One of my first editors, a smart and compassionate guy named Bruce, came to me and said, “What are you working on?” I was at a small daily newspaper at the time, and was new to the publishing business as well as the working world. You’ll recognize instantly the problem with my answer.
“Uh, nothing,” I said. He arched an eyebrow at me. He asked me about my ideas. I admitted I didn’t have any. “I just don’t know where to get them,” I said (yes, I’m cringing thinking back on this. You can cringe along with me).
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Bruce said. “Ideas are everywhere. You just have to reach out your hand and pick them out of the air.” Then he rattled off a dozen really good ideas, and I was filled with shame. But I wrote them down.
And, slowly, I realized that when your job is to publish regularly, you have to have a bucket of ideas you can reach into and reliably pull out something fresh. You’ve got to keep that bucket full.
Remember what your goal is: To regularly publish articles on your website that are useful or interesting to your audience, to update your blog with quality content so your search rankings improve, to have a fresh idea that you can pitch as a column or an op-ed piece to a local newspaper or national trade journal. All of these activities increase your exposure, make it easier for people to find you, and establish your credibility.
The best tool for keeping the idea bucket full and your publishing schedule on track is a simple editorial calendar. Here’s how we do it here at The Clever Consultant:
1) Go out to breakfast with your business or writing partner. If you don’t have one, make it a table for one. Bring a pen and a legal pad. Jason always orders the Ham & Cheese omelet.
2) Use the web and social media. Take a peek at your competitors websites and monitor LinkedIn. What’s driving traffic to them? Have they written something you can knock out of the park? We have a rule when it comes to content on The Clever Consultant: focus on readers first and SEO second. But that doesn’t mean we are oblivious to important keywords that drive traffic. If there’s an article sending readers to another site that makes sense for us, we’ll jump on it.
3) Revisit projects, sales calls and other client interactions. This really is the best source of information for a consultant. Did something come up in a sales or project meeting recently that made the light bulb go off? Do you have a war story from the trenches? Think about your successes and failures. What made them so? What did you glean from them? There are so many nuggets hiding in your consulting experience. Take advantage of it.
4) Devote 30 minutes to just writing down ideas. Brainstorm — keep writing until you have a long list. Here’s something I learned soon after Bruce took me to task for having “no ideas.” The act of writing down your ideas, actually creates ideas. Start writing them down, and they will come to you. Like I’ve said before, writing is two parts keeping your butt glued to your chair, and one part voodoo. Start writing, and the ideas will come. This process gets easier with practice.
5) Pay attention to themes and big ideas. Try to break them down into smaller chunks and think about timing (what needs to be written first). If you want to write about Roadmaps, for example, maybe you can squeeze a few articles out of it. Like “A Roadmap Is Just a Supporting Document”, “Great ideas for Strategy Roadmaps” and “When Roadmaps Fail”.
6) Revisit and refine. Maybe a topic isn’t consistent with what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe another sounds like something you’ve written before. Keep the creative process moving. Don’t stop until you have enough ideas to fill your calendar. Make sure you have at least a month’s worth (in our case, that’s at least a dozen blog posts).
7) Track everything on either a spreadsheet or project management app. We’ve moved from Excel to Basecamp over time as it helps the team track discussion, which has been a big help (also, Jason goes crazy if he can’t see everything on a calendar). Be sure to group ideas into categories, it’ll help your content stay balanced (e.g. too many “how to’s” as opposed to “why’s”). Make sure you track the ideas you don’t use, they may prove useful down the road.
That’s your editorial calendar. It might always be a bit of a wonky process, and that’s normal.
When you go to write your article, or blog post, or whatever, that the idea that seemed so good while you were eating your western omelette just kind of clangs now is normal. Step back and refine your idea, or if you really think it’s terrible, you can substitute it for a different idea from your calendar (of course, you’ll have to then plug the new hole in your calendar you’ve just made). But since you’re planning ahead, you have plenty of time to fill in the gaps that may form along the way.
Besides the peace of mind that comes from having a plan, the best part of having an editorial calendar is that it gives you the ability to be spontaneous. If, halfway through your writing month, you come up with a great idea, you can write it right away. You simply take what was already scheduled, and move it to plug a hole, or to push it out into your next editorial calendar.
Once you get into the habit of making these calendars every few weeks, you’ll find that the idea bucket is full. You’ll be a content-generating machine. You’ll have a body of written work for people to find, and one less thing to worry about, too.