Very few complex things are created simply and quickly.
Complexity requires time and patience, thought and care, effort and struggle. No one expects a tomato plant to sprout, grow, and provide tomatoes in an hour. No one orders an intricate, custom-made piece of jewelry and expects it to be ready in thirty minutes or less.
So why do we so often expect content, the core of how we get our ideas into the world, to be created simply and quickly? Why do so many of us write a post, a book, or a manifesto (that’s supposed to sum up an entire life, business, or worldview)—and then publish it immediately? Without asking anyone else to read it, without giving it space to breathe and grow, without stopping to think about how it fits into a whole, without making sure it speaks to our core?
Why are we in such a hurry?
I’ll admit here that the online world is changing quickly. Making a living online (or trying to) demands a lot of time, energy, and quick decisions, and sometimes it feels like there will never, ever be enough time.
But I still think there’s room to create content thoughtfully. If you give yourself enough lead time, if you’re not writing a post that’s due tomorrow! or a book that needs to be published and sold yesterday!, there’s room for that moment in the shower (we’ve all had them) when everything becomes clear—that thing you were dancing around, the word you were searching for, the connective element that will pull the entire post/book/whatever together.
I rarely sit down to write and stand up having written exactly what I wanted to. Instead, I have to come back to a piece several times to make sure I’ve considered all angles and written thoughtfully. I’ve recently realized that I can consciously harness this power by intentionally writing a layer at a time, trusting the process and knowing the piece will unfold over time. I’m comfortable knowing that I can publish when the piece is ready and the idea is fully formed.
Of course, I have to always be working on several posts (or chapters or newsletters or segments of a report) so that I have enough time to complete each, and I have to work several weeks ahead so there’s always something ready to go when the time comes, but I find it’s worth it.
How to Write in Layers
I’ve written these tips specifically about blog posts and newsletters, but they can apply to many kinds of writing. I suggest giving it a try behind the scenes on something that isn’t due yet or whose due date you control; putting undue pressure on yourself won’t help you make this practice a regular habit—it will just make you stressed.
1. Brainstorm and be open.
What are some topics you’ve been wanting to discuss? Keep your mind open and write down every idea you have; not all will be published, but you won’t know which are the right ones until you get a bit further along in the process.
2. Organize your ideas.
Put all of your ideas in one place—a document, a folder full of documents for each idea, or whatever makes you feel organized and inspired. As you give each idea its own space, connect the ones that go together (often, when I capture an idea, I find later that it ties in with several others I’ve already written down). You may even find that you’ve outlined an entire post or newsletter by accident (hate it when that happens, right? Oh, wait…).
3. Set aside some time.
In the beginning, you’ll probably have to remind yourself to work on these ideas, and that’s totally ok. I’m sure you’ve seen as much advice as I have about how to start a new habit, so you know it can be tough! Put a reminder on your phone, block it out on your calendar for a couple of weeks, or whatever works for you. But don’t be hard on yourself if you miss a few times. Just keep going; there’s no deadline and no right or wrong way to get into the groove.
4. Write about what speaks to you.
When you sit down to write, review all your ideas. Which one is calling your name? Which one inspires you in the moment? Sometimes, for me, it’s an idea that’s I’ve spent a lot of time on—I want to see if it’s ready to present to the world. And sometimes it’s one that I haven’t worked on at all, a blank slate. When you’re writing without a firm schedule, it doesn’t matter; when one idea feels finished, you can schedule it and keep going with the others!
5. Be relaxed.
When you’ve chosen an idea, relax for a moment before you dive in. Maybe even close your eyes and think about the topic for a few minutes. Don’t pressure yourself to start writing immediately—unless, of course, you already know what you want to say. And remember that you only need to add a little each time, so don’t stress about quantity or even quality. You're like a painter; at first, you'll fill in broad strokes, but as you revisit your canvas, you'll begin thoughtfully adding details, shadows, and light, enhancing your masterpiece with each dab of the brush.
6. Be ready to capture more ideas.
I find that as I give my ideas space to breathe, even more ideas come to me. I become more aware and more open. Write your ideas on a sticky note, in your phone, or in a special document you’ve created just for that purpose, and then regularly add them into your writing rotation.
7. Remember to publish!
Don’t use this practice as an excuse to sit on what you’re writing forever. You’ll know when it’s ready. Be aware of any resistance you may feel; for example, you may find that you’re afraid of publishing something you’ve worked so hard on because it feels much more personal and meaningful than something you just dash off in a half an hour. Work through that fear in whatever way works for you, and remember that your goal is to help someone else, not publish something that's perfect.
When you publish something, take a minute to celebrate. You worked hard, and while it'll feel great if your ideas resonate with others, you still accomplished something pretty awesome just by getting them out there.
If you follow these steps (and are open to adding your own), I think you might find that what you write has more weight and meaning, even if it’s a lighthearted piece, and that you struggle much less to get your ideas out to the world clearly. But, of course, I know that writing in layers may not work for everyone, so I’d love to hear if you already write in a different way that works for you. You can leave a comment below or send me an email!