Write 200 Lousy Words Per Day, That’s It

Apr 14, 2021

Writing is drudgery for many people, which is part of the reason our clients let us do some of that writing for them. Often, the hardest part is just getting started, even if you write for a living.

As I’ve described before in this blog, at the start of a writing project we may become overwhelmed by all the information we want to include in our written content, or unsure of how we want to start, and it leads to procrastination and more stress. We end up either missing a deadline or we rush to put something out that could have been better.

The best recent advice I’ve seen about overcoming writing procrastination comes from an anecdote in the irreverent best-selling self-improvement book, “The Subtle Art of Not to Giving a F*ck: The Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Better Life.” In the book, author Mark Manson recounts a story of a novelist who had written more than 70 books. The novelist’s advice for how he is so prolific, according to Manson: “200 crappy words per day, that’s it.”

Of course, Manson points out, the novelist rarely stops at 200 crappy words because the action of generating those first few paragraphs motivates him to keep going. Even non-professional writers get in a rhythm and it can be as difficult to stop as it was to get started. The 200 crappy words almost serves as a warmup to the real workout of writing 1,000 or 2,000 words.

How to Get Started

Sometimes, however, even getting those first 200 words down is challenging; that is where research can be a big help. Simply going online to research the topic, even if it is something you are already very knowledgeable about, can be highly motivating because you will likely learn new information that will help support your content. Other times, research can reveal that a competitor or other thought leader has already written pretty much the same article or other high-value content. Don’t despair. You can read similar articles or content and then look for gaps in their information or it can inspire a different, fresher angle for your article, white paper or eBook.

The opposite dilemma can also occur. Sometimes there will be so much research and information, and so many topics you want to cover, that you cannot imagine how you will assemble it all into a coherent whole. Here is where outlining can help to get you started and keep moving.

The outline doesn’t need to be the precise order of the final draft; it is just to get ideas down. Simply list the topic heading you want to cover in a section, such as COVID-19, and under that heading list all the relevant ideas you want to include (e.g., effect on elective/preventive care, growth of telehealth, reimbursement changes from Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, etc.). Once you begin the bare-bones list, you will find that you want to add more and more detail and can begin to envision how the finished content will be structured.

From Outline to Draft

As opposed to writing an article from beginning to end, an outline lets you preview if the finished piece flows logically, if there are potential gaps of information, or if sections should be shortened. Recognizing these deficiencies in the outline stage saves writing, cutting and rearranging time in the long run. Once the outline is completed, writing the full draft simply means expanding each item in the list to full sentences and paragraphs. Depending on how detailed the outline is, writing the full draft may take much less time than expected.

With the full draft completed, the real hard part of writing begins: editing. Reading and re-reading what you wrote, cutting and rewriting for clarity is not as much fun as putting all the words together, but is perhaps the most important part of the process. Since editing means you are close to the finish line, that may motivate you to keep going.

Everyone Needs an Editor

Have you ever heard of Maxwell Perkins? Me neither. I found him through a Google search. Have you heard of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe? Me too. It turns out Maxwell Perkins edited all of these authors, and even convinced Wolfe to cut 90,000 words from the final draft of one of his novels.

I mention Perkins to point out that even the best writers need editors. Editing is not just for proofreading for typos, grammar and misspellings, either. Rather, an editor’s value is providing high-level, constructive feedback about the content, structure and readability of the content. Most importantly, the editor needs to look at the content through the eyes of your intended reader. Is it relevant to them? Will it make sense? Does one idea flow logically to another?

Just Write

So the next time you need to write, gather your information and just start writing. Whether it is full sentences or just a list of topics and ideas you want to include in the content, the act of getting 200 lousy words on the screen will save you stress and time in the long run – and likely result in a higher-quality finished project.

Morgan Lewis

Morgan Lewis is an award-winning business and healthcare writer that brings 20 years of journalism and PR writing experience, focused almost exclusively on business and healthcare. Most recently, Lewis was a writer at MERGE Atlanta (formerly Dodge Communications), where he wrote thought leadership articles, white papers, case studies, blog posts, website copy and other pieces of PR and marketing content for dozens of healthcare and healthcare IT clients over four years. Prior to that, he was an independent writer and editor focused on healthcare and health IT, creating content for clients that appear in national publications and websites. Lewis started his writing career at a daily newspaper and then business publications in the Greater Cleveland, Ohio area, where he won eight feature writing awards from Cleveland regional and state journalism organizations. Lewis then joined Medical Economics magazine, the leading business resource for primary care physicians, where he won three writing awards from the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (ASHPE), including two Gold Awards. He earned a bachelor's degree in English-Journalism from Miami University of Ohio.