “End of not mine.” Any similar notation will work.
Choose the method that works best for you. Your research is for your eyes only, so you can adopt any system that helps you organize your thoughts.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re researching:
Always look for primary sources, not secondary.
A primary source is the original research or statement. It will always be the most authoritative and accurate.
A secondary source is a blog post, press release or other piece of content that talks about the primary source.In most cases, the information you get from a secondary source is valuable. But it isn’t the original. And it’s entirely possible that it took the information out of context or wasn’t accurate in its presentation.Whenever possible, follow the links until you find the primary source.
Use industry-respected resources.
Always cite the most authoritative source possible. This may be a leading website, thought leader, author, or well-known blogger. You can often recognize authority by celebrity status, years of experience, or job title.
Interestingly, social proof may substitute for a big-name resource. When a lot of people are tweeting the same thing, or when thousands of people are following a resource, those numbers lend credibility.
That being the case, you can quote several stand-out social media posts instead of using one celebrity statement.
Use sources that your readers recognize.
If your readers already know your resource, you don’t have to take a lot of time introducing it. That makes your job, as writer, easier. When your best resource isn’t well-known, be sure to add its credentials and/or why it should be considered an authority.
Wikipedia is a great resource if you need a quick overview of a topic, but it isn’t considered an authoritative site. Use it for your own edification, but don’t use it as a resource.
Use the most recent research possible.
If you can, limit the age of your data to no more than five years. If the only research available is older than that, try to tie it to another piece of research that’s newer. In other words, look for research that validates the older information.
Fact check everything.
If you aren’t sure about a number or fact, do a fact check. Send an email or make a phone call to an authority in the topic. (We’ll show you an example of a fact checking email in a moment.)
Note: While you’re talking with the authority, get a quote. Ask what they think of the topic or if they have anything to contribute.
Never use copyrighted information without permission.
If you want to reprint an article or quote substantial portions of a program or book, you need to secure permission from the owner of the copyright. This may be the publisher or the author.
The first thing you need to do is find out who owns the copyright.
If it’s a book, the author will often provide contact information in the author bio. If not, you can contact the book publisher.
If it’s an article on a website, check the website’s footer for a link that says, “Reprints and Permission.”
Otherwise, visit the “Contact Page” of the website.
Once you figure out who owns the copyright, you need to contact them and ask permission to use the copyrighted material. In your email, you need to explain how you’ll use it, how and where it will be published, and who will see it.
Secure written permission, not verbal. You may call the person to get a quicker response, but always follow up the call with an email or letter. (At the end of this section, we provide an email template you can use.)
Fact Checks and Copyrights…
an example from our own experience:
We recently wrote a blog post, sharing ideas from a book, Great Leads, by Michael Masterson and John Forde. Usually, when referencing a book, if you cite the author(s) and provide a link to their website, you’re covered when it comes to copyright.
However, in this case, the copyright for this information is owned, not by the authors, but by American Writers and Artists Inc. (AWAI). We found this out by accident when we were fact checking one of the statements in the blog post.
Here’s an example email asking for a fact check:
I’m writing a blog post on the six types of leads that Masterson and Forde wrote about in Great Leads, and I’m using the “Can You Write a Letter Like This One?” sales letter as an example of the promise lead.
I know this letter was your control for a long time (and may still be). How long has it been your control?
It’s just a detail, but it would make that section stronger.
Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday. And thanks for your help. I really appreciate it.
Notice that we explain exactly how the information is being used. This helps your resource know that you’re a serious writer and that you can be trusted to represent them well.
Notice also that we ask our question directly. There can be no confusion about the information we need. But since we also tell our resource what we do know, we’ve made it easy for them to answer quickly.
KEY: When communicating with a resource, make it as easy as possible for them to respond to your request.
Here’s the response, in which we learned that we were dealing with a copyright issue:
It was our control for probably almost a decade. We made changes to it over the years, but the headline still is our control.
Note that the six lead types are considered copyrighted material and actually come from the Six-Figure course – and then were further elaborated on in Great Leads.
Either way, proper copyright needs to be given to AWAI.
Mark, John, Katie and all are very protective of that kind of thing – so just a heads up to head off any headaches down the road.
See how useful fact checks can be!
Since we had already explained how the information would be used, we only needed to know how to reference the copyrighted material.
Use this template when sending a reprint request to someone you don’t know:
SUBJECT: May I reprint your article in my [blog, ebook, magazine]?
Dear [author or copyright holder],
I just finished reading your article [article name, linked to the original source] at [blog name, linked to its home page]. Loved it!
