How to Write Prolifically Without Spewing Junk

In just five years, rapper Tupac Shakur produced more than 700 songs. By 35, inventor Thomas Edison had more than 100 patents to his name. In his lifetime, author Isaac Asimov wrote nearly 500 books.

Each of these creators was prolific. And each produced some incredibly high-quality work. In creative fields, quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive.

In B2B content strategy, we've all come to accept that we need to "slow down" and focus on quality. Because quantity, the thinking goes, had its moment already. After all, it wasn't so long ago that platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn rewarded content creators who churned out tons of content. Content teams cranked out as much as they could. But it became a race to the bottom and before long, social networks decided giving away free traffic was bad for business. 

Content marketers, by and large, moved their focus to a more established and reliable distribution channel. Someplace where quality can thrive and traffic comes in slowly and predictably over time: organic search.

Despite Google's imperfections, most writers I know are far happier writing for search than social. Pieces are worked on for a week or a month instead of an afternoon. Clickbait headlines are passed over in favor of depth and comprehension.

But what if we all overcorrected? What if prolific writing actually does work? What if quality or quantity isn't a one-or-the other decision? Could content teams benefit from upping their output?

For about six months in 2015, I was the world's most productive content marketer.

I wrote, edited, and published one article per day. These weren't light pieces either. They were heavily-researched deep dives, anywhere from 800 to 3,500 words. Four years later, many of them still rank on the first page of search results for competitive terms like "creative juices", "asynchronous communication," and "tools to start a business."

An article in the New Yorker recently linked to one of these pieces. My first week on the job I was interviewed on a national radio show about one of them. Our approach worked and before long, the iDoneThis site grew to 400,000 monthly pageviews. This strategy isn't for everyone, but it can work.

One piece per day. Here's how I did it.

Structure Your Day to Enable Creative Work

“In effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager's schedule and one on the maker's.”—Paul Graham.

I must have read Paul Graham’s famous “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” piece, where he suggests structuring a day into two blocks of time. One block is for focused creative work, the “maker” side, the other is for the “manager” part of your role like meetings and email.

I could never have made this work without the maker/manager approach. Writing just requires so much focus and momentum. It’s like pushing a flywheel. It’s hard to get it started, but once it’s spinning it’s hard to stop. You’re best off starting and stopping only once per day.

Here was what my daily schedule looked like:

7:30-8am: This was a quick skim of email and Slack. I’m talking 15-20 minutes of sitting with a cup of coffee and making sure nothing set on fire overnight or needed my immediate attention. I’m not trying to clear out inboxes yet, just hoping to let the caffeine kick in and give myself some assurance that I can safely slide into maker mode for the next few hours.

8am-12pm: The first half of the day was full-on writing mode. Saying you can start and finish anything in just half a day sounds ambitious. And it is when that time’s full of distractions and email. But think about four uninterrupted hours. That’s a lot of time. What’s the last thing you totally focused on for four hours?

I intentionally structured maker time so it would end at lunch. Lunch is a nice finish line and dividing point for the day. It helps to have a few minutes to reset yourself before switching to manager mode. I’d get away from my desk, stretch out, take a walk, have something to eat.

The other bonus of putting writing time before lunch was that I could always delay lunch and buy myself an extra 60 or 90 minutes of writing time if I needed it. I didn’t quit until I had a draft written, read, read, read again, edited, read again, and in a place where I was confident publishing.

12-12:30pm: Like I said, lunch. Also, get outside, walk the dog, meet a friend for coffee. Reset my thoughts. This was a fully remote team, so getting some sunshine and seeing other humans was super important.

1-5:30pm: Manager time. Even though the top line in my job description would have been “write blog posts,” there was a lot of work that wasn’t writing which I needed to make time for. Like running our email program, promoting the content, tracking performance, 1:1s with my manager, answering email and Slack, uploading and scheduling content into WordPress. I was also the only person in a marketing role in this startup, so you naturally wind up wearing a lot of hats.

Manager time typically didn’t take 4.5 hours, thankfully. And there was one more, really key activity during this time that I’ll get to in the next section.

Set Strict Rules for Your “Maker” Time

There were two things I really didn’t want to happen during writing time.

  • The first was that I would sit down in the morning without knowing what I’d be working on, and waste my maker time trying to figure that out.
  • The second was that I’d start working on a piece, spend half a day on it, realize I didn’t have a strong enough idea and have to scrap it entirely. A lot of pieces sound good as a pitch, but fall apart once you try actually writing it. I didn’t want this to happen.

To keep both these fears at bay, I developed a strict “validated topics only” rule. That extra time during manager block that I mentioned? Researching and validating. This was for finding research, brainstorming, combing thought ideas and topics, finding the ones with potential and doing enough initial legwork to know the piece would actually hold up. Any extra time after regular manager activities was used for this. 

To keep my system working, I always made sure to over-communicate the process. This was a remote team, and a small team, so I had some built-in protection against interruptions. But I still found it helpful to over-communicate my process. I’d talk about the system multiple times with managers and colleagues. I’d set my Slack status to something like “focusing on writing until noon,” I’d block my calendar.

If you’re going to try this, you’ve got to commit, and you’ve got to over-communicate. It simply won't work without large chunks of time every single day.

Create a Workflow to Support Your Strategy

Like I said, validating before writing was a huge part of making this work. Most content teams have some workflow that goes like this: Ideas, Writing, Editing, Published. I think there’s a missing step between ideas and writing, and that’s validating. Maybe it’s my newspaper background, because when I was a reporter I could never just grab an idea and start writing. I’d have to validate that idea with my editor. Often they would even need to validate it with the other editors in a morning planning meeting before giving me the green light.

I’m a big fan of Trello for managing content workflows. My Trello columns looked like this:

  1. Ideas
  2. Validating
  3. Validated
  4. Writing and editing
  5. Ready for Wordpress
  6. Scheduled in Wordpress
  7. Published

I’ll just talk about the first three steps, since they are the most important. Why’s that? In any production system, flaws become more costly the further they move down the line. So it’s always more important, and cheaper, to catch errors as early in the production process as possible.

  • Ideas: The first column—"Ideas"—was wide open. I’m a proponent of big backlogs and a “no bad ideas” approach. Every idea, even ones you think are bad or half-baked, go on there. A year from now that bad idea might weave together with two new ideas and turn into something great. Large backlogs are a secret weapon for a content program.
  • Validating: The next column—"Validating"—was way more selective. These are topics where I felt like there was potential, and in a less-efficient system I might have just started writing right from here. The idea in "Validating" is to take topics from gut feel to a place where I’ve got some evidence the topic is sound and I’m confident enough to spend a day writing.
  • Validated: From here, topics either move on to "Validated" or back to "Ideas." "Validated" became the column I could pull from at the beginning of each maker block. I could start my day knowing I had a strong topic that wouldn’t fall apart, I had research to work from

This process wasn't complicated, but it was vital to the success of our strategy. It ensured that I had a distraction-free environment with a team who knew what I was doing. Most of all, it gave me time to write prolifically. And the more I wrote, the better I understood what content drove traffic and leads.

It's not for everyone, but this strategy absolutely can work. If you try it, commit fully, validate every idea and write your heart out.