But one thing that trips me up, which I realised can easily be solved, is going from topic idea to the drafting phase. That is, setting myself up so I'm ready to write.
It might seem like an easy step. Just open a new document and start typing, right? But it's rare for that to work for me. I like to have a solid working title and an outline before I write too much. John's written about this before, after he found he could speed up his writing process ~600% by creating an outline first.
As I wrote an outline for a post this week I realised I was repeating the same process for every new post I work on. Like any good programmer, I realised repeating the same work over and over means that's probably a good opportunity for automation.
So I decided to create some templates for myself.
I started by creating a template for my most common Ghost blog post structure. Since that structure's particular to me, I also created a template based on how John structures his posts, and another based on a writer whose work I admire.
For each template I've created a gist to show you what they look like. They're just Markdown files, so go ahead and save them, rename them if you like, and copy-and-paste the contents into a new file whenever you're ready to write. Click on the "view raw" link on the bottom of each gist to view the plain text version, which you can copy into a new file in your favourite writing app.
Templating my own content style
Starting my own template was easy, since I know the basics of what I put in every outline. I started with space for a working title and three sub-headings:
# WORKING TITLE intro ## SECTION 1 ## SECTION 2 ## SECTION 3
Then I added three asterisks (Markdown for a horizontal rule). I usually put one of these between the end of the main content and my conclusion.
*** conclusion <small>Image credits:</small>
I don't need image credits in every blog post, but I use them often enough that it's easier to take them out of the template than it is to remember to add them and type out the
<small> tags every time.
So that's a very bare-bones structure of a blog post. I could have left it there, but I wanted to make this template as full as I could, so it encouraged me to write rather than getting bogged down in thinking about how to structure my thoughts and research before I had anything on the page.
I thought of the template as being a bit like Mad Libs—I wanted it to be so full that it encouraged me to just "fill in the gaps" as it were, rather than feeling like I was creating something out of nothing, à la Blank Page Syndrome.
So, next I added some dot points to encourage my future self to break down the topic into manageable chunks before getting stuck into a draft.
# WORKING TITLE intro ## SECTION 1 - what this section is about - why it matters - research or examples - takeaways ## SECTION 2 - what this section is about - why it matters - research or examples - takeaways
With this template, I can start by answering each dot point with a couple of notes about what I should write in that section. By the time I'm done, I'll have a rough sketch of what the finished piece will look like. This should make it easier to expand my notes into fully-formed paragraphs and make them flow into each other well, since I know the structure of the whole piece in advance.
Of course, this was just a theory, so I had to test the template in situ.
Here's what the final template looks like:
And here's what an in-progress draft of another post looked like, when I created it using my template:
The highlighted sections in the screenshot above show parts of the original template that I've expanded on.
Using the template, I found that my outlining process became much more involved. I'd actually planned to do a full rough draft of that post in the morning, but it took me a couple of hours just to get the outline done, so I put off the draft for another day.
On the other hand, I had over 1600 words written in my outline, and a solid idea of what each section would contain and how they would work together to create a sense of flow in the post. Even though outlining took longer than usual, drafting took less time because I'd set myself up for success. Writing the draft was just a matter of taking each chunk of notes from the outline and filling it out into a readable paragraph or two.
It was quite a different process to how I normally work, and I was tempted a few times to avoid the extra research or thinking required to fill out the outline properly. I often put these things off until I'm drafting, which is when I should be focused on writing instead. I stuck to it, though, and by the time I got around to writing the draft I was glad I had.
I've really overhauled my outline and research process by using this template. It's a more productive part of my process now, and makes drafting easier. Hopefully it'll lead to better work, too.
Templating John's style
Next I took a look at John's most common blog post structure, and created a template to suit his writing.
John's posts usually have an intro and conclusion like mine, so I started with those and a working title. Next, I noticed John tends to use lots of small subsections rather than my tendency to use just a couple of bigger ones. Looking through some of his most popular posts on the Ghost blog, I found he used just 6 sections in some posts, but around 11-13 in others.
I decided to go with 6 subsections in the template, since it's easy to add more when writing longer posts, but adding too many to the template could make it cluttered.
# WORKING TITLE intro ## SECTION 1 ## SECTION 2 ## SECTION 3 ## SECTION 4 ## SECTION 5 ## SECTION 6 conclusion <small>Image credits:</small>
I also noticed most of John's posts include a section at the end titled "What to do next" with takeaways from the post. Since it's in almost every post, I included that section in the template, too. This section usually includes a numbered list, so I added the numbers to remind John to pull out at least three takeaways for the reader here.