May I reprint that article and its images in my [blog, magazine, ebook] titled [name it and link it]? [If you want to use a portion of a book, specify the sections you want to use.]
In exchange, I would provide a link back to your website in the author bio, so readers can get on your list and learn more from you.[Now give a credibility boost.] Previously featured authors include [list big-name authors].
Please let me know if I have your permission to reprint the article.
TIP: Go ahead and ask for permissions now, in the research stage, before you start writing. That way, you don’t waste a lot of time writing something that you don’t have permission to publish.
You don’t need to wait to start writing. But this way, if you are refused permission or if you don’t get a response, you have time to revamp your idea before you’ve invested too much time in your original idea.
Organize your ideas
At this point, you should have a narrow topic and some ideas of how to develop that topic. It’s time to start organizing your ideas.
At the most basic level, all content is structured like this:
- Introduction – Get people’s attention and tell them what information they’re going to get if they keep reading.
- Body – Deliver on the promise you made in the introduction.
- Close – Summarize and bring everything back to your main point. If possible, add a “so what” section, which explains how this information benefits your readers.
- Call to action – Tell people what they need to do next.
A 250-page book has longer sections. The introduction and close may each be an entire chapter, and the body comprises ten or more chapters. The call to action could be a final chapter or workbook.
A 400-word blog post has shorter sections. The introduction may only be a few sentences, and the body may be several paragraphs. The close and call to action could be a short paragraph each.
But no matter what type of content you create, its most basic structure is this four-part framework.
Your challenge, then, is fitting the research and rough ideas you’ve developed into this structure. To do that, follow these steps:
Figure out what you’re trying to say.
There’s a difference between a talking about a topic and making a point. In your Editorial Planner, you may have only listed a broad topic for each publication date. But that won’t suffice when it comes time to write.
Based on your research and on the objective listed in your Editorial Planner, what point are you trying to make with this piece of content?
Type that under the topic you copied from the Editorial Planner. (Insert some hard returns above your research to push it down the page.)
In some cases, your point will eventually become your headline. In other cases, it is more suited for your introduction, and you’ll end up re-using it there. In either case, the idea doesn’t have to be polished. It simply gives you somewhere to start.
So write down your point and highlight it in bold.
Find three or more supporting statements that prove or develop your main point.
- If you’re writing an opinion or informational blog post, three will suffice.
- If you’re writing a how-to piece, a list blog post, or an ebook, you may have as many as you want (or need).
- For longer content, you may need 10 to 20 supporting ideas, each making up a chapter.
How do you know what your supporting statements should be?
In most cases, you’ll start seeing how your ideas fit together during the research stage, as you are jotting down your ideas and gathering research.
Notice in this example that we planned four major supports: headline, body, social proof and close.
Each of those became a subhead in the article, but two other subheads were added: one giving the benefits of this approach (an intro) and one summarizing the article (a conclusion).
Often, these extra subheads are added during the writing phase. Other times, you’ll see the need for them now, when you’re organizing your ideas.
Every piece you write will be different. Few writers know exactly how the piece will look when it’s done. So let it evolve.
Create a rough outline for your content
Under your point (working title), write out your proposed supporting statements.
They don’t need to be well-written or finished. In fact, they may only be a word or phrase, like the rough ideas you came up with during the Research phase.
Arrange these statements in a logical order.
The statements may be listed chronologically, as an ordered list, or in a logical progression of ideas.
Think of this list as the working outline for your finished content.
Since you haven’t written anything yet, it’s easy to see the basic structure of your content simply by looking at this outline. If it isn’t arranged logically, now is the time to rearrange your points.
Apply a “Heading 2” style to each supporting statement.
These are Word styles that apply formatting to your article. By using the same styles in your Word document that you plan to use on your website, you can save time formatting your content for the Web when you upload it.
In most blog posts, titles have a “Heading 1” style and subheads are formatted with a “Heading 2” style.
Evaluate the effectiveness of your outline.
Looking at nothing more than your headline and supporting statements:
- Are you saying something unique?
- Do you offer a fresh perspective on the topic?
- Do all supporting statements relate to the topic?
- Are you making one point only, or trying to make multiple points? (Narrow the focus to one point.)
- Do you have enough supporting statements and research to prove your point?
If you answer yes to all these questions, you’re ready to start writing. Move on to the next section, “Rough Draft.” If not, keep working with your idea until your idea is more refined.
Write your rough draft
Pick one section of your article to develop first.
In most cases, this will not be the introduction. Pick the subhead that you have the most ideas or the best research for.
Copy any notes you made in the research phase (at the bottom of your document) and paste it into the section.
Then begin writing out your ideas.
- If you use quotes from research, put it in quotation marks or paraphrase and link to your source.
- Your own notes need to be fleshed out and expanded.
- Then fit it all together to create a logical flow of ideas.
Don’t worry too much about transitions between sections. You subheads often serve as transitions, and you can smooth out the flow of your article in the editing stage. At this point, focus primarily on getting your ideas down.
Write for one person: your ideal client
Remember the avatar you created? Decide what you want him or her to understand after reading that section. Then write it as if you are talking to that one person.
How do you do that?
- Imagine the person you’re writing to is sitting across the table from you.
- Talk to them as you write.
- Use words like you and we, not he or they.
Do not edit your words or try to write beautifully
At this point, you are merely roughing out your ideas. It’s okay if your writing is awkward or even bad.
Your goal is to get your words into the document, and it’s more about nailing down your thoughts than expressing yourself well.
Get the words on paper first, and you can worry about editing later on.
Having trouble getting your ideas down quickly? We’ll cover tips for non-writers and non-typists later, when we talk about common roadblocks to successful content marketing.
Rough out one section at a time.
Tackle just one section at a time until all subheads have a paragraph or two written to explain and/or prove your point.
At this point, you only need to worry about writing the body of your article. It’s perfectly acceptable to move from the first section to the last. But it’s also acceptable to skip around within the post until each section is done.
In our example post about clickable landing pages, the writer did, in fact, move from the first section to the last, but only because she evaluated the landing page that way:
- Headline first (then write her ideas)
- Introduction next (then write her ideas)
- The sidebar (then write her ideas)
- And finally the close (then write her ideas)
Now write the introduction.
Consider everything you just wrote in the body of the article. How could you hook people’s interest to get them reading? A few suggestions:
- A startling statement.
- A true, but surprising, statistic.
- A personal story.
- A reference to a current event or news story.
- A historical reference.
- A metaphor.
If necessary, do more research on your main topic (or related topic) to find the hook.
In our example, the writer decided to research heat mapping to find a statistic that would support her main point. She couldn’t find research on the subject, but she did find an interesting idea, “Hick’s Law.”
It was unique, so she knew it could work as her hook.
Write your introductory thought as concisely as possible.
Writers have a habit of warming up to their topic rather than jumping in directly. In most cases, great writing nixes the warm-up.
Get to the point quickly.
Create a transition to your point.
The point is usually at the end of the introduction. Here, you tell your ideal reader what your article is about and how this information will benefit him or her.
Draft your conclusion.
Summarize what you talked about in the body of the article. Then explain why this information matters.
Finish with a call to action.
In content, you have a lot of options for your call to action.
- You may ask for a comment or a social share.
- You may suggest a new way of doing things or thinking about things.
- You could also ask people to click on a link or take a specific action.
Go ahead and ask for comments or shares. But be specific. Pose a question that gets people thinking, then ask for a response.
Try to phrase your CTA as a command. That can often get better response.
Give it a rest
Congratulations! Your rough draft is finished. You may read it over and fix glaring mistakes in your writing. But that’s it. It’s almost impossible to edit your work immediately after writing. So save your document and set it aside at least until the next day.
This cooling off period will make a big difference in your ability to read what you wrote objectively.
When it’s time to edit your work, try to set aside a few uninterrupted hours. You need to be able to evaluate the flow and logic of your ideas, so you need time to focus.
Read your article as if you are the ideal reader.
Get inside the head of your avatar, or idea reader. Then read from start to finish.
Mark any sections that don’t make sense or are unclear, but don’t do any major editing yet. In this first review, you simply want to get a feel for how good (or bad) your first draft is.
Evaluate your article from a high-level perspective:
- Does it make the point you set out to make?
- Does it make only that point?
- Is the angle unique enough?
Fix any organizational problems first.
- If necessary, rearrange sections to create a more logical flow.
- Delete paragraphs and sentences that don’t support your main topic or that interrupt the flow of your ideas.
Fix your introduction next.
- Make the first sentence and first paragraph as intriguing as possible.
- Remove any waste. Pare down your idea to its core.
- Keep it interesting.
- Tie it to your main point.
Once your overall structure and introduction are good, begin tweaking the language.
- Make your verbs active. Rearrange your sentences, if necessary, to replace words like is, am, and be with action words. Find the strongest, most expressive verbs possible.
- Where possible, change adjectives to nouns and/or select more expressive nouns.
- Remove unnecessary words and phrases.
- Simplify complicated sentences. (Shoot for an 8th grade reading level.)
- Check spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Fix your title.
- The title should be descriptive, not cute or clever. It should forecast the information people will find in your content — never mislead your readers.
- In most likelihood, you will find the best wording for your title somewhere in the introduction or conclusion.
Note: Research has shown that people are most likely to click through to your content if the title is approximately eight words long. But length is less important than interest, so don’t shorten your title if that makes it less interesting.
Saving your finished document
Saving your content properly is as much an art as writing it.
Most content goes through several rounds of drafts and edits before it can be considered done. Some of those rounds result in such drastic changes that it’s worth “saving as” rather than saving over the previous version.
Of course, you don’t need to do this with every new draft. But…
- If you decide to experiment with another approach to your topic
- If you need to make dramatic changes
- If you need to submit each version to stakeholders until the final document is complete
Then it’s worth your while to keep track of your content’s evolution from first draft to final deliverable.
That way, if any version doesn’t work or if someone wants to “go back to the way we had it before,” you only have to open up a previous version. Easy!
Give your project a shortened project name that’s easy for you to remember and work with.
A few common ways to do this are:
- A keyword or phrase from the title
- Shorten the keywords, then add the project type
- The initials of your full project name
If you aren’t able to create a shortened name, that’s okay. It simply makes it easier to see the entire name — project and version — at a glance.
Create a project folder on your hard drive.
Name it with the project name or the identifying tag you decided on in Step 1.
Save this folder in a logical location that’s easy to find.
For example, if you create content for different departments in your organization, you might create a folder for each department, then subfolders for each project.
If you create different projects for different clients, you may have a folder called “Clients” with subfolders for each client. Then inside each client folder is a folder for each project.
Save your first draft in that folder,
using the format: Project Name_1
Use your project name first, so it’s easy to keep track of the document when it’s open on your desktop. This is important if you work on several projects at once.
If you can use the shortened project identifier, all the better. It makes it easier to see the project and version of each document at a glance. But it isn’t always practical to use an abbreviated name, especially when stakeholders and reviewers will see the document. The full name may make it easier for them to recognize the document.
If you name your documents by their version — such as “draft 1” or “article 1” — then save them in project folders to keep them separate, you could end up with several “draft 1” documents open at the same time. It’s easy to get confused.
Use the “underscore-number” format to identify the version of each document. And start the habit of numbering even the first draft. In many cases, you will have multiple versions.
For routine edits and throughout the writing process, save over this document.
Short articles and small project may not need a lot of versions. So it’s okay to save changes in the same document.
But if you make dramatic changes, or if you send you edits to stakeholders for review, consider creating a new version rather than saving over your first version.
Save as: Project Name_2
This is especially important if you submit revised versions of the document to reviewers. By numbering your drafts, stakeholders can see at a glance which document is most recent.
Continue numbering subsequent versions of the content until all edits are done.
Save your final version as: Project Name_FINAL
In this FINAL version, delete your research. The last numbered draft may (or may not) contain the links and notes from your research. The FINAL should not.
To check your reading level, you’ll first need to set your readability options.
(The following instructions are for Word 2010.)
- Click File > Options.
- Click the Proofing tab.
- Then place a check beside “Check grammar with spelling” and “Show readability statistics.”
- Click OK in the lower right corner.
- Select Review > Spelling & Grammar in the ribbon at the top of your Word document.
Word will start by checking your grammar & spelling
Word will start by checking your grammar and spelling, so make corrections as necessary. Then when you’re done, a pop-up box will appear with your reading level statistics.
Ideally, you’ll have a low percentage of passive sentences because you already changed “being” verbs to “action” verbs.
The Flesch Reading Ease score should be between 60 and 70. The higher the score, the easier it is to read your writing.
And your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level should be between 7.0 and 8.0. (Lower is acceptable. Consider making adjustments if it is 9.0 or above.)
Depending on your target audience, the grade level may need to be higher or lower. For instance, if your audience is made up of professors or doctors, you may be able to get away with a higher grade level. But remember, even this audience enjoys an easy read when they’re consuming content.
Every writer, no matter how experienced, goes through these same steps when creating content:
- Selecting the topic based on what readers are looking for.
- Research and refine your ideas.
- Organize your ideas to create a basic outline.
- Cool off.
As a content marketer, you must take content production seriously, which means you need to think of yourself as a professional writer and publisher. That includes getting comfortable with the six steps in the creative process.
Do you still use these steps if you are creating media content, such as videos or webinars? You bet.
In the same way a writer selects the topic, develops the flow of ideas and drafts the content, media producers follow the same steps. Whereas a writer drafts the words then edits, a videographer must produce the video and edit. And a podcaster must record the audio and then edit.
No matter what your output, the creative process remains the same. And as a content producer, you are, in essence, a creative professional.