## SECTION 6 ## WHAT TO DO NEXT 1. 2. 3. conclusion <small>Image credits:</small>
Next I noticed John often includes one or two sections with subheadings after his introduction to set up the topic he's covering. For instance, in his post How to Write Faster, Better & Longer: The Ultimate Guide to Markdown, the first subheading is What is Markdown and the next one is Why do Writers Love Markdown so Much?. It's only after these two sections that John gets into Markdown formatting, which makes up the biggest chunk of this post.
So I added one more subheading called "the setup" just after the intro.
intro ## THE SETUP ## SECTION 1
Finally I wanted to add some dot points to give John's template the "fill in the gaps" style mine has. I read through John's posts on the Ghost blog to get an idea of how he structures each subsection. Usually there's a paragraph or two to explain what the section is about, then an example or two of how it works, and a final paragraph to wrap it up and remind the reader why it's important or useful.
Here's what the final template looks like:
Templating Alex Turnbull's style
One of the blogs I always enjoy reading is Groove's Journey to $100k blog (these days it's Journey to $500k, written by CEO Alex Turnbull. Alex does a great job of sharing what he's learned running Groove and distilling his experience into practical takeaways for the reader.
Since Alex does such a great job with the structure of his posts, I thought it would be useful to put together a template using his posts as examples.
Something unique to the Groove blog is the short summary text they use at the top of each post. For instance, in the post How We Got Over Our Fear of SEO and Improved Conversions 20% in the Process, the summary text reads:
I used to think of SEO as a “scammy” strategy for startups. Here’s why I changed my mind.
Here's what a post on the Groove blog looks like (the summary text is in grey):
So summary text obviously needed to be included in the template.
Another thing Alex does in almost every post is a section at the bottom of the post titled "How to apply this to your business". This section acts like John's "What to do next" section, though there's usually no separate conclusion after this section. So I dumped the conclusion from John's template and mine, and replaced it with a subheading of "How to apply this to your business".
Alex's posts use lots of images, but they're pretty much always screenshots or custom graphs (as well as a custom header illustration), so there was no need for image credits like we have in Ghost blog posts.
So far, I the "Alex template" was looking pretty sparse:
# WORKING TITLE summary text intro ## How to apply this to your business
When I read through a few of Alex's posts, I realised the "meat" of each one is structured differently, depending on the topic. Of course, John and I do this too, but we both end up with a fairly common framework that fits the majority of topics we tackle.
Alex mainly uses two different approaches: subsections and numbered points. Often the numbered points live inside subsections, but not always. For example, one post was organised like this:
## SECTION 1 ## SECTION 2 ## SECTION 3 1. Numbered point 2. Numbered point 3. Numbered point 4. Numbered point 5. Numbered point ## How to apply this to your business
And another was structured this way:
1. Numbered point 2. Numbered point ## SECTION 1 ## SECTION 2 1. Numbered point 2. Numbered point 3. Numbered point ## SECTION 3 1. Numbered point 2. Numbered point 3. Numbered point ## How to apply this to your business
As I thought about using this approach to write a post, I realised a useful template could encourage working with dot points inside each section and let the writer decide whether those dot points need to be broken out into numbered points or just worked into paragraphs.
Most of Alex's posts tend to be stories about something the Groove team did to improve their business, so I went with this idea and created three separate sections:
## SECTION 1: back story ## SECTION 2: what changed, or what new thing did you try? ## SECTION 3: what were the results?
The first section is where Alex usually sums up the status quo before the team did anything different. This could be why they hadn't tried SEO in the past, or what their Net Promoter Score was before they increased it by 45%.
In section 2 Alex usually lays out the specifics of whatever the team did differently. That could be how they decided to delete their Facebook page, or the specific questions Alex asked his users during customer development calls.
Finally, Alex tends to share what the results were and what the team's focus will be in the future.
Here's how the final template came out, using on this structure:
Speed up your writing with templates
The whole point of creating templates was to get me writing faster. I've always been a fan of creating outlines before I write, and pretty much don't ever write without one, but I also don't create very complex outlines. A few subheadings and a working title is enough to count as an "outline" for me, which doesn't take me all the way from a topic idea to knowing how to start my draft.
With these templates I've created a more in-depth structure where I can just fill in the relevant details. One pass through the template should give me an idea of every point I want to touch on and how the piece will flow so I can get going with my drafting process.
If you write like me, John, or Alex, grab one of the templates I already created and try them out. Feel free to remix them into your own, or take my process and adapt it to your own work to create a template from scratch.
If you write a few different styles, like product announcements, case studies, and interview posts, you might need to create a separate template for each one.
Update: George Tyshchenko created a bookmarklet to help you grab a template from your assets directory and drop it right into the Ghost editor. It even works with multiple templates. Thanks George!
